A magical perspective
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A magical perspective

Esther and Dr. Meyer Bieler stand in the trailer’s small kitchen.
Esther and Dr. Meyer Bieler stand in the trailer’s small kitchen.

In the early 1980s, my husband’s parents decided to purchase a trailer situated in a campground called Mountain Shadows Lake, located in Stillwater Township, New Jersey.

I hated the idea. I hated the trailer even more.

I have no memory of how my in-laws discovered this isolated place in Sussex County; no doubt the idea of it was an opportunity to escape their small Washington Heights apartment during the hot New York summer months and to spend time surrounded by nature amid a woodsy landscape. In earlier years, my father-in-law was the resident doctor at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and so he, along with his wife and their son, Bruno, spent two months for many years immersed in beautiful country, clean air, and the gift of nature. At first, Bruno was the doctor’s young child. As he grew, he became a camper; ultimately, he was in charge of all arts and crafts. Ramah was an idyllic setting that all three of them treasured literally and figuratively.

I understood that the trailer recreated some of those memories, but I simply could not fathom why, oh why, that location of all places was chosen. And why a trailer?

Mountain Shadows Lake was one and a half hours away. My in-laws did not own a car and there wasn’t any direct bus route to this remote campground near the Delaware Water Gap. Clearly their son would always be the driver — a minimum three-hour trip. Goodbye, I thought, to Sunday’s summer family outings.

I remembered the times when my in-laws loved to go to Jones Beach and to savor all the sights and sounds of the ocean, which were well worth the long subway ride. At Mountain Shadows Lake, there was definitely nature, but there was absolutely no ocean. Perhaps the landscape reminded them not only of Camp Ramah, but also of their life before the Holocaust, living in a small rural town near a beautiful lake. But this was a trailer, not a cabin or a small summer home or a comfortable apartment. It was a trailer. A narrow, compact trailer with a miniscule kitchen, a tiny shower with trickling water, and a toilet that, when flushed, reminded you of being on an airplane. I won’t even begin to discuss the red ants.

Shmuel Bieler and his friend Judah Goldberg show the results of a fishing trip; the trailer is visible behind them.

Beyond that, there were no other Jews there, no one to relate to, no Yiddishkeit, no one in any way or form who resembled this little Polish couple who survived the Holocaust. Why spend time there — in a trailer — rather than in a nicer more accessible location amidst their circle of friends who shared their history?

And why did Bruno think it was a wonderful place?

Purchasing the trailer made no sense to me, but I ultimately accepted that a wife and husband’s different points of view could be chalked up to the reality that sometimes men see things one way and women see those very same things quite differently. Once it was a done deal, Mountain Shadows Lake became a part of every year’s summer months. When my in-laws passed away, it became Bruno’s beloved trailer, and I do not use the adjective “beloved” lightly. Sometimes he went there with all four of our children; sometimes he went alone with the younger two. As for me, I did my best to avoid the place. A few months after Bruno died in November 1999, I sold that old trailer for very little money. I was happy to be rid of it and I rarely, if ever, thought of it again.

Until two years ago.

My children and I invited a few close friends to my home to commemorate my husband’s 20th yahrzeit. Two of my daughters live in Israel, so on this night three of us spoke: first me, then my daughter Debra, and finally my son Shmuel. I mentioned the trailer only once, as one item on a long list of things Bruno loved; my daughter did not reference it all. Shmuel, however, was a whole other story.

My son shared three vignettes that reflected how special he thought his father was and how much he adored him. And what was the first story he told? You guessed it — his love of that trailer when he was growing up and the times he spent there with his father. “My father had a way of taking a trailer, a sometimes-smelly trailer on a little grimy lake and turning it into this magical place that all my friends wanted to be part of.” Magical, I thought? I laughed to myself at the absurd image of the trailer being magical.

“Truthfully,” my son continued, “when I need to close my eyes and take myself out of a bad situation and picture a place where there are no issues, that’s where I go; I go to that lake, fishing with my father. We were terrible fishermen, and we never really caught fish. But we liked to talk.” And he added that those trips were always the highlight of his summers. He finished that first story by sharing that after Bruno died and the trailer was being sold, he went up one more time with a friend. It was on that final, somewhat melancholy visit when he realized that the trailer was just an old, smelly trailer that wasn’t magical at all. “The magic,” Shmuel concluded, “was my father.”

In 1983, Chief Thundercloud sits between Lara and Shmuel Bieler; their sister Dena is on the right. They’re three of Tzivia and Bruno’s four kids.

Now that, I admitted to myself, was something I could understand, and I began to realize that this story was less about the trailer and more about his father’s ability to transform simple to special.

But I was still astonished at how differently we felt back then. I convinced myself that Shmuel’s childhood views of the trailer were his alone, until I visited out-of-town friends for a few days. Their adult son and his family joined us for the Friday night Shabbat meal. I had completely forgotten that he and his younger brother had gone to the trailer a number of times. And so, I was quite astounded that as he began to share with his children some of his vivid memories of Bruno, what was one of the first things he talked about? Yes — that trailer.

But the coincidence didn’t stop there. Imagine my surprise when he actually used the very same words as Shmuel; he said Bruno made it a magical place. Everything there was exciting, he explained. And he included in that the fun of first stopping at the store to buy worms for fishing, and then passing Chief Thundercloud sitting outside the shop on the other side of the road, and finally buying fresh corn to eat at dinner. “We waited impatiently for Bruno to unchain the rowboat so we could take those worms and go fishing! It was really a simple task, but Bruno made it exciting, and we stood there with the enthusiasm and anticipation of a child who receives an expensive toy but savors the simple box even more.” And he added that the environment in and around the trailer was all encompassing; without phones (except for the pay phone next to the recreation center), without laptops, without televisions, they were fully immersed in the experience.

I could not resist calling his younger brother after Shabbat to hear if, all these years later, he had similar thoughts about the trailer. Once again, I was dumbfounded that his memories mirrored those of his brother and Shmuel. ”There was such zeal and excitement; by the time you got there, you forgot it was just a trailer in a trailer park. Bruno made it a magical place.” His final comment? “It was a black and white scene into which Bruno invested color, like the door opening up in the ‘Wizard of Oz.’”

So I decided to ask my three daughters what they had thought about the trailer. My oldest daughter didn’t have much to share and remembered bringing her books there to study. My second daughter also had little to say, other than her best memory being when she and her father went there alone and visited a water park. My youngest daughter reminisced about the fun of the two sets of bunk beds, the chipmunks playing outside the window, eating corn on the screened porch, especially when it was raining. None of them mentioned magic. And there it was again: men and women seeing things through different eyes.

But the idea of writing a piece began to percolate in my brain. The final surprise pushing me forward was when my 9-year-old granddaughter came into my house singing a song titled “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s newest movie, “Encanto.” A song about someone with magical powers named Bruno? Are they kidding? What are the chances?

So I watched the movie a few nights later. It’s a story about the Madrigal family, a family blessed with magical powers. In the song, the family is explaining to their cousin Maribel their relief that their Uncle Bruno has disappeared because, in their view, his magical powers caused more harm than good. He didn’t want to upset his family, so he disappeared from their lives. The family comes to realize, however, that they were wrong about their uncle; he was simply a shy man who only used his magical powers to help people understand their visions.

If I were writing a book, I might call this chapter “A Magical Perspective.” I would be like the Madrigal family, minus the magical powers; he would be like Uncle Bruno, although thankfully he did not disappear when we disagreed! I would be the woman who still admits she cannot understand why my in-laws bought that trailer; he would be the man who never doubted the fun of the purchase. I would be the wife who finally, finally “let it go” (another terrific Disney song!) enough to see what others saw all those years ago.

Walls are simply walls, no matter what the structure. But it’s the people within that framework who fill it with meaning or love or laughter or holiness or their own kind of magic. And that was what Bruno did; in this chapter of my book, he would be my amazing, creative, loving, joyful, imaginative, sweet husband, a man who could take a plain, cramped trailer and make it magical.

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