A Real Emotional Girl tells the true story of young Tanya, growing up in the wonderland of her family’s summer camp. At sixteen, this idyllic life is interrupted when she must face her father’s sudden illness. Tanya, her mother, and two brothers find themselves cramped in a tiny cabin in a tiny town in northern Wisconsin in the dead of winter. There they wait for her father to die of cancer. Separated from friends and civilization, Tanya has only her fears and uncertainty for company.
At the age of twenty, Tanya loses a man who was not only her father but a surrogate father to thousands. Richard Chernov was a man who shared himself, humor and all, with just about everyone who would let him. And with this same unflagging commitment and passion, Tanya shares her struggles and the blessings she finds in them. Her memoir is a complex amalgam of human strength and fragility, which creates an inimitable coming-of-age story. This is a story of family and pain, of survival and growing up, and ultimately of love. For anyone who has ever experienced loss, A Real Emotional Girl offers a glimpse, provocative in its raw honesty, into the nature of grief and the positive transformation that can follow.
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I remember myself at sixteen, a thief. I'd taken my parents' house keys and given them to friends so they could party while my family was away for the summer. Even though I was living the kind of life — the kind of happy ignorance — that made being a teenager my only problem, I found rebellion an insatiably contagious endeavor. Of course I'd been caught and promptly banished to work at the all-girls' summer camp my parents owned in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it town in Northwestern Wisconsin. The camp provided an ideal backdrop for a picturesque life — the sun, the lake, the moon, and the stars — but it held no appeal to me. I couldn't resist throwing rocks into the calm family waters.
Not that long ago, I'd been a scrawny little ham who could not possibly get enough of the spotlight. With 300 kid-loving staff members and campers telling me how adorable I was and carrying me all over the place like some overgrown infant, it's a miracle I retained the ability to walk or perform simple tasks without the benefit of an audience. And at sixteen, stuck in the camp office, I found that I still craved the attention of spectators.
Through the tiny black squares of the window screen beside my desk, I watched a half-dozen campers gathering around the end of a Slip 'n Slide, unrolling it flat atop the grass before turning on the sprinklers and flooding the shiny plastic with the sun-warmed first bursts of hose water. Hand in hand, the girls flailed and squealed as they jettisoned themselves onto the bright, yellow strip before sliding onto the grass on either side of the sprinklers and coming back to the end of the line for more. Like everyone else on staff, I watched the campers closely, shifting my eyes over to the woods behind the tennis courts. We'd had a bear in camp the last few days and though it wasn't unusual to hear of bears in the area, we were all on alert.
Behind the Slip 'n Slide, a group of older campers rehearsed a dance for the upcoming evening program, constantly stopping and restarting the Backstreet Boys' "Quit Playin' Games (With My Heart)." I thought to myself, I'm either going to burn every single copy of that damn song or pray to be struck by lightning. I pulled the cap off my pen and began drawing a Seussian tree on the side of my shin, licking my thumb and smudging it against my skin to erase the parts I didn't like. Looking outside every few minutes to scan the tree line, I drank in the same halcyon scenes I'd witnessed all my life: smiling children shouting hellos to me through the windows as they passed and, in the distance, campers writing letters in the sun and tying string bracelets while rocking back and forth on swinging wooden benches.
Our camp was exactly what people expected — lots of land, a picturesque little lake, oxford-brown log cabins, silly games and activities, campfires. In my teenage mind, though, it was simply my summer home's backyard, overrun with a few hundred extra guests who wouldn't be leaving for another four or eight weeks. Camp was our own little city: food, transportation, sanitation, health care, entertainment, safety, and the welfare of about 300 people all rested on my family's shoulders for four months out of the year.
It was the summer before my senior year of high school, and all of my friends were 2,000 miles away in Arizona, where my family now lived during the off-season. August seemed an interminable expanse of time — every day unfolding just the same as the one before, with me cooped up in the office answering phones, sorting mail. Feeling and acting put-upon.
Pen gripped at an angle against the bony part of my ankle, I was working on the ink-spread of the roots down into the curve of my inner heel when the phone rang. Though I was sure I was alone in the building, I cleared my throat loudly enough for people in the upstairs office to hear me, just in case someone was up there. I answered on the third ring, immediately setting the phone on my shoulder and cocking my ear down to hold it in place so I could keep doodling.
"G'afternoon, this is Tanya," I answered in my sweetest phone voice, reaching for the spiral-bound message book on the other side of the L-shaped desk.
"Oh, hi there. This is Lucy Brenner's mom, Sheila. Is Richard in?" the woman on the other end asked sharply.
"No, I'm sorry, he's out on the water this afternoon, but I'd be happy to give him a message at dinner," I answered, knowing I likely wouldn't even get to talk to my father at dinner because he was always busy at mealtime. "Or is there anything I can help you with? I just saw Lucy this morning when she came in for a few envelopes, and I have to tell you, Mrs. Brenner — your daughter has excellent manners."
"Oh, yes," I said enthusiastically, finishing the well-rehearsed icebreaker I often liked to use with campers' parents. "She always remembers to say please and thank you — she's just really very sweet."
This wasn't untrue — Lucy was polite, especially compared to most kids. But I found that simple compliments like this one usually made a parent loosen up and get to the point of the call a little faster. Outside, I could see my own parents walking toward the office from the waterfront, each with a clipboard at the hip and overflowing key ring attached to either belt or shorts. Mom and Dad looked as if they were filling one another in on the details of whatever minor crisis they'd each just come from.
"Oh, well, thanks — I'm so glad to hear it!" Mrs. Brenner blurted in lightning-fast staccato beats. "Maybe I can ask you then — is Lucy having fun? Because I haven't seen a clear picture of her on the parents' private website for about a day and a half, and I just wanted to make sure that everything is okay."
"Hmmm. How about this — I can drop by Lucy's cabin after dinner and check in with her. And I'll make sure our videographer gets a few new pictures of her on the site today or tomorrow."
"Thanks, Tanya — that would be great. That would be a big help."
"It's really no trouble at all. You have a good day now. Thanks, mm-hmm. Take care." I hung up the phone, still scribbling out Mrs. Brenner's message about Lucy's picture on the message pad, before tearing off the thin white top sheet and sticking it in the mail tray near the stairs, knowing I'd just successfully saved my father from at least one tiny bit of the everyday needs he was expected to meet. Minimizing any unnecessary phone time for Dad was good, especially when it was something I knew I could easily handle. I leaned back against my chair and realized the phone call had probably been the first productive thing I'd done all day. Surveying the landscape outside my window, the frame encasing the outside world seemed to grow and stretch, closing me in. I was determined to hate everything around me, as teenagers are wont to do. And I was good at it.
With about an hour left before the dinner bell rang, the older campers — only a year or two younger than I — would soon be coming in to hang out. This was my favorite part of the day, interacting with the campers like my parents did, listening to their stories and songs, handing out Band-Aids, and answering silly questions. As the kids shuffled in, quickly crowding the office, I thought I saw a shadow move in the bushes behind the dining lodge, but when I stood to get a better look I saw nothing at all.
Kicking my heels back up onto the pine-green laminate surface of the desk, I wondered if my dad felt the same way around the campers — buoyed by their energy, constantly amused by their shenanigans, and awed by their tenderness. To those who didn't know him well, I'm sure it looked like all my father did was goof around with the campers every day, like some kind of real-life Peter Pan. But there was a strategy behind his play — a precise method and effort that went into the role my dad played for the kids, the staff, the entire camp community. My father was camp. His was the face on the brochures and in each year's reunion videos, and when camp was in session he was omnipresent — the object of so many people's sheer and complete adoration.
It was hard to remember how we'd ever managed to run the place in the days before walkie-talkies and golf carts, but Dad always made sure that no matter how it got done, everyone's needs were met. And somehow, the campers loved him more and more fiercely each year they returned to spend the summers with us.
* * *
After dinner, I went down to the council fire ring for the evening program with my two older brothers, Gabe and Dylan, who also worked for the family business during their college summer breaks. Though they'd already had several days' worth of time to tease me about the bold, foolish stunt I'd just gotten busted for, they still hadn't had enough fun taunting me the way only big brothers can. They closed in on either side of me and exchanged a few menacing smirks.
"So I heard it was Aunt Mickey who busted your boyfriend at the house with the keys, Tan," Dylan chided, glancing over at Gabe for a nod of approval. "I don't think I've ever seen Dad this pissed off." I kept my head down and walked faster, thinking they'd give up if I stayed quiet. But staying quiet to avoid conflict was never my best or most practiced skill.
"I'm sorry, but correct me if I'm wrong here. Weren't you grounded your entire senior year, Dylan? Because you got drunk and barfed in your own bed ten feet from Mom and Dad's room?" I snapped.
"Re-lax! Jeez," Dylan laughed. "We're just kidding. You still get away with murder and you know it. Quit being such a baby."
I stalked off to sit with some counselors, seething over how pleased they were with themselves for getting a reaction out of me. I knew I was only making an easy target of myself but couldn't, and didn't, care to do anything to counteract it.
The evening program ended about an hour later, after the entire camp had exhausted the traditional council fire itinerary of songs and skits they'd come to love so fiercely over the years. As the campers began dispersing in all directions to their cabins for the night, my father started walking back up to the lodge and I stayed behind to gather the tattered green songbooks strewn haphazardly around the small, grassy amphitheater.
"How's your day going, Tanya?" Dad shouted at me from the other side of the slope, hands in his pockets as he walked backward up the hill.
"Great!" I yelled back, sure that he'd caught the thick layer of sarcasm in my voice and instantly regretting it. I watched as he lumbered slowly along the gravel road, campers with dirty feet hanging off his arms and begging him to let them raid the soda machine before bed.
But halfway around the curve, I noticed Dad's gaze falling on a camper running toward the water in tears. My father stopped in his tracks, turned, and jogged down to the waterfront. Dylan's dog, a rambunctious but lovable mutt named Jimmy, had stolen a camper's teddy bear right out of her hands. He was trotting through the sandy beach with the stuffed toy in his mouth, heading for the lake. Sure enough, Jimmy strutted right into the water until he was chest-deep, then promptly dropped the bear neatly onto the surface of the water and turned around, leaving it in the middle of the swimming area. By the time Dad arrived on the scene, Jimmy was already sauntering off someplace else in search of his next adventure, leaving wet paw prints in the sandy road. The distraught little camper, probably just a Lower Maple at seven or eight years old, was standing at the water's edge in a fit of tears, watching her beloved bear float farther out into the lake, slowly sinking as it drifted away.
I watched as my father walked straight into the lake without even removing his shoes, the water soon reaching his torso, and retrieved the soggy animal. The little girl ran to my father and threw her arms around him, clutching the dripping bear at her side. Together they walked up the road to my parents' house, his arm around her shoulders, so that he could wash and dry her stuffed animal before bedtime.
I caught up with my father and the little girl on the road. "Chocolate, vanilla, or mud-flavored ice cream?" Dad asked her as the three of us rounded the meander leading one way into Maple Village and the other way to my family's house.
"Um, just vanilla, please," she answered bashfully. I walked behind them, counting the seconds before my father would find a way to dissolve the camper's shyness into laughter.
"Do you like hot fudge or caramel sauce?" he asked once inside, while closing the fridge door so that it purposely caught on his shirt and pulled him forward with it to get another laugh out of the camper.
"Can I have both?"
"Of course you can! But don't tell Barbara — it's already nine o'clock."
"Don't tell me what?" my mother asked as she walked into the kitchen. "Do I see ice cream in those bowls so late at night, you two?" With a joking wag of her finger, my mom cracked a wide smile and stooped to kiss my father on the forehead before throwing a fleece jacket over one arm and walking out the back door.
My dad and the camper talked over their sundaes and laughed at Jimmy for being such a bully while I changed into a sweatshirt and long pants in the other room. It was still warm outside, but I hated getting attacked by mosquitoes — I hated it enough to sweat under long clothes if I had to. By the end of the night, my dad and the camper made an agreement to hold no ill will toward the dog but decided that the girl would leave her bear tucked safely inside her cabin for the rest of the summer — just in case. Dad and I walked her back to her cabin, each of us listening for the rustle of branches or the padding of paws in the trees around us.
* * *
As I drove down the long, dusty driveway into camp the following afternoon with the day's mail filling all three backseats in Mom's old white minivan, everything seemed disturbingly quiet. Though it was still Rest Hour, the after-lunch time when it was normal for most of the campers to be lounging in their cabins or getting dressed for their activities, I didn't see a single person outside, and that most certainly was not normal. I pulled up to the office and got out of the car, feeling uneasy in the silence. As I walked across the deck to the office, dragging a heavy canvas bag filled with letters, Dylan called to me from behind the lodge.
"That bear is back," he said when I got close enough for him to avoid shouting. He lifted his arm to his face and wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his T-shirt. "It went after Greg, but we scared it off with the Jeep. It's somewhere in the woods behind the dumpsters, we think."
Rounding the corner where my parents stood with a few staff members, I saw a man in faded jeans and a flannel sitting in one of our dining room chairs, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. A very clean-looking shotgun leaned against his side, with its strap draped over the white plastic of the chair.
"'Course you know I would've rushed over here for you folks no matter where I was, but believe it or not," the man said to my father, "I was actually fishing a few lakes over and heard you guys on my CB radio. I wasn't even planning on coming into the office today, so it was lucky I could get over here right quick like this." He went back to eating his sandwich, as if it were all part of a day's work. As if things just worked this way in small towns.
I set the mailbag and keys down on a table in the back of the kitchen, the industrial ovens and fans humming behind me. We couldn't do anything but wait until the bear decided to come out of the woods again. My brothers chatted with the game warden, now sweating beneath the mid-afternoon sun, while my mother filled me in on what I'd missed.
While I was in town at the post office, Greg, one of camp's long-time staff members, radioed my father, sounding short of breath and somewhat annoyed.
"Richard, what's your twenty?" Greg asked, using the semiserious mix of radio language we used at camp to communicate over our walkie-talkies. Greg was working on the ropes course forty-five feet up in the pine trees, tightening some knots and seeing to other routine maintenance.
"Office," Dad replied.
"I think you should get down here if you've got a minute," Greg said anxiously. "Our friend is back." There was a rustling kind of static after Greg finished speaking, as if he'd shoved his walkie talkie in his pocket and started walking. However, Dad became sidetracked and, five minutes after the call, was still sitting at his desk when Greg radioed again.
"Uh, Richard. You really need to make your way over here." Hearing the strong note of worry in Greg's voice, Dad grabbed his keys and walked down the stairs toward the Trip House parking lot. Again, Greg's voice came over the radio hanging at my father's waist.
"Now, Richard! I need you here now!"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Real Emotional Girl"
Copyright © 2012 Tanya Chernov.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 I Watched 1
Chapter 2 Upon Wishing for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever 15
Chapter 3 His Real Home 21
Chapter 4 It's Fine 27
Chapter 5 Into the Jaws of the Whale 31
Chapter 6 By All Rights 41
Chapter 7 Hemingway's Ghost 47
Chapter 8 A Normal Dad 53
Chapter 9 On the Risers 61
Chapter 10 These Different Kinds of Winter 71
Chapter 11 On Road Trips and Hemorrhoids 79
Chapter 12 Marinating 87
Chapter 13 The Marks of a Good Man 91
Chapter 14 Down This Road 99
Chapter 15 Going Home 105
Chapter 16 A Summer Day on Lake Pokegama 111
Chapter 17 A Final Load of Remnant Millwork 119
Chapter 18 The Church of the Foaming Brush 123
Chapter 19 The Last Crumb 127
Chapter 20 Making It Down the Hill 133
Chapter 21 To Hurry Up and Die 139
Chapter 22 The Crudest Preview 147
Chapter 23 Living in the Dim 151
Chapter 24 The Notable Absence of Amber 163
Chapter 25 Boromir on the Screen 167
Chapter 26 3:43 PM 175
Chapter 27 Night Skiing 183
Chapter 28 Slipping 189
Chapter 29 A Technical Mourner 195
Chapter 30 The Residual Stand 203
Chapter 31 Throwing Rocks 211
Chapter 32 I Have Seen Nothing and Everything 215
Chapter 33 The Relativity of Sorrow 225
Chapter 34 Into This Fitful Heap of Days and Deeds 233
Chapter 35 What It Was Supposed to Be 239
Chapter 36 Drying Up 245
Chapter 37 The Quiet Street 251
Chapter 38 Away 253
Chapter 39 Hookers in the Woods 259
Chapter 40 Spiral Staircases 269
Chapter 41 Someone Else's Wet Styrofoam 275
Chapter 42 Winter's Proxy Welcomes Me Home 285
Chapter 43 Dear Susan 291
Chapter 44 The Queensborough 303
Chapter 45 As Suddenly, Sunshine 311
Chapter 46 Bridge 31701 Acknowledgments 323
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For anyone on griefs journey...Its not just something you just "get over and move on".