By Hannah Reich Berman
Author’s note: My apologies to those who have seen this before. Many years ago I wrote about my one (and only) visiting-day experience and, over the years, due to reader request, I repeated that piece twice more. I repeat it here, again by request. I also repeat it because I feel obligated to warn those grandparents who, for the first time, have grandchildren in sleepaway camp. On the chance that some of these unsuspecting souls are undecided about visiting their grandchildren, this may help them make up their minds. Think of it as another of my public-service notices.
On a miserably hot and humid Sunday in July 2002, I climbed aboard my children’s SUV. We were heading to camp to visit my three oldest grandsons. My son-in-law was doing the driving so he had to be in the front seat, and my daughter suffers from car sickness, so she too had to be up there. That left yours truly as the only viable candidate for the rear seat, where my seatmates were the three youngest family members: a seven-year-old who was also prone to carsickness, and a set of rambunctious four-year-old twins. Up front, which I came to think of as first class, my daughter and son-in-law turned up the radio to what I thought was an unusually high volume, probably so they wouldn’t hear the gevaltis (noise) in coach—that would be my section.
Noticing that we were headed in the opposite direction of the highway, I asked why. “We’re stopping to get food for the trip,” answered the jolly duo up front. I thought, “Why didn’t they pick up the rations before they came for me?” While the front-seat occupants, who were the pilot and navigator for the day, went into a bagel store for the food, I remained where I was and kept an eye on the little ones. That stop translated to 20 extra minutes of sitting in one spot. Perfect for my arthritic joints!
When the cockpit crew returned, they tossed the rations into my lap and handed me a cup of coffee, and off we went. That’s when I discovered that they had purchased sandwich fixings, not ready-made sandwiches. Apparently I was scheduled for KP.
Within minutes, the aroma of freshly baked bagels set off appetite alarms, and the kids were clamoring for food. I planted a grandmotherly smile on my kisser and, realizing that I was about to be busier than a short-order cook in the dining car of a speeding Amtrak, I handed my untouched coffee back to the duo up front. The difference is that short-order cooks have space to move around and get to work with stainless-steel knives and forks. I had to do everything while sitting cramped in a moving vehicle, and my equipment consisted of plastic utensils to spread tuna, egg salad, and cream cheese onto warm bagels. If anyone has ever wondered how much tuna salad can ooze through the hole of a bagel, feel free to call me. I can tell you!
The real fun started when the kids got thirsty. I located the juice boxes and began plunging small pointy plastic straws into the foil dot located on the box tops. Within seconds, I wished I could get my hands on the sadist who invented that packaging. Regardless of how slowly and carefully I pushed those straws in, each one made a splash, and by the time I was finished with beverage detail, my skirt was sporting a colorful array of orange-juice, apple-juice, and chocolate-milk stains. Between that and the tuna, I smelled like a counterman at Zabar’s.
I reached for the packet of wipes that I had spotted earlier, only to discover that it had rolled under the third seat. That would be the seat that was piled high with assorted equipment such as beach chairs, blankets, and water bottles. The only way to get to the wipes was to request that we pull over, stop the SUV, and open the rear hatch. But the thought of prolonging the journey one extra minute stopped me from making the request. I opted to live with sticky hands.
When we finally made a pit stop, I had three things in mind: wash my paws, clean my skirt, and get a cup of coffee to make up for the one I never got to drink because I was too busy playing Hilda Hostess.
Four hours after our departure (possibly the longest four hours of my life), we arrived at the campgrounds. Everyone hopped out, stood up immediately, and then watched in disbelief as I rolled, none too gracefully, out the door and struggled to an upright position—all this while my sunglasses were fogged up thanks to the unbearable humidity. As soon as I was perpendicular, I took one look around, spotted hills that resembled a cross between Pikes Peak and the Canadian Rockies, and knew I was in trouble.
The first order of business was to visit the bunks, all of which were located uphill. Not wanting my family to think of me as old or infirm, I refrained from kvetching that I was tired from the ride. I also didn’t mention that I wasn’t too sure-footed. Instead, I braved it and marched off with the rest of the tribe, stumbling along and finding it a challenge just to remain upright.
Within minutes, I was huffing and puffing. So, when anyone directed a question to me, I just smiled. Smiling was all I could do, since I was breathing like a racehorse, which made it hard to speak. I began to trail behind the others, and whenever one of them looked back to see why I wasn’t with the group, I stood still and pretended to be admiring the scenery. Hah, some scenery! Hills, hills, and more hills! I almost expected to hear strains from The Sound of Music.
When I finally caught up with my clan in the first bunk, I had to force myself to look at them, because all I could concentrate on was the beds. I ached to plop down on one of those mildewed cots, and to remain there for the rest of my life. But I didn’t share that thought. I knew that on visiting day it is mandatory to visit each child’s bunk. I could not fathom why, since they were all identical.
The next activity was to head to the pool, followed by a stop at the arts-and-crafts shed, and then off to the lake. I was ecstatic to note that the lake was downhill—until it occurred to me that we would eventually have to climb back up. That did it! I’d had more than enough mountain-climbing, so I called it quits. No longer caring what anyone thought, I simply stated that I needed to rest. I would skip the visit to the lake, go sit in the shade near the dining hall, and meet them there at noon. Nobody seemed terribly disturbed by my departure.
Unfortunately, the shady area closest to the dining hall was located atop another incline. And this one was so steep I was sure I’d have a nosebleed by the time I reached the summit. The thought of getting out of the sun and into a chair, however, propelled me forward. By the time I reached my destination, I fully expected to keel over from heat exhaustion. I wasn’t that lucky.
Instead, I fell into the nearest chair and nearly wept with relief to be sitting. An hour later, the loudspeaker came to life. It was lunchtime! I opened my eyes, gazed down the hill, and saw hordes of people advancing on the dining room, looking as if they hadn’t eaten in days. It resembled the exodus from shul after Yom Kippur. Still weary, I headed down and joined my gang. We grabbed a table, unpacked our lunch, and dug in.
After lunch, it was uphill again to the same shady spot. The kids spread blankets on the lawn and I reclaimed my chair. Getting down on the ground and then up again was never my strong suit! Thirty minutes later, the family was rejuvenated and ready to see the remaining campgrounds. All shame was gone by now, so when the others left, I stayed put. It occurred to me that I might grow roots in the chair, but I was willing to take the risk. Anything was preferable to more mountain-climbing and walking across a terrain dotted with holes that were invisible in the grass.
The next time the loudspeaker crackled to life, it was to announce that visiting day was officially over. I was so overjoyed by the announcement that I briefly considered doing a hora. But I lacked the energy. The only thing that could have given me greater pleasure would have been wearing Dorothy’s red shoes, clicking them together, leaving Oz, and waking up in my own bed!
There were no sandwiches to be made or juice boxes to be pierced. Still, I didn’t look forward to the ride home. On the highway, we stopped for ice cream—to be eaten in the car, of course, so that it could melt all over my skirt. But this time around I was smarter; I held on to the package of wipes for dear life.
I was told that we encountered heavy traffic, but I was unaware of it; by that time, I had fallen asleep. My last conscious thought before dozing off was “I am never doing this again.” True to my word, today I am possibly the only loving and devoted savta to give a resounding “No!” when someone asks if I’ll be going up to see my grandchildren on visiting day. I love them all dearly, but that’s the way it is. v
Hannah Berman lives in Woodmere and is a licensed real-estate broker associated with Marjorie Hausman Realty. She can be reached at Savtahannah@aol.com or 516-902-3733.