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Our family went on a retreat recently with our shul.  I had been looking forward to this retreat for a long time, beginning with the fact that I have fond memories of retreats from when I was a kid to the time to get to know some of the other families better to the fact that it was all preparation for the twins’ B’nai Mitzvah.

Yes, the little monkeys that were still drinking from bottles when this blog started are now going to have their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

But that’s not what this post is about.

The retreat was at my old sleepaway camp.  It’s not that far from DC, but I hadn’t been back in 20 years, and I was so excited to see the space again.  I knew we were staying at a new building they had constructed on the other end of the campus, but surely it wouldn’t be a big deal to slip over to the older side of campus and see my old cabin.

I loved sleepaway camp; like passionately, with every cell in my body, loved it.  I loved everything about it, even the enormous hill that we had to walk up and down several times each day.  I loved being in my cabin and dances in the big all-purpose room and art in the little shack at the top of the hill.  I was the type of person who came home at the end of the summer and cried for a full week because I couldn’t handle the idea that I wasn’t at camp anymore.  At school I was struggling to fit in, but for 4 weeks in the summer, I had a crew, I belonged.

So during the first break, we tried to find the old campus.  We trekked through the woods, confused, because nothing was where I remembered it.  We found one building that I recognized from a different part of the campus, and we went inside, marveling that it still smelled exactly like itself.  This old, musty cold smell like wood and metal and dust.

We returned from break confused about where the old camp would be.  Compounding the problem was that they had built a new set of cabins in a new section of the camp and named it the old camp section’s name.  So when we got directions, we had been sent to the new location of the old camp.  I had pretty much given up on the idea of finding it when the rabbi asked if we wanted to go on a walk to the lake.  There was only one lake, so if he could get me to the lake, I could orient myself and find the old site.

After a long walk through very unfamiliar woods, we came to a memorial that had been at the lake when I was a kid.  The boathouse was gone and the tennis courts were overrun with weeds (not to mention the fact that the pool was now a tomato garden), but the snake path still stretched out towards the top of the hill.  Everyone else went ahead, but the twins and one of their friends and her dad climbed up to the old site.

I was so strange and wonderful and sad and overwhelming to be in that space again.  The campus has been closed for years, and the buildings that hadn’t yet been torn down were damaged beyond repair.  The dining hall was missing as well as the little camp store where we would buy Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews.  But both my cabins were still there.  We couldn’t go inside because they weren’t safe anymore, but the little screened in porch where we liked to sit when it rained was still there.


The theater was still partially standing, though all the benches in the amphitheater had been removed.  And the all-purpose room (we called it the Ulam) where I was banned from attending one of the camp dances because we were caught with (gasp!) boys in our cabin one night.

The twins and their friend were so excited to hear about camp back then.  I was grateful that they were with me because it was a chance to talk about the space, plus it was somewhat creepy to be up in that abandoned camp.  But also because I don’t know if I could have left if they hadn’t been reminding me that we had to return to the program.  I felt so sad standing there in the mud, staring at what was left of one of the most important places in the world to me.

I really could have stood there for hours, trying to remember everything.

Is your old camp (or school — I’m aware that lots of people never went to camp) still standing?  Have you ever been back?


1 Charlotte { 03.13.16 at 8:14 am }

I never went to camp. But the house where my mom grew up in, that my grandparents always lived in, that my husband and I once lived in for several years after my grandmother died and my grandfather went to live with my mother. That house held tons of amazing memories of my childhood and early adult life. When we no longer lived there and my family no longer owned the house at all we would sometimes drive by to see it. The very last time we went, it was torn down. So was the house next to it. Purchased by the county for the land and homes taken down. All that was left was part of the porch railing that formed a ramp leading from the driveway to the back deck my uncle had built years before. It made my stomach twist and my heart ache. And also made me angry that it got discarded in that way. Especially knowing the history of that house and all it meant all those years ago. It was so hard to stand there and see that pile of rubble, but even harder to leave knowing it would be the last time.

2 Cristy { 03.13.16 at 8:31 am }

Years ago, I was back at my aluma mater after being away for 5 yrs. There were so many things that had changed in such a short period of time, that it made me sad. It was as if I no longer belonged and my memory there was being erased.

I haven’t been back to many of my old haunts for awhile now. Part of me doesn’t want to, as that period is passed and I want to avoid those sad feelings. The other part doesn’t know what to do with these trips down memory lane.

I’m glad that you were able to go back and see all the change. Even though it made you feel sad, sharing this with the twins was clearly special.

3 ANDMom { 03.13.16 at 9:25 am }

A few weeks ago we had some time to kill before an appointment a couple blocks from where I went to college. I took the kids up, and we drove around campus, as I pointed out all the various places of importance. Where I met their father. The dorms I lived in. My favorite dining hall. They were so excited to see that piece of my past.

It was largely the same, but with some new buildings that were glaring in their newness, taking away some of the charm that drew me there in the first place. Mostly I was struck though by how different I am now from who I was then.

4 illustr8d { 03.13.16 at 10:06 am }

I only went to camp once, with a friend who brought me for a long weekend.

I’m sort of wondering if it was at your camp. It might have been. I was in 7th grade and it had been a tough year. And her parents (who were friends with my parents) asked if Cathy could take me to camp for a weekend, their treat.

What I remember was lots of camaraderie. Really kind girls, the opposite of the girls I went to school with, matzah on the tables, laughter, trees and a lake, and those little plastic picture holders that you raised to your eye to look inside and see the picture. (I know, memory.)

It’s a sweet memory. I haven’t thought of it in years. So thank you.

5 SuzannaCatherine { 03.13.16 at 3:59 pm }

No camp memories here, but my grandparents owned a small cabin on the Tolt River near Carnation, Washington. For two golden summers in 1958 and 1960 we vacationed in Washington from our home in Alaska. It was like we had stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. I remember playing in the river with my brother and cousins. It was magical. There were always picnic style meals cooked over an open fire – and my personal favorite, tomato sandwiches on white “Wonder Bread”, slathered with Mayo and seasoned with entirely too much salt and pepper. And 7-Up to drink from glass bottles.

Several years ago, in the mid-to-late 90s I believe, there was a devastating flood in that area around Carnation on the usually very calm Tolt River. My grandparent’s cabin was washed away. Even though our family no longer owned it and I hadn’t been there in at least 35 years, it was such a loss to all of us. Especially the cousins who had experienced those summer visits when our grandparents and parents were still with us. We are now a handful of first cousins trying to explain to our children what used to be. It’s sad they will never have those memories to recall. I suppose each generation has stories like these of loss and remembrance. It’s just hard being grown up and recognizing that we’re now the elders!

Thanks for sharing your story. I’m glad the twins got to see it with you.

6 Lori Lavender Luz { 03.13.16 at 10:07 pm }

I love knowing that for a moment, you were able to return to your happy place, and that your kids may even be on their way to having a new happy place for themselves.

7 Mali { 03.14.16 at 12:24 am }

I’m not sure it pays to go back to places we loved. It can spoil the good memories, and just make us sad. Though when I’m down in the South Island, I will – if I have the chance – drive past our old farm, or our old primary school (now closed), just to remember. So … maybe … do as I say, not as I do?

8 chris { 03.14.16 at 12:24 am }

What nice memories! Um, no camp for me, and I went to so many schools who knows? And houses? eh, they’re just buildings. But I guess that’s how a person who goes to 11 schoools in 12 years feels. That includes 3 2nd grades in 2 states. Dad would get promoted and we’d move. Schools and houses were like revolving doors for me.

9 JustHeather { 03.14.16 at 3:27 pm }

No summer camps for me, but I did go back to elementary school a few years after leaving there. It was strange. 😀 But there are places (beaches) and times/events with certain people that I can go back to remember with fond memories and sometimes a wish/desire to live it again. Only the moment, not the entire life. :O

10 Elizabeth { 03.14.16 at 6:16 pm }

I think this is how I would feel if I went back to the missionary center where I grew up. It was partially closed down 20 years ago and the rest was converted to government buildings. Some of the missionaries took apart their homes piece by piece, moved and literally rebuilt them somewhere else. I haven’t been there since 1992 but if I close my eyes I can go back and remember every path, every building, the trees we climbed and the make-out hot spots by the lake. I have really mixed feelings about it, though – kind of built on colonial premises, iykwim, so it was also a choice never to return.

11 loribeth { 03.15.16 at 7:02 pm }

Never went to camp. I think all the old schools I went to are still standing, albeit some of them have been remodelled and added on to. The school I went to Grade 1 & 2 at is now a municipal office.

I would like to go back to see the residence where I lived for four years of undergrad. Every year, I wrote my name & the year on the underside of the desk (which was built in). Dh lived in the dorm next door, which was built in 1912. Sadly, they decommissioned it as a residence a few years back — it is now the home of the school of music. I have mixed feelings about going back there now — they did have a big farewell party with tours before they started the renovations, which I would have loved to attend, if I didn’t live so far away. The old auditorium where I attended many, many dances and parties is being turned into a concert hall!!

12 Allie { 03.19.16 at 12:02 pm }

Great story! My school was torn down years ago. I was living out of town at the time so couldn’t attend the small ceremony they held. I was really sad about that…ah well.

13 Rachel { 03.24.16 at 6:02 pm }

I think I’ve been to the camp you’re talking about :). I ended up being the Associate Director at the camp I grew up at and the first thing that hit me when I came back for a weekend when I started on staff a good 12 years after I’d been a camper was that camp smelled exactly the same. I don’t work there anymore but have gone on occasion to visit and the smells remain.

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