‘Camp Is Not the Hilton Hotel’
My first time away from home came in 1982, when I was 9 years old. I spent the summer at Blue Star, a Jewish summer camp in Hendersonville, N.C. In between bouts of severe homesickness and fits of crying, I wrote letters home, threatening to run away. Yet, despite my homesickness, I still fell in love with Jewish camp, buoyed both by its unique ruach and the supportive correspondence that grew between me and my mother and my two grandmothers.
Sometimes the messages were simple in their love and encouragement: “Remember to let your positive attitude be a part of each day. Then, whatever you are experiencing will work for you,” my mom, Terri, wrote to me in 1982. Other times, the purpose was more practical, as was the case when Grandma Margaret wrote that same summer to remind me: “Make sure you are going to the toilet regularly. If you have trouble, you have to mention it to the counselor. It is very important.”
I saved all the letters written to me that summer, stashing them in a large Ziploc bag I had brought to camp to protect my stationery. When I returned home to Richmond, Va., I put the bag in my closet. This became a habit I repeated at the end of each summer, beginning with my two years at Blue Star and through the three summers I spent at Camp Ramah in Palmer, Mass. Years later, after my husband and I moved into our first house in Winston-Salem, N.C., my dad brought me several boxes of childhood keepsakes, one of which included the Ziploc bag, now containing over 100 letters. But I never once thought about opening the bag. It was tucked in a drawer and forgotten.
A few weeks after giving birth to my first child, Zoe, my mom passed away from cancer. I was 28 and heartbroken. How could I balance the joy of being a new mom with the pain of losing my own? Time went by, I was blessed with another daughter, Avi, but the pain of knowing that my kids would never get to know Grandma Terri, or hear her voice and grow from her wisdom, remained.
But somewhere in my subconscious the importance of the written word to raising successful Jewish girls must have taken root. When my daughters were in elementary school, I kept what I called “Mother-Daughter Journals” with each of them. I would write in their journals, leave the books on their beds, and they would write back to me, returning the journals to my pillow. I had forgotten about these journals until a few years ago, when Zoe found hers buried in a drawer. Reading our messages years after they were written was like stepping backward in time, and I wished I had something similar from my mom. That’s when I remembered the bag of camp letters forgotten in a drawer in my den.
Twenty years after the death of my mom—and 40 years after that first summer at Blue Star—I rediscovered both the magic of camp and the remarkable insight of the three Jewish women who loved and raised me, and who are all gone now. Through re-reading the letters, I could hear their voices, feel their presence and experience again—and share with my daughters—their wisdom and humor.
From my mother, in a letter written to me in 1987, my daughters have learned the lesson, “It is good to aspire to win, but it is important to be satisfied with your best effort even if it is not good enough to win or to be the best. Honest and sincere effort is being a winner.” And they will appreciate the humor and underlying message of Grandma Millie, who, in 1988, wrote: “Camp is not the Hilton Hotel. The purpose is to learn so that you can be a leader when you come home.”
I was then more convinced than ever of the importance of handwritten correspondence. I began mailing letters to Zoe, 21, who is in college at Elon University, and hand-delivering ones to Avi, 18, who is still at home. Recently, during a Zoom call with Zoe, she showed me a box containing all the letters I’ve written to her since she’s been in college.
If you have children or grandchildren at camp this summer, take the time to write them a letter. Boost their self-esteem, mention how proud you are of them and offer advice. Encourage them to save the letters, maybe even in a Ziploc bag. I promise you, one day when your kids are older, they will be grateful to stumble upon your love and counsel in those long-ago camp letters.
Dara Kurtz is the author of I Am My Mother’s Daughter: Wisdom on Life, Loss, and Love and creator of the website crazyperfectlife.com.