Me and my scrunchies: This is the new word I learned. I made one for each kid and each counselor, and gave them out on end of camp party night. Don’t I look like Mr T here? I was the biggest kid, and a very happy summer camper!
Before summer rolled in, I asked my granddaughter Musia what her summer plans were (in case you didn’t know: children’s summer plans are much more exciting than their parents’) and she told me, with great glee, there was a brand new summer camp starting in Crown Heights, and she was going to be one of the brave pioneers. She went on to describe the upcoming activities, and I was thinking, boy this summer camp sounds right up my alley!
It took no time for me to arrange a meeting with Naomi Levin, whose brainchild this camp was. She had just gotten married less than a month before (Would love to hear her married name!), so you might say she was a trailblazer in more ways than one. The novel idea was that it was dubbed an art camp: Singing, dancing, writing, acting, crafts, in addition to swimming and outings, all in keeping with the levels and the ages of the campers, almost fifty of them, from six to twelve years old. I decided to jump on board, for one day a week, doing crafts and basic baking with the children. The added reward it would deliver was to be near my Musia a whole day a week. Little did I know each and every one of the campers would be as compelling an incentive for me to be there as my very own child.
Musia had carefully preempted whatever exuberant entrance I might have planned with a friendly warning: “Bubbie, when you get to the camp, don’t hug me or kiss me or anything like that, you’ll embarrass me in front of all my friends!” Fair enough, I thought, somewhat perplexed, she wants business-like, she’ll get business-like. But a funny thing happened on the way to camp, which instantly wiped off the poker-face I had practiced on the train ride : As soon as she saw me, she started jumping up and down, and declaiming: “Everybody! That’s my bubbie! That’s my bubbie!” And yes, she gave me a kiss and a huge squeeze. Am I complaining that she embarrassed me? I loved it! When I whipped out my cookbook to make my Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe, she got to the page with a picture of her enjoying her pancakes, and snuggled up to me, then showed it off to everyone.
Watching Naomi and her talented and spirited sisters (who comprised the lion’s share of the camp staff, with 2-3 more fun counselors), I wondered, how lucky can these kids get? Would that they had been my counselors in camp! Their singing and dancing with the children was something I would actually get tickets for me and a few friends to watch and enjoy! The love and closeness was quite obvious between them and each of the children. How liberating, I thought, that there are some settings other than school, where the strict rules that govern both children and adults exist, to be sure, but are much more relaxed and playful. For my part I was just seen as their big friend, who can cook and make “so many amazing stuff” as tiny bespectacled Mushka put it. Writers and teachers’ profession is most often practiced in strict solitude, so I greatly welcomed the boisterous and joyous weekly change of pace, and was the biggest kid of all.
Little Adina cried her eyes out at the beginning of camp, and declared disdainfully that camp was boring, strictly for wussies, home is much better, nobody she must keep up with at home and so on, and swore it was her last day. After a somewhat heated chat, she reluctantly took on my bet: she would owe me a dollar of her carefully stashed Bat-Mitzvah gift fund if she, Heaven forbid, had any fun at all at the end of camp. Here she is after a few fun camp days, telling me she lost her bet to me, and even sooner than she thought! Losing the bet that you will be miserable, for a dollar, even a child’s dollar? I would even risk double that!
Every activity with the children was duplicated in the course of the day, for the little campers and for the big campers. And all my days were planned as a craft and a treat. The day we baked cookies I tried to initiate the children to a very simple (or so I thought) crochet project. Of all the fun and exciting things we did together, crochet proved the hardest. Cookies? No problem!
The smoothies and bracelet-beading day was great fun. As a teaser, that morning I brought a beautiful beaded bracelet I had made years ago, assuring them that very soon, they will be able to make something just as elaborate. And sure enough, that did the trick: They gaped at me, awe-struck, as if I were a magician. They all went home with their beautiful beaded creations, proudly swinging their arms, the ones with the new bracelet, get it? That was one torrid day, one of many. I remember stepping out with my granddaughter and taking her downstairs to a bar, nonono, not that kind of a bar; the bar of Basil Restaurant: Strawberry lemonade for her, iced tea for me. Later that day I almost literally dragged her and her little cousins Tsofia and Sarah the short distance to visit my mother (their great-grandmother), using dessert as the incentive to make the walk in the absurd heat more bearable: Summer relief often comes in tiny cones, topped with sprinkles, blowing soap bubbles along the way.
The day of the bread pudding and the tie-dye was delightfully messy: lots of finger-licking (no, not the paint, silly: the batter!) and the great suspense of waiting for cakes to come out of the oven (if our tiny convection rig could be called that: we bent our molds into fanciful shapes to make them fit, and believe it or not, it worked just fine!) On one occasion, looking around them and seeing a good amount of apples, raisins, oats and milk leftover from two earlier batches of muffins, they urged me to use it all up and make more. Why should we let it go to waste, they asked me, tugging at my skirt and my heartstrings. Yes, why? Come on, chopchop, let’s make yet another batch. Future little housewives, they are already getting the hang of Home Ec!
The tie-dye project was wet, grimy, sticky. I had gotten my instructions straight from one of the staffers at Michael’s Crafts Store, a heaven for hobby and crafts supplies. OK so they didn’t warn me what a mess tie-dye makes, but it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference: It was loads of fun, and the finished shirts or socks or pajamas or whatever the kids brought to dye looked like a genuine throwback to my Woodstock excursions. I heard some moms worried sick that the tie-dye “tattoos” on the kids’ hands might be indelible: they are not!
The day we made chocolate cake was the day with the most finger-licking. They all wanted to break the eggs, measure the ingredients, use the hand mixer. I called them one by one to do their share of the measuring and mixing, until the cake was ready to bake. Boy there are so many variations on the beautiful name Chaya Mushka so revered in Chabad circles, it was hard to keep up, but I had all summer to practice. Here are some variations, and I wouldn’t presume to know them all: Mushka, Mukka, Musia (that one is easy for me), Mushky, Mush, Mu (pronounced Mooo, believe it or not), and so on.
Look at the gorgeous picture frames the kids decorated, with glue, sequins, beads and stickers!
End of Camp party was wonderful. Naomi and her crew rehearsed indefatigably for the big night, and she and her adoring campers put on quite a show. The children’s spirited performances and beautiful costumes did them proud, and gave everyone an unmistakable glimpse of the promise every child holds, in any field, given the right guidance and encouragement.
Earlier that day, Naomi had announced that as soon as camp was over, she would re-introduce herself to her husband. Just the two of them. Hmmm, good idea!
It is quite possible, even probable, that people who live daily with such amenities as a big house, a backyard, a grill, a playground and whatnot cannot fathom how so many so-called inner-city children can find their happiness, indeed their equilibrium, in such congested less-than-pastoral quarters. And who could blame them? I myself, a city mouse from birth who never lived in a house a single day in my life, look longingly when we drive by some lush park where children play ball, bike and picnic with other children and adults. And when my children host a barbecue on their doll-house-size porch (but a porch nonetheless) I start gushing: My kingdom for a porch!
Are suburban and country children more accomplished or more spunky than city children? You know my answer! New York’s My Home: Couldn’t say it, let alone sing it, better than the one and only Ray Charles! So: If they want me next summer, I’ll be there, with bells (and scrunchies) on! Ciao, Bambinas: Hope to be alive and well when your weddings roll around, so I can dance my feet off!