By Melanie Rock
What I remember is my lost, brown self, in a sea of white shirts praying over shiny, puffy, braided loaves of bread.
“You’ll love sleep-away camp. I promise,” my mother said. “There’s not enough to do around here once school’s over. I’ll be teaching the first month of summer session. You’ll have a much better time in the country. Trust me. It’ll be fine.”
I don’t recall the anxiety I must have had, knowing I would be separated from my mother for four weeks. I don’t remember feeling unloved or rejected. But at five years old, I’m sure I had some serious reservations about going to sleep-away camp.
My mother grew up in the country, on an anarchist commune outside of Peekskill, New York. Raised among radical intellectuals, artists, and activists in a rustic atmosphere, the natural world was the backdrop of her rich childhood memories. It was important to her that she get her urban child “up to nature” whenever possible. So it was decided: the summer I was to turn six, I would be spared a month of babysitter days stuck in our Bronx apartment.
My mother chose a Jewish Y camp in the Adirondaks for my first sleep-away adventure, which didn’t strike me as strange, because I knew that we were technically Jewish. My mother was brought up by a Jewish family, after her own Jewish mother died very young. According to Jewish law, the maternal bloodline makes us Jewish. But I didn’t think of us as really Jewish. We were atheists. At home and at school, I was taught to respect all religious traditions with equal weight, without subscribing to any one in particular. It didn’t occur to me that camp would be any different. I trusted my mother’s plan. But she had read the brochure. The one that described the weekly Shabbat services.
As instructed, we packed “four nice white shirts” along with the shorts, halter tops, bathing suits and towels, underpants, and ankle socks with my name tags sewn in, and shipped them ahead in an old trunk. At camp, everything got shoved into cubbies except the white shirts, which were hung on hangers in the bunk closet. And everyone noticed that my shirts were too fancy. My mother and I had failed to grasp the conservative formality of “nice white shirts.” Unlike the plain shirts the other girls brought, mine had lace bits and pearly buttons, which stood out along with the rest of me.
I was one of the youngest kids at camp. And one of the very few black ones. A couple of dark-skinned girls stayed in much older bunks, way out of my reach. Surrounded by friends their own age, they seemed unaffected by the fact that their beaded braids and dark complexions made them different. On that first Friday night, those older black girls knew what to do for Shabbat. They seemed right at home. I watched and wondered, while I fumbled through the pre-dinner service in my nice white shirt. Four weeks of Fridays, with the unfamiliar rituals of challah bread and candles, and prayers to God in a foreign tongue. I mumbled along, hoping no one would single me out to light the candles or break the bread. I was sure they all noticed: I was that new little black girl who obviously isn’t Jewish.
I don’t recall any specific unkindness or mistreatment. And I don’t remember having made any friends there, either. What I remember is my lost, brown self, in a sea of white shirts, in the soft glow of candlelight, praying over shiny, puffy, braided loaves of bread. And that lonely feeling of wanting to fit in and not knowing how to shed the Outsider skin.
I was afraid to tell my mother. She had her own outsider stories. I was haunted by the thought of her growing up without her mother. And the hardships of her Depression-era childhood, living with a foster family while her father labored in the city. She was ostracized in high school, labeled “dirty Jew” and “Communist”—names that meant she didn’t belong. She got teary when she shared those memories with me. So I pretended the Shabbat services at camp were no big deal.
But she must have recognized my ambivalence about the place. She readily accepted my suggestion that we try something different the following year, and we rented a bungalow in the Catskills and spent our days together. The next summer, we discovered (and I went to) Blueberry Cove Camp, a small, artsy, back-to-nature summer camp in Maine. It was the ideal respite from the noise of the city and the structured school year. Blueberry Cove became my summertime home away from home, filled with friends from all over, who came back year after year, like I did. We ran around barefoot, embraced our mandatory farm chores, and swam in the frigid waters of the north Atlantic. We connected with the earth, and the animals, and developed a common empathy for the natural world and each other. Our differences didn’t matter there.
My mother, confident that I was happy and secure, was able to spend her summers traveling, or teaching part-time if she so chose. Summertime offered her a break from the stress of single-parenthood.
And I got Maine. Shoeless, godless, and free.
As the biracial mother of two brown girls, Melanie Rock writes about identity, race, and multiculturalism from a parenting perspective as well as her own childhood memories. Raised in New York City, she now lives and works in the Lower Hudson Valley.