She was given the name by her older sister, Elaine, who, at the time, was a toddler and couldn’t wrap her mouth around the complexity of sounds contained in the word “Miriam”. Elaine shortened her new sister’s name to “Momo” and it stuck. I’m sorry to report that Elaine didn’t stick around long enough to enjoy the permanence of her youthful declaration. She died around the time Momo was mastering her first steps. Motoring around the coffee table, shoving stray curiosities into her mouth to see how they tasted, Momo was left pretty much alone as her parents grieved the loss of their first born. So deep was their grief, that her parents couldn’t bring themselves to share the actual story of Elaine’s death with Momo. The specifics remained a mystery cloaked in an unremitting silence that both Momo’s parents took to their grave.
Momo treasured the only physical object she found that belonged to Elaine, proving that once upon a time she had an older sister. It was a lenticular of the Cracker Jack sailor winking. She’d spend hours in her bedroom conducting imaginary conversations with Elaine, who was always, in Momo’s imagination, fearless and wise. The Cracker Jack sailor served as silent witness to each of these lengthy one-sided conversations.
Had Elaine survived, Momo wouldn’t have had to bear the burden of maintaining the family business long after it ceased turning a profit. If a family’s soul could be said to reside in a location, theirs would be the entrance gate to Camp Walmer, named after Walter and Meredith, Momo’s parents. Camp Walmer flourished in the great era of sleep away camps, the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Back then, summer camps were designed to keep their charges safe, entertained and out of their parents’ hair for two months. Successful sleep away camps offered their campers a well-rounded experience, where arts and crafts, sports and a bit of theater filled up the days and nights in a fun yet leisurely manner.
Momo lived for the summer. As a camper, she squeezed a year’s worth of drama, intrigue and romance into a brief seven weeks. She expected that the friendships formed in the back of the cabin, playing a forbidden game of jacks after lights out would last her a lifetime.
They didn’t. The lenticular Cracker Jack sailor’s face faded. The habit of sending your kids to sleep away camp fell out of fashion. Momo hung on. By virtue of being raised in a home where loss, mystery and denial were the norm, Momo clung to the stability of time-honored traditions, be it those at camp or throughout the year. She had trouble throwing away anything that suggested the past, especially prior to her birth.
This tendency to hold onto things, to reuse materials, to cobble together art projects from remnants of the past, made Camp Walmer, under Momo’s leadership, a safe and special sanctuary. Kids loved it because they are innately conservative. When you’re young, change happens at a furious and unremitting pace. Third graders for instance, pine for the seeming security of second grade when lunch was served at 11:30am and homework wasn’t so demanding. Momo understood this mindset and shaped her camp experience so that all campers felt they belonged. If tennis wasn’t your thing, then so be it. Parents, fully expecting their campers to return home having mastered a fluent backhand or powerful serve, were disappointed. Enrollment plummeted.
Momo plowed on. The rhythm of her life remained remarkably consistent; two months were spent either anticipating or reflecting on those glorious summer days and the rest of the year waiting for it to start up again.
As a child, it was impossible for her to parse out the specifics that made summer time so special. As an adult, she understood it all too well. It was in part the reality and the smell of just being at camp. But it was also the allure of the mysterious swarthy man behind the counter at the deli that sat on the intersection of Route 109 and Youngstown Rd.