When I went to summer camp in Maine for six weeks, three summers in a row, I got care packages. Let me rephrase: I had to beg for care packages. Grovel, whine, cry. Dehumanize myself. Simply to get a care package.
“Puh-lease, Mom! Please can you send me a care package?! All the other girls are getting care packages! ” It was true, too. All the other girls, especially the girls who came to Maine all the way from Mexico, were absolutely smothered by care packages. They were drowning in their brown packages filled with–well I wasn’t quite sure what they were filled with since I couldn’t bear to see the treasures that were sure to be inside the boxes. Caught up in my ten or eleven year old jealousy, I was almost positive that the things these girls were getting in their daily packages (sometimes two a day!) were nothing less than gold bars themselves. Or stickers. Lots and lots of stickers. Moles of stickers. These girls would parade around with their boxes piled high, grinning at the rest of us in our little blue uniforms, showing off their postal conquests. And I, short, eye-glassed, and tooth-braced, pinched their pony-tailed little heads off through my hate-filled squinted eyes from a distance, imaginging I could hear a satisfying snap of upper vertebrae while watching their boxes come crashing down on their limp bodies that lay on the pine needle covered ground. All I wanted was a care package. Preferrably more than one. But one really good one would do.
I went to the same camp that my mother and aunt went to for all of their childhood summers. It was called Camp Arcadia and it was, according to my mother, heaven on earth. It was everything a girl could imagine, and then some. It was warm summer days, cool summer nights, singing by campfire, paddling canoes, riding horses, doing arts and crafts. I had been looking forward to the opportunity to go to Camp Arcadia since the time I could identify my mother’s voice. Probably in the womb. I was looking forward to six weeks away from my parents, meeting new friends, sleeping in cabins, wearing the classic blue uniform I’d heard so much about and seen pictures of. I was looking forward, while I lay dreaming embryonic dreams, to marshmallows and s’mores and canoeing to Peanut Island and walking to town for icecream every Wednesday. And even then, still connected to my mother by a cord, in utero I was looking forward to care packages.
My first care package was a disaster. I was ten years old. It was my first week of camp at Arcadia. I was incredibly homesick. So homesick I could barely open my eyes in the morning. So homesick I wrote home every single day to both of my parents begging them to bring me home. “Get me out of here,” is all the post card would say, written in scribbled tear-stained blue ink. After two or three of these letters, my father wanted to drive back over to Maine from Vermont to get me out of there. But my mom had a better idea. She thought she’d send me shampoo.
Turns out she’d forgotten to supply me with shampoo. This I don’t remember. What I do remember is seeing my name on the daily package list that was posted just outside of the rustic cafeteria that was filled with round wooden tables and plastic trays and pastel plastic plates. Some of the tables were made out of beautiful cut pine and some of the chairs had the names of the most senior counselors carved into them. The cafeteria was wide, and when filled to capacity, was alive with excited little girl energy. At dinner, the cafeteria was most alive since it was after this meal that girls whose names were listed on the package list could line up at the office door to pick up their packages from home. During that first week of my first summer camp experience, my name was scribbled on that sheet: “Gina Coggio”. I couldn’t have been more excited.
All through dinner, I wondered what could possibly be in the package. Stickers, probably, since my mom knew how much I loved stickers. And maybe there was a book or a comic book or maybe there were Mad Libs. There were probably Mad Libs. And even though my mom didn’t like to break the rules of having no candy sent to the camp, maybe Dad probably snuck a package in there for me. I was sure he did. I thought these things while I chewed each of my bites of food. Spaghetti, maybe. Or maybe it was chicken something. For a while all we ate were PB&Js so it very well could have been my dinner that night, too. All I know is that never in my life had I wished a meal to be over so that I could go stand in a line.
You can imagine my utter horror, therefore, upon receiving the package, shaking it a bit, holding it up to my nose to smell, and ripping open the large padded envelope at its seams, to reach in and feel–not stickers, not gum, not anything fun–but goo. I pulled my hand out, my little fifth grade fingers covered in blue green gel. I looked in the package to find a single bottle of Prell Shampoo. It had exploded in the package. And what I was left with was a messy, but pleasantly-scented, hand, a note that said “I love you,” and a face full of tears and snot that wouldn’t stop no matter how hard my counselor hugged me.
This did nothing for my homesickness.
It did, however, do everything for my bargaining power for a real care package. Knowing how distraught I was over the Great Shampoo Disaster of 1990, and knowing how terribly and horrifically I missed home, and further knowing that if I did not receive a real care package, soon, she would never hear the end of it, she gathered all the fun little inconsequential things in our house and put them into a box and sent them off to Maine. For the next two summers, I received one or two care packages like this from my mom, and even some from her friends to whom I had, no doubt, told about the shampoo incident. She rolled her eyes at my telling the story since, as I have heard a hundred times in the years that followed, “Gina, you are so lucky. I never got a single care package in the nine summers I was there.” (I still don’t see the point, Mom. That rationale holds absolutely no water.)
It is with the memory of those care packages that I write about my most recent care packages. I have recieved two this week. And they are the finest of the fine. My mother has had years to hone her skills and she has done the absolute best job at being a care package mom. One year, for Valentine’s Day, she sent homemade and hand-frosted shortbread heart-shaped cookies down to Boston with a friend of mine who was visiting. Another year, she came to New Haven to visit me at school with the same kind of cookie, enough for me, the whole faculty, and all of my students. Over the years, she’s sent me care packages containing mail, books, birth control refills, music CDs, photos, sweaters, candy. But this most recent care package from my mom ranks in first place. It was filled with books and mail and newspaper clippings and cards and more books and Valentine’s Day window decorations for my classroom. In my lifetime, she’s probably sent me these same things in similar packages. But the fact that they have come from so far away, that I am so far away, makes them so special. Holding the package and seeing her handwriting on the box, ripping off the tape, and opening the flaps to reveal the tight packing of all the goodies inside that so clearly shows her anal retentiveness when it comes to shipping, packing, and organizing, made me feel so close to home. But so, so far away.
Today I received another care package, this time from my two amazing friends Jason and Geneva. When the porteiro gave me the box today, I shook it just for fun. Inside I heard the rattling of loose objects. I worried, for a split second, that I would open the box and its contents would be ruined. There is nothing worse than wanting to find a piece of home in an unexpected box only to find it has shattered. But I was wrong. Jason and Geneva clearly know how to pack a box and send it overseas. Nothing was harmed. In it were photos, and music, and a t-shirt, and a mug, and a sticker. And two pounds of Double Fudge Brownie Mix. The rattling sound I’d heard were Mike & Ikes and Hot Tamales.
I am so happy here, amidst my unexpected piles of home. I am giddy and thankful and so, so happy. I feel like I am drowning in my home now, in the very best way possible. I keep reaching over to squeeze the bag of brownie mix–heavy and soft, such tactile memories of home. Maybe I am like one of those girls at camp in Maine, whose families sent them bars of gold and moles of stickers. Maybe what was in those packages was mail and books and photos and music. Maybe that was all. Maybe those small things were all those little girls needed to add an extra bounce to their long straight ponytails. Just a little something to hold onto from home.