From the TJP archives, May 28, 2009, we present a classic column from Harriet Gross.
Spring is only a state of mind in a year like this, with its erratic May weather teasing us. But soon enough, summer will come to stay, bringing hot sun, high temps and humidity, and dry dusty days. Then the Queen Anne’s lace will blow again, white across weedy fields, throwing off its heady musk. And when I see it, and smell it, I’ll remember…
I first got to know Queen Anne’s lace when I was a little girl at summer camp for the first time. My dad had come home one day in spring and asked me if I’d like to go there for two weeks in July. He was a doctor who volunteered to do the medical checkups our Jewish community center required for its campers; that was the first year I was old enough to be one of them.
I was not quite 9 years old then (I’d actually mark my birthday while I was at camp), and except for an occasional sleepover at a relative’s house, I had never been away from home for even one night by myself. What did I know? So I said yes.
Among so many things I didn’t know about was homesickness. After the fuss and excitement of settling in at camp, a process that lasted something less than two days, a few of the little girls in my group started crying and wailing that they wanted to go home. Now homesickness is a highly contagious disease, and never even having heard of it before, I certainly hadn’t taken any preventative medicine. Sure enough, I caught the bug. I wanted to go home, too.
But I was different from my weeping bunkmates. As the firstborn in my family, ever the dependable “big sister,” I had always been schooled for strength. To cry, to give up and give in and go home, would have been weak. So I turned to comforting the others. It worked: I stayed at camp, and they stayed there with me. Even my counselor, who just a few years later would become a nationally-known leader in the field of Jewish social group work, never guessed that I was homesick … because to hide my inner turmoil, I took to doing some foolish and dangerous things, like climbing too-tall trees and hopping on one foot along precarious logs and ledges. When I fell from those perches — which was often — I had legitimate reason to let loose the burning flood that was always stinging right behind my eyelids.
At one edge of camp, just outside its limits where kids weren’t supposed to go alone, there was a weedy field full of Queen Anne’s lace. I would sneak off there at rest hour or during free time, and lie face-down among the musky blossoms. Their potent perfume stung my nostrils and caught in my throat, giving me yet another excuse to cry. That was my private summer place, bittersweet and necessary.
Two weeks passed. Like two years they seemed, but they passed. And at last I went home. Miracle of miracles: Everything was still there, just the same as when I’d left! I hadn’t lost a thing during those 14 days except my fear of being away.
For many summers after that I went back, first as a camper, later as a counselor. I loved that place where I learned to sing the songs and dance the dances of our brave pioneers in Palestine, and to know the joy of being one in a sea of white-clad Jews welcoming Shabbat together, our voices harmonizing on “Come O Sabbath Day” as we lit the weekly candles. And I loved that eternal lonely field, where I could always go to shed a few tears of rage or frustration or joy, all by myself among the Queen Anne’s lace.
I never returned after my 17th summer, such a long time ago. In the decades since, life has given me many new tears to shed, and many substitute fields in which to let them fall. But Queen Anne’s lace always takes me back to that first summer away from home, when I learned so very much.
Since then, as spring fades away each year and another summer approaches, I think back to camp, and in my heart I wish for all my nearest and dearest a private place full of Queen Anne’s lace, and a loving home always waiting, just as they left it — no matter where they’ve been or how long away — for their safe return.
Harriet Gross can be reached at