Editor's Note: Rachel Bertsche is the bestselling author of MWF Seeking BFF as well as the new memoir Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me. She is also a journalist and editor, whose work has appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, More, Teen Vogue, and more. Prior to leaving the office life for the comforts of working from home (and in her pajamas), Bertsche was a producer for Oprah.com and an editor at O: The Oprah Magazine. For Signature's That Summer series, in which authors share personal stories on the summers that shaped them or their subjects, Rachel shares the blissful last summer she spent as a child away at camp.
The summer of my sixteenth year was my final season at summer camp. Not because I wanted to stop going, or because I decided it was time to get a job or travel the world or start studying for my SATs. It was my last summer in Maine, where I’d attended the same all-girls camp since I was eight, because the powers-that-be wouldn’t let me back. The sixteen-year-olds were the graduating class. At seventeen, apparently, we would be too old for arts and crafts and waterskiing and color war. We would be adults.
The way I saw it, as long as I was at camp, I was still a kid. That patch of bunks and trees and mess halls protected me from, well, whatever came next. So, that summer, I held on for dear life. While my bunkmates were sneaking cigarettes, I was writing songs to sing around the campfire. I had a lead in the senior musical – as Cosmo Brown from “Singing in the Rain” (throw a French braid in your hair and – poof! – you’re a boy). I sure did make ‘em laugh. I was first to arrive at the dreaded archery and kayak classes, while my friends were taking advantage of our “senior skips” (as the eldest campers, we were allowed to pass on two activities a day). There were plenty of mornings when, by lunchtime, I’d already gone canoeing, climbed the rock climbing wall, and lost a tennis match (I was always losing tennis matches). My favorite time of day was the 10:20 ritual called Cookie Line. That was when the entire camp stood in line to eat cookies. Life was that simple.
When we had evening socials with local boys camps, I scoffed as my friends huddled in the one building with electric outlets so they could blow dry their hair straight. I would have happily skipped the mixer for an extra couple of hours reading on my bottom bunk, hair frizzy and nose extra freckly from too many SPF-free hours in the sun.
The cigarettes and the blow-dried hair and the skipping activities – I couldn’t understand what my friends were doing. I wanted to soak up every second of camp we had left – as soon as I went home, I’d be faced with the beginning of the rest of my life: What colleges do you want to apply to? Will you have the grades to get in? What career do you have in mind? Have you had any internships? No? Don’t you think you should get on that? Not to mention the year I was to spend in the Social Anxiety Institution also known as High School. (I was going into Junior year, otherwise known as “Everyone’s Losing Their Virginity” year. The stress level was high.)
At camp, our biggest problem was that the lake was too cold. Or that the Cookie Line option that day was oatmeal. Gross.
On the morning of August 15, 1998, my best friend and I boarded a bus back to New York. We’d stayed up all night, gossiping under our favorite trees, taking pictures of the view of the lakefront. I don’t know for sure that we plucked blades of grass from the lawn in an effort to literally take the campground home with us, but it sounds melodramatic enough for me to think we did. As the bus pulled away, we all knew we were leaving more than a summer in Maine behind.
In the year to come, my father was diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually kill him. I fell in love for the first time, and suffered the inevitable heartbreak that follows. The rest of my life began. But, thanks to that summer, it came a little late.
If you are moved by your own summer memories, submit your story to Paste’s That Summer writing contest.