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?