We packed my daughter’s suitcase this week with ten tiny notes – one for each day – two swimsuits, an assortment of clothing, a few books, a green Martian nightlight from Ikea, and a giant pile of Ugly Dolls. Her grandparents keep a toothbrush for her in the bathroom cabinet, toys in the basement, a small bicycle in the garage, and in the backyard, they have a swimming pool. She’s pretty sure her feet will touch the bottom this summer because her cousin was able to touch last year and is only a little bit taller.
Last year, she was gone only a week. I stayed home and cleaned her playroom. She didn’t notice all the things we’d given away because she was so delighted with the new set-up and how easy it was to find her favorite things. But every year, my mother-in-law begs me for more time (or – more accurately – begs my partner. Or – even more accurately – it’s my mother outlaw who does the begging since it’s still, as my stepdaughter once said, “illegal” for two girls to marry in Illinois. In other words, “in-law” isn’t technically true. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful about civil unions, you understand, which are, in fact progress… But I digress.) Each year, we extend our daughter’s trip by a day or two, and last summer she stepped over a line so I could see the balance had shifted between missing us and loving her time – I do mean L-O-V-I-N-G her time at Camp Grandma. She came home with crazy stories of freedom and adventure and ice cream every night, without even a hint of sadness. So this year, the ten-day-limit was more about me than it was about her. She’d probably stay there for a month now if I’d let her go.
But we have our notes. The notes tradition started when she was a toddler. My partner used to go on business trips, three days or four, sometimes a full week, and I always hid cards for her in her suitcase, one for each day she was gone. A couple times, our girls hid things, too. Our youngest hid drawings. So when she began sleepovers with extended family, I started tucking cards into her suitcase, too, one for each day. This year, she asked for them. “Mami,” she said to me out of the blue one afternoon, “Are you going to hide cards for me, in my suitcase?”
“Of course, Honey.” I had just that moment begun contemplating whether it was necessary to include one for each day, or if a simple handful would suffice.
“One for each day?” she continued.
“Absolutely!” Okay, decision made. Apparently, we have a tradition.
I always had it in my head that she opened her notes at the start of each day, but of course she didn’t. In the mornings, she would pull on her clothes and rush out to the kitchen for cinnamon raisin bread, or juice, or peaches with whipped cream – things she never got at home. Or she’d be so excited about a day at her great aunt’s cottage that she’d be awake with her swimsuit on under her clothes, playing quietly in her room for two full hours before the rest of the house was awake. But still, she saved my notes for nighttime. Night is the time for quiet, for kisses, for softly encouraging words, for intimate connections. Nighttime is stories and foot rubs, fresh ice cold water on the bedside table, and the sharing of secrets.
This time as I prepared cards for her trip, I kept her timing in mind. I asked questions about the day she’d just had rather than her day to come. I drew checkboxes and fill-in-the-blanks for her to answer back – like a conversation. She has, on occasion, returned my notes with her answers written in. Equally often, she has not. But this isn’t the point. She engages my notes the way she talks on the phone. Sometimes she speaks. Just as often, she does not.
The morning she left was not idyllic. I had dreams of long hugs and quiet furtive parental advice, graciously received with sloppy kisses and promises to call us every day. Whose family I thought I was living in when I dreamt up these things, I couldn’t tell you. We started off well enough, though. She bounded into our room just before 6:00 a.m. singing a made-up song: “Today’s the day – today’s the day – today’s the day – yes – today’s the day.” She had a little dance that went along with it, which included a skip and a hop and a jump onto our full sleeping bodies, a pat on the face, a giggle, a grin, and lots of wiggling. She got herself dressed and brushed readily enough, too. But then she refused to feed the dogs, spoke over our conversations in the kitchen, and nearly had to sit on the stairs for disrespect.
I left for work half an hour before she and her Mama were planning to hit the road. She pecked me on the cheek while holding our new kitten. She gave me a one-armed hug. She said she loved me, I said I loved her, and we blew kisses through the front window while I walked to the train. No furtive advice. No long lingering hugs. We’ve been saying all week what needs to be said. And for the rest, we have our notes. Maybe a few quick phone calls. Man, do I miss her!
I’m told that when she arrived, she and her cousin ran into each other’s arms, spun each other around, and held on for a long, long time.
Have a really good time, my little Bumblebee. I know you will.
Freedom. Adventure. Ice cream. What’s not to love?
Maybe this summer, I’ll try the everyday ice cream thing, too.