Last month, for the first time since I was 15, I returned to summer camp. Some friends were getting married and had rented out a YMCA in upstate New York to put on a camp-themed wedding. It was the union of a bride who loved camp and a groom who had never been. He probably accepted her story about camp being a summer idyll because he had no way to know better. He had never had his bunkmates ignore him for the summer for having committed a breach of bed-assignment etiquette.
Not that it happened to me, or anything.
From the age of eight to 13, I attended Camp Taconic, a posh Jewish sleep-away in the Berkshires. My parents sent me to Taconic because it had everything I should want: tennis courts, canoes, horseback rides, swim lessons, ceramics–the works. The other campers were exactly the sort of kids my parents wanted me to meet. My years there made me a champion of Jewish Geography, a game that’s based on linking, with as few degrees of separation as possible, one Jew to any other. Years after learning how to shoot a bow and arrow and how to make a bed, I sometimes think the real lesson of camp is that it’s a small world for well-heeled New York Jews.
I should have fit in. My dad took the train into Manhattan, my mom had a good dermatologist, and my family went to synagogue three times a year. But even on first contact with my fellow campers, I could tell I was a little off. As an eight-year-old at Shea Stadium boarding the bus for my first summer at camp, I had on sweatpants; everyone else wore matching outfits. The night we arrived, my camp mates each ate a serving of spaghetti with meat sauce. I ate three.
I was a year younger than the rest of the girls in my cabin, and the nine-year-olds were naturally cooler. It didn’t help my status when I asked Julia Jaffe how to spell the word “if.” (It was for a letter I was writing my parents. Relevant sentence: “If you don’t let me get a puppy, I won’t come home.”)
Everything at camp revolved around the bell–the wake-up bell, the breakfast bell, the activity bell, the break bell. At breakfast, I ate three bowls of prepackaged cereal before laying into pancakes or eggs. Cleanup followed. (Most campers, including me, had limited experience with dust, so sweeping was a fun new game.) Another bell led us to Morning Sing at the Playhouse, where we belted out John Denver songs. Then there were announcements, usually about auditions or sports meets. Bells rang in morning activities, lunch, the end of rest hour (during which we were made to write letters home twice a week) and the start of milk and cookies, three more activity blocks, dinner, an evening activity, and then bed. Back at our cabins, we received a piece of fruit, brushed our teeth, and went to sleep.
There was a lot to do at Camp Taconic. When I was eight, I loved hiking, so I got to hike. When I was 10, I was into softball, so I got to play softball. By 13, I loved roller hockey, and I got to play it every day. What more could a girl want–except other girls to love these things as well? Instead, an almost 1950s-like segregation of the sexes reigned over camp activities. Boys played sports, and girls did crafts. I came to camp with rollerblades while the rest of the girls brought accessories, like a spray bottle with a fan attached to the top, personalized in bubble letters. I would have, too, but I didn’t even know where this stuff came from.
At 13, I returned to camp to find that all my bunkmates had grown breasts. I remained flat as a boy from navel to neck–and continued to dress as if the sole purpose of clothing were to shield my body from mustard. My cabin mates liked their new breasts, and, concerned about my lack of them, became amateur endocrinologists. One of the Laurens in my cabin checked in throughout the summer on my pubic hair situation. She was buxom and dark–mad with her newfound power. She had two boyfriends, one at home and one at camp, and reveled in her adult-sized bras and need to shave her legs daily. Today I remember that Lauren was buxom and dark at 11 and that she changed clothes in the bathroom every morning and every night. Perhaps she’d been as jealous of my shapelessness at 11 as I was of her shapeliness at 13. But there’s no sense of universality at 13.
At the end of every summer, everyone got maudlin. I never cried, because I was never sad to be going home. Still, I kept returning to Camp Taconic, because it was the easy thing to do. It was only after my summer as a flat-chested 13 year-old that I finally admitted I didn’t fit in.
Before my friend’s wedding, we had to fill out questionnaires about our favorite candy, favorite summer activity, and nickname. I never had a nickname at Camp Taconic, though not for lack of trying. When I was 13, I dreamed up a series of events based around a counselor’s late arrival that would result in my becoming Rebecca “In the Shower” Aronauer. Needless to say, this nickname did not catch on.
In the questionnaire I saw my chance to be Rebecca “In the Shower” Aronauer at last. As I anticipated, none of my fellow wedding guests understood why I wanted my nickname to be about hygiene. But they accepted it was something I found funny, and that was enough.
I suppose I might be softening on camp after all these years. And it’s true that I don’t think sleep-away camp is a bad thing. But camp doesn’t like outliers; it doesn’t give you a place to be different. So I wouldn’t choose to send my kids to Camp Taconic. Besides, I could never afford it.
Rebecca Aronauer is a writer living in Denver. Her website is rebeccaaronauer.com.
*Photo courtesy of Peter Blanchard.