“No, Grandma,” both my twin granddaughters said as I watched them go off to summer camp and asked if I could go with them and be part of their myriad of wonderful activities. “You’re too old to go to camp.”

Well, maybe I am too old for camp, but whenever I think of a certain special summer of my childhood, I’m suddenly a kid again.

When I was a little girl, Pagliaccio was my favorite companion. He went wherever I went, and although that wasn’t very far for a little girl, we traveled well together. The summer of 1944 was the first time Pagliaccio and I were going to be so far from home, away from the hot pavement and sweltering, sleepless nights. We were going to the country, my mother said, to a place called Monticello, where there would be plenty of grass, and where I might even have to pull up a blanket when I went to bed.

Whenever I think of a certain special summer of my childhood, I’m suddenly a kid againThe thought of the cool comfort was so appealing that I was able to accept the fact that I would see my father only on weekends. Monticello was much too long a drive for my father to come every evening, my mother explained, but if I was good, he would bring up a special treat.

Pagliaccio and I waited in the back of our green Mercury while my father loaded all the things we needed into the trunk and onto the seat beside me: our own dishes, our pots, our towels and sheets, medicinal supplies, a favorite lawn chair, suitcases of clothing, a few cartons of groceries, a radio and my toys. It seemed as though nothing was left in our house, and I wondered how my father would get along.

Pagliaccio sat on my lap without a care, his clown hat tilted to one side, his arms and legs carelessly sprawled against me, and his painted face perpetually joyful even with the little tear in the corner of his eye. I was apprehensive. I tried to imagine living in just one room with only two beds, a dresser, a small table and some chairs. I tried to picture sharing a bathroom with people I didn’t know, and eating in a large kitchen with other strangers. The only thing I could visualize was the face of my grandmother, whom my father had packed off weeks before.

The ride to the country was steamy and endless. The heat was so intense that a few times my father had to pull off the side of the road and open the hood of the Mercury to let the engine cool. After a while, I watched one car after another do the same. Once when we stopped, we had a picnic on a grassy spot near the car, and the sandwiches tasted so delicious under the trees that I was getting more anxious to get to Monticello where there would be picnics all the time.

When my father stopped for gas, my mother took me to the bathroom around the back of the station, and I waited there for the car to be ready. A few other children were waiting, too, and their cars also looked packed for a stay in the country. Two boys at least twice my age were eyeing Pagliaccio and came closer to see him better. With neither of the boys saying a word, one of them simply yanked Pagliaccio away from me and spun him in the air. Before I had a chance to protest, their father gathered them into their car and sped away.

When I retrieved Pagliaccio, I saw that one of his arms was gone and the stuffing bulged from his side. His smiling face was crushed. As I ran to my mother to show her what happened, I could tell by the look on her face that my closest companion would no longer accompany me. At once I hoped those two boys would have no grass where they were going and would only have soggy oatmeal to eat every day. I had no idea what I would do without Pagliaccio. Yet, with the promise of a new clown arriving with my father the next weekend, I decided to make the best of what lay ahead the rest of the long winding trip.

From the moment I arrived at Winitsky’s Roominghouse, there was no time for me to be lonely. A horde of friendly looking people gathered about our car to welcome us. Eager children of all sizes waited to see what we brought. Some of them were already pulling me toward a playground with swings and a slide, and others shouted to join them at the lake.

There was no time for me to be lonelyMy grandmother hugged and kissed me and praised me in Yiddish to her friends. Women in cotton sundresses chatted with my mother and immediately included her in their mah-jongg game. Men with the same black yarmulkes my grandfather had worn slapped my father on the back and accepted him into their group of weekend husbands. Automatically we became Winitskyites, and for the rest of the summer I took advantage of the privileges that came with the title.

Every morning I enjoyed getting up to the crisp, fresh country air, going down to our building’s kitchen, and trading food across the table with the other children whenever I didn’t like what my mother gave me. I enjoyed watching the backs of the women as they came for their turns three times a day at the separate stoves and sinks for meat and dairy, each moving about in her own way, each singing her own song, and each adding to the blend of the marvelous aromas that filled the room. Chicken soup and blintzes were my favorites.

I looked forward to gathering with my friends at the swings or in our secret hiding place under the casino porch to plan our activities. We took turns swinging from the tire on the monstrous oak tree, watched the older children play handball, sometimes begged them to take us in a rowboat on the lake below the grounds, and splashed away the afternoon in the shallow kiddie pool.

Often the women took us for walks along the blistering roads, and the smell of the tar lingered with me for the rest of the day. Every week we went to the chicken farm on the way to the small grocery store, and there not only chose our own eggs, but the chickens for that Shabbat dinner. The owner, who reminded me so much of my grandfather, let us watch the baby chicks, and if we didn’t touch them, his wife brought out lemonade and freshly baked honey cake. She and my grandmother even exchanged recipes.

Many times the owner came to Shabbat services at our social hall. It was closer than the synagogue he went to all year, and he loved the summer crowd. Listening to the men pray together, as the cool air caught their ancient melodies and carried them across the lawn, I felt even more strongly that beautiful solidarity I was so much a part of.

A special treat was to go blueberry picking. All the women and children, pails in hand, trudged through the thick brush into the woods. That our fingers were sticky and stained purple, our legs scratched, and we were bitten up by mosquitoes—hardly mattered, because the taste of fresh berries with sour cream and a glass of cold borscht was a luscious reward.

Weekends became holidays for celebration. Preparations began Friday morning, when pots of chicken soup were started and challahs were popped into the oven. The children’s job was to shell baskets of peas and strip ears of sweet corn. My grandmother cooked rhubarb, her friend (and mine) Mrs. Rubin rolled pastry dough, and the other women chopped and sliced and peeled until everything was ready. White Shabbat clothes were laid on the tables in the central dining hall that connected the two wings of the building and was only used on weekends.

Weekends became holidays for celebrationIn the afternoon, as the cars arrived carrying weary husbands and gifts, each family became complete. Private moments were spent getting reunited, but then everyone gathered as a unit in the dining hall. Twelve polished sets of candlesticks were set on the tables, and when the candles were lit, the glow on each person’s face, young and old together, was the same.

After Kiddush and during dinner, wonderful stories and news of the week were exchanged. I especially loved to hear the tales the older people told about their own childhoods before they came to America. Although the war in Europe was in its last chapter, they knew that the tormented suffering of the Jews continued to worsen. Some of the people at Winitsky’s still had relatives overseas and were deeply worried. Everyone’s sense of this trouble bound us even closer, as all of us said a prayer for them.

The quiet relaxation of Shabbat day gave way to evenings of merriment in the social hall. Couples listened to music, and before the children went to bed they saw a little of the variety show that was often put on. People told funny stories in Yiddish, sang old Yiddish tunes and popular ballads, and sometimes one of the fathers did magic tricks. On Sundays the men played cards, took their families rowing, challenged the older children to a game of handball, shared picnic lunches on the lawn, and packed to go back to the city and look forward to returning again.

The first weekend my father arrived, he did not bring me my clown. He couldn’t find another Pagliaccio, so instead he brought Esmerelda, a life-size rag doll with curls. At first I was disappointed, but when my grandmother said, “Look, a shayna maydel like you,” I felt better. Another beautiful girl. I immediately took Esmerelda in my arms and welcomed her. For I knew how joyful it was to be part of an instantly encompassing community. I will never forget the solidarity of that long-ago community, and all my memories of being a Winitskyite will continue to keep me young.

I think I could be a terrific camper.