The sun is beating down on my midsummer garden: glowing red and yellow day lilies making the most of it, Wedgwood blue hydrangeas wilting in the heat, an abundance of blossoms on the rose of sharon unfurling for their ephemeral taste of glory. My husband, clad in his favorite work clothes, rags that would disgrace Cinderella Before, prepares to venture into the subterranean crawl space under our house to fix a gasket that we’ve been talking about for weeks. Later in the afternoon, we’ll go to the beach. And I’m thinking about camp.
Fiction writers are expected to mine our childhoods for material, whether it’s for the vividness of the memories of taste and smell and touch, the sense of wonder—which the current generation of TV-watching, mouse-wielding, iPhone-toting tots may or may not experience--or the actual events, benign or traumatic. As a writer, I sometimes regret that I didn’t have a more dramatic childhood. (As a therapist who’s witnessed the train wreck of many a dysfunctional family, I’m grateful for the lack of drama.) Many of my memories come from summers in camp.
At six, I was sent with an older sister to a “progressive” farm camp in Vermont. It was supposed to function as a primitive democracy. Many of the other kids were red diaper babies, not that I understood what that meant. I remember the clanging of a cow bell for Town Meeting and the fact that the grownups always got to make the real decisions. I remember the smell of a barn full of hay and the boy who taught me to make a flying tackle.
At eight, I went to day camp in a park in Queens. I remember the smell of brown paper bag lunches and the taste of peanut butter. I have an odd, fragmentary recollection of being in a play about an ogre who ate children. I was one of the children, a non-speaking part. I remember that the Wednesday dinner claims to have a cold to postpone being eaten, and the ogre’s housekeeper says, “Sunday dinner, change places with the Wednesday dinner.” We all had to change places. I can remember not having a clue what was going on. (The play ends happily when the housekeeper admits she never served the ogre any children: “Irish stew, it was always nothing but Irish stew.”)
The next year, I went to Girl Scout camp, which I loved so much I kept going back for as long as I could—till the age of 13—and later returned to work as a counselor. Just last night in the shower, I found myself singing some of Scout camp’s incredibly corny “campfire songs.” I still hear the a capella harmonies in my head every time. I learned all my outdoor skills at Girl Scout camp: building a fire, identifying black birch and deer scat and poison ivy, lashing sticks with twine (which would still come in handy if I ever had to make a raft). I learned to swim and canoe and how to whip up such American classic dishes as s’mores and tuna wiggle. Girl Scout camp taught community and self-reliance. When the women’s movement came along a couple of decades later, I found that many of the feminists I met had been Girl Scouts.
Today, lying in a hammock watching the oak and apple and sassafras branches dip and sway in the breeze, I remember that I learned this quiet attentiveness, almost a meditation, in Girl Scout camp during rest hour. For the first half hour, we had to lie on our cots in a canvas tent with the flaps rolled up, not talking or even reading. It was meant as a time to nap, and to this day I’m very fond of naps. But often I did what I’m doing today, happy to watch the sunlight on the leaves and listen to the wind and simply be.