Daughters and their Moms Part Two

Mothers and daughters, man! When I was growing up my family ran Catholic girls camp, to which a number of wealthy Puerto Rican families sent their daughters. Winter in U.S. boarding school, summer at Came Fernwood in the Berkshires. We had Carmen, we had Isabel, we had Marisol and so on.

This last one, Marisol had a wide friendly face and, like all the girls, heavily accented English.

On Parents Weekend when all the families arrived for the festivities, the campers would be gathered on the porch of the dining hall waiting for the bugle call that would let everyone go inside for lunch. It was the perfect spot to watch for arriving parents.

My mom told the story about one such time, when on the parents of a number of these exotic Puerto Rican kids seemed to arrive all together, as they probably would have, having just checked in to the swanky Crane Inn in nearby Dalton.

In a phalanx now, the women were walking together, ahead of their men, eager to see their little girls. There were four of them, all in designer dresses and clinking with jewelry, chiffon head scarves protecting their perfectly coiffed hairdos. They almost looked like these ladies, only like 40 years ago.


Marisol with her little round cheeks stood beside my mom watching their approach.

“Which one is your mother, honey?” my Mom leaned down to ask.

Marisol regarded the four handsome women, three as tall and slender as those Berkshire birches all around us and the third ….much less tall.

She said something my mother couldn’t quite hear.

“Once again Marisol? I didn’t catch that.”

“My mohther,” Marisol said, her eyes on Mom Number Four. My mohther ees de leetle fat one.”

And there it is. Travel the world and you’ll see it. Far and wide at a certain age, all daughters give their moms the critical eye.

Now just for fun, here is a small segment of the cast of The King and I. Marisol is in here. See if you can guess which one she is. Gad! A dozen little girls in their bathrobes with Joan Crawford makeup! I’m in there too, I see.

in the mikado

And here’s another play featuring the drama geeks of Camp Fernwood. Marisol again I see. And Yours Truly too. (You don’t suppose the MOTHERS were embarrassed by the DAUGHTERS ever, do you?

drama geeks

A Late-August Memory (For Nan)

Every year at this time I think of the camp my sister Nan and I went to from the time we were five to the time we finished high school. This is Nan when she was five, here in the left.

Our mom and aunt owned and ran that camp, and how they agonized over it during the off-season, mailing their hopeful brochures, driving to meet mother-daughter pairs in the tearooms of the old hotels, anxiously counting and re-counting the number of campers signed up already.

And then how they worried as they ran it all summer! Would they have to deal again with that bear who appeared out of nowhere, nuzzling the little kids’ beach towels on the lines behind their cabins? Or with some misfit counselor who was mean to the kids, or the one who cried for hours, or the one with a bad yen to slip out nights and drink in some roadhouse? Would lightning, God forbid, strike one of the buildings, as it had that one summer?

They fretted constantly over these things, but Nan and I scarce gave them a thought.

We only loved the place.

We loved the weeks camp was in session of course, but we also loved the weeks beforehand, when we were the first kids of the summer to whack the new tetherball, big as the moon and buttery yellow; the first to visit the camp store pre-season, helping ourselves to the bottles of Halo, to the tubes of Gleem and Ipana, those health-and-beauty products of yore.

Then camp started, and we learned again all over again how to bunt and hit a backhand; how to make a fire and do the overarm sidestroke.

There were plays and track meets.

This is Nan as Anna in The King and I:

a summer’s-end banquet when even the six-year-olds won awards; and that magical last-night ceremony involving candles, when the big girls wept prettily over the pain of parting and the little ones made mischief with the wax.

Then suddenly by 5:00 the next afternoon they had all gone home, counselors and campers alike.  That’s when the fun resumed for Nan and me, as we took off into the empty camp, two kids alone with a world of sporting goods.  For hours we high-jumped. We played badminton. We shot arrows – thwock! – into a by-then mighty ‘thwock-marked’ target. We went again to that little closet that doubled as camp store again and helped ourselves to more Halo and more Ipana. We invaded the infirmary and took turns playing Broken Leg and Busted Appendix, then used the nurse’s chart to measure ourselves and see if we’d grown.

And we knocked that old tetherball silly. We ran to the lake and swam ‘til our fingers went blue and jumped and dove and cannonballed off the diving board.

We were giants for those weeks, champions, giants, amazons.

And then Labor Day came and we were home again, two pale kids in school uniforms, exchanging wordless looks when, escorted by a flying wedge of nuns, we passed in the no-nonsense hallways of that no-nonsense convent school.

Maybe it’s the feel of who you were in summer that’s slowest to fade as fall approaches.

I close my eyes and see Nan now, graceful as a deer, arcing up and up in a swan dive, then, in an instant, jacking her hips to reverse direction and slice narrow as a knife-blade into the water. I am ten and she is twelve which is what she is in this picture below (Nan on the left) and for me we are ten and twelve still, somehow; just as somewhere, for us all, summer lasts and lasts, and never ends.



Camp Hug ‘n Sing

I could write a book about the camp my family owned, where my sister Nan and I spent summers, from the time we were babies in our mother’s arms to that final day when, with the place sold and all of us awash in tears, we hugged Millie a final time, climbed into the old beach wagon and drove into an uncertain future. Millie had been there for over a quarter of a century, since that day she walked up the driveway looking for work, a war refugee with heavily accented English and a babe in her own arms.

“I have a conviction that a few weeks spent at a well-organized summer camp may be of more value educationally than a whole year of formal school work” said Charles William Eliot, President of Harvard for 40 years and maybe he’s the guy who started the whole summer camp movement that fed my family for another 40 years after that. When my friend Bobbie wrote about the days she was my counselor at good old Camp Fernwood, our common friend Maggie weighed in with this quote.

Being there was like having 70 sisters and we had such fun putting on plays, swimming and running and short-sheeting the counselors’ beds – even sneaking through the woods after Taps to meet boys from the camp down the road and sit shyly beside them for ten minutes before our fear of discovery hustled us back to our cabins. Still, what I remember most about my years there is the singing we did – all that singing by the campfire…..

Up top here are some of us little campers in the Parents weekend play. (I’m the one on the left.) And down below here are two more pictures, going way back to when our mother and Aunt Grace were just starting out themselves. That’s Aunt Grace smack in the middle who later taught and mentored so many young people. And that’s Mom with her back to the camera, hands on her hips. It must have been the last day of the season because she sure-enough hated high heels and yet she had them on, presumably to greet the parents fetching their children home after eight weeks away. I especially like the second picture below it with the mad hugging of the adolescents, who, I sometimes think, are the only people who get what’s really important in life.

No TALKING to My Friends! Mum!

scan0003I drove 400 miles in six hours’ time and then kept myself awake until midnight yesterday so I could send a Happy Birthday text to someone whose fate was closely linked to my own in a delivery room once. Drove from Boston clear to Albany and back to record seven  ‘commentaries’ for  Northeast Public Radio, to me the best Pubic Radio station in the whole country hands down.

One of these pieces I offer below here, because it’s about this boy of mine. Its tenderness makes me blush a little, but how can I not return nostalgically to those days, as someone who is still trying to get used to the fact that he’s not nearby anymore? The fact  that he doesn’t bang in the back door like his big sisters do, cracking open a beer and talking a mile a minute?

~ Sigh ~  Anyway, here’s who that boy was in the 8th grade. Who I thought he was anyway. Who we all were maybe:


They say boys separate from their fathers either by beating them at what the dads do best or refusing to compete at all. How girls separate from their moms I remember well. Our oldest used to spend hours talking on the phone in my home office and writing little notes on my all my stuff. (“I’m not writing on your stuff” these notes sometimes said) but about how a boy separates from his mom I know only this: It’s isn’t quick and it isn’t easy.

When my boy was 12 he thought I was the best thing since Tic Tacs. I used to go into his school every year to talk about Writing From Personal Experience, maybe even get the kids to try it.

First we’d loosen up by telling stories, like the one about how my underpants fell down when I was seven. I was the Flag Bearer at a full-dress Flag Raising ceremony, with nary a hand to spare lest Old Glory touch the ground, when the elastic snapped and those little panties descended – and fast.

Kids love stuff like this, and before we knew it, everyone in the class was laughing, and no one more than my own child.

But by the time he turned 13 I just seemed to embarrass him.His teacher called up that year to ask If I’d help chaperone a field trip to see “Romeo and Juliet” on stage. I quick switched some appointments and jumped at the chance.

Michael left the room when he heard the news.

“OK, a few ground rules,“ he said on his return:  “No talking to anyone. No sitting near me in the theater. No explaining the play to the kids beside you.”

Well, I failed on all three counts. We tried again with the carpools-to-out-of-town-soccer-games issue.

“Parents don’t talk when they do these carpools!” he said through gritted teeth. “They just drive and keep quiet.”

I failed again – repeatedly even.  He just needed a little distance, maybe.

He got it that summer, He went away to a camp in the Berkshires called Emerson , a camp that happens to be on the same 130 acres as the one I went to for 11 years, owned by my family and called Fernwood in those years.

Halfway though his time there we went to visit him.

He was making some separation progress anyway:  a child who for years refused to even pick up a tennis racquet at his father’s invitation suddenly said, “Dad! Want to volley?” When they rejoined his sisters and me the two of them were  smiling, if winded. “I’m awesome!” reported the son. “I crushed him!” said his father.

“Hey, Mike!” I spoke up then. “Let’s you and I walk over to the girls’ cabins.” I wanted to see if my name was still there, carved high in the rafters.

“Are you kidding?  I’m not allowed to go there!”

“C’mon it’s Family Day!” I said. “Even the girls cabins will be crawling with males! And if they ask, I’ll tell them I went to camp here.” And I started on alone.

Suddenly he was right there beside me. “OK, go to Bunk J,” he said, walking fast. “Quick, got a pen?” he said. I gave him one. “I’ll stand guard,” I said. Then he ducked into the empty bunk, stood on a girl’s trunk, and amid 60 years worth of names, wrote “Mike Marotta” in bold caps high on the cabin wall.

“A fine influence YOU are!” said his dad when we got back and reported the deed. My boy and I just traded a little smile I remember. And all I could think was “maybe we’ll separate next year.”