Stalker’s Essay Assignment 12, continued
Baby as a mother’s helper in the Greenwald Bungalow Colony near Woodridge, New York in the Catskills.
Back then, we felt in another world when only a few-hours car drive away. No computers, no email, no web cams; phones were permanently connected to the wall. A hundred miles was a tangible barrier, hard to overcome. Each Sunday evening I used the lone colony telephone, in the manager’s head bungalow, to talk to my parents for a few minutes, collect. Long distance calls were dear, made with care and fanfare in those days. “Yes, I’m fine. All is well.” I gave them the reassurance they wanted, no matter what. Telling them what they needed to hear had become a habit too hard to break.
And because of that, I had no guidance when I needed it most.
But all seemed well. The mountain air was breathing freshness into my spirit. Being away from the sticky, summer streets of the Bronx — away from the hope of running into Dave, of waiting for him to make my phone ring — I felt transported and started to heal from the breakup.
The colony had reliable mail service, of course. My parents and I wrote each other a couple of times a week, too, and they asked to visit. “Yes, Daddy and Mommy, you can visit here this summer; I’m sure I will be able to get away from my charges to spend an afternoon with you.” Later, after admonishment from my father, I wrote, “Thank you for visiting, Mommy and Daddy.” I had to follow the rules precisely; Mommy would be so hurt if I didn’t put her name first.
My movements were reviewed and corrected, with my father serving as master puppeteer. Ah, I appreciated this distance and chance to minimize his scrutiny, cut the strings, act on my own. I was 17, a high school graduate and away for the first time. Let me be! Enough already! I thought. At the end of the summer, I would be back home, living with my parents while I went to City College in Manhattan. Let me have this time, please.
Early mornings the mountain air was especially sweet, and I would take the boys for a walk around the colony — the littlest in the stroller, Schmuel and Yussie flanking it, Avrumie following close by. The Weisses followed the custom of delaying a boy’s first haircut, so Schmuel’s blond curls were pulled back into a ponytail for convenience; he was so beautiful, people mistook him for a girl. He didn’t care, he didn’t care about anything. He was fearless and happy and simply the most delightful child. Yussie was serious and dark. Avrumie met the world with trepidation and skepticism, but tried not to let it show. The little one was a blank to us; Essie usually left him in a playpen and we followed her lead. But, I should have given him more attention, even so. I wonder what happened to him. Most of all, I wonder what happened to Schmuel. Did the summer leave a telltale sign on him?
We called him Schloymala, because he was such a cute tatteleh.
Bungalows were rustic and rough cabins with no heat, no air conditioning; I think they emptied into a cess pool. They were used only for escapes from the summer in the City. Chana and Essie had adjoining bungalows at the end of the row, brushing up to the edge of the forest that I sometimes snuck into for a quick change of scenery and scent. Each bungalow had two simple rooms, and a bathroom with a shower stall instead of a tub.
The back room was a bedroom with two twin beds (the colony was well appointed for Orthodox Jewish family purity practices), a cot for one child and a crib for a younger one. The front rooms had a kitchen sink, stove, refrigerator and cabinets along one wall, and a table and chairs for dining. At the other end of the room, under a row of low windows, was a cot. That is where I slept — in Chana’s bungalow the first part of the summer, in Essie’s at the tail end. They didn’t explain the switch, but I suspected why. I tried not to think about that.
Chana and Essie told me to eat anything I wanted. I hadn’t brought any cigarettes with me because it was a good opportunity to quit — and Orthodox women usually did not smoke or drink, though not forbidden to do so. Further sparked by the country air and my emotional healing, I developed a robust appetite. I satisfied it with the bounty of apples and peaches the sisters kept on hand, instead of with smoking.
After the morning walks, Chana and I would take the boys to the colony’s walled-off swimming pool. It was women-only time, but of course the young boys had to stay with us. In the afternoon, when Chana and Essie would take the car somewhere, my lovely children and I would visit the two other mother’s helpers and their charges. Once a week, the mother’s helpers had a day off. We hiked miles to Woodbourne, Woodbridge, South Fallsburg; once we made it as far as Liberty. I got to walk all the way back to the colony, too, because the other girls refused to hitchhike. My legs grew stronger, my body more tan.
I didn’t feel the tedium set in for at least a couple of weeks. Once Chana asked, “Are you happy here?” She looked concerned. Of course, yes, of course, I said, never wanting to disappoint.
Friday afternoons brought a welcome change to the routine. The men came up from the dirty city, infiltrating our female world with their deep voices, cigarettes and wine; they formed their minyans. As they took their seats at the head of our kitchen tables, the rest of us deferred to their authority. The colony’s families observed Shabbos together. Friday evenings we carried tables to the common lawn, and covered them with fleishig tablecloths. Families shared their special Sabbath cholents and tzimmes in a pot luck feast. Chana’s husband Yitzchok’s cholent was my favorite, an Israeli version swollen with beef chunks, potatoes, carrots and aromatic spices novel to my tongue. Rabbi Yitzchok Weiss, in his early 30s, was the tallest and the leanest of the men. Like most of the others, he had a thick beard, dark looks. But his cholent alone had a strong Israeli accent and mysterious, foreign Sephardic roots, just as he did.
I relaxed into the relief that all my food was kosher, that no one would look at me wide-eyed when I abided by Shabbos restrictions, and I had no explaining to do to my classmates. “I can’t do that, it’s Shabbos,” I would say. It’s what? “Don’t call me Friday night or Saturday before sundown, it’s Shabbos.” Whaaat? “I won’t be at school, it’s a Jewish holiday.” Again? “I can’t eat that.” You can never eat at my home?
Perhaps this life was a better one for me. I should give up my evil ways and do what I was supposed to do; make G-d and my parents happy.
But during the summer, I realized my parents were not completely observant themselves. At home I had not learned all the customs and prayers practiced at the colony, nor had I been to a yeshiva to learn them. Prayers recited in Hebrew before eating? Didn’t know them. Prayers after eating? Didn’t know them. I did the best I could to fit in, but once again in my life, I had to make a forced effort to blend in. Once, I asked my mother why I hadn’t been sent to yeshiva instead of public school. “We weren’t that religious,” my mother said. “And children who go to yeshiva criticize their parents for not being observant enough.” She wore sleeveless blouses, slacks, and did not cover her head. She wasn’t going to have any child of hers expect her to do otherwise.
Someday my life will make sense. I will know who I am. I will resolve all these conflicts. I will stop playing parts and I will be where I belong. I will be accepted. I was prone to making such declarations and promises to myself; their looming, seemingly inevitable fulfillment kept me going.
One mid-summer night a thunderstorm lit the sky and Chana and I ran across the open lawn dodging the lightning. “Isn’t this dangerous?” she asked. We did it anyway. The fear made me feel alive.
Dave receded into a different time and place as I was awakening to my future. Rich and ripe cholents and peaches and country road hikes hastened my own blossoming. My tan kept deepening, my skin was glowing. My senses heightened. I began to eye Yitzchok’s cigarettes, the soft, fragrant, familiar smoke was too inviting; its old hold on me reawakened, too, catching me by surprise. He noticed my watching as he smoked. “Would you like one?” He extended out the pack. Under the watchful gaze of Chana and Essie’s widening eyes, I accepted a cigarette. Now on Fridays he brought an extra pack of Marlboros with him from the City, and left them with me for the week.
Then Yitzchok started to do other surprising things.
. . . to be continued