Time Slips, Eclipse

Eclipse-384The summer I finished middle school 60 other kids and I got to watch a total solar eclipse at summer camp. Or not watch it I should maybe say, for fear of burning our retinas; The counselors were told to corral us all into the camp dining hall for the duration.

This event took place on July 20th a hundred years ago as it now seems and it popped into my head on that same date this year – last Saturday in other words.

The memory was so vivid: I saw the gravel road we walked along to get inside the dining hall; saw the wildflowers of high summer nodding in the breeze; saw again the big posters I was making in the camp’s little theatre where in two days time we would hold the big Team Party.. (I was Captain of the Gold Team and had talked the Captain of the Green team into making a huge production of the whole thing, painting oversize images of Warner Brothers and Disney cartoons on poster board.

Back then my bangs kept flipping up like window shades; there was no stopping them. I didn’t look a thing like those teen movies stars with their long straight hair, and not in summer especially what with the twice-daily swimming periods you couldn’t get out of.

Somehow it was OK though. There weren’t any mirrors to see yourself in anyway, save for a small cracked five by seven-inch one hanging on the wall of the washhouse. I can’t recall a single mirror in our little bunkhouse.

“Bunkhouse”: sounds like where George and Lenny slept in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and we lived kind of like that come to think of it. The camp wasn’t a bit fancy – no electricity in those cabins, and canvas shutters that you banged down fast when the rains came. We loved it though. Kids came back for years and years, for all eight weeks, unbelievable as that sounds nowadays.

My sister and I were only there because our mom was the Camp Director, which was a good thing since being apart from her would have been impossible for us. Certainly it would have been too hard for me,  even that year of the eclipse when I was 14 and finding myself newly dazzled every day by the light of a brand-new sun.

solar eclipse


This is how the eclipse looked on that very long ago July 20th. What a find on the Internet! Maybe Faulkner was right and the past isn’t really past at all.

Here’s What Mine Did

mom 6 mos pregnantTalking of what mothers did back in the day – I was kidding when I portrayed them as ladies of leisure yesterday – let me ask myself what my own mom did every day. (This is she, pregnant with her first child at age 39.)

Let’s see… Well, when she was in her 20s her dad told her that she and her sister Grace had to run the family business, a summer camp for girls.

This wasn’t always the family business. In the beginning, it was just that their dad invited people to sleep over when they came to visit him in the country. He had grown up near there, the youngest in a farm family and it may be that he loved the nearness of other living beings, like the farm animals sending up that lovely exhalation of warmth always in pasture and barn. Anyway he got his wife to go along with the idea of making these sleepovers  a paying concern, and, as luck would have it, the concept of summer camps for children was just beginning to take off at the time.. And so ‘Camp Fernwood in the Berkshires’ opened when our mom was 16. A decade later, with his poor wife dead, of what was very likely exhaustion, he got his oldest daughter our future mother to say she’d try her hand at running the thing. “No harder job in the world” she told us kids later in life. “What’s harder than to convince parents to give you their kids for eight whole weeks?” Because that’s what people did then. They sent their kids off for that long.

She worked all summer ordering food and minding the counselors and offering comfort to little girls who got their period for the first time in those eight weeks,  then worked all winter trawling for new campers. She spent all day  up in our attic with Aunt Grace sending out brochures, talking to prospects, begging for the chance to come visit families and describe the fun of it all.

Thirty-five years down the line, however, things had changed: people were buying RV’s and the eight-week camp was becoming  a thing of the past, With great sorrow, because it was their one link to the now-dead father they loved so much, they sold the camp and at age 65 mom got her first salaried job, working for Family Service, this time giving counsel and comfort to the “homemakers” who went in to help out families in times of trouble.

She worked all her life, in other words, without ever making any money to speak of. (The camp was never a paying proposition; it was a whim dreamed up by a man who had his own job as a lawyer and a judge. You can bet HE never helped run the camp.) Then, like every other woman in America, she cooked for the family. And ironed our blue school uniforms, and polished our clunky blue shoes.

There were no labor-saving devices that I can remember. No dishwasher. No real vacuum that I can remember but only a carpet sweeper that looked like it was from  1920s – oh and a washing machine that had an actual wringer on top. Needless to say we had no drier.)

After her husband left her 18 months into the marriage she had no desire to socialize so she just worked at that attic desk and only in her 60s had the joy of job with office chums and office humor and the occasional office birthday party. I remember watching her dress mornings for this job. Sometimes she would say “Today, kids, I’m wearing’my fightin’ suit!’ That’s what she called the outfit she would don on the days she knew would be long ones.

Ah Mom, you wiseguy, you sport, you life of every party: how your children both miss you! How we wish you could be here now laughing about the latest overcooked pot roast.

And so do we all feel I am sure, when we look back and remember all that they did.

grace last day of camp

Aunt Grace (Mom in the background) at camp Fernwood in 1935, and under this the littlest campers in the summer of ’52 and their two sweet counselors Jane and Ina.

this is how little we were

The Best Pals are the Old Pals

The people who knew you when you were young are the best ones. You don’t have to work hard to impress them. They know you; they know you from the back.

I spent last Sunday with 13 people I had gone to camp with, talk about an old notion. These days if kids go to camp at all they go for a week or two, and it’s a specialty camp, like for basketball or cheerleading or weight loss. Oh there are still the fine old camps that are fully subscribed every season but their number is dwindling.

Back when I was a kid, parents thought nothing of packing their kids off to eight full weeks of camp. (Everything was cheaper then, and that sure helped.) We all went to camp for eight full weeks as girls. It was the only way we could go. And we didn’t just go in that classic latency age before the hormones hit. We went to camp for six, or nine or eleven summers and then came back as counselors.

Four of the people I saw last Sunday were sisters. There are five of them all together and didn’t the camp photographer love to line them up for a picture! We had five Creaghs, four McSweeneys and on and on.  Here is one of the sisters pictures below.

fernwood sisters

I was in pre-school when some of these former campers met me. My mom and aunt ran the camp is why I was there at such a young age. We lived there. So all these years later in spite of the changes in my face they say they would know me anywhere.

No doubt many remember the time as flag bearer during “colors” my underpants started to sag below my little-girl camp shorts as I marched hup-two-three toward the flagpole. They were touching my knees before I got there.

The people who have seen your underpants fall down and like you in spite of this social gaffe are the people who know you. One camper who wasn’t present at Sunday’s gathering might remember the summer I was so full of myself there was no living with me. She was my counselor for three years so she really saw my faults – and she called me on them.

You can really relax around people who know you that well. This is the camp play I was in during which  what relaxed were my bladder muscles. I wet my maroon  crepe paper beet costume just moments before the curtain went  up I remember. I wept with shame after my scene and ran to my mother sitting in the back of the theatre. She didn’t care about my wet pants. She pulled me into her lap and comforted me

the time i was a beet

You guys, who read this blog, know me. If you’ve been reading it for a while you know about the time my big sister Nan and I peed in the upstairs hall during our naps and left the puddles there on the hall rug,  each with a small corsage of t.p. in its midst, something we did for the sheer naughty fun of it. I think we must have  sensed that there was some sort of frisky fun associated with what resides in a person’s pants and pee was the closest we could come to imagining what it was.

Well enough on THIS theme! I’ll sum up here by only saying that we might like people to look upon us as some new Mother Theresa, some new Dalai Lama, but the truth is we’re more comfortable with people who have really got our number.

What fun I had with my old friends Sunday! And that’s without even singing the great old camp songs like John Jacob Jingle Heimerschmidt! 🙂

Who Cares How You Look

In relation to all this recent talk about how funny-looking I was as a kid at summer camp, I have to say: at least we were competent athletes. We learned how to play every sport and the big girls looked so pretty sashaying the quarter of a mile from the cabins down to the lake.

Friendships 13

Some could dive so clean into the lake they made nary a splash.

where I first learned to dive

Some could high-jump. This is my cousin Mary Lou at the track meet.

mary lou high jumping

We also put in my time learning to use fake sporting equipment like the Bounce-Back here. (I know these campers look less than adept. This was the first time any of us every interacted with a Bounce-Back.)

the bounce-back

But we could hit a tennis ball! We could field a baseball and WEAR YOU OUT in volleyball! We knew the J-stroke and so could keep ourselves going where we wanted to go when alone in a canoe.

We had all the Red Cross Waterfront classes so to this day I can do the Tired Swimmers Carry because I took Junior and Senior Lifesaving. To this day I know the order you use in reaching out to help someone who’s in over his head. (Throw Tow Row Go.) The Red Cross Water Safety courses make you memorize definitions, like the definition for panic, which I still remember as “the sudden unreasoning and overwhelming fear in the face of real or imagines danger.” There’s plenty of that in life, all right! And so now I know what to do about panic when I come across it.

Camp was great and so what if we didn’t look like fashion models every second of the camp day. We didn’t even have any mirrors in the cabins except that four-inch kind you hang on a nail. We had other things to think about. We were learning how to lose gracefully and also how to win, and not ‘spike the ball’ when we did win. Sure, when we were older we tried sneaking out of camp some, or smoking cigarettes on the cabin roof when the counselors were at that big meeting, but it was all good.

In sum we spent no time at all in self-consciousness, the theme to which this week has been devoted and that seems a very good thing for a girl.  Even an old girl like me probably needs to get outside herself more. I’m heading for The Y right now for the morning swim – see an earlier group below heading for their morning swim (there’s that kid with the crazy hair again!)

crazy hair goes swimming

… but after that I’m hitting Sports Authority. Do you think they still make the Bounce-Back?

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