City children, country summer

Day 15 and I'm exhausted. I've been to a circus, a playhouse, a swimming hole, the Vermont Country Store, the Dari Joy, the playground, two museums, a boating lake, the Yankee Candle Company, plus every neighbor and friend I can think of. Having two energetic children with the attention span of normal 8-year-olds is no easy thing, especially when they're not your own.

Fortunately, I'd forgotten that fact when we volunteered to serve as a host family for The Fresh Air Fund, a New York City-based program that has been sending low-income city kids to camp or country families for two weeks every summer for the past 125 years.

When I first thought about becoming a Fresh Air mom, my granny fantasies ran rampant. I forgot that I hadn't done these sorts of things for my own kids, and I imagined baking cookies, cutting peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into shapes with cookie cutters, supervising art projects, and reading copious bedtime stories.

I told my husband, "You can write a check or you can change a life."

Two days into the visit of my little girls, I was buying cookies, slapping bologna between two pieces of white bread, providing crayons and blank white paper, and managing two pages a night of "Julie of the Wolves." In short, things were pretty much as they had been when I raised my own two children 20 years ago. Having now bidden the girls farewell, both my husband and I are catatonic - a checkbook in one hand and a long glass of cold ice tea in the other - and even though we feel too old to repeat the experience, we wouldn't have missed the opportunity to actually make a difference in these kids' lives. Or ours.

I loved those nighttime hugs, the sound of "Mom!" when I was too long out of sight, the wide-eyed amazement of a child's first encounter with farm animals, the grins and laughter, and "flowers are beautiful" notes I found lying around. While I won't miss the clutter and chaos, it isn't the same in the morning without their little faces peeking around the corner of our bedroom to whisper "We're up!" And while they may not remember everything they did in the short term, I'd bet my life that in the longer run they will remember everything that constituted a first for them, from feeding farm animals to seeing a black-bear diorama at the nature museum.

At first, they were so shy, I didn't know how I would draw them out. At the bus pickup, they barely whispered "Yes," or "No," when I asked a question, and eye contact was nil. That lasted all of an hour. By the time we'd eaten our first dinner together (over which a long and silent grace was offered by my new guests), the sound of children's chatter filled the house. In a matter of minutes, it seemed, shoes, clothes, crayons, and assorted other kid signs were strewn about. It was clear that for the next two weeks clutter would reign.

My girls couldn't have been more different from each other. Iona was self-confident, verging on bossy, Tanisha needed lots of reassurance and TLC. Petite Tanisha ate like there was no tomorrow, while the sturdier Iona nibbled and picked at her food. Iona led, Tanisha followed, and they got along together like best pals, even though they had never met before. (Iona is from Harlem, Tanisha from the Bronx, worlds apart in their world of limited and impoverished experience.)

Everything amazed them - cows, horses, feeding our ducks, chasing butterflies, finding a garter snake under the deck - but nothing more so than the thought that you didn't have to lock your car or house against "bad people with guns." Once when I yelled for them to get out of the tub to see a rainbow, they thought the house was on fire. Urban life takes its toll. But if you want to see youthful joy and curiosity, take a kid swimming, or to the Montshire Museum, or to see glass being blown. Ask them to keep a daily journal, then read it with them. Have them make a collage. Eat outdoors. Not that my kids were angels. They pushed the edge of the envelop plenty. But a simple "no" or a smiling "because I said so" seemed sufficient and was usually met with a cheerful "OK," and a big smile that suggested: "Just thought I'd try that one on."

They were also very funny. One day, we pretended to leave Tanisha behind as we were leaving the ice cream parlor because she was dawdling. As we began pulling out of the parking space, she strutted on down the street, hand on her hip like a true and sassy New Yorker. When she finally got in the car, she admonished us with, "I'm gonna call 1-888-Child Abuse on you!" Then she smiled from ear to ear.

For the girls, two weeks "with my camp people" meant a break from concreted city life, pollution, urban fear, congestion, and cramped quarters. For me, those two weeks were a constant quest to organize, supervise, and improvise. But when it was over and they'd gone home happily, while I regained my equilibrium, I knew we all felt better for the experience.

It just goes to show you what a simple breath of fresh air can do.

Elayne Clift's latest book is 'Love Letters to Vermont: A New England Journal' (OGN Publications, 2001).

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