As I sat down to compose the Editor’s Column for this Pets/Camping issue, I initially felt inadequate to write about either topic. Then a flood of tender memories filled my mind.
While many of my friends growing up experienced Jewish Camping, I did not. My mother never sent my sister Dayna and me to camp, in part, because she wasn’t certain about why her children would benefit from being away from her. But Dayna and I never felt like we missed anything while we enjoyed two glorious weeks with my extended family in the rented house on Miles Street in Harwich Port.
Like my friends heading off to camp, we’d begin the preparations several weeks before, and Mom would make a list of all the things I’d need to pack: flip-flops, sunscreen, a new bathing suit, activity books for the car ride, a Walkman (complete with a medley tape made by my best friend Ellen), stationery and stamps, my diary, my teddy bear Casey, a sundress appropriate for formal dining, plenty of T-shirts and shorts, and the latest Judy Blume novel.
Beginning Fourth of July weekend, my family—all nine of us—would pile into two cars and drive to Cape Cod, sometimes stuck in bumper-to-bumper, holiday traffic for hours. Dayna and I sat contently in the rear cargo area of my parents’ Ford Country Squire, played the license plate game, waved to other motorists and sang show tunes.
The house we rented each year (which I always referred to as “our” house) was comfortable and grand. It boasted five bedrooms, a sunny kitchen with a breakfast nook, a dining room complete with built-in cabinetry, a parlor, a sunroom, a screened porch and a large backyard that abutted Harwich Port Golf Course.
Most mornings Papa woke up early and went to Bonatt’s bakery. There he’d pick up piping hot meltaways, sugary pastries that would be only the beginning of the gastronomic indulgences throughout my two-week stay.
Our house was walking distance to everything in town including the seashore. Daddy, Papa, Uncle Ben, Uncle Jack, Dayna and I would tote beach chairs, towels, sunscreen, snacks and sandwiches (lovingly made by Mom, Nana and Aunty Vina) to the beach. On the way, Dayna and I would stop at the penny candy store where, for a few cents, we’d buy salt water taffy, Swedish fish, Mary Janes and Pixy Stix. Inevitably we’d get sand in the sticky confections, but we would eat them anyway. Once we sufficiently sunned ourselves, rode the gentle waves, buried each other in the sand and grew tired of the salty air, we’d all trudge back to the house.
The only thing that separated our yard from the nine-hole course was a trail of orange tiger lilies. Nana would often pick some at the beginning of the week to adorn the dining room table. With golf clubs in tow, many mornings Daddy, Papa and Uncle Ben would leave the yard via a path through the lilies to play a round of golf. They’d always find some other fellow looking to complete a foursome. They’d be home in time for lunch and we’d all walk to the Mason Jar Delicatessen.
The Mason Jar is where I’d first tried Cape Cod Potato Chips, and I and fell in love with the crispy, kettle-cooked flavor. More than 30 years ago, when the newly formed chip company was still a small operation, you could take a tour of the store front. We made a field trip to Hyannis for the day, saw how the potatoes were cooked in shallow kettles and stirred with a rake, producing a delicious, crunchier chip. We bought about a dozen bags to take home with us since kettle-cooked chips were still a novelty and distribution was only local.
Sometimes we’d go to Thompson’s Clam Bar for lunch. (The radio jingle still haunts me “Were going to Thompsons Clam Bar, cause that’s where the very best clams are!”) Although less than a mile away, we’d all pile in Papa’s station wagon and drive to the restaurant located right on Wychmere Harbor. Several good-looking, teen-aged boys with tanned complexions worked as valets for the summer, and Papa would always slip them a few extra bucks to park the car close by. Inside, patrons could sit at a sea-side table, which is always what we preferred. We’d take pleasure watching the boats glide in and out of the harbor, gulls making rhythmic circles overhead. Dayna and I would always order a cheeseburger and fries off the children’s menu, while the adults gorged themselves on little necks, clam cakes, calamari and other fruits de mer.
My favorite restaurant however was Christopher Ryder Opera House, a dinner theatre named for the sea captain who was the original owner of the property located in Chatham. Patrons appreciated a scrumptious meal but the post-dinner music review was the reason for the restaurant’s distinction. After dinner we’d enjoy two different cabaret-style shows called the Ryder Review. My parents would allow me and Dayna to stay up well past our bedtimes for both the 8:45 and 10:45 p.m. shows.
Not every dining establishment was serious and stuffy, however. One night was always set aside for something kid-friendly. Ordering hot dogs and root beer floats at the A&W was usually followed by a trip to the go-cart track or the trampoline park.
When we weren’t eating or at the beach, and if the men were golfing, Dayna and I would accompany the matriarchs of our family on a shopping trip. Mom would habitually use that excursion as an excuse for back-to-school shopping. I’d get new sneakers and a supply of fall-weather attire. At the time, the “Official Preppy Handbook,” co-authored by Lisa Birnbach, was a bestseller. I began 7th grade wearing a monogramed cardigan casually draped over my shoulders, a pink polo (with the collar turned up, of course) and embroidered whales on my navy chinos.
One summer, early in our stay, Papa found a turtle between the tiger lilies and golf course. He brought it back to the house and I immediately cared for this little creature. I called her Crispen (I don’t remember how I settled upon that name), and she became my first pet. At the end of our vacation, I insisted that we take Crispen home with us. She became a beloved part of our family and I learned to take responsibility for her well-being. I now believe every child should have the privilege of such a task.
After Labor day, when school was back in session, and we were asked to write about our summer vacations, I enjoyed listening to my school chums share about their camp experiences—roasting marshmallows and singing songs by a campfire, banging loudly on a table after birkat hamazon (grace or blessing), taking a canoe out on a crystal clear lake at daybreak, panicked cabin clean-ups before inspection, popsicle stick and macaroni crafts, whispered secrets after lights out, and getting dressed up for erev Shabbat. In turn, they appreciated my anecdotes about shucking clams with Papa, caddying for my dad, painting pictures of flowers with Nana or searching for colorful shells on the shore with Dayna.
In both experiences—my friends’ Jewish Camp and my family vacations—tradition and a sense of belonging were at the heart. Whatever camp or family customs are dear to you, remember them fondly. I know I do.