Home Away From Home
“Consider this your home away from home,” a camp counselor told me the minute I arrived. But I had my own name for it — Divorced Children’s Camp. I was one of five kids who’d been sent there because we all had parents in the throes of divorce. I was six.
The camp was an old Victorian house with a wide porch, situated on a dirt road in the (then) tiny town of Landgrove, Vermont. Aside from me, there were four other campers – Mary, who didn’t speak (she had stopped after a trauma in her life, we were told); Janice, who always looked neat and never got into trouble; and two boys, Warren and Karl. The two counselors in charge were Danny, 19, who had red hair and hoped to try out for the Yankees; and Frederica, 22, blond and leggy, who loved crafts – and Danny. They’d been given special instructions by the camp owners to be extra sensitive to our plight — meaning they should keep in mind that we were the products of broken homes and should be treated with kid gloves.
We did the usual camp things. We went on hikes and walked to the one-room school house on Friday nights for square dancing. On Sundays, those of us who actually knew our parents’ current addresses were encouraged to write postcards home.
We also went swimming in the mud hole under the bridge where Danny taught us how to catch frogs and cook them. “They taste just like chicken,” he promised. But to me they tasted just like frogs.
One afternoon at the swimming hole, Danny announced: “We’re going to have a swimming contest.”
“What’s first prize?” Karl asked.
“Ice cream, I hope.” That came from Warren, who was on the pudgy side.
My immediate reaction to Danny’s contest announcement was to tune out. The very word “contest” had nothing to do with me. Contests had to do with people winning things – other people winning things. Even at six, I knew that certain things in life were givens. The given that applied to me was: I don’t win.
“I don’t think we should call it a contest,” Frederica, the other counselor, said.
“Why not?” Danny asked.
“Because only one person can win. That means four people have to lose.”
“That’s the point,” Danny said.
Frederica continued pressing her case. “Failure isn’t what these kids need at this point in their lives. They’ve had enough disappointment already.”
“Give me a break,” Danny said.
“It’s setting them up to feel badly about themselves?”
Frederica, hurt, unexpectedly turned to me for support. “What do you think, Sylvia? Should we have a swimming contest? Or should we just swim for fun?”
It was clear what the right answer here was — but I knew enough to avoid taking sides when people were arguing, so I said, “Either one.”
Not getting what she needed from me, Frederica turned to Janice. “Don’t you think we should swim just for fun?”
Janice fell right into it. “Yes.”
“See!” Frederica said victoriously. “Janice doesn’t want a contest either.”
“Then we’ll flip a coin,” Danny said. “Heads I win.”
He pulled a coin from his pocket, tossed it. Heads. “Yes!”
Ready, Set, Go!
Danny lined us up at the water’s edge by height. I was last. He took off his watch. “Okay, sports fans, what I’ve got here is a stop watch. It’s a very expensive item. It can time you down to a 10th of a second.”
I tried to imagine a single second being cut into ten pieces. I was impressed with any watch that could do that.
“Okay, now I’m going to swim over to the other side. You guys will come across one by one.”
Danny began to wade out into the pond, holding the watch up high over his head. As he got into the deep part, I held my breath. Was he going to dunk that expensive item into the muddy water? He did a one-armed sidestroke and made it to the other side. Relief.
“Okay, Warren, you’re up!”
Warren, his pudge hanging over his trunks, waded into the water.
“Hon, remember, this is just for fun,” Frederica called out. “What’s important is trying.”
“First prize here I come!” Warren said confidently.
“Ready!” Danny shouted.
Warren snapped to attention.
Warren leaned forward.
Warren plopped into the water, and sank. He bobbed up in the same place he went down and began slapping his fat arms on the water, finally making some headway. Breathlessly, he pulled himself up on the grassy embankment.
“Finish line!” Danny shouted, and wrote down Warren’s time on a yellow pad.
“Good for you, Warren,” said Frederica.
Danny stepped on her reassurance, “Next!”
It was Mary. Without waiting for the ready-set-go command, she jumped in and dog-paddled across the pond as though in a dream, participating in a contest with rules of her own making. When she reached the other side, grinning, she ran over to Danny and was rewarded with hug.
Then Karl jumped in with a huge splash, fingers spread so wide apart that gallons of water went right through them. His stiff arms, moving in wild, circular motions, looked like paddle-wheels on the side of a Mississippi river boat.
“Finish line!” Danny shouted, and wrote down Karl’s time on his pad.
Next was Janice. She swam very precisely, in perfect form. She’d had private swimming lessons back home as well as ballet and tap. She could do the Australian crawl, the sidestroke, the breaststroke, even float on her back. She pressed her fingers tightly together, pointed her toes, and kicked delicately. She turned her head up to the surface after each precise stroke and breathed in, then turned her face into the water and breathed out. She wore a pink bathing cap with flowers. It was a lovely thing to see. And it took her forever. I knew she hadn’t won.
Danny noted Janice’s time, and called for the next swimmer. Me.
I figured that by the time my turn came it would be a mere formality. Surely, one of the others had already won. But I was more than willing to proceed since I already liked to swim “just for fun,” as Frederica called it.
Danny yelled, “Ready!”
I turned my body towards my destination.
I threw my arms up over my head, hands together, fingers straight – like Janice’s.
I dived into the pond. But instead of re-surfacing as the others had done, I stayed down there, eyes squinched closed. Underwater was my realm. There, it was cool, dark, silent. I formed my body into a bullet-shape, like one of those tadpoles we’d made into orphans, and using my arms, propelled myself forward in spurts. Soon time disappeared. There was no stop watch, no contest, no camp, no counselors, not even any water — just pure swimming through infinite liquid.
Then, clunk. I hit the mud embankment on the other side. My first reaction was disappointment: Is it over already? I surfaced and scrambled up onto land.
“Finish line!” I heard Danny shouting.
I was jumping up and down on one foot and then the other trying to get the water out of my ears when I heard Danny say, “And the winner is – Sylvia!”
The information was jarring and I didn’t even want to let it in. I had an impulse to jump back into the water. There, it was comfortable. Familiar.
Winning knocked up against the walls of my own personal law: I don’t win.
Frederica was off to the side, giving comfort to Janice. Warren and Karl were busy having a water fight, and Mary was happily hanging onto Danny.
“Hello!” Danny was waving at me and grinning. “Anybody home?”
I could see that the two states of being – I don’t win and I can win – could not occupy the same space. I was going to have to let one of them go. With everyone waiting for me, I vacillated back and forth.
Then I made my choice: “I won!” I shrieked.
Danny pinned a construction-paper blue ribbon onto my bathing suit. I could read the crayon writing upside down. It said: “First Prize. Swimming Contest.”
Today that grungy little ribbon is in a scrapbook in a drawer somewhere. How very beautiful it looked to me that day – the day I decided that I was more than a child of divorce, a child from a broken home. On that day I decided I was a swimmer.
(c) 2013 Sylvia Cary