When I was eleven years old, I slapped an orphan.
I spent two weeks every summer of my childhood at Camp Harmony, a Presbyterian retreat in rural South Carolina. I have mostly fond memories of Harmony. The food was good, and several times a week there were campfires and s’mores. The forced recreational activities didn’t torment me as they did during the school year. At camp, I became one of the sporty girls I read about in pre-teen romance novels.
“Wearing her favorite green one-piece bathing suit, naturally athletic Melissa deftly swam out to the floating dock in the middle of the lake, easily surpassing the other children. Her dark hair glimmered in the sun…”
Something like that.
I went to camp with my best friend from church, Kelly. We had special hard-sided suitcases that fit under our shared bunk. T-shirts, shorts, panties, and training bras were clearly labeled. As a sisterless child, this practice seemed odd (someone will try to wear my underwear?), but that’s what you did when you went to camp.
When I was eleven, my mother informed me that Kelly’s family had elected to go to Disney World during our designated camp week. That’s not the way things worked. Despite my loud protestations, my parents decreed I would be going to camp alone. I’m sure they loved quality alone-time with my little brother, a low-maintenance child who could be completely satisfied with cold hot dogs straight from the wrapper.
Mama and I arrived at Harmony on the designated Sunday, approached the check-in table, and told the college-age counselor my name. She jumped up. “Excuse me, I’ll be right back.” A minute later the camp director, Mrs. McFarland, barreled over to us with a clipboard. Her hair was cut in a particularly heinous version of the Rachel haircut. She also had a really painful-looking camel toe from her jacked-up khaki shorts. The lady simpered at my mother, “Oh, Mrs. Reed, thank you so much for volunteering Melissa to stay in this unusual cabin. We know she has a big heart, and she’s going to be an excellent model for the other campers. These are all very special kids.”
WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?
Mrs. McFarland leaned over me, and her enormous breasts swung perilously close to my face. They could have crushed my tiny skull like a nutcracker. I immediately and unreservedly hated her stupid guts when she cooed at me like I was in kindergarten. “Melissa, you’re going to be in a cabin with all the children from Faith Garden. It’s a permanent-care facility.”
I stoically turned to my mother. “An orphanage,” I said. “They live in an orphanage.”
Mama looked sheepish and guilty. That didn’t last long, though, because the other parents within earshot looked at my mother like she was St. Francis of Assisi, fawning over her sacrifice with all the Southern kindness they could muster. However, I wasn’t stupid; from the smell of adult envy in the air, I could tell they were bitterly jealous of our Presbyterian points. Mama gazed down at the ground with pious humility like one of those ladies in a medieval painting. I burned.
Mrs. MacFarland led me to the open pavilion where the other campers were gathered and introduced to me my counselors, two wholesome blonde college kids sent straight over from Central Casting. I can’t remember their names, but Jason and Jennifer seem likely. They each wore an armful of friendship bracelets knotted by campers from the previous session, sported Teva tan lines, and had their shirt sleeves rolled up just right. I’ll bet they make out, I thought, mired in the agony of prepubescent curiosity.
Jennifer perkily said, “We’re still waiting on the kids from Faith Garden to arrive. They should be here soon.” They wandered away for a few minutes (to make out), leaving me alone to ponder the wild uncertainty of the next two weeks. Ever the optimist, I thought about how it could be fun. After all, I could make new friends, right? I allowed myself to get sucked into a fantasy of Protestant sainthood and remembered a pamphlet Mama had taken home from church: “What Is Your Ministry?” I could give piano lessons! I would be a kind and gentle teacher of my underprivileged peers.
Suddenly, it occurred to me that these orphan campers could be a source of practical information: they could help me escape my tortured suburban existence. All attempts thus far had been unsuccessful, including an incident last spring when I barricaded myself in my bedroom after a big fight with my parents, grabbing the phone before I slammed the door. I sat on my rose-covered bedspread and dialed 0.
“I need the phone number of an orphanage.”
“I’m looking for an orphanage.”
“Do you know the name?”
“No. I just need to talk to one.”
“Does your mother know we’re having this conversation?”
“My parents are dead. I’m an orphan.” (Yes, I know I’m probably going to hell for this.)
“Are you telling me the truth?”
I hung up. She was judgy.
Going straight to the source of orphan information felt like a concrete step in the right direction. I was scripting an imaginary farewell letter to my family when a 14-passenger van rumbled down Camp Harmony’s dirt road. From a distance, it looked like a swarm of bees or a box of puppies. The van pulled to a stop in front of the pavilion, the door slid open, and twelve very loud children exited. They immediately dispersed and started wreaking havoc among the other campers like twelve individual tornadoes. I got a bad slimy feeling in my mouth, and realized I had two very long weeks ahead of me.