I boarded the bus along with Ronnie and Iris, friends from school and my Girl Scout troop. We didn’t know any of the other campers, but those who had been to Quidnunc before told stories and sang camp songs, and by the time the bus wound its way up the dirt road two hours later, we were all bellowing: We’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here.
I had always loved the country, and that summer, when I was twelve, I looked forward to escaping the Brooklyn heat and being away from my family. My mother had had no objection when I’d asked to go. Girl Scout camp was not expensive. My father hadn’t involved himself in the discussion, which meant it was OK with him.
After the director’s welcome speech in the parking lot, we followed our counselors to our units. Ivy, the head counselor of mine, read our tent assignments from her clipboard—five girls to a tent—and told us to get our trunks from the pile near the campfire circle. As we paired off to help one another, the camp magic began: two girls, strangers when they each took the side handle of a trunk, stumbled together over tree roots on the narrow path and were friends by the time they hoisted their burden onto the wooden tent platform and started back for the other trunk.
It was the tradition at Quidnunc, which means What Now? in Latin, that everyone, campers as well as counselors, had to choose a nickname. I decided on Cookie. Ivy wrote Cookie on the chart of morning chores that hung from a nail on a tree, and Ginger, the waterfront counselor, painted Cookie on my bathing cap in red, the color denoting my swimming group: Beginners.
Our daily routine rarely varied. The counselors woke us at seven, when it was sometimes so cold we could see our breath. Breakfast could be hot cereal, eggs, or pancakes, sometimes in the dining hall, sometimes around the campfire. All the girls helped with cleanup, drawing lots for wash, brillo, rinse, dry, and put-away. We sang camp songs while we worked, told jokes, and teased the counselors. Next came housekeeping—making our cot-beds, sweeping the tent platforms, unrolling the canvas side-flaps to shake out spiders and leaves, then re-rolling them. By ten, we were ready for swimming, boating, arts and crafts, and hiking.
Iris and Ronnie missed electricity, flush toilets, hot water, and television, but I loved everything about Quidnunc: singing around the campfire, trudging up a mountain to watch the sun set, going on overnight hikes, when we slept in bedrolls on the ground and looked up at the stars. Most of all, I loved being Cookie in a world where the same rules that applied to me applied to everyone else.
I even liked hating swimming. The lake was cold, and we all begged Ginger, who stood on the dock with a sweatshirt over her dry bathing suit, to let us come out of the water. “Sorry, but y’all have to stay in,” she drawled in her Southern accent, which she didn’t mind that we imitated. Between laps, we compared fingernails and teeth-chatter to see whose were bluest and loudest.
Hating the food was fun, too. You had to eat everything on your plate, including the milky-green mash that was supposed to be a vegetable. But as the counselor served each item, she asked whether you wanted a yes-thank-you or a no-thank-you portion. The no-thank-you was a teaspoonful.
When the four weeks were over, most of the girls on the bus back to Brooklyn, me among them, alternated between sobbing and singing the camp song.
After my taste of Girl Scout camp, I found the apartment on 74th Street more oppressive than ever. I asked my mother if we could do things the Quidunc way, like having no-thank-you portions. She thought it was a good idea but said my father would never deviate from his rule that Marvin and I had to eat the full portion of everything on our plates, no matter how much we disliked it. I knew she was right.
In September, I started seventh grade at Seth Low Junior High, where the students came from several elementary schools, and I added Carol, Diane, and Susan to my circle of friends. I didn’t think about camp when I was out with them, but at home I pined for it so viscerally that I felt what the sick part of homesick meant, a concept I had understood only intellectually before, from reading Heidi. When we studied Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” in school, I copied the last line into my notebook: If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? I asked my mother whether I could go to camp for six weeks the following summer, and she agreed.
My mother was my ally, but she could also be unpredictable.
The previous year, a few days before my eleventh birthday, Aunt Sophia had knocked on our door, ascertained that my father was home, and thrust a giftwrapped box into my hand, whispering, “For you, an early present.”
I opened it in my room to find a white blouse with eyelet trim, the most beautiful blouse I’d ever owned. I tried it on and went into the kitchen.
“Mommy, don’t I look pretty in my new blouse?” I pirouetted so she could see front and back.
My mother said nothing, just looked angry and slapped my face.
For a second, I was so stunned I couldn’t move. Then, cheek burning, I returned to my room.
If I had left drops of milk on the table, I could have laughed this off as an absurd reaction. My mother often screamed if Marvin or I hadn’t wiped off the table, sometimes hitting us with a wooden hanger because “it hurts me when I use my hand.” But with the blouse I’d done nothing wrong. It was more as if my mother couldn’t tolerate my very existence. I had the same feeling I’d had a few months before, when she brought me to the doctor because I had a vaginal infection. “You’re disgusting!” she’d said when we got home and she was helping me apply the medicine he’d prescribed. I returned the blouse to its box and laid it on a shelf.
But the love mommy was still walled off from the hate mommy, and despite what had happened, I was able to enjoy being with my mother the following Tuesday for our pre-arranged Time. When I was ten, she’d gotten the idea from one of her child psychology books to schedule an hour a week for each of us, to do whatever we wanted. My Time had been Tuesdays at four. I looked forward to it all week. Sometimes I asked my mother to sit in my room and watch me work on an arts and crafts project while I talked about my friends or things I did in Girl Scouts. Once, I wanted to show her the apartment house on Avenue P where Pat, a girl in my class, lived. My mother and I walked to Avenue P, looked at the outside of the house, then walked back. I chatted the whole way—about the girls in my class who were friends with Pat and why I thought she might want to be friends with me. My mother never screamed or hit during Time, which started and ended like a regular appointment.
She’d continued with Time until the term ended. I would have liked it if she had started again in September, but she didn’t, and I didn’t ask. For a week in October, though, when my mother used me as the subject in a study for one of her education courses, I had enjoyed something similar: each day, for an hour, she read me questions and wrote down my answers. I felt close to her during those sessions, not only because she paid attention to everything I said, but because I liked knowing I was an asset to the part of her life that was important.
I got a glimpse of that life a few days before the blouse incident, when we were walking on Bay Parkway and I heard someone shout, “Dad, there’s my teacher!” Seconds later, a boy stopped in front of us and said, “Hi, Mrs. Conan.” He looked excited to see her.
“Hello, Henry,” my mother said in a formal voice that I supposed she used in her classroom. I was jealous of the way she smiled at him.
“Hello, Mrs. Conan,” said a man coming up behind the boy. “I’m Henry’s father. It’s nice to meet you. He talks about you all the time.”
“It’s good to meet you, too,” my mother said, shaking his hand. Then she looked at Henry. “Are you going shopping today?”
“I got a new pair of sneakers.” He held up a bag.
“Very nice,” my mother said. She put her arm around my shoulder and drew me forward. “This is my daughter, Vivian. We just bought a locket for her birthday.”
Henry said, “Hi,” and his father said, “Happy Birthday, Vivian.”
I felt proud that they saw I belonged to her.
My mother also stood up for me where my father was concerned.
Ours was the only apartment in the building without a television set—my father didn’t approve of them—so the day my teacher assigned a TV program to watch for homework, I arranged with Aunt Mollie to see it in her apartment. When my father learned of the plan, he forbade me to go.
“Jack,” my mother said in her quiet voice, “it’s for school. It’s about Abraham Lincoln.”
“I don’t care what it’s about! The teacher has no right to tell her what to do at home!”
When it became apparent that my mother couldn’t get him to relent, I was distraught. She asked whether I wanted her to write my teacher a note explaining why I wasn’t turning in a report. That would be embarrassing, but better than getting a bad mark. I told her to write it.
Spring eventually did come, along with my mother’s announcement that it was time to redecorate my room. It had never occurred to me that you could re-do a room, especially when nothing was broken, but it gave me something to look forward to besides camp.
My mother didn’t ask my father’s permission. She’d stopped doing that when we still lived on 20th Avenue, after he came back from the war and she wanted to get a phone. My father had said we didn’t need a phone and relented only when she became a day-to-day substitute teacher and had to wait for a call each morning. Now my mother earned more as a teacher than he did in the post office, and she had her own checkbook.
“Jack,” she said one evening, walking through the living room with a pile of laundry, “the carpenter’s coming tonight to measure Vivian’s room.”
“The one I hired to build some furniture.”
“What’s wrong with the furniture she has?” His voice was beginning to rise.
“She’s going to be a teenager soon. She needs a place where she can bring her friends, and a place to study and keep her clothes.”
“What’s wrong with her closet?”
My mother answered his protests, one by one, in a dead voice. My closet, the little portable one he used to keep his own clothes in when we lived on 20th Avenue, was too small, she said. My desk was shabby and didn’t have enough storage space. Then she continued on her way with the laundry.
The carpenter’s knock came moments later, putting an end to my father’s muttering. He remained in the living room, while, in my room with my mother, I watched the carpenter sketch plans for a wall unit that included a closet, desk, and shelves. Work was to begin as soon as I left for camp and would be finished by the time I returned.
The moment I boarded the bus and greeted the girls I knew, some of whom I’d been writing to all winter, I felt I had truly come home. Now I was part of the group that told camp stories to the newcomers and led the singing, and when the director gave her welcome speech in the parking lot, I knew everything she was going to say before she said it.
I was in the next-to-oldest unit, Neppie’s Nook, named after Neptune because we were closest to the lake. Without Ronnie and Iris, I had no ties to my Brooklyn-Vivian life. The girls and counselors in Neppie’s Nook were my only family, Camp Quidnunc my only world. I was completely Cookie, completely happy.
Jinx was my favorite counselor. The other two were funnier, but not as soft. I contrived to sit at Jinx’s table in the dining hall and get into her group whenever we divided up for activities. Within days, she became like the doctors and nurses whose molecules floated in the air—I felt her watching over me, knowing what I was thinking and feeling every moment.
The YellowSweaterLady had been the only other real person to become part of what I now thought of as the Atmosphere. For several years after I’d met her with my mother, I’d been certain that one day her hand would reach down through the air, scoop me out of my world, and take me to hers, where I would live in her house and be her little girl forever. The longer that took to happen, the more the YellowSweaterLady faded from the Atmosphere, until by now, she was no longer in it.
Unlike the YellowSweaterLady, whom I had met only once, Jinx’s real version was part of my everyday life. I could be feeling her disembodied Atmosphere presence while I walked down one of the paths, maybe to hang my bathing suit on the line, and her in-person version would chance to come toward me from the opposite direction. “Hi, Jinx,” I would say in the most surprised voice I could muster, as if she were the last person I could have been thinking of.
The only time her Atmosphere and in-person versions came together as if they belonged together was when we sang around the campfire at night. Jinx was usually at the back of the circle, so I couldn’t see her face. Those faces I could see were noses or eyes that flickered orange then disappeared, giving way to others. In this magic place, Jinx’s voice, blending with, yet separate from, everyone else’s—she was the only one singing harmony—seemed to be coming from another dimension.
Every night after campfire, we snuggled under our blankets, under the canvas, under the trees, under the stars. The counselors, standing near the dying fire, sang Taps. When their last note faded, the only sounds were from crickets and the occasional snapping of a twig.
One night, lying under my blankets in the safety of everything that was familiar, alone, yet not alone, I felt vaguely uneasy. I listened to the regular breathing of my tent-mates and the murmuring of the counselors sitting on logs by the embers. The leaves rustled. I felt something shift inside me and shuddered along with them. Eeeeeee-naaaaaaah. The wail was loud inside my head, but I knew I hadn’t made an outside sound.
The breeze blew through the tent, taking a layer of me with it as it passed over my face. The forest was suddenly menacing, with writhing shapes I could barely make out. Nah-SAAAAAH-koh-meh. The wail was louder this time. I felt myself leaking out of my skin into the shapes, felt the shapes flowing back into me. To keep from dissolving, I buried my face under the blankets and held onto the sides of the mattress.
“Get away from me!” Oh god. That was an outside scream.
“Cookie! Wake up!” my friend Lolly called from her cot. “You’re having a nightmare.”
I was glad she thought I was sleeping.
Footsteps. A hand on my back through the blankets. “Cookie, what’s the matter?” It was Jinx.
I wanted to say Nothing—I’m Cookie, here in the tent with my friends. But I was also not Cookie. I was part of the howling forest and the undulating mass of scary shapes that was sucking me in.
“Get away from me!” I shrieked, throwing off the covers and sitting up.
I squinted in the beam of Jinx’s flashlight. She pointed it toward the floor. “It’s me. Jinx.”
I began to sob. I choked, coughed until I caught my breath, howled into the night. My tent-mates offered me tissues and tried to take my hand. The safer I felt with everyone around me, the more I let myself slide into the terror without holding back. I pulled my sheets, clutched my blankets, and kicked. It was a relief to let the fear well up and take over my body. I knew I was acting crazy, but I didn’t feel crazy. I felt an enormous release, and though I really was frightened, I knew there was nothing to be afraid of.
My sounds had a momentum of their own and kept escalating until they crested with a long howl. When it ended, I whimpered softly, coming back into my body, into Cookie. Exhausted but calm, I sat on the heap of tangled blankets and let Jinx put her arm around my shoulder.
“Hi,” I said, smiling weakly at my tent-mates as they came into focus.
“Hi, Cookie. That was some nightmare.”
“OK, girls, it’s almost eleven,” Jinx said. “Back to your beds.”
As she helped me straighten my blankets and tucked me in, I felt calmer than I ever had, as if something wordless that was trapped inside me had finally come out, been heard, and gone back Inside.
* * *