When Marcel Proust nibbled on a madeleine, he remembered all kinds of things past. Recently, I, too, was flooded by old memories -- but they weren't triggered by a sweet cake.
My "madeleine" was a merry throng of little girls, in high fettle, toting duffle bags, catching the train to summer camp. In their pink, orange and lime-green shorts and T-shirts, they swept toward the departure gates at Union Station like a whirlwind of confetti. They were shepherded by three healthy young women with the telltale, bright, eager looks of first-time camp counselors. The very sight of the camp-bound gang pierced my heart with painful memories.
Sound melodramatic? Believe me, it's not. For in my Brownie days, I was definitely not a happy camper.
My idea of the perfect vacation was to be enrolled in the summer reading program at the library where I got to write book reports, hash over plots with the wonderful children's librarian and earn a gold star for every book I read.
But my parents were determined to give me all the advantages they could. And though they never mentioned scrimping along on a tight budget, even at age 9 I sensed the sacrifices they were making for me.
So off I went to Brownie camp -- Camp Bonnie Brae -- in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts for two weeks of activity designed to "round out my education." The trouble was that, besides my not being a gung-ho trailblazer, craftsperson or bonfire builder, I was already a well-rounded small person. Or, to bluntly use the hated "C" word, I was chubby.
Moreover, I wore glasses.
Given this classic, misery-making combination, naturally I was the butt of Brownie camp humor which, at times, got vicious. My bed was short-sheeted and stuffed with tiny pine cones so many times I finally balled the sheets up and stuck them under my cot. The flashlight I used to read under the blankets at night disappeared for three days until I threatened to tell the counselor. That earned me the nickname "Squealer."
But it wasn't only the thin girls with 20-20 vision that made me an unhappy camper. It was nature. It was so ... so ... wild. Nothing like the Bronx Zoo near my home in New York where, every Sunday, I saw my quota of carefully pruned bushes, neatly mowed grass, trim flower beds and animals tucked safely in cages.
Nature at Camp Bonnie Brae always seemed on the attack. Tree branches tangled in my braids, roots tripped me, and once, on a hike, when I flopped down to rest on a tree stump, a slug as big as a 50-cent piece oozed toward my pale, bare leg. I've never again shrieked that loud.
Sometimes it was we who attacked nature -- and that was just as bad. Like the time the counselors gave us 30 minutes to see who could capture the most fireflies in a glass jar. I couldn't think of anything more stupid or revolting, but I set off dutifully -- and warily -- into the tall meadow grass where millions of fireflies flickered in the dusk.
The first five minutes of the hunt were pure hell. The thick grass was rough and scratchy and so tall I could barely see over it. Within seconds I lost sight of all the other hunters. In the growing darkness, as I stumbled into the swarms of fireflies, I hunched my shoulders up so tight that pains shot through my neck. It was almost as scary as walking into a spider web. Holding my breath, I squeezed my eyes and mouth shut and covered both ears. I had visions of inhaling a skull full of insects. But eventually I had to breathe and squinch my eyes open a little, and when I did I realized that the fireflies weren't touching me. Maybe they had built-in radar, like bats.
Gradually my muscles untensed, and I began to see the beauty of the twinkling meadow. The idea of catching the fireflies in a jar seemed more stupid than ever. Why frighten the tiny creatures? And why take them away from a place where they were happy?
When I finally made my way back to the campfire, guided by the jolly notes of Bonnie Brae songs, my glass jar was filled with Black-eyed Susans, and my eyes, behind their grimy lenses, shone with rare happiness. I'd never picked a wild flower before.
Of course, I lost the contest, but one of the counselors poured water from her flask into my glass jar and admired my bouquet. It was the second best moment in my two weeks at Bonnie Brae.
The first best moment was when I discovered that you can swamp a canoe -- fill it with water until you're sitting in it half-submerged -- and still paddle it.
Thanks to the New York City school systems, I was a strong swimmer, even when I was impeded by the big T-shirt I always wore over my bathing suit to hide my plumpness. So, I had taken quite fearlessly to canoeing. Within minutes I was madly in love with the sport -- especially after experiencing a canoe's natural buoyancy. After that, every time I shared a canoe with a short-sheeting tentmate, I swamped it. "Accidentally," of course.
"The Revenge of the Chubbies," I thought with glee as we sat, submerged to our waists, while I paddled serenely, if awkwardly, and my panicked shipmate yelped that she was only a Beginning Swimmer.
These were the memories that surged through my brain all at once when I saw the happy campers at Union Station. How glad I was that I wasn't going off with them.
And then I saw that one of them looked like she wasn't glad to be going either. She was small, with a bouncy pony tail, but a long, sad face, and she was scootching behind the gang as if stalling off the trip.
Hang in there, I encouraged her silently. How bad can it be? After all, you're not fat, and you don't wear glasses. And maybe you, too, will discover something great like picking your first wildflower or scaring the daylights out of a tentmate in a swamped canoe! Freelance writer Barbara Morris now pitches her tent in Alexandria.