“I hate Miss Matilda,” I announced to my fellow camper, for no reason at all that I can remember.Then I turned around, and there was our counselor, Miss Matilda, staring at me through her thick eyeglasses. I couldn’t think of anything to say to her by way of apology, so I bowed my head and walked away.
This scene took place more than half a century ago at Jane Elkus Camp in Oakhurst, New Jersey; but I still recall the look on my counselor’s face.It seemed to me that she was about to cry.
We lived in the Bronx, and my parents rented a bungalow in Coney Island during the summer vacations.But for two weeks ever summer, my sister Miriam and I were sent to Jane Elkus Camp.
I loved camp, but my poor little sister was always homesick and I comforted her as best I could.Miriam was three years my junior. She was chubby with dark skin and my father referred to her as Pumpernickel, while I – with my blonde hair and fair skin – was his “visa malachel” (little white angel).
One evening, the youngest group of campers put on a show and Miriam, who was five years old at the time, was the star.Her big brown eyes shone as she belted out the words, “Mammy’s gonna bake a little shortnin’ bread!”
The problem was that her shoes were loose, so as she jumped up and down, kicking up her heels, one shoe fell off and catapulted into the audience. Naturally she burst out crying, but I was there to take care of her.
What did I like best about camp?I liked the excitement of opening packages from home, swimming lessons in the lake, and playing softball.Sometimes we went on trips to Deal Beach, where the waves were so high that we weren’t allowed to go into the water past our ankles.Then there was the library where I read every “Bobbsey Twins” book that I could get my hands on.In the evenings we roasted hot dogs, hamburgers and marshmallows over the campfire, as we sang songs like: “The prettiest girl I ever saw was sipping cider through a straw” . . . or, Oh my darling, oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’ Clemintine . . . ‘
“Then there was the plaintive sound of “Taps” before bedtime: “Day is done, gone the sun, from the lakes, from the hills, from the sky!All is well, safely rest, God is night.”
I loved writing letters to my parents, letting them know what a good time I was having.They told everyone about the first letter they received from me when I was six years old:
“Dear Mama and Daddy.I love camp.I am filling fine.Your dutter.”
We had services on Friday night and we davened (prayed) before each meal.I thought the meals were wonderful.I had never tasted egg soufflé before, and I always asked for seconds.One evening, we were allowed to make our own sandwiches on white bread with plenty of salt.We certainly didn’t worry about high blood pressure in those days.
Then there was the chorus: I could never carry a tune, so I didn’t even try to join the glee club at school.But here at Jane Elkus camp, I was accepted!
We sang Yiddish songs, Hebrew songs, and patriotic songs like “God Bless America.”
We were invited to camp reunions during the winter, and I remember that my mother brought some of my aunts and uncles to our reunion, so they could hear me perform with the chorus. Mama was so proud of me because I got up there and sang, even though my voice was so off-key.I didn’t care.I had a great time and so did the family.
During my last season at camp, when I was eleven years old, there was a beauty contest.I came in second, and I was angry. The girl who won the contest had legs that were brown in the front and white in the back.I always made sure to tan on all sides, so my legs were brown all over.
After camp ended for the season, a bus brought us to the train station in Manhattan where our parents met us.Even though our days at camp were filled with good times, I couldn’t wait for my father to pick us up at the bus stop.I loved him so.
I got off the bus with a fellow camper, my little sister trailing behind me, and I saw Daddy and Mama smiling and waving at us.Daddy was older than most of the kids’ parents, and he looked it.
Suddenly, I was embarrassed, so I pointed to them and whispered to my friend, “There are my grandfather and my mother.”
Miriam now calls herself Mickey, and she lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.I have four grown sons (two in heaven), nine grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.Daddy died in 1949, Mama died in 1982, my son Steven passed away in 2004 and I lost my son Ronnie to cancer just before Mother’s Day in 2015.
I don’t know what happened to Miss Matilda, but I still wish that I could take back the things I said.
I would say, “I love Miss Matilda!”And I’d be proud to introduce Daddy as “My Father.”
I don’t know when Jane Elkus Camp ceased to exist, but I do know that, for the most part, I was a very happy camper.