Tillie 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.
Tillie 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.
For 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.
Across 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 their production.
The 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.
Charlie 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.
Following 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.
In my early 20’s I entertained fantasies of buying the property myself, and refurbishing it, restoring it to its 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 myself.
Of course, that day never came. The girls’ 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.
On 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.
I 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.
In 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.
“You 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.”
Tillie 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 rest.