I recently wrote on social media, "Locating your child in camp photos is like being trapped in a continuous game of Where's Waldo? Except that, once you find 'Waldo' you have to analyze Waldo's facial expressions: tired or well- rested? Sad or happy? Center of everything or feeling excluded? Scared? Lonely? Thriving on independence? Angry that Mommy didn't personalize her stationery? Thrilled to be able to have Lucky Charms, finally? Yes, I saw those."
A week later, having continued to delve through thousands of photos, I'm reflecting on how a parent's ability to easily locate his or her child in photos, often when the child is in a large group, is uncanny. The eye is inexplicably drawn to one's offspring, even if all of the children in the photo are wearing the same uniform; even if all of the children in the photo have the same hair color; even if you are zipping through hundreds and hundreds of photos because you don't expect to see your child---bam! Something catches your eye: that certain way Waldo's hair curls at the ends, that unmistakable and unique shape of her eyes, her wide, beguiling grin, the familiar furrow of her brow. Also uncanny is the correctness of your far-fetched hope that photos of your Waldo might have been accidentally included with a different age group's photos. The best word I can use to describe these phenomena is primal, and for me it has been fascinating to see my primal instincts in action.
Now let's discuss "Waldo" herself. If you're lucky enough to get a letter from Waldo, Waldo tends to ask for things: bunny ears, a pair of glasses attached to a moustache, pajamas with an animal head on top, a tutu. Upon receiving these requests, you will immediately and feverishly go through all of the camp photos to see if you can find a photo of someone wearing pajamas with an animal head on top (because what in the Hell does that mean, anyway???) so that you can make sure you get Waldo the correct item. Who have you become? When Waldo is at sleep-away camp, your desire to fulfill Waldo's requests, no matter how frivolous they may seem, is ardent and immediate. You have a conference call at 4:00? Push it back an hour! Waldo wants new stickers. You have dinner to make? Let them eat at 10:00! Waldo needs a new green tutu. Your younger child's camp bus is dropping him off at 4:45? That's what the doorman is for! You're hot on the trail of pajamas with a zebra head and you can't possibly walk away from the computer.
Part of you says, "Stop shopping, this is ridiculous. Between camp fees and all of these extras we won't be able to pay our rent." But the other part of you says, "How dare you even consider showing up to visiting day empty-handed, you wicked, wicked monster!" So even though you know that Waldo already has everything she needs and then some, you continue to shop. You feel that, because you sent Waldo away (despite the fact that it was Waldo's idea to go to sleep-away camp in the first place), you need Waldo to know that you love her and are thinking about her constantly, and that you didn't transfer your love for her to the sibling she left behind at home. You will display this love by lavishing on Waldo whatever she requests (after all, she just wants to fit in!), knowing full well that camp is the gift and that spoiling Waldo will not serve Waldo well in the long term; that Waldo needs to save her allowance to buy the bunny ears herself, or she will grow up without the desire or ability to save money and will probably end up a drug addict, homeless or living in a halfway house, God forbid. You know that buying items for a child is not the right way to display love (although, if I'm being honest, it does make you feel loved when someone gets you a present, no?) but you're going to do it anyway. You know that the camp discourages all of this extra spending. You know that if Waldo were walking through a toy store with you and asked for all of these items you would say "Save your allowance." But when Waldo is away? If Waldo writes home and asks to see a fighter jet with her name emblazoned on the side streaking across the sky on the day she gets home, you will make it happen. If Waldo wants the Empire State Building to light up with her favorite colors, you will make some calls. Waldo wants her own car, even though she's only eight? You will take her for a test drive. Supposedly the 2016 Porsche has some cutting-edge features.