Everyone says little truisms like, “you can’t go home again” or “you should drink eight glasses of water a day.” But some truisms aren’t always true, or at least not true for everyone.
I think you can go home again as long as you don’t expect everything to be exactly the same, like a needle stuck on the groove of a venerable vinyl record that keeps playing the same tune over and over. Tempus fugit. Yet, going back can stir sweet memories of how things once were in happy times. This is what I experienced during a recent getaway to Maine to unwind. It led me back to the girls’ sleepaway camp I had attended for five summers as a camper, from age 9, and one year as a junior counselor when I graduated high school.
I considered my camp my home since I was there for eight weeks each summer. It was the place where I mastered the beginnings of independence and responsibility by leaving home and making important girl friendships of all ages, some of which have blossomed into strong adult female bonds.
Those were magical years for many of us when we had few cares in the world–or what we now would consider minor concerns. Camp was where I learned to swim and dive, canoe, play jacks on the floor of my bunk, make lanyards in the arts studio, sit around a campfire and sing, be brave about bats that got into our wood bunks, share about getting our periods, head out on overnight canoe and hiking trips where we slept in tents and cooked over a fire, climb Mt. Washington, meet boys at socials whom we hoped would like us and write letters since this was decades before email. We also learned to participate in organized activities by age groups such as softball, volleyball, basketball and swimming, but we also were given choices, what we now might call empowerment for selecting electives such as arts and crafts, sailing, and water skiing.
And because of the camp’s philosophy and value system there was little competition, beyond two “color war” teams vying to win in a number of friendly competitions with independent minded counselors judging, and each of us trying to earn felt rays for our “sun” on a green felt background, which when completed symbolized we had mastered a variety of skills. Some of us also earned medals for being the best in a certain category by age group. However, as I recall we were happy for whomever took home the small gold medals with green and gold grosgrain ribbon rather than each expecting to win a “trophy” just for participating, which happens so much today.
We were happy for each other, too. I remember being excited for one bunkmate who was very good at golf and another at riding, both of which I never excelled at or even was good at doing. We earned our self-esteem in more important ways–from our own achievements–that first big dive I took without belly flopping and also swimming across the lake to the other side with a counselor following me in a rowboat for safety. We also put on plays and musicals, waited for the oldest bunk to unveil their banquet theme at the end of the summer, and held hands as we listened to scary stories in the Lodge, a beautiful building with stone fireplace flanked by a stairway up to small bedrooms where some counselors slept. And most of us cried when camp was over at the end of the summer as we wrote in each other’s memory books that we’d stay in touch forever. Some of us have.
When I returned this summer–51 years after last being there as a camper, I wondered if it would be the same, if old feelings and experiences would come flooding back. Would I once again be that 9-year-old experiencing camp away from home for the first time or that high school counselor in charge of new campers?
I brought along my beau, who was enthusiastic about sharing this important part of my life. He had heard me talk about camp with bunkmates with whom I’m still in touch. Although so many of us loved it dearly and joined a Facebook page to stay in touch and share memories, the camp had closed years ago when the next generation couldn’t make it work financially. Family members sold it to a developer, who then sold parcels to several owners. I made contact through the Facebook page with a camper who had recently visited and she put me in touch with the daughter of one of the owners. They all were more than gracious to let us peruse the grounds and took time to show us around.
The landscape had changed but the memories were there as we drove down the long entrance lined with pine trees, passing now empty fields and me pointing out where bunks in the “junior” camp once stood, later auctioned off. The oldest girls’ bunk, Club, on the lake, had been turned into a home, along with the dining hall, also right on the water. One of the new owners had built a new modern house for vacations. The recreation hall still stood but was empty and in disrepair, its paint peeling and the front door locked. I peered inside and saw the stage, piano and fireplace that I remembered and which had been a place for rainy day activities and plays. It looked so much smaller, but these buildings always do when you’re older. Two of the four tennis courts remained, as did a basketball hoop.
We walked down the long path to the senior camp, first past the Lodge, which my “hosts” now owned as a summer retreat, past the totem pole resting on the ground around which we used to gather for campfires, and on to the lake, still crystal clear and gorgeous. The sandy beach also seemed smaller, the docks were missing but the boathouse was there, though an empty shell of the rowboats, canoes, and rows of paddles I recall. We sat on the beach talking about the two different families that had owned the camp, how important they were as role models. I explained why the experience of a girls’ camp had led me–illogically, perhaps–to a women’s college and also encouraged me to send my two daughters to all-girls’ camps in Maine with the caveat. “If you don’t like it you don’t have to return but give it a try; it can be magical.” And it was for them, too.
I snapped photos of the lake, lodge, empty junior camp. On our way out, I picked up three pine cones to bring home and put on my dining room table as permanent souvenirs. I quickly posted many of the photos on Facebook to share, and memories from other campers poured in. I also posted some of the questions the visit stirred since my memory has faded after so many decades: Did we wear all white for Friday evening services since the owners and so many campers back then were Jewish though the camp wasn’t religious? Yes. When was trip day for the camp? Wednesday. What did the counselors wear? Black and white, and so on.
Sometimes life is so good to us that when those joyous moments pass, we find ourselves yearning to live them again. Going back offered those kinds of only sweet memories. Alas, no one has invented the mythical time machine, so there’s no way to relive the good times of yesteryear except in our heads and hearts. Because I knew the camp was no longer in operation, I was prepared for its transformation. To me it still looked beautiful, and I loved that others still cherished it as a haven. Most of all, I know I was lucky to have attended such a special place in formative years. Being able to go “home” was a blessing. And I hope my little grandson will get to experience a sleepaway camp experience of some kind and have another home that he considers equally important and safe.