The splash of boiling soup on the fingers of my left hand happened on a hot, sticky night, as we served supper in the crowded kitchen
When there’s a crowd to serve, working in the kitchen is more fun than sitting at the table. I guess that was one reason I accepted the job of head waitress in a camp I had never heard of, 4,000 miles from home. Post-seminary felt like a good time to break new ground, so there we were: A couple of good friends, a few dozen teenage waitresses, mediocre kitchen facilities, awful accommodations, and the magic of a month away from the world before entering adult life.
The splash of boiling soup on the fingers of my left hand happened on a hot, sticky night, as we served supper in the crowded kitchen. The huge vats were at floor level, stirred by strapping workers with bandanas and streaming, shining faces. The soup bubbled, fat pooling in small circles on its surface. I stood at the counter to pass each waitress her tureen, and suddenly — was it the slip of sweaty fingers on a ladle? — my hand was in agony.
The camp nurse took my scalded hand out of the pitcher of water and examined the whitened gash across my fingers.
“That’s a third-degree burn,” she said, an understated woman, steady amid the swirling fun.
The cream and swathes of white bandages could not take away the throbbing that accompanied me night and day. It was a haze of pain, dizzying inside the miserable dorm room, torment outside in the sunshine. There was a night I just couldn’t take it and opened the nurse’s screen door as the camp slept.
“If you’re here now, it must be bad,” she said.
My immediate problem was that I couldn’t take painkillers, because I’d never learned to swallow pills. My friends didn’t leave me. They sat in solidarity on the grimy commercial carpet outside our room. With patience and the flavored applesauce they’d lugged from Brooklyn, they cheered me on until I managed to swallow the pills in spoonfuls of applesauce. I think that amid the misery, we also laughed at something, and, in true camp style, I have a picture of that pity party.
A couple of days went by. When the height of the pulsing, pus-filled blister was greater than the thickness of my finger, the nurse decided I needed medical attention. I don’t know who made the appointment with a burn expert in the nearest city on a Friday, but I do remember the kind camp rabbi who drove me there that Thursday evening. Was it his house where I stayed the night, or some other nice family? What remains was that it was calm and pleasant, soothing my sleep-deprived, pain-weary nerves. There was a backyard day camp there on Friday morning, and the house smelled of Erev Shabbos — fresh challah and Pine-Sol.
Once the huge blister was treated, the pain slowly receded. Camp flowed on — I guess I was still able to do parts of my job, but my loyal friend never said a word to me about the extras that fell on her. Not one word.
I flew home after camp, and after some time, the scars faded. But with the increased sensitivity of the healed skin on those fingers, I can still easily bring up the atmosphere of the camp, the hustle of the job I loved, the song of the crickets in the grass — and the feeling of being supported by a tight knot of friends.
I’m aware that far worse can happen in a kitchen, and I’m thankful that Hashem watches over fools and inexperienced staff. I instruct my kids to freeze in place whenever I’m serving hot soup, and I can now swallow meds easily with water. Yet the strongest lessons learned on the sultry breeze are about the kindness of strangers and the solidarity of friends — and just how much those matter when one is vulnerable or in pain.
Riki Goldstein is a Mishpacha columnist, author, and memoir-writer who creates family heirloom books.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 868)
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