After a nine month drought the skies opened up at precisely 1:00 pm, the exact moment the campers started to arrive. I was standing at the gate, with no shelter, the list of who was supposed to go where dissolved. So I just asked how old they were and assigned them to the units by age. After everyone was in, all hell broke loose at the office. We had asked the girls if they wanted to be with a buddy and in my random assignments I was clueless about who was buddies with whom. Angry parents, weeping children, confused staff and me just about on my last nerve. 

But, we got everything straightened out and the parents left and the girls stopped crying. A Girl Scout Council Board member was one of the parents dropping off her daughter. She was the last parent to leave and as she drove past in the parking lot on her way out she held out a brown paper bag to me.

“I think you probably need this.” She said and drove off.

Inside the bag was a can of maitais.

Just prior to opening the camp, I took a tour of the pool area to make sure it was secure and all the equipment we had been using for counselor training had been put away. My little dog, Caleb was with me. He was a “champagne colored miniature poodle and the dumbest dog I had ever met. He was gift from a friend who, I have no idea why, thought I needed a dog.

Caleb was across the pool from me when I called to him to leave. He ran in a straight line right into the pool. I was astonished! Astonishment quickly gave way to panic as I realized that he was not able to keep his nose above water let alone make his way to the side to get out. This damn dog is going to drown I said to myself and jumped in to save him. We made it safely to the side. I was dressed in my very best camp director outfit, starched white shirt, lanyard with name tag, green Bermuda shorts, leather belt with roadrunner buckle, long green socks with red flashers and sensible oxford shoes. I now had about two and one half minutes to change before the campers arrived at the gate. And you know how that went.

This was my first summer directing camp. I had never been to overnight camp as a child. I had been a naval officer for the previous two years and the powers that be at the Council office thought this is some way prepared for this job. I had majored in Physical Education in college. Not that I had any great love of teaching sports, I didn’t. It was just that as it got to the middle of my junior year I had not declared a major and I like taking PE and was a good athlete and my advisor suggested going with the flow. I got a D in Teaching Team Sports, a D in Teaching Individual Sports and a D in Ballroom Dance but that is another story altogether. In my defense I got an A in Kinesiology, an A in Physiology of Exercise, and an A in Anatomy and Physiology. I ran afoul of the leadership in the department and they refused to admit me to the School of Education where I could get a teaching certificate. I didn’t want a teaching certificate and luckily a cute Navy recruiter came to my rescue. I would have followed her anywhere.

So I joined the Navy and got out two years later and went to work for the Suncoast Girl Scout Council in Tampa, Florida. Two years in the Navy did not prepare me well for recruiting and training Girl Scout leaders either but I did all right.

I loved being at camp. We were our own universe, a miniature community out in the woods. The girls had fun and the adults had fun. We had two international counselors, one from France and one from the Netherlands. It was a great introduction to cultural stereotypes, the French woman was arrogant and aloof and the Dutch woman was like a large dog, always friendly and sloppily affectionate. I fell madly in love with the French woman, needless to say.

This was 1970 in the south. We had been ordered to integrate by the American Camping Association and had done so. I hired and trained black staff and recruited black campers from the City of Tampa Social Services.  I was sitting in my office one day preparing for a visit from the Board of Directors that evening when I say one of our black campers walking toward the front gate. She had her little sister in tow. I asked them where they were going. Home, was the answer. The older girl had had enough of sleeping out in the woods, using a pit latrine and eating weird food and she was going home.

“It’s a long walk, about 50 miles to Tampa.” I said. “You might need some food and water for the trip.” As luck would have it, the cook was baking cookies and the smell permeated the area. We went to see the cook about getting some cookies for the trip. We sat in hallowed ground on the cook’s porch, no one, not even the Director was allowed to sit there without an invitation. The cook has been at this camp for years. As the girls sat there eating their cookies and having a glass of milk the cook said to us,

“Director, we do not have enough fish for tonight’s dinner and someone has to go fishing.” Well, we both knew that fishing was the favorite activity of the black girls of all the dozens of activities we offered.

“I can’t go,” I said, “the Board is due here any minute.”

Both of the little girls hands were waving in the air. “We’ll do it, we’ll do it!” they said together.

So, there I was sitting on the dock with these two when the Board started arrive. I explained and they were quite sympathetic.

The black children did not like being in the woods. The cabins were made of wood, resting about three feet off the ground. There were large screened windows and shutters that lowered to keep out the rain. The first night they were there I did a walking tour to make sure they were OK. There were four girls to a cabin and eight cabins near one another in the unit. The counselor’s had their own cabin in the unit. The first cabin  I came to was shuttered up tight even though it was about 95 degrees. I tried to open the door and found it blocked by four beds and the girls huddled together all in one bed scared to death. The next day I moved all the black girls into a brick building we usually did not use in the summer and kept for the Brownies during the year. It had a cement floor, electric lights and flush toilets. All very OK with the girls. After that they got used to being at camp and I think finally enjoyed themselves as did most of the white girls.

One morning while I was eating breakfast one of the campers came up to me with a bowl of granola in her hands and tears in her eyes. Cook made the best granola in the world and I could not imagine what the problem was.

“I can’t eat this” she said tearfully.

“Why not? I asked

“Because my mother doesn’t want me to eat hippy food.” She replied.

Trying very hard not to laugh, I assured her she could have peanut butter and jelly that was always kept on the sideboard if someone didn’t like the meal. Hippy food! Can you believe it? 

by Margaret Mann

I wake up each morning and sit on the edge of my bed dreading the day ahead of me. Not because I have an overwhelming list of things to do but because I have nothing to do. Except for an occasional doctor’s appointment or luncheon engagement I rarely have any reason to leave the house. This persistent idleness terrifies me. I feel lonely, isolated and useless. Something deep in my psyche is terrified that if I have no purpose, no reason for being here that I don’t exist. Carl Jung’s annihilation. A deep existential terror that I do not matter to anyone, I could leave the planet tomorrow and no would care all that much. No one will throw themselves on my coffin and wail. My friends and family would be sad for a short while and then go on about their lives. Four friends about my age died this past year. I envy them for checking out early and not having to endure this agony. I could be dead a week and the maintenance man will discover my stinking body before anyone knows I died. I could move out of town and no one would know until I told them. 

It makes no difference if I get up at 6:00 am or 10:00 am. It makes no difference whether I eat breakfast now or later and it makes no difference what I eat. It makes no difference if I watch TV, read a book or stare at the wall. I have no demands other than what I invent. I can shop any day of the week. I can do my laundry any day of the week. I can wander aimlessly around the shopping center and no one will know or care. It is a huge burden to think up things to take up the time until I sleep once again.

I notice that I am no longer listened to. I applied for a job recently which years ago I am sure I would have gotten. I used to be a successful grant writer but in the last two years two different directors of agencies have ignored my work and failed to submit the proposal I wrote, both time denying me a job for a year. I feel like they would not have dared to dismiss me like that when I was 40. I feel ineffectual, unimportant and that I am sitting on the sidelines. I once was valued for what I knew and now I am not. I used to be in the know and now I only have memories. I speak now more of the past than the future. I have entered the realm of becoming an entertaining, eccentric old lady who is patronized, patted on the head and thought…cute. When did the worm turn? When did I become marginalized?

What happened to my busy, purposeful life when I had no time to do anything? What happened to getting up on a Saturday morning after working all week, going off shopping, coming home to chores around the house and garden, having interesting people over for dinner, or going to the theater with friends with whom I shared season tickets. I can no longer afford season tickets. I live in an apartment with no yard and my friends are scattered across the country.

What­­’s the strategy to prevent me from throwing myself off the lanai railing? Do I simply assign myself a life? It’s contrived but if I don’t examine the smoke and mirrors too carefully it could seem like a purpose. Did I always do this and just didn’t notice? I assign myself tasks, swim twice a week, go to Tour and Tea at the Academy each week, sign up to be a docent at the museum with a two year training program and take classes at night to fill up the empty hours. Should I try to find people to go with me on these adventures so it seems like a pressing obligation? Or do I just suck it up and go alone to the festival in the park? I dream up projects and set about organizing them as though they mattered. My deeply terrified psyche is sure they don’t really but it is nice to pretend that I have a purpose if only for that moment. 

October 14, 2011

In 1990 I went to work for the Older Women’s League in Washington DC. It was my job to organize new chapters and support the 35 existing local chapters.

My first assignment was to attend a meeting of the Brooklyn, New York chapter. In my own defense I would like to state here and now that I was raised in Hawaii, worked with the Girl Scouts in Honolulu, a brief stint with the League of Women Voters in DC and educated in the Mid West, none of which prepared me in any way to work with the Brooklyn Chapter of the Older Women’s League.

I had been on the job one week when I arrived at the door of the meeting room. I had dressed very carefully that morning in a standard outfit that I had worn at the League of Women Voters: a blue plaid skirt, white blouse with a high collar, blue wool blazer and pumps. The conversation in the room came to a complete halt with my appearance in the doorway. They looked me over with an expression we would have called “stink eye” in Hawaii.

The national board member from that area came forward and greeted me. She steered me to a seat around a large table and advised me to observe for a while before joining in. Good advice, as it turned out. The chapter had a tumultuous history with the national office. They had at one time refused to pay their dues, another time they had sent a representative from the national office home in tears, etc.

They were wearing sweat pants and sweaters and each seemed to have a very large black purse not unlike Mary Poppin’s carpet bag, that held everything anyone would need for an overnight campout. At precisely 11 am they started digging down in these immense bags for snacks. Out came toast wrapped in a paper napkin, packages of crackers, and cookies. I came to find out that this was not a Brooklyn custom alone; it was universal across the nation at meetings of older women. No matter what had been served to eat up to that point, purse rummaging and snacks appeared at 11 am.

The meeting was to say the least, lively. She who shouted the loudest got the floor briefly before being interrupted by the next loudest person. They were rude to one another, “shut up, I’m talking here!” One said to the woman next to here. At one point everyone was talking at the same time and one woman with a cane, slammed it down on the table to get everyone’s attention. Got mine for sure!

By the end of the day, I am thinking to myself that I am going to quit this job the minute I get back to DC. But then as I was going out the door, the woman who had slammed the cane down came up to me, grabbed me by the lapels and said about 3 inches from my face….”Didn’t we have fun today!” She was serious. I blinked, took a breath, and realized that this was sport, not just a meeting. I got it! This was recreation.

These women, mostly Jewish, had been advocates for something their entire lives. They were thick in the labor movement, the socialist movement, civil rights, women’s rights, local neighborhood issues. The Jews of New York City have a long tradition of advocacy and indeed as I traveled the country to do my work I ran into New York Jews everywhere I went.

I returned in a month for the next meeting. I wore pants and a funny sweatshirt. I elbowed in to melay around the table shouting to be heard. They were unhappy about some policy issued from the national office and I did not defend it. I told them they had a point and they needed to write to the board and make themselves heard. I encouraged them to run their affairs they way they saw fit as long as they did not take a position in conflict with the national policies. They loved it, declared me the best thing that had ever come from the national office. I was now one of them, somehow.

A few months later they held a speak-out on Social Security. The first speaker was Lou Glasse, the President of OWL, a WASP from Poughkeepsie, NY.  The ladies of the chapter folded their arms over their purses in their laps and glared at her. She gave a good speech but they barely applauded her. She was the enemy in their eyes, wealthy, protestant, and even worse…from upstate NY. The next speaker was Joan Kuriansky, the Executive Director of OWL. The ladies of the chapter beamed! Joan was Jewish, the same age as their daughters, she was a lawyer, raised in Stamford, Connecticut and the E.D. of their beloved OWL. Joan rattled her papers in preparation to speak, they applauded, she cleared her throat, they applauded. She finished her speech to thunderous appreciation. They gathered around her, touching her arm, smiling at her, telling her how proud they were of her. Lou on the other hand sat with me on the side. Not one person from the chapter paying attention to her.

They were to become my favorite chapter to work with. They were always up to something, totally engaged and marching in the streets, so to speak. It was a great East Coast cultural education for a kid from Hawaii.