My mother was the amateur kind of mother, whose mothering was so whimsical and sporadic it often took the intended target of the mothering by complete surprise. She continued to make rookie mistakes her whole career, which I noticed as a child, and deplored retrospectively once I spawned. I am no slouch, but I think I was certainly outfoxable as a child. I have always respected people who outfox me.
My mother preferred the direct, hamfisted approach to things, which was not at all foxy but at least allowed all the resentment to flop around out in the open. I think with children you can take a few tacks. Give them choices, or the appearance of choices to meet your ends. Hardline them if you have to, but as a last-resort and as a one-off, if possible.
What I mean is this: my mother yearned for me to troop off to summer camp every summer, so I would be out of her hair and she could carry out the diabolical adult plots that made up her tawdry semi-rural Midwestern existence.
“She just WON’T go to camp,” my mother would sigh into the phone to one of her friends.
My picture of camp was shaped by Judy Blume and her ilk. I was convinced it was a place for awkward social situations and guaranteed rites of passage. Would I be the girl who made out with some cute boy I never saw again? Would I start my period? Be the outcast girl? Would there be East Coast JEWS there?? These are lessons I decided I could pass on having among sadistic strangers. I think if my mother would have taken five minutes to do some research so she could give me a choice or describe the camps I might have reconsidered.
Finally, at the end of sixth grade, her chance came at last. The sixth graders were allowed to go off to the camp in the forest preserve that bordered our property. When the announcement was made, I was pretty let down. I had spent a large portion of my young life there as it was, hiking around alone in the woods, visiting the blind owl, or sitting by the river. I didn’t think I would learn anything new there with a bunch of the goofy, guitar-playing counselors Judy Blume had primed me to expect. Still, a week off school was a week off school, so for once I dutifully brought home the mimeograph.
My mother threatened me. “Don’t you DARE walk home if you get bored,” she said. Why on earth would I do that? I reasoned I’d rather spend a week with assholes my own age.
The first couple days were uneventful, and entertaining enough. We were taught dopey songs as my careful textual study of teenagers in their natural habitat had promised, but the food was not as awful as I expected, and there was no beverage mysteriously named “bug juice.” There were also no Jews, just my cracker-ass classmates. What were Jews, anyway? What did they look like? Did they just inhabit books from the 1970s?
On the third night I sacked out on my lower bunk after a little talking and giggling. One of my oldest friends was above me. I was surrounded by girls who, for the most part, I had known for years. There was some talk about putting someone’s hand in a bucket of warm water, much like you might at a slumber party, but we knew the teachers would pull us up short.
I awakened the next morning to the sounds of my name. It was worse than being awakened by being talked to; I was being discussed.
“Yes, I saw her do it, too,” said Keri Mitchell emphatically.
Poor Keri had the stigma of being not only one of the prettiest girls in class, but was also saddled with monstrous, cartoonishly-large breasts from third grade on. According to our version of justice in the universe, cartoonishly-large breasts were awarded to ugly girls, so that they could at least have boobs to make up for their dog faces. How, why did we all know this was true and that this was a tragic flaw? Poor Keri.
One of the girls having a huddle about me noticed my eyes were open where I lay and turned on me.
“What was your problem last night?” she demanded.
“What?” I said, completely confused.
“You woke us up. You were such an IDIOT,” Keri said.
The girls recounted how I got up in the middle of the night, apparently headed for the bathroom, and on my way back I began skipping up and down the aisle between the bunks and SINGING THE THEME SONG TO THE SMURFS FOR GOD’S SAKE. Why did my subconscious hate me as a child? The one time I go to camp I perform somnolently for half of my class? Of course by breakfast all the boys knew, too, and the story had grown somehow.
“And then she did a cartwheel,” one girl told Jason Petersen, whom I did patrol with and had a crush on. I liked him so much that one day I paddled him with my hand-held stop sign, causing me to get yanked inside by my evil nemesis fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Dixon, where I was made to do lines for a week instead of shepherding little children across the street. She looked at me and saw a child who was not fit to lead children into oncoming traffic, and she was right.
I decided to take advantage of my temporary notoriety by adding fuel to the fire.
“Yes, one time I was sleepwalking and I went to the corner store and STOLE a Jolly Rancher,” I claimed. Out of necessity I was an unapologetic and inveterate liar, and I craved the attention that came from telling wild stories. The other children, having seen me put on a middle of the night show complete with music and choreography, were ready to believe I was capable of anything while sleeping.
So that was camp. At least I didn’t shit myself.