“Tsimtsum—contraction—ushers in the cosmic drama…for it is God’s withdrawal
that first creates space.”
—Gershom G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism
Every mile of the drive from West 22nd Street to Hancock had felt right. How good it was to say the words to anyone who crossed her path that morning, “I’m going to visit my son.” In her mind, she and Max were one big family, even though now it was just the two of them. Hers was a life wiped out by divorce. It was a miracle really that she’d even had Max in the first place, let alone gotten any other children out of his father. One loss is not another, her therapist said.
The wooden signs nailed to trees said, “Blind Curve, Honk Your Horn,” and “Children on Bikes.” It was the Saturday morning of Parents’ Weekend — and the parking lot was full. She saw couples and dogs getting out of cars, strolling toward the main camp grounds. She felt a little out of place since she wasn’t officially here for Parents’ Weekend, even though it was when they told the parents of counselors to visit.
Out of the car, she took a long breath, inhaling the cool and fragrant Vermont air, so different from home. She reached the end of the path and the camp lay before her. Rustic red log cabins. A big stone building with a wraparound porch. Open fields leading to a lake.
The lawn might have been a jumble of ages and activities, but everyone looked like they knew where they were going and what they were doing. Children careened across the grass on bikes. They gathered in bunches on the lawn or walked in pairs and threesomes toward the main building, some holding hands without giving it a thought. Across the lawn, from the swings to the hammocks to the tetherball poles, she caught glimpses of movement and color, a Georges Seurat come to life.
You could see that it wasn’t one of those glossy-brochure-type camps. It was, as Max had described it, low-key and not competitive, an “everyone’s a winner” kind of place. No homesickness apparent here, she thought. Strange, really, that she’d never sent Max away to sleep-away camp when he was young. Had he missed out?
A few parents milled around on the path in front of her — and they looked content too, greeting their children, getting ready to join an activity, weighing the prospects of crafts or tennis or rowing. There must be some camp schedule that they all just knew. She seemed to be the only newcomer, the only one who didn’t know the ropes.
Could she also be the only parent who had come alone? She counted heads. She did this wherever she went. She was always on the lookout for other single moms at restaurants, on the street, in the park. Seeing other single parents made her feel that she wasn’t the only one raising a child this way.
As she approached the first log cabin, a young woman leaned out of the doorway. “Can I help?”
“I’m looking for Max Durbin. I’m his mother.”
“Oh, hi Mrs. Durbin. I just saw Max.”
She hadn’t been called Mrs. Durbin in a while—and there was that moment where it felt wrong to even claim it as her name. There was another Mrs. Durbin now. This was one of those things you couldn’t possibly plan for when you married and kept your maiden name. That one day another woman would have the same last name as your son, but you wouldn’t.
“Mrs. Durbin? You can wait here. I’ll have someone get him for you.”
A few minutes later, someone shouted, “There’s M-a-a-x.” And there he was, all six-three of him, swooping down on a bicycle, toothbrush and razor in a net bag hanging from the handlebars, wearing flannel pajama bottoms and looking sleepy. His brown hair stood up straight as though it just woke up too.
At five-eleven she wasn’t short. But Max hung over her like a giant sunflower. She gazed up, squinting to see his face. He bent down so she could kiss the top of his head, the woodsy, country smell of his hair.
“You’re early,” he said. “I was just getting ready.”
“No problem. I’ll wait.”
“Give me five.” And he took off on the bike, leaving her on the path.
She watched him go. Why the flannel pajamas? Not a good sign. They reminded her of his senior year in high school when Max wore pajama bottoms all the time and talked like an anarchist about how grades didn’t matter. Then freshman year in college — Max had been recruited to play baseball, but never showed up at practice. “What’s the point of it, anyway?” She’d had to answer the coach’s concerned calls, the patient ones, the indignant one.
She didn’t really know why he’d dropped baseball after all those years, except that he’d started reading philosophy. But she did know that it was a Division Three school and he hadn’t signed a contract. He had simply walked away from a game he loved and, as people were always saying, his incredible talent. “He just doesn’t need baseball anymore,” one of her friends said.
But he’d ended his freshman year on every probation form they had. Too much partying. Missed classes. Bad grades. He had to see a counselor. Now, he was considering not going back, which made her crazy with anxiety. What would he do with himself? He’d get off track. She’d get off track. His father would see it as a failure. So would her parents. She’d get blamed. “He’s dropping out. He’s a drop-out.” Where she came from, school was the most important thing. It was a bad idea to deviate from the four-year plan. If you did, you got lost. You were a loser, and so was your mother.
A bell rang, and now there were even more kids walking between buildings, mingling on the lawn, shouting to one another. She wanted to take in as much of the place as she could, the better to understand what Max was doing here.
And then there he was again, back on the bike. This time wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and it looked like he’d washed his face. He had only two periods free this morning and they had arranged to go out for breakfast in town.
At the café, they settled at a table outside, overlooking the main street. She was eager to hear from him. She was overly aware of the time, that they didn’t have much. How it was all going? Did he like it? What was his actual job, duties? What was the schedule? How was Emily, the girl who had gotten him the job here?
“Whoa, Mom. Slow down,” he said. “You’re asking too many questions. It’s like you’re a mosquito, buzzing around me.” And he made a shooing motion with his hand.
She sat back in her chair, looked out at the street, willed herself not to tear up. She knew she buzzed. She could feel herself buzzing. She buzzed because there was just Max.
She would never have spoken to her own parents that way. She wouldn’t have dared. Even now with her parents, it was a one-way street. They spoke, she nodded. She had never been able to say what she meant. Half the time she had to settle for the surface, the buried words too hard to retrieve. She was untrained. But not Max. She’d given her child that, at least.
She took an intentionally long sip of iced coffee, hoping that the silence wouldn’t go unnoticed. They were both quiet. She hated quiet. She looked out, past him, to the town’s main drag, a hardware store and Laundromat across the street. What would it be like to live here?
“Sorry, Mom. But it’s true.”
“I know,” she smiled. “But I haven’t seen you in so long. I need to know how you’re doing.”
The food came. Max was hungry and dug into his omelet and home fries.
“That looks good.”
“I order this every time we come here.” The food lightened him up. Each bite was a huge forkful. “So, I’ve got this bunk of 13-year-olds,” he said. “I got them because I’m taller than all the other counselors and it’s the only cabin I fit into.”
And she thought, really, they put you in charge of teenagers? Who would have thought that an anarchist could take charge of a group of 13-year-olds?
“The thing is,” he continued. “I’ve got to come up with ways to get them to do what I want.”
“Is it a little like me trying to get you to do something?”
“Sort of. Although with so many of them it’s much harder. Some of the kids are easy to get along with and listen. But the others, not so much. At staff meetings, they give us ideas about how to handle the bunk.”
It seemed safe now to venture another question. “What kind of ideas help?”
“One of the things we tell kids is — ‘Deeds not words’. We actually say it at camp all the time. Words are fine, but deeds are better. Anyone can talk, but actions speak louder.”
“I like that. I’ll have to remember it,” she said.
After breakfast, they drove back to camp. Max had one more hour before he had to get back to work. He suggested swimming. “I’ll show you my favorite spot.”
They changed into bathing suits and headed down a narrow path through tall reeds to the lake. Groups of children dotted the shore on the other side. The noise drifted across. On their side, all was quiet. They had it all to themselves. “I come here sometimes to cool off,” he said. “It’s a good spot.”
They walked to the end of the narrow wooden dock. Max jumped right in, but she went slowly down the ladder. The water was brisk, with the occasional warm spot. She paused for a little while in one of those pockets. She hadn’t been swimming outside in a long time, and the view was brand new from this perspective, water stretching away at eye level, the big sky arching above. “Let’s go to the float,” Max said, paddling past.
She marveled at his stroke. As a child, it had taken him forever to learn to swim. Every sport that she loved, including swimming, had taken him ages to master. And now here he was, swimming right past her. Maybe not lifeguard material, but definitely holding his own.
Max was on the float when she got there, lying on his back soaking up the warmth. She stretched out next to him, feeling the float bobble along in the water.
“That was wonderful. I love swimming outside.”
“I knew you’d like it.”
“This just might be my favorite hour of the whole summer,” she confided, closing her eyes.
They were quiet for a few minutes and then Max said, “Mom, you should know. I’m not going back. In the fall.”
And just like that, it was no longer her favorite hour. She could feel little pinpricks of anxiety firing up inside. For a minute, she didn’t know if she was angrier with Max for wrecking the moment or for ruining his life.
She heard his voice from across the float. “Look, I know it costs a lot of money and I don’t want to wake up after four years and find I’ve wasted it. I’m going to get a job. Emily and I are going to get an apartment.”
Before she could say anything, he added, as though he could read her mind, “You don’t have to worry that I’m dropping out. Because I’m not. I’m taking a year off. There’s a difference.”
How could she argue with him when everything he said made so much sense? And for a second it seemed like he had the quiet wisdom of years and she was the wayward child caught playing with matches.
“Are you really sure it’s what you want?” she asked. He sat up, and reached over to give her a little punch on her arm. “Deeds, not words, Mom. Remember?”
She lay there for a second longer. It wasn’t what she’d wanted for him, but it did make sense. The light was bright and she closed her eyes, and the brightness stayed behind her eyes. Her wet skin warmed up in the sun. For a minute, she saw the little square wooden float in the lake from above. It was a patchwork square, dancing in the water. And from that high place she also could see her parents sitting in their house in New Jersey, the house she’d grown up in, her father so frail and dangerously thin, and her mother, fretting and worrying about how imperfect everything was, that nothing was ever right. And for those few moments she understood that few things ever were right, but that you could manage anyway.
“Wow. To be able to do this every day,” she said in a low voice.
“Yeah, isn’t it great?” Max said. “I love Vermont.”
They swam back across the lake, and dried off on the dock.
“I’ve got to get back,” Max said. “Third period starts in 15 minutes.” And she watched him take a well-worn lanyard with a whistle and several keys out of his backpack and put it around his neck.
As they walked up the path toward camp, they could see a group of campers and parents coming toward them. “That’s one of my boys,” Max said, as the group approached. “Jason, are you showing your parents a good time?”
The parents surrounded Max. They were glad to meet him. Jason was having a great summer in his cabin. Max put his hand on Jason’s shoulder. “Did you tell them you learned to play tennis?”
She took a small step back, a painful one, but a necessary one. How strange. Then another step back. Heard the conversation, smiled. A third step.
She remembered the instruction. “At the end of the Kaddish, take three small steps back….”
That withdrawal from the path was her tsimtsum. In Hebrew, it meant contraction. But in the Kabbalah, she recalled, it was the word for the deity contracting to make room for the creation of the world. From her place just off the path, she felt the world shift. Something had changed yet again, whether she liked it or not.
Judith Zimmer is the author of several nonfiction books, including Labor of Love: Mothers Share the Joy of Childbirth. She is the recipient of a Bennington Writing Workshop Scholarship for fiction.