In the summer of 1961 my mother drove me to Camp Ramah in the Poconos. While I unpacked in my new bunk, she explored the grounds—the beautiful lake, several leafy groves, rustic clapboard bungalows. In the 1920’s my mother had briefly gone to a sleep-away camp that she’d loved—Camp Tabor. But a polio epidemic had broken out and her father had to retrieve her after only a few weeks.
The second time my mother visited me at Ramah she arrived mid-week and stayed through Shabbos. On Friday at dusk the whole camp, dressed in white, descended across a grassy meadow to a huge canopied tree under which we prayed.
As we began singing the spectacularly pretty Friday evening psalms—Lechu n’ranenah (“Come sing in ecstasy”)—my mother gasped and grabbed my arm. ‘I’ve been here,” she said. ‘I’ve been under this tree, I’ve prayed under this tree.”
The rest of the night we asked everyone whether a camp called Tabor had ever existed on this site; no one knew. A few weeks later, however, I picked up my fork in the dining hall and noticed a worn down engraving on the handle. I can still see It: CAMP TABOR.
Not all memories are written on index cards in neat files in our heads. Some memories, indeed, are more like pennies shook out of a piggy bank; a split-second alignment of slit and coin, of scent and weather, of place and private feeling. These pairings dislodge from a dark place a forgotten genie.
Though my mother had strolled, while visiting me at Ramah, down lanes of hoary trees and hedgerows, past weathered cottages and derelict out-buildings, though she had canoed to Camp Tioga at the far side of the lake (a camp which, we found out later, had definitely existed in the 1920’s) and many times passed the “Shabbos tree” mid-week—none of this had safe cracked memory.
The genius loci of a place exists at some geomancer’s boundary between Proust and the cosmic surveying tools of feng-shui. Time opens up at this boundary, and a religious feeling ties memory and site, is infused with our presence, with beauty, with our contentment. Sacred trees exist in all traditions—the oak, the neem, the evergreen, the domim, the banyan, the sequoia, the mangrove, the birch, the baobob. And trees form social spaces too—shady canopies under which we sing, tell stories, pray, feel the sun go down or the wind freshen. Contexts have meaning; and meaning, memory. Only when my mother heard praying did her tree shake out its cathected context.