Thursday, July 31, 2008

Nostalgia for Camp

Elizabeth Zelvin

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.


pattinase (abbott) said...

This is a very lovely meditation in itself.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Patti. :)

Sharon Wildwind said...

I loved Girl Scout camp! What a nice memory trip

Sandra Parshall said...

I was a deprived child -- I never went to camp. I enjoyed your reminiscences, Liz.

Tell your husband to be careful in that crawl space. Look out for black widows and brown recluses.

Kadi said...

Hi Liz,
I wish I could trade my girl scout camp memories for yours. My camps and camp outs were always a train wreck, but we survived. I guess we learned to face adversity, which isn't a bad thing to bring to adulthood, but it wasn't much fun at the time. :)

Jainey said...

Wow, I really enjoyed reading that! I was a deprived child; no camp for me.

You know, strangely enough, reading your reminiscences made me think of a good book to recommend for all you mystery lovers out there. If you enjoy a good mystery, I suggest my most current read: a fast-paced, suspense-filled thriller called “The Hidden Man: A Novel of Suspense” by Anthony Flacco. I first got hooked on his debut historical fiction book “The Last Nightingale,” and now I’m finishing up the companion to it “The Hidden Man.” I’m a really picky reader, but this guy is just amazing. I find that a lot of books in the mystery/thriller genre nowadays lack the key elements that make up a good read. For example, what happened to all the humor, edginess, and multi-dimensional characters? Perhaps the reason I thought of this book was because Flacco is incredibly unique in that he makes good use of young characters. Not a lot of thrillers I’ve picked up have central characters that are young, or female. Also, I think it’s that familial dynamic (complex relationships within) that makes “The Hidden Man” so compelling. You can’t help but truly care for the characters and root for the unconventional family.

“The Hidden Man” takes readers back to 1915 San Francisco reborn after the Great Earthquake and Fire. Particularly, I love the complex, flawed characters that make the book shine like a jewel. James Duncan is a famed mesmerist at the pinnacle of his career in the upcoming World’s Fair, and he must work together with equally fascinating Detective Blackburn and Blackburn’s young protégé Shane Nightingale when a fanatic stalker sets out to destroy him. My favorite character is Vignette Nightingale though, who reminds me of a female version of Huckleberry Finn; she’s definitely a character you don’t see often in mystery books these days. I find it more interesting because they must solve a murder that hasn’t even happened yet, based purely on what only the terrified (almost obsessed) intended victim can see. If you like a compelling story and complex characters, this is a book for you. You can check out the reviews and book trailer on his website: Give it a try!

Sandra Parshall said...

Jainey, go back to June in the PDD archives and read my interview with Anthony Flacco!

Jainey said...

Sandra Parshall, that was such an insightful interview with Anthony Flacco! Your questions were so thought-provoking and really seemed to bring out the best answers from him. Particularly, I liked how you asked about the characters because "The Hidden Man" is such a character-driven book, isn't it? I found his explanation of mesmerist/showman James Duncan to be of special interest (the reason he'd given one of characters a brain disease).

Thank you so much, reading the interview was a treat. I learned a lot of things I didn't catch on when reading the book.

I hope you will get to interview this amazing guy on his future books! :)