In the mid 1970s my mother and her best friend, Emily, took me, my brother, and Emily's daughter on vacation. They were two single moms exploring the world and trying to find a relaxing vacation with restless children. Years later, I discovered that Emily wrote down the events of the trip and I LOVED it.
Below is her lighthearted account of what it was like to visit Grossingers, an iconic Catskills retreat for decades, catering to Jewish clientele from New York City. Grossingers, the inspiration for Kellerman's of Dirty Dancing fame, closed its doors in 1986.
So here's what two city-weary "shiksas" facing a long holiday weekend with three children and no husbands did. We found contentment at Grossinger's. We knew you didn't have to be Orthodox to go to the big "G". And hoping that you didn't have to be a swinging single, or a movie star, or a large family, or even Jewish, we packed enough gear for an expedition to the Nile and plunged into the Catskills before you could say "Simon Says."
As urged, we arrived to check in at 4PM on Friday. So did roughly 1,200 others, but since the lobby is pretty much the size of the Great Hall in Peking it was all right. We queued up in the W line which reminded me of the nylon stocking line at Roses 5 & 10 in my home town during World War II when word got around that a shipment of nylons had arrived. The children instantly spotted mates in the day camp line and were delighted with the green pointed pixie hats they were issued.
We were assigned rooms in the Roosevelt wing, part of the main building, and as we hiked we managed to get lost in two other mammoth lobbies. When we needed rest, we could stop and look at the paintings. Often they were large oils of ruddy-faced fox hunters in their pink coats.
Finally settled into two pleasant adjoining rooms, we seemed to be in the same state of frantic mania that is felt the first day on board ship. So many rooms, so many people, so many activities! We clutched our lists. Will we ever find where things are? Will we make friends? We feverishly rooted out our swimming gear, collared our babies and headed for the giant pool. "Is this the sea?," asked my daughter. After the swim, there was time for some miniature golf, more exploring, and a decision to book a baby sitter (at $1.25 an hour) and feed the children in their rooms. They are not restaurant oriented youngsters, and we felt it would be better for them (us?) to make their dining room debut at breakfast.
They ate on the floor, dining on Roast Tom Turkey and Trimming, complaining cruelly about the lack of milk or butter, never up to now considered delicacies by any of them. Or first gaffe was calling room service to order a container of milk. Somehow, we felt it would be all right in a container. But after a hurt silence, we were told that not only were we attempting to break dietary laws, but on the Sabbath. We apologized, dressed hastily, and left our children in the hands of a large, cheerful sitter.
In spite of signs posted in the various lobbies asking us not to smoke on the Sabbath, we found the bar open. It was longer than the swimming pool, and provided excellent martinis. Our waiter cheered us on to a second round, so we entered the dining room in a great good humor and were ushered a long mile to a table for five which would be ours for the duration. The captain made us feel guilty because our children were not present. Other people's children were everywhere, dressed to their tiny teeth.
We had young fowl, en pot, matzo ball. We obeyed the no smoking sign on our table. By the end of the meal the headwaiter, waiter, subwaiter and table neighbors were our new best friends.
After dinner, we slipped back to the bar to hear a lively combo and were joined by two pleasant male staff members who persuaded us to book a table in the night club for the early show. We did, and joined maybe 800 others to watch a funny lady in a mink shrug do her number, and to listen to an Italian tenor. It was not the best show we had ever seen, but the audience including ourselves had fun and laughed a lot.
The point is, we felt fine alone. We enjoyed the friendly ambience, and the rest of the cruise (that was what it felt like) gathered momentum as did the blizzard we woke up to the next morning. Though we could have skied, ice skated or tobogganed for starters, we found it too blowy and cold so instead the children built snow men with the day camp (after a big breakfast. Very bready, nothing fried since it was still Sabbath, and none of us was programmed for morning fish). The youngest child, too small for day camp, tore from lobby to lobby stopping to chat or upset a game of canasta, finally ending up in the audience for the morning entertainment which was a monologue by the social maven "yours truly Lou Goldstein."
After lunch Lou did a second entertainment, but you could also have a makeup lesson, a dance lesson, a lecture on the stock market, a sauna, an exercise class, a massage, a bridge lesson, you name it. The children could do outdoor things or indoor arts and crafts with the camp, or they could swim, fool around, play miniature golf or watch swimmers from an oddly located window to the pool far below the surface. An excellent view of bellies, behinds and white legs provided them powerful entertainment during any activity lapse. We could even lurk in our rooms and read, watch television, or rest up if we dared for the evening show time review featuring a host of favorites.
It turned out that the children's best treat was listening to the combo in the bar after dinner, and dancing, singing, or generally taking delight in live entertainment. Somehow though it sounds seedy to have children in bars, it wasn't. Piles of children stayed up until nine or ten every night with their parents. Tables joined forces, children changed partners, and it was a pretty gala scene.
Another gala scene was the Gala Cocktail Party on Sunday where the star was a huge American flag carved out of ice (I wouldn't have thought a flag would be the most challenging subject to an ice specialist, but then I'm no expert on the craft). There were platters of better than average cocktail food, and plenty of free drinks. There were also quite a lot of unattached men of a certain age, one of whom tried to kiss my companion, after first quietly removing his yarmulke. When she refused him due to the haste of the pass, he went cheerfully to find another recipient. Grossinger's was his second home, a friend explained. He sought maximum contact and minimum commitment, but came only on family weekends since he disapproved of singles advertising themselves.
There was a children's bar full of soft things at the party. Again, children were wanted and admired everywhere. Especially at the post dinner community sings where you were issued a little green book with the words to "She's a Bird in a Gilded Cage" and "Bye Bye Blackbird". You could also sing "Hava Nagila" and join the hora circle if you chose.
When we departed on Monday afternoon, our children paid the weekend the great compliment of begging to live there forever, and sobbing noisily as they said their goodbyes.
So for the woman whose weekend calendar is going through a drought and who wants for whatever reason to take herself and her children away for a couple of days to a non-isolated spot with plenty of junior activity, she could do a lot worse than a mountain resort. It is not cheap. We spent about $50.00 a day apiece, but nearly everything is included. Grossinger's is not beautiful neither in its architecture nor its decor, but the beds are comfortable, the water is hot, and the food is good.
Maybe I'm making myself a sexist target for femilitants by harping on the problem of a woman finding a welcoming place for herself and her children, but I should think a man would have the same problem. There is a universal thing about trips with young: if they are having fun, then you can relax, and even have some fun yourself. Because you accept the limitations of the circumstances, you don't look for dead quiet on the one hand or racy sexy excitement on the other.
When I tugged the last bit of luggage into my apartment under the scowling silence of our super, I closed my door, clicked shut my multi-locks, and sat in the quiet glad to answer my daughter's question "what are we going to do tonight, Ma?" with "NOTHING."
For the record, my brother and I, at 7 and 10 years old, remember this trip as being AWESOME.