ELORA, ON — On Saturday afternoon, August 12th, many heartwarming memories of being a “kasvandik”/“kasvataja” at Seedrioru Suvekodu during the 1960s came alive for me in a delightfully unexpected way.
A few weeks earlier, I had heard from my cousin in Toronto that a reunion was being planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our much beloved Estonian summer camp on the Grand River. An enthusiastic and creative organizing committee was offering a full weekend sampler of enjoyable nostalgic activities and outdoor sensory delights so that alumni of all ages could relive their treasured Seedrioru experiences.
Alas, my husband and I live in Kingston, requiring a 5 hour road expedition to Elora, and we’re in our “stiff and creaky fifties” now. And Jack, although he’s been a remarkably good sport about all things ethnic over the years, isn’t an official “true blue” Esto…just a specially adopted one. “Hmm. I’d love to go, but that’s a long time to be navigating on the 401 in holiday traffic.. and what if Jack doesn’t feel included?” I wondered. And, besides, we had a lot of things to do around the house.
And then it happened. The spirit of Seedrioru worked its magic once again, over hundreds of miles, and through many decades of dissolving years. A last minute e-mail request crossed my desk for old camp photographs to be part of a slide presentation at the gathering. Sometime during the late-night scanning of pictures from my dusty albums, as I remembered and laughed about some wonderful moments and many very dear people, I came to the realization that I just had to be at “laager” to share in the festivities. Seedrioru would always be my special Shangri-La of experience and memory.
Jack and I decided to drive down for the Saturday dinner (an enticing offering of exceptionally good food, including savoury Estonian style “vorst” and “kapsas”). This was followed by a hayride through some verdant August cornfields in the orange evening glow of the harvest sun, a “sizzle and swim” sauna night, a traditional flag-lowering ceremony, a delicious evening snack of aromatic kringel and coffee, and a late-night DJ dance on the basketball court. Most people had already arrived Friday after work for a festive reception and a hearty evening of familiar campfire songs. On Saturday morning the alumni had the pleasure of being instructed by Hr. and Pr. Toomsalu in “rahvatants”.
Meanwhile, the water in the swimming area had a pleasant late summer warmth to it, and the weather was perfect. And, from what participants were saying, sleeping in the barracks was very comfortable, even for the “I’m not too sure about this” senior delegation… but they did seem to prefer the lower bunks.
Seedrioru, in its 50th year, has taken on a mature and mellow serenity. The pastoral setting is more idyllic than ever, and impeccably maintained by a dedicated group of caring volunteers. Those of us who spent our summers there, embraced and protected by its scenic beauty, sometimes take it a little for granted, I think. It’s so much a part of who we are. People like my husband, though, see it through different eyes, and are amazed. How blessed the children of my generation were to have experienced the exceptional environment that was created for us by our insightful and hardworking Estonian parents. It was truly a labour of love and dedication.
As Jack and I strolled around the grounds, I related some of my personal camp memories to him.
I would have to say that the most memorable event for me happened on the hottest night of the summer, sometime in the late 1960s. It was hard to sleep. Most of the counsellors were up at the mess hall having a meeting. Lembit, a tall and blond teenager from Hamilton, who was the all-round handyman and “sauna keeper” that summer, played accordion extremely well. He was a master at it, even at his young age. To cool off in the sweltering night heat, he strapped on his “squeeze-box” and sat alone on the picnic table close to the big shade tree located between the ‘tared’. A few old-time classic Estonian “rahvaviisid” meandered through the humid darkness under the stars. I was the “on duty” junior night counsellor quietly observing the scene from the central office in the Arnold Pau Tare.
Some of the younger girls appeared at the upstairs window of the “Koldetare”, and were watching intently as Lembit played. They seemed to catch his eye, so he chose a piece that he knew really well: the traditional Jewish wedding folkdance tune, Hava Nagilah.
Suddenly, there were faces at every window and doorway. I was getting the distinct impression that I ought to do something about the situation. But, what? Should I go and tell somebody up at the meeting? It was such a catchy and hypnotic tune, and it was much too hot and muggy to sleep. Some of the little ones were very cranky because they were so uncomfortable. And Lembit’s musicianship was quite extraordinary.
Somebody asked Lembit to play the song again. Louder. He did. The counsellors were still up at the “söögisaal”. The mesmerizing melody continued. Lembit was now surrounded by an admiring outdoor audience of young fans in pajamas and nightgowns.
And then, beyond all explanation, very spontaneously, the kids started to dance… first tentatively on the grass, and then on the gravel, and then over the picnic tables. And dance. And dance some more. It was as though a mischievous character from “Midsummer Night’s Dream” had put something into the drinking water! And the dancing didn’t stop. Every bed in the camp was soon empty. The "tared" were deserted. What erupted in the central gathering place between the barracks was pure unfettered, wholesome and joyful emotion: being young, the night, the music. I had never seen anything like it and haven’t again to this day.
The laughter and the singing were so loud that the counsellors and the director came running down the hill to see what had happened. They confronted a whole camp full of kids clapping and dancing over lawn furniture, up and down embankments, in the sand box, through the Pau Tare, and around the big venerable shade tree.
And Lembit, bless his heart, was still playing Hava Nagilah… but not quite sure whether he should continue.
Well, you can imagine what the responsible “powers that be” had to say: “Noh, mis see siis on?! Kohe vooditesse ja magama!” Nobody heard or listened.
The staff wisely realized that it was pointless to even try to stop this spirited free-for-all, and that it would be best if the “dancers” just wore themselves out… which they did, eventually going back to bed for the best night of sleep they had ever had at Seedrioru. (A few of the kids who had forgotten to put on their shoes in the rush, or had lost them somewhere in the musical melee, had to have their feet bandaided in the morning, though.)
My husband smiled as I wrapped up the story and we rounded the corner of the “söögisaal”… and, my goodness, there was Lembit, right in front of us… 35 years later! I introduced him to Jack as the kid who played the accordion the unforgettable and enchanting night that the entire Seedrioru camp danced to Hava Nagilah under the stars.
And then, all at once, I was surrounded by a sea of familiar smiling faces, mostly “little girls” for whom I had been a counsellor once, and now were mothers, many with kids at Seedrioru this past summer. Some were even grandmothers. Where had the time gone? The camp still looked the same, in all of its glory… why didn’t we?
I was so glad that Jack and I had made the last minute decision to come on this “sentimental journey” to my summer “home”… and even more pleased when we all sat down to a boisterous dinner as “campers”, filling the mess hall from wall to wall with cheerful chatter. If there had been just 10 more people, it would have been necessary to serve supper in shifts.
My impression was that the outcome of the reunion far exceeded everyone’s expectations, including those of the organizing committee. They are all to be congratulated and thanked for a job superbly done, and for offering such a marvellous event. What a fun-filled weekend of warm and welcoming Seedrioru hospitality it was!
(My husband Jack enjoyed it too. I’m hoping that there’s a chance that the experience might be repeated another year.)
Summer in the sixties lives again at Camp Seedrioru (1)