The Eternal Mother of Camp Walt Whitman

Jancy Dorfman, former co-Director of Camp Walt Whitman (CWW), where I spent my summers between the ages of 10 and 20, passed away from cancer at the age of 70. Many of us called Jancy our second mother, the mother away from home, and the person who knew everything about us. She knew EVERYTHING about ALL of us. She knew every camper’s name on the first day of camp. She knew about every single romantic relationship before it even started. She knew when I got my first period (way before my own mother did).

A fellow CWW alumn, Josh Holland, describes perfectly the subtle way Jancy would connect with each camper:

“You are standing there in the middle of that big roaring children’s summer camp. It’s sunny. It’s probably joyfully loud. Maybe you are lost in your own head because big roaring summer camps are intense. Suddenly you realize Jancy is standing next to you. She loops her little arm into yours, she looks up at you softly and says ‘I want to tell you something’ or ‘I want to ask you something’ or ‘I want to show you something.’ Her tone is secretive, conspiratorial. She begins walking.”

I always knew in these conversations with Jancy that I was going to learn something important about myself. Summer camp is about coming of age and working through vulnerable moments, making big mistakes and learning from them, losing a big tennis match and recovering, feeling wise and beyond your years one moment and crying your eyes out because of jealousy the next. Jancy knew how important it was to talk to children during vulnerable experiences because that is exactly when children really learn about who they are and how they can become their better selves. What amazes me now, as I think back to those Jancy conversations through an adult perspective, is that her communication style– soft, non-judgemental, and right to the point, had a big impact on the kind of teacher and mother I would become.

When I was teaching, I thought of her every day on the first day of school. I thought to myself, “If Jancy can learn hundreds of campers names for day one, I can learn all my students’ names on day one.”

The other day, when it was 7:30 am and I was rushing to get out the door, Yael asked me a question that made me think, “Jancy would take the time to address this no matter what she had to get to next.”

I was grateful that Jed, her son and old friend of mine, let me know when Jancy entered the final stage of her illness. He shared a beautiful message about how she spent the last days of her life talking openly and unafraid about death with her family.

I took a long walk after I read that message, around a large pond in Cambridge, one reminiscent of Lake Armington, the heart and soul of Camp Walk Whitman. Since my own cancer experience, I find myself increasingly drawn to nature—the third mother in my life—to heal, to be at peace with my own mortality. How fitting that Jancy once again greets me in a vulnerable moment, loops her arm around mine, and looking with me out into the water says, “I want to tell you something.”

To my Camp Walk Whitman community:

This Saturday I will be kayaking on the Charles River in Boston, at a young cancer survivor’s event. But in my mind’s eye, I will be on the Camp Walt Whitman front lawn at sunset, surrounded by campers and counselors past and present. We turn toward the mountains. We stand together in the presence of our eternal camp mother and listen to her count to three, the way she always did before she wanted us to shout something in unison.

On Jancy’s count of 3 we run. Can’t you just picture Jancy’s face as she watches us, her camp children, run as fast as we can down the hill and into the lake?

Remember what it was like to wake up at dawn and blast your young body into that beautiful water.

Remember Jancy, our eternal camp mother, for she will always remember you.

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1 Response to The Eternal Mother of Camp Walt Whitman

  1. Richie Burtt says:

    Beautifully written. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to see these beautiful thoughts.

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