and Charlie died. They each passed away years ago, more than
ten I was told today by their grandson, Keith, who’d been a friend
of my youth. Of course I’d have presumed they were gone, if
I had considered the matter. Had they been alive they would
each be near a hundred years, and very few people live to hear their
centennials celebrated by Willard Scott. But the irrevocability
of the news—though forgone—the definite and fairly matter of fact
verification—left me somewhat empty, and melancholy, and soon swallowed
up in a sweet but also sad reflection.
and Charlie were the owners of Friedlander’s Bungalow Colony, the
Catskill paradise of the summers of my early life. Situated
atop a high hill just outside of Mountaindale, Friedlander’s was rather
typical of a Borscht Belt colony--approximately thirty-five families
housed in a string of bungalows and one central main house with a
large community kitchen.
Tillie and Charlie, the colony was clearly their life’s work, and
they took great pride in running a first class show. Charlie
was a talented and devoted gardener, and each spring the grounds exploded
in a breathtaking pallet of color and texture so fabulous and wonderful
that one might have thought the arrangements were designed by divine
edict. In maintaining the property Charlie was assisted by two handy-men
of long standing—Paul and Martin—and the grounds were always immaculate,
the bungalows always in good repair. Every summer the bungalow
exteriors were freshly painted, along with the huge collection of
lawn furniture—Adirondack-chairs, wooden benches, metal rockers, umbrella
tables and double swings. The playground apparatus--which was not
in a playground area per se but was scattered on various areas of
the sprawling lawns—also received a fresh coat of paint, always in
bright and dazzling hues of red, blue, orange, green. It lives
in the mind’s eye as a child’s Eden.
the road Charlie maintained a long, rambling row of chicken coops,
from which each morning he gathered farm fresh eggs. The eggs
were taken to the colony store, which was operated by Tillie, with
assistance from her sisters. On a warm summer’s day in a time
before ubiquitous air conditioning, the colony store was the most
comfortable spot around. The lights were never very bright.
As you entered the store, through a heavy wooden screen door that
snapped closed behind you with a solid whack, it was as if you were
slipping under water. The mid-day air had been cooled
in the darkness, and you could smell the aroma of Tillie’s cooking.
The two pinball machines—a nickel a play—were hard by the front door.
There were a handful of booths, and two counters. The malteds
were ambrosial, accompanied by salty pretzel rods. The egg creams
were works of art. There were custard donuts and bear claws,
and huge black and white cookies. The available ice cream were
mella-rolls, from Borden’s, and forever damn the genius who discontinued
colony kids, no matter what age, and no matter how noisy and rowdy,
were always welcome in Tillie’s store. We ordered refreshment—Hoffman’s
soda, bags of popcorn and chips—and “charged” the price to our family’s
account. Tillie was dutiful in monitoring our sugar intake,
and much like a bartender counting drinks she would cut us off when
she’d think we’d overindulged.
and Tillie provided all the necessary accoutrements for a joyous summer.
In addition to the colony store there was a pristine filtered pool,
a finely constructed camp-house, a casino, a well manicured baseball
field, a basketball court, a handball court, a card room and a vast
array of playground apparatus. But much more important, a feeling
pervaded each inch of the grounds that assured children that here
was a place special for them, a place where they were cherished and
valued and loved. And this, unquestionably, was a tone that
resonated and was amplified from the top—from the colony proprietors—Tillie
and Charlie. They were, to us all, as an extra and very extraordinary
set of grandparents.
the summer of my 12th year my parents decided that the
following year we would move to a different colony, in Monticello,
which was populated by many of my dad’s cousins. We never spent
another summer at Friedlanders. Through the ensuing years of
early adolescence I continually pleaded for my parents to take us
on the half-hour drive over winding mountain roads, back to the old
colony, to visit friends and touch base with special places.
Some years they acquiesced, some years they didn’t. Later on,
when I could drive on my own, I made two or three pilgrimages each
summer, until, in the middle 1970’s, Tillie and Charlie sold the colony
to a group that changed it to a camp for overweight girls.
my early 20’s I entertained fantasies of buying the property myself,
and refurbishing it, restoring it to it’s former beauty, and waiting
with pride and enthusiasm for a rush of young families from the city
to rejoice and enjoy the colony’s special blessings, much as I had
course, that day never came. The girl’s camp operated through
the late 1980’s, and then, in the relentless script of the past decades
in the Catskills, the property was turned over to a group of Chasidim.
The fence surrounding the pool of my childhood was placarded with
colorful fiberglass, the grass on the ball field was allowed to grow
wild and tall. Only the playground equipment was not neglected.
Memorial Day weekend in 1983 my wife and I were to meet friends for
a weekend at a hotel in Monticello. On our drive from the city
we took a brief detour, as I had been looking forward to giving here
the fifty-cent tour of my most special place in the world.
was happily surprised to discover Tillie and Charlie were still living
in their house across the road from the colony. That morning
we walked the grounds with them, still so verdant and well groomed
that I half expected the door of my bungalow to swing open and see
my little brother, his arm through a black inner tube, sprint for
the pool. But the memories were only memories, confirmed by
the silence and the transition of the colony store into a mess hall
and the bungalows into camp bunks. Still, the vista was the
same—the trees, the pool, the buildings, and the handball court.
I snapped off a dozen photos that morning, three favorites still grace
a shelf in my living room. One photo is simply a shot of my
old bungalow from the top of the hill. In another photo Tillie
is in a sweater draped across her shoulders, her once dark hair noticeably
gray, her eyeglasses dangling from a chain on her neck as they had
when she totaled a bill in the colony store. She is smiling
beside my wife, who herself was smiling, her body slightly swelling
in the fourth month of her carrying our first child. My wife
and Tillie, standing together, appear like grandmother and grandchild.
the last photo, Charlie and Tillie are standing before the doors of
the colony store, with the old penny scale in the background.
They are older than I remembered, but no less happy, no less loving.
know,” Tillie told me on that lost May morning some 20 years ago.
“It’s always the children who come back. We hardly ever see
the parents, but the kids, each summer they come, and they spend hours
here, walking around, remembering the past, almost like they’re coming
back to a holy place.”
and Charlie are gone now. The summer world they created is gone
as well. Well, gone, save for the very golden memories of the
countless children who were fortunate enough to be blessed with days
of splashing in the pool, playing ball on the grass, swinging on the
swings, sipping sodas in the shade, and becoming immersed in the innumerable
pleasures of summer. At the very least this world—my
world—became a far better place for their presence. And
I know, that for a while at least, I will feel their passing and miss
them dearly, as if a dear and loving relative had just been laid to