A winter visit to a summer home

A woman's return to her old summer camp brings back fond memories.

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Garden District, New Orleans.

I don't recall my very first impression of the big Victorian mansion with its gabled roof and high porthole window, but it must have been powerful. What was meant to be a half-hour visit with my parents to install my sister in the summer girls' camp extended to a week, as I begged to be allowed to stay, too. I was 8, just old enough for enrollment, so after conferring with the venerable camp director, Mrs. White, my parents made the hour's drive back to Rochester to pack my duds. Our mother had spent a full day sewing labels onto Barb's socks and underwear, but stuffed mine quickly into a box with shorts, T-shirts, swimsuit, and toothbrush – I would just have to keep track of them. Then it was back to "Holiday House" on Conesus Lake (the westernmost of the New York State Finger Lakes) where my parents found me in full swing amid a gaggle of newfound friends.

The big, rambling house with its bay windows of stained glass, oak-banistered staircase to the bunk rooms, narrow wooden stairs to the counselor's attic (a favorite venue from which to spy on the teenagers), screened dining porch, and open vistas to the lake, was made for memories. Most of mine center on the breezy wraparound porch; the lattice-fronted craft room, cool and damp under the main floor; and the lake itself. We canoed, swam, and ferried home across it from a small, up-shore amusement park that we'd hike to in the coolness of a weekday morning along the shoulder of then-country-quiet West Lake Road. The campgrounds also included a small, free-standing chapel with its back door ever open to the sandy shore and water. Evening services may have been the only time we all sat still en masse, for meals were rotated and rest time was rarely that – it was an ideal time for creeping up to the counselor quarters.

Not long ago, I vividly dreamed of entering the hall of a gracious old estate, realizing I knew the place but unable to put a name or locale to it before waking up. I never made the connection to Holiday House until this past December, when, during a visit home to Rochester, my sister arranged a visit to the old home, which is now privately owned by a couple she met this year. When she realized exactly where they lived she lost no time arranging a visit for us while I was in the area.

Walking through the front door, I re-entered that dream. Debbie and Rick, who had beautifully restored the mansion after a long period of neglect under other ownership, often find former campers at their door or dock and accommodate them graciously. As they shared their home space we poured out our memories, historical trivia they enjoyed in turn. After the tour (including a glimpse into the small room where the formidable, ever-erect Mrs. White actually slept), we sat in what had been the old dining hall, now a family room with large windows to the lake. Our hosts shared a pile of old camp ledgers they'd found in storage. Flipping to 1958, we found our names on the list – Barb's carefully penned on the pre-registration page, mine quickly penciled in at the end, a last-minute addition.

I recalled how I'd paid heavy dues in this very same room by not eating a dinner I found unpalatable and missing out on the chocolate pudding dessert I was salivating for. How the next night I'd cleaned my plate with some difficulty only to find a dish of pale, watery sliced pears for dessert – oh, the injustice! Regarding a moist chocolate brownie I'd just plucked from Debbie's proffered plate I remarked that, at last, I was enjoying the dessert of my dreams at Holiday House – albeit a half century later, and overlooking a wintering lake.

If discipline seemed onerous at times, the pleasures of camp were so legion and the place at heart so child-friendly that I never hesitated to return, even when my sister stopped accompanying me. What was a summer without Holiday House – the unflappable Mrs. White at her desk in the front office with its high panels of stained glass; our favorite counselors "Twig" and her sister (twins!); the cook's handsome son, who never seemed to mind the adoring line of little girls trailing behind him; the roiling water of the lake as we paddled and swam, and its quiet, flat glow in the light of a shoreline campfire? Dim memories persist of pirate dress-up day, pick-up sticks on the porch floor, boondoggle down below, a new volume of Happy Hollisters plucked from the bookshelves for rest period, scrawling a postcard home from my bunk.

The December visit brought it all back – and I fully expect to revisit the place in all its summer glory in some long winter night's dream.

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