Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Bossa Nova

When summer comes on full blast, I almost long for the days of my youth. Memories of angst and acne aside, summer still means one place, one person to me: Camp Maria Pratt and Bernie Moore. When I try to explain myself to people now, I always mention Bernie, and I always say, "She made me who I am." It's difficult to go beyond that very cliché statement, difficult to put into words, verbal or written, why I have had only one hero in my life, and why I credit that one hero with more of my making than my parents, siblings, or life-long friends.

Bernie was a woman comfortable in her own skin. That, more than anything, is reason enough to call her a hero. For this young girl in the 1970s and into the 80s, an older woman who didn't complain about her figure, fuss with her hair, or need a matching bag and shoes was an unknowing godsend. And add to that someone who could cook an entire meal over a fire, play the panicky victim in a lifesaving drill, bike for miles, and dance the bossa nova. Bernie rocked, we knew it, we adored her, and she adored us. But she also instilled in us a great sense of responsibility and respect: for the environment, for the importance of routine, for equity and justice, for our selves.

As a camper, I remember Bernie in several ways. I remember her cooking fried dough on the porch of the lodge: white apron over green tee shirt and jean shorts, wavy silver hair pushed back from her face, sweat running from every pore. Every now and then she'd take a break, come onto the tarmac where we huddled in small groups, put her arms around all of us (somehow), and make us feel as if we were the most important people she knew. I remember Bernie dancing on that same tarmac, keeping time to the bossa nova with those few bangles around her wrist that she wore at all times, stepping lightly in worn sneakers and somehow getting all of us to join her. I remember her best at candlelight ceremonies, where we'd mark the close of another session in one immense gorgeous candlelit circle. Bernie would recite, "If you stand very still in the heart of the woods…" and no one would move, speak, or giggle, simply because we recognized the beauty of the moment and wanted to hold onto it, forever.

When I was old enough to work at camp, Bernie became so much more than the coolest camp director ever. She became a parent for eight weeks, urging and challenging, scolding and comforting. Bernie's cardinal rule for staff was, "Whatever you do on your free time, you better be able to be at 100% for your job the next day." On more than one occasion, I took advantage of the freedoms allowed me at camp, and a few times, I had to answer to Bernie the following day. You always knew if you'd let her down. She'd approach wearing a serious expression, and you'd know you fouled up again, and that somehow, she knew where you'd been, what you'd done, and with whom. Bernie would talk of your responsibility, then her concern, and finally, the ultimate response, disappointment. All quietly, patiently, and firmly but lovingly, usually with her hand on your arm or her arm around your shoulder. Tears would come, then the hug. Getting in trouble didn't get any better than that.

I couldn't bring myself to visit Bernie in her old age, or even, most days, to ask others about her health once she was ill. I was, thoroughly and completely, in denial. To picture my hero anywhere else but camp, or in her cozy home she made with Harry, was (still is) impossible. And despite the years that have passed since Bernie died, I can't accept that she won't be somewhere this summer, teaching young girls how to paddle, making the perfect campfire dessert, or dancing the bossa nova into the warm night.

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