Thursday, July 16, 2009

Last to Arrive, First to Depart

It was supposed to be the best day of the entire summer. It was supposed to be a time for joyful reunions. It was supposed to be a day when we could get anything we asked for, sort of like Hanukah in July. Simply magical.

It was 1984 and I was 8 years old, away from home for the first time for 8 weeks at Camp Akiba, along with my 11 year old sister.

Every camper began contemplating visiting day from day 1. I wrote home to my parents, sweet letters full of, “I learned to dive today,” “I got up on water-skis,” “the food sucks.” Then came the real purpose: “On visiting day, please bring: a leather jacket for Snoopy, new Guess jeans (because I need something good to trade with my NY bunkmates), jelly bracelets, 5 pounds of salami, squirt cheese, crackers, Doritos, chocolate covered pretzels,…” It went on and on. Most campers saw visiting day as simply a time to stock up the candy trunk, get new clothes, or anything else on their wish lists.

The preparations leading up to visiting day were intense: there were lice checks 2 weeks out so that any infestation could be discovered and wiped out before the parents arrived. There was a field trip one week out to a Pocono beach, which was really just a parcel of gravel overlooking a roped-off lake so full of e-coli that we were not allowed to swim. Nevertheless, this exciting excursion would be fresh in our minds when our parents arrived. There was a steak dinner 14 hours out so that we could tell our parents about the “gourmet” camp food and beg them to sign us up again for next summer.

Visiting Day was a thrill for spectators. All of the campers were split up alphabetically by last name and sent to one of four locations to wait for their parents to arrive. The counselors, in their brand new staff polo shirts acted as preppy security guards who formed a human chain link fence to keep the kids sequestered. As soon as a camper spotted his parents, he would dash through the counselors’ arms at top speed and launch himself through the air. We all watched this scene over and over again, clapping, hooting and hollering, as 50-pound little boys and girls defied gravity, knocking their mothers to the ground, then rolling and hugging and laughing as the moms wiped dirt off of their brand new shorts outfits.

This scene played out over and over again, but not in my family. My parents were the last to arrive.

As an 8 year old child, away from home for the first time, it was so frazzling that my 11 year old sister and I decided to make believe that we saw our parents, just so we could slip out of the counselor fence. We ran a short distance, hid behind a tree, and looked at each other bewildered that our parents still were not there and now we were trouncing in the woods like Hansel and Gretel.

At that moment, I felt sweat dripping down the back of my neck onto my brand new Camp Akiba special visiting day tee-shirt. My sister must have seen the fear in my eyes because she stared at me as if to say, “What?!” I leaned over and barfed in the bushes. I mean, parents from California and Florida, married, divorced, and estranged, were all there before my parents!

Once my parents finally got their asses up that Pocono mountain, a whopping 90 miles from our home, hugged and kissed us for 5 minutes, they decided they didn’t really want to be there at all. They couldn’t stand the heat, the mosquitoes, the bug juice served in the dining hall. They didn’t want to tour our bunks, play tennis, meet our friends and counselors. No, they had another idea.

Despite the camp rule that insisted that parents remain on the premises with their children, my parents wanted to break us out like fugitives. Yes, my parents, who once out-ran a Pennsylvania state trooper on the turnpike and who grew pot in our backyard, which the elderly neighbors raved were the most beautiful tomato plants they had ever seen, were not going to follow a stupid Visiting Day rule. Hell no! Nancy and Tom relished rule breaking.

Duck down!” My mom commanded us, giggling, as my dad’s Mercedes flew by the camp security guard in the exit gate.

“Don’t let him see you!” My parents smiled and waved at the guard, while giggling like two schoolgirls up to no good. This caused more anxiety for me, a child who had just lost her breakfast under a tree only thirty minutes earlier. But, I ducked in the backseat, along with my sister, as my dad cranked up Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

“Step on it, Tom!” my mom encouraged him, just as she had done when they had eluded the state trooper.

“Don’t worry, doll, I got my training on the Autobahn!” My dad laughed, as he leaned to the right, rounding a curve.

“Whooohooo!” my dad yelled out the sunroof, throwing his head back, elated to have his three girls back together again. We laughed in hysterics as my dad sped off down the windy mountain road.

After all, camp was about the adventure.

Where my parents took us didn’t really matter.

“Who wants pierogies?” My mom asked as if they were a delicacy. My family ate pierogies exactly once a year. On visiting day. During our jailbreak. At any random Pocono snack bar that sold them.

“I’ll have pierogies!” I said, “but what if my counselors are looking for me?”

“Oh, stop being such a worry wart!” my sister chided.

“But none of the other parents sneak their kids . . .” I attempted.

“Bor-ing! The other parents are sooooo lame! My mom declared.

“Sweetheart, you know Heenans hate rules!” My dad my added.

“I just don’t want to get in trouble,” I said more to myself than anyone else in the car.

“We’re with mommy and daddy…like, what’s going to happen?” my sister prodded, rolling her eyes.

I flashed back to 4th of July weekend, when I was two years old, and I ventured down the beach to fill up my yellow bucket with ocean water and somehow got lost amidst hundreds of beachgoers. “Don’t come back until you find her!” My mom had warned my dad.

My mind wandered to the time that my mom missed a train to New York City because she jumped off to get a snack moments before we departed. I remember my grandmom shaking her red hair in disapproval, as the train left the station without my mom. “Your mother is so irresponsible!” She seethed, as my sister and I looked at one another and giggled.

I secretly hoped my dad would just speed right down the Northeast Extension and back to Bryn Mawr with us in the backseat.

After our unlawful field trip, we returned to camp and my parents seemed a bit bored. Maybe they had adult A.D.D. Maybe they just hated camp. Maybe visiting day brought back suppressed memories of my mom’s torturous days as a camper, begging to come home every day. Maybe my parents just didn’t know the proper visiting day etiquette. Whatever it was, even though they were the last to arrive, they were the first to depart.

“Really, you’re leaving NOW?” My sister asked mortified, glaring at my mom. “But you just got here!”

“Honey, visiting day is over in an hour,” My mom explained in a sweet tone, hugging and kissing each of us. “And, besides, you’ll be home in just four more weeks!”

I wanted to explain to her that all of the other parents literally had to be pried away from their children with the “jaws of life” one hour AFTER visiting day officially ended. In fact, there would be one, two, three or more announcements over the PA system: “Attention parents, visiting day is NOW OVER!” These messages would grow more and more urgent for the final stragglers who could not bear to leave their children.

My parents never heard these messages. They were long gone by then, back in their central air, reminiscing about our successful jailbreak, probably eating some version of chicken that my mom made for dinner from her favorite cookbook, “365 Ways to Make Chicken.” Back at camp, my sister and I managed to find loving families from Long Island to “adopt” us for the next hour or two.

To this day, when I think of visiting day at summer camp, I shudder remembering the trauma of my parents being the last to arrive and the first to depart. When my son goes away to summer camp, rest assured I'll be first in line on visiting day and last to leave. And, of course, I'll bust him out for some pierogies!


  1. Great story and adorable pic.!!!! Keep them coming. Just don't write about . . .well you know.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I've always wanted to be a part of your family. Alas, now that you're happily married and never going to become a lesbian, I guess I'll have to settle for
    this wonderfully, insightful blog! The Heenan's rock! Xo

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