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Camp Echo First Place

 

The Girl on the Rock

by Melissa Kotler Schwartz

 

Sometime you’re a stranger to yourself. That’s how I felt yesterday when I went down to my basement storage room, opened an old metal file and looked through some old letters and notes, mostly from my high school and junior high years. I loved every minute of standing there, reading through bits and pieces of my life, remembering this and that, and not remembering this and that at all. I stood there until my feet hurt. Who was this person?

Then I found a blue ribbon that said, “Camp Echo First Place.” I had no memory of swimming twice across the lake. No memory of the cold Michigan water or the boat with the lifeguards that must have watched us kids as we swam back and forth. I’ve always been a natural swimmer, but was never one to go long distances. Who was this thirteen-year-old girl that had taken that on? Where had she gone?

I looked further into an old white box in the drawer and found another ribbon, this time a blue one I had won for First Place War Canoe, surprisingly again at Camp Echo. This baffled me even more. There are a lot of people needed to paddle a war canoe. Who were the kids who won with me and what did it feel like when we won? Did we have a huge celebration?

 

What had happened to my memory here? Why do we remember some things and not others? Why do some people remember our stories better than we do? I’d like to talk to those other now adults on that war canoe. “Do you remember?” I would ask them. What was it like? Inevitably, someone would remember.

It’s funny what I do remember about Camp Echo. It was about forty years ago that I was there. I have an image of lying in my bed in the bottom bunk. The mattress was thin and did not help my homesickness to go away. I hadn’t gone there with a friend and I didn’t tell anyone that I was homesick, although I’m sure that I was not the only one. I just tried to be strong in the dark, whatever that meant. I had a lot of mixed feelings about going away.

I guess you could say I wasn’t a camper. I didn’t return to Camp Echo. Instead, I returned to the place that I loved, the big stone grey rocks at the edges of Lake Michigan, where I grew up. Happiness to me was summers spent hanging out on the rocks with my friends, looking out at the water. I can remember the choppy waves and on rough days the danger and thrill of the water crashing into the rocks and getting us wet. I can remember reading the painted words of boyfriends and girlfriends that wrote secret notes on the rocks. We covered ourselves in baby oil to get tan. That was long before we knew about skin cancer.

I remember all us girls shouting like moms at the boys to “be careful” as they jumped from rock to rock.

No parents checked on us. We just hung out till we got tired or hungry. Those were the days and my memory of them is so clear that I can smell Lake Michigan now and hear the water swooshing hard at the edges. I can smell the dead fish like they washed up yesterday, but it wasn’t yesterday at all.

“There’s no place like home,” and maybe that’s why my memories are so vivid of that lake and not the other lake at Camp Echo that I swam across.

This much I know, we are strangers to ourselves sometimes. That’s okay as long as we can find a piece of ourselves to take home. The memory of being with my friends on those rocks is a blessing to me, the closest I can come to a spiritual journey where nature, friendship and growing up all come together. Maybe I kept those memories because they’re beautiful ones.