Academic journal article Chicago Review

Vespers

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Vespers

Article excerpt

Every summer until I was twelve, I went with my family to Olivet, a Presbyterian camp on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. All the people there I called "Auntie," "Uncle," or "Cousin." I thought all of them were my father's relatives, since I knew he was born and raised a gentile.

Left behind in Chicago were heat, polio, Anshe Emet Synagogue where I went to Sunday school, and weekly El rides to visit my mother's mother, Gramma. She spoke no English, only what I called "Jewish." Each week she handed me gelt, which I put in my white porcelain piggy bank.

Olivet Camp was fifty or so primitive, three-room, white cottages, named for birds or flowers, set around a meadow at the top of a hill and strung alongside 179 quartz-graveled, cement-tipped steps, which led to the large wooden commons of the camp office, recreation room, refectory, hotel, front porch, and then, to a flight of wooden stairs, a gravel knoll, the shore path and the expanse of the lake - a mile across, twenty-six miles around, deep, and always cold. After nightfall, the grounds were dark, dark.

During the week, camp belonged to the women and children. I was the youngest child at camp. All the grown-ups and the oldest cousins called me "Baby Laurel." Aunties chatted and crocheted; children ate, swam, ate, swam, played Sorry, and at night Kick-the-Can, Packed-Like-A-Can-of Sardines, magic shows, hypnotism, and post office. Any child could eat "by" any auntie, and any auntie could "correct" any child. Disobeying an auntie was as bad as disobeying one's mother.

Late on Friday nights, the fathers drove up from the city. My father fixed things, took me to visit my dog, Happy, at the egg lady's farm, where we got fresh corn on the cob and eggs for everybody. Father watched me swim, sailed with my brother, Barrie, "conversed" with my sister, Jessica, and "schmoozed" with the other fathers until late Sunday when they'd all drive back to the city and - although it had not occurred to me then - to their jobs. In my father's case, I think, he returned as well to his mistress.

This is what happened the summer I turned eight. It was late-August, Tuesday-night vespers in the recreation room at the bottom of the hill. I was sitting on a hard folding chair next to my mother. I sang out songs about "God" and "Our Lord" but sealed my lips to "Jesus" songs and prayers. Synagogue teachers had already told me what the Crusaders and Germans had done to Jews in Jesus' name. Crusaders killed them straightaway, and Germans turned little Jewish girls' skin into lamp shades. I thought the girls would look bad and feel cold without their skin. "No matter what horrors gentiles do to Jews," my teacher with the blue numbers tattooed to her arm said, "your mind is always free." My mind was free to refuse Christian words; and it did. I moved closer to Mother, felt her starched housedress against my bare legs. I felt deeply connected to her, free, courageous, and something special for which I did not yet have a label: moral.

Mrs. Auntie Baldwin brought me back to attention. She was smiling at me, calling my name, "Laurel," asking me to read a Bible verse full of Jesus. I shook my head, "No," and scrunched down closer to my mother. Mother said, "Go ahead. Read it, Laurel." Everyone was waiting. Auntie Baldwin was looking at me, talking to me. I shook my head more determinedly and whispered to Mother, "No-o-o." She nudged me and again said, "Go ahead. Read it, Laurel. Do as you are told."

Anger unlike any I had ever felt erupted from within me and washed over me. The feeling was uncontrollable. I would now call that anger "rage." I was enraged. I was a child who was sent to her room for raising her voice, a child whose father intoned, "A soft voice is becoming in a woman." Now here I was in vespers, shouting in a voice I didn't recognize but knew was mine, screaming, "No! I won't!" Crying, sobbing, I ran from my seat out the back door into the dark, up the 179 steps, falling and getting up, my knees scraped, running up the hill to our cottage, Bluebird. …

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