“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Monday, June 25, 2012

Part II, Day 59: A Dog at Camp Baker

It's soupy-hot as we make our way to Lake Findley for the girlfriend reunion, otherwise known as Camp Baker.

Sandy and Stephanie and Herta come running out to greet us, and Zoe snuggles up to them right away.  It's a relief to see her wagging her tail, eager for the next adventure.  We worried about this road trip.  Five weeks ago our oncologist gave Zoe a prognosis of one month to three.  When she survived the month-mark we still thought it might be hard on her to be in a car for six hours, then shuffled between hotel and lake house with all those stairs and all those new people in hot weather.  She's always been a good traveler, but on the last car trip we took, a month ago, to my sister's--the Memorial Weekend Meltdown one week after the sad oncology visit--Zoe cried the whole way there, and I wanted to.

But she sat in the back seat as my husband drove her to Chautauqua with nary a whimper.  She was feted at the Chautauqua Literary Festival, roamed and swam, and now she is making fast friends with the girls of Camp Baker.  She's our mellow, cuddly girl this week--no signs of being stressed. She's just hot--we all are--and would just like some cool water and a bit of shade.

Herta, I think, was the one who named our summer get-aways Camp Baker.  This is because we were all classmates at Newton D. Baker Junior High, in Cleveland, Ohio, then lost track of each other after high school.  When each of us wanted a pal to nudge under the table because someone in our vicinity--in Minnesota, Indiana, Delaware, Seattle, Massachusetts, or Cleveland--was saying something that reminded us of, say, the art teacher who used to intone, about magenta, "Some people like it, some people think it's kind of wild" we had only our own shins to kick.  None of us stayed in touch.  When we graduated, most of us broke our ties with the past, even the ones who returned to Cleveland to work.  When one of us recalled the time Herta and others (I think Sandy and Pam were both in on it) wrote "This School Blows" on the back of my sister's campaign buttons when Mira ran for class president, and Herta almost got suspended, and had to get on the P.A. system to apologize and tell the whole school that her mother was punishing her, big-time, by having her scrub all the walls in the house, we had to tell the story to civilians without assistance from the team.  (This was a symbolic punishment, akin to washing out one's mouth with soap and water, we were meant to understand; although Herta did not know what "blow" meant yet, our principal told her and her mother that the word was "pornographic.") Now that we are reunited we each have our own details to add to the saga.

This is the third gathering of Camp Baker--my second because I was in France with Kerry and Zoe for the first, in the summer of 2010.

For Pam, who arrives later with her tasty homemade moussaka and marinara sauce, it will be the first.  Herta was the last to see her--in the early 80s.  I don't remember seeing Pam after 1974, when she had piled up enough AP credits to graduate early, as did Herta.  Herta worked for a while as an air traffic controller.  Pam became an engineer.  Before that, when Pam married at 19 the same guidance counselor who tested all of us in grade school to determine if we were smart enough for "major work," Cleveland's answer, circa 1970s, to enrichment programs, those of us who knew about it were worried.  Now it occurs to me that whether we liked and trusted him or not, this man was the reason we all became friends.  When kids seemed bright, their teachers referred them to him.  He was the one who tested our IQs.  If we scored above a certain number, we got put in these great classes where we began studying foreign languages by age eight and nine.  We went on field trips to the Cleveland Art Museum and got tickets to hear the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.  Our art and music classes were among the best in the state.  I don't want to sugar coat anything about this confusing era--Pam reminds us how parents in most houses she knew were taking Valium, and only Sandy and Steph knew just how severely ill our mother was--but it's an odd moment for me to realize that one thing we all have in common is the recognition by this one particular individual that we were smart enough to earn the keys to the kingdom.  It's a direct line, one could argue, from that test in a guidance counselor's office when I was eight, to the ten trips to France I've made since grad school, including the one with my husband and Zoe that lasted seven months.  We all remember seventh grade French class and the chic, gamine young French girl with the Vidal Sassoon haircut who assisted our teacher.  Sandy and I invited her as our guest for the home ec Bring Your Teacher to Brunch.  She sat at our table and ate the coffee cake we'd baked.  When we made skirts in home ec (I got a D--sewing was never my forté), we wanted to design outfits like our French role model's.

These days, most public schools don't start kids on foreign language until eighth grade or so--far too late for the kids to become bilingual.

Rosemary is coming, also for the first time.  She lived on Grapeland Avenue, the street my sister and I passed when we walked to elementary school--a street that I still see in my dreams although in them the houses look bigger, as they did in childhood, and the trees are taller than they ever were.  She is not a Baker babe, as we call ourselves; she went to St. Mel's, the Catholic school in our neighborhood that we all called Saint Smells, right through the eighth grade. We were in the same high school junior year, but that's the only time our paths crossed. 

But here's the miracle: Rosemary knew our mother.  Not only did she remember her from the neighborhood, but as a nurse practitioner committed to serving the poor, she helped found the homeless shelter our mother sought refuge in for the last decade of her life.  When Rosie thought of treating street people, helping ease their mental and physical suffering along with providing them a safe bed for the night, my mother was exactly the kind of person she had in mind.  In later years she saw our mother at the shelter.  She made sure she was okay.  (For more information about my sister, Mira Bartok, our mother, and the memoir about our childhood my sister wrote, The Memory Palace, go here.  To learn more about the women's shelter that was later renamed for our mother, go to a post I wrote in January, here.)

And when Sandy committed her life to treating at-risk babies, children of drug addicts and of the mentally ill, she says she often wondered what it was about my sister and me that allowed us to thrive.  She is now the acting director in her unit at the county hospital--the same hospital where my sister and mother and I went for our health care: i.e., the place that took Medicaid.  Sandy remembers wheeling me out of that hospital, drawing on her old candy striper skills, after I had surgery there the June after we graduated from high school.

Steph and I met when we were six.  She lived across the street on Triskett Road, and all through grade school we spent all of every summer day together.  We rode bikes, played Cold War-inspired spy games, and ran back and forth between her house and our apartment and our grandparents' house a block and a half away where we would climb fruit trees, run in the fields behind them, put on skits for the neighborhood, and play School--with me as teacher: my warped idea, then, of fun, and neither she nor my sister had the heart to unseat me from my dictatorial pedant's throne.  Steph indirectly led me to yoga when she taught me all the stretches she was learning in gymnastics class.  I loved her dachsund, Penny, and she loved Ginger, our collie/shepherd mix, the recipient of all my secrets.  Steph was tiny and nimble, with hair long enough to sit on, and when she moved to Strongsville, Ohio in high school my sister and I never stopped missing her.

Herta and Sandy and Pam went to a different elementary school, and when we all met in seventh grade in our A.P. math and science and English and dreaded home ec classes, I thought they were the coolest girls in the world.  They had better taste in rock music than I did.  They knew about Crosby, Stills, and Nash, whereas I was still stuck on Neil Diamond.  They had boyfriends before I did. Herta would pay us to eat gross stuff we mixed up in the cafeteria--jello, mystery meat, orange juice, milk.  She was funny and smart, an inspiring public speaker, and should have won the all-school competition for poetry recitation with her rendition of Poe's "Annabelle Lee" but some boy we didn't know won instead.  She was robbed.

Cathy, my sister's best friend, has just retired.  In the thirty years she taught special ed, and then fourth grade, she affected the lives of some of the toughest families in the city.  These were kids who had been abused.  Kids with special needs and not enough resources in the school budget or in the home to help them achieve.  A product of a great public school education, she witnessed its starvation due to budget cuts at the federal, state, and local level: she was in the trenches through its slow decline.  She survived No Child Left Behind and all the crazy rounds of tests and testing and more until she finally had enough.  She hopes she'll find a new career to take her into the next stage of life.  She's thinking about doing something at a park.  Something with trees and creatures instead of children who are suffering.  She wants to sleep through the night and see what that's like.

When I reminded Steph how our teachers would write our IQs on the roll and that I checked once, and hers was the highest of all the girls in sixth grade, she said, "Then why didn't anyone say to us, you're going to go to college.  I wonder what I would have become if my parents had told me this and said, we're going to pay for it."  She got a nursing degree and was married and working by 19.  Now she's ready to find out what else she can do.  Like Cathy, she's thinking of finding a job in a park.  She is an amazing gardener, and has done the flowers for her kids' weddings.  Her kids have doctorates, and she could too, but no one told her that was an option for her.  Not in Cleveland, circa 1970s, even in our excellent public schools.  We may have learned French, French impressionism, and seen George Szell conduct Mozart and Bartók at Severance Hall, but Cleveland was slow to catch on to the women's movement--at least in our little corner, on the West Side.  Our sex-segregated lunch line at Newton D. Baker Junior High was a case in point.  The boys ate first, then filed out of the lunch room, and we marched in while the assistant principal patrolled the halls, checking the lengths of our skirts.  Home ec was sex-segregated too.  No girls took woodworking.  Mrs. Fields, who taught clothing, was a Stepford Wife with helmet hair, and we knew only that we didn't want to be her, but not who we wanted to become.

We went to a skiing lodge in the hills of Western New York for a walk.
So here we are now.  Two nurse practitioners, both of whom love their jobs, have major managerial responsibilities and work thirteen-hour days; a ready-to-retire nurse in search of an epiphany; the department coordinator of the classics and history department of a well respected liberal arts college; a retiring elementary school teacher; a disgruntled engineer who has been laid off more than once in the economic crisis and is afraid that she won't be able to finance her health care as she ages.  Plus there's this dog and her person who loves words.  If they wanted to, the medical gals could be physicians, but they are way more excited about the way their field is going, and how soon there will be a doctorate degree in their nursing specialties.  As recognized experts, they'll be teaching the teachers.  The department coordinator could be department chair but she's busy conducting her own history project--interviewing her aging father about his life before and after World War II.  The engineer could be an executive at Boeing but she's more interested now in the career of her gifted college-age daughter.  They're all bright and accomplished, highly competent women, but what matters to them most are other things: social justice.  Their kids.  Their gardens.  Their health and the health of their siblings and their surviving parents.  The state of our nation and our world, which they all find shaky.  The nurse is going to Nicaragua soon to volunteer her services at a health clinic.  She's ready to do more than what she does now, which already sounds like too much.

Big paws up to Pine Junction, a Lake Findley restaurant that let us bring Zoe to their outdoor patio for dinner.  She helped the non-vegans in the group eat their burgers and fries.
In this crowd, Zoe basks in love.  She laps up Pam's moussaka and asks for more.  Baker Babes scratch her belly and her ears.  They tell her she's gorgeous and good.  "Such a good dog!  Such a great dog!  So mellow!  So tranquil to be around!"  They sit beside her in the shade and tell her she's the most beautiful and wise and sweet dog in the world, even though some of them have dogs waiting for them at home.  We take her on slow walks around the lake houses, eat with her on the deck, watch the flying squirrels and hummingbirds flit around our heads, and meanwhile, in Camp Baker form, we seven catch each other up on the last thirty-some years.  We drink and we laugh.  We share book lists and health tips.  We exalt in the miracle of just being in one place at one time.

Pam will write me a message when we're both back.  "I can see how Zoe grounds you, and you ground her.  How lucky you were to find each other." 

It's true.  We have had a great life together.  Zoe has slowed down considerably in the past two weeks.  We don't have much time left.  And now that I understand that this trip to Camp Baker was our last vacation together, ever, I'm so glad we got to visit these wise, compassionate women I knew in a time and a place when even though we weren't encouraged to take over the world, we found power in climbing the fruit trees in our yards, with another herding dog nipping at our heels, urging us to climb higher.


  1. what a nice, and leveling story- about women, and about a time. Here at home, I liked hearing Anne-Marie Slaughter speak on Fresh Air, about not being able to have it all. It seems like women's identity is not answered in that American question: what do you do for a living? Identity is complex, as you say. We need all kinds of counsel: human in real life and accessible through reading. Nice post. xoxo to you, Kerry, Zoe.

  2. Thanks for this message, Sara. I have to look for that Fresh Air piece. I like the way you frame it: that women's identity is not always answered in that question, what do you do for a living? xx to you too!