A few days before my daughter leaves for her third summer at Aloha Hive, I tell her she does not need to write to me. I understand that writing letters home from camp is kind of a chore, and I want her to enjoy her time and not be burdened.
Two minutes later, her father takes her aside and tells her that she has to write to me twice a week or else for every time I wonder aloud whether she is okay, she’ll babysit her little sister one hour.
“The letters don’t have to be long,” he tells her. “Just tell her you are alive and fine.”
The first night she is gone, I set down to write to her.
WOW! HAVE YOU REALLY ONLY BEEN GONE A DAY?! WE MISS YOU SO MUCH!!!!
I cross it out immediately. It breaks all the rules. Too many exclamation points, and it admits to missing her fiercely, which I do, but have been warned is torturous information in a letter from home.
Nothing much going on here. Same old stuff as always. Pretty boring. What’s going on with you?
Now THAT is a letter. It conveys absolutely nothing, provides no wisdom, comfort or humor. It’s basically a waste of paper and syllables. She’s going to love it.
Dear Daughter, I start again.
Today your little sister told us that she is a big girl and henceforth no one is to call her “Baby” anymore.
I said “GREAT! Carry your laundry up to your room, huh?”
She burst into tears. Not kidding, right there on the spot she started bawling. Like a baby, in fact.
“I JUST A BABY!!” she shouted.
So really, not much has changed around here.
I consider signing off there, short and sweet. But I have a visceral need to offer her more — across the miles, via pen and paper, to mother her.
We do miss you, but I am so happy, imagining you running wild and free in the woods and sunshine. I hope you are having many adventures, and will remember that we want you to take risks and be daring.
God that’s corny.
For one horrible second I imagine her reading it aloud and laughing at me and it’s bizarrely like I am ten and she is ten and I am worried she doesn’t like me.
Get a grip, I tell myself, lick the envelope, find a stamp.
I lay the letter flat inside our mailbox — hopefully pointed outward — and raise the little red arm to signal our letter carrier that we have something for her.
I wonder if she will know I have a kid at camp? If she guesses how mindless with excitement I am at the prospect of one of those white envelopes post marked “White River Junction?”
Suddenly, I’m really glad my husband insisted the kid write to me.
Sure enough, on day five, it arrives. Scrawled in pen on one of the perfect white pages of computer paper we keep in a bin in the family room.
I AM ALIVE AND FINE!!!
I flip it over. Front, back. Nothing else. No secret message, no love note, no hint of explanation.
No response to my heartfelt sentiments.
Of course, I knew the letter would look exactly like this. She wrote six of them the night before she left, tucked them into envelopes, stowed them inside her trunk tray. Twice a week she will pull one out and drop it in the outgoing mail.
By the time the third one arrives, I kind of hate her.
Dearest Daughter, I write.
Got your letter. Good to know you are well. God, you’re a lousy letter-writer.
Dear Precious Perfect,
I AM ALIVE AND FINE.
A deep breath. She is only nine. You are the mother. Grow up.
Today I watched the sun set over the trees and I loved thinking you were seeing it, too. I hope you are doing well. I hope my letters are good and you know how much you are loved and how proud we are of you. We look forward to seeing you soon, but we hope you are loving every moment.
I love you very much.
Two weeks in, the happy sputter of the mail truck. Despite myself, my heart catches when I see the envelope.
In pencil, on a wrinkled page, stained with dirt — and maybe sunscreen? — the words:
I PASSED MY SWIM LEVEL!!!’
And scrawled under that:
Thank you for everything you do for me. I love you. Keep writing.
In the top drawer of my grandmother’s old desk in the hall are three tokens of my daughter’s childhood: the hat they put on her head when she was born, her hospital bracelet, and that letter.
This summer Elizabeth will be seeing two daughters and a niece off to Aloha Hive. She was a Hiver herself in the 1980s. Her first post for the Aloha Foundation Blog answered the question “Who Sends a Seven Year-Old Off to Camp?”