Death and Cormaria

Written By: Dawn  Berkoski

Through the eyes of an eight-year-old girl, Cormaria, hidden from Bay Street behind hedges and trees on the outskirts of Sag Harbor village, was like a property out of my favorite Nancy Drew book—a secluded mansion built in 1905 and seated on eighteen acres, a religious retreat run by the Sacred Heart of Mary and shrouded in mystery. It was the summer of 1983. The first and last day I went to camp at Cormaria. The summer I learned to fear Death.

At the entrance to Cormaria lay an abandoned-Cherynobyl like playground. Corroded metal bars where children once hung, chipped green paint on a sea-saw of wood, and creaking iron chains that swung splintered seats as if ghosts played on.

Up the winding drive I began to make out the white pillars and brown wood shingles of Cormaria. No shrill laughter of running and playing children. This was a quiet reflective place where we could have fun but must be respectful of others seeking solace.

The counselors were solemn women with graying hair and crosses baring a crucified Jesus. Others roamed around, quietly praying on rosary beads in the garden, or in the indoor chapel on bent knee, or reading from the good book that held life’s answers. What unworldly powers did these brides of God posses, with their glossy eyes that bore into my soul? And so I went to Camp—not with a coven of black-cloaked witches but a cloister of black-clothed sisters—Under God.

After a vigorous morning of jumping jacks and squat thrusts on the front lawn, I donned my one-piece Caldor special of solid black and followed a handful of children toward the docks for swimming. I took a deep breath and dipped my toes in the murky water and my foot shriveled back from the cold. I stared at the bottomless depth of the harbor and was suddenly flashed back to earlier that summer.

My mother preferred Scott Cameron beach, hidden from crowds in Bridgehampton. Despite my protests to go to Sagg Main, I went where her clunky red Chevrolet convertible took us. No seat belts, striped umbrella hanging out the back that threatened to fall if we hit a pothole. Dragging a net bag, spilling with necessities, and smelling like Coppertone sun block, I lumbered towards the shore.

The sky was blue, the air salty and warm but winds from an offshore storm had kept all but the sun worshippers away. My mom chatted with friends, nestled in beach chairs by the dunes to protect against sand blasts. The flapping red flags down the beach kept me from swimming, so I stared at the rumbling Atlantic Ocean searching for Jaws.

I narrowed my eyes as a froth of cresting white caught my attention. A wave in the distance undulated like a giant creature moved beneath the surface. The smaller waves spread apart, in deference to a higher power. My heart thumped as the wave moved closer, lumbering towards the shore as if stalking prey, and raising it’s ugly head on a four-year-old girl making sand castles.

My mouth opened. I might have screamed into the wind. No. Not my baby sister.

The black sand scalded my feet as I ran. Only I moved to slow, like quicksand grabbing my ankles and pulling on my burning soles. One minute my sister was on the beach with her plastic toys scattered around her. The next she was gone. Swallowed by the wave with all the intensity of the gaping mouth of a shark.

I dove in after her.

The waves crashed against me, pushing me back. I prayed as I’d been taught at St. Andrews. Please, God, let me reach her. I prayed as I stretched my hand and grabbed her flailing, fragile wrist. She had no fear. She struggled in my arms to go to the sea as I struggled to keep our heads above water. My heart pounded. Touch. If only I could touch the bottom because I couldn’t keep us up any longer and the waves kept coming.

“My toys!” she cried.

“I’ll get them.” It was a lie, a sin against God. “I’ll get them, don’t worry.”

I missed ducking under a wave. I coughed, choking as salt water filled my mouth. How long? How long before another wave took us under. We would drown and I had sinned and I would surely go to hell. Please forgive me, Lord.

“You have to swim. Ok?” I fought the stinging water blowing in my face from the wind. “I’m gonna push you towards shore. Go get mommy.” The words held no salvation. My mother couldn’t swim.

I took a deep breath. When the next wave came I went under. I felt the give of sand as my toes touched the bottom. Keeping my sister raised above me so she stood on my hands, I dug my feet in. One step. My thighs strained. Two. The undertow fought me as I walked the ocean floor. When I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, I grabbed her ankles and pushed her towards the beach.

I surfaced in the breakers, gasping for air. So close. I raised my arm for help and the sun warmed my frozen fingers for one split moment before I was dragged under. Rocks pummeled my body as I was flipped upside down. Sharp shells slashed my skin. Fear gripped me so I could no longer think but just struggle like the weak creature I was. And then I was tossed out. Rejected. Left on the sand coughing and hacking.

“Dawn?” Someone called my name.

I was back at the docks behind Cormaria, staring at the murky waters, unable to see the bottom because boats spilled pollutants, adding to the oily blackness. Before me heads bobbed and limbs thrashed as children swam between moorings.

“Jump in.” The nun said.

My hands shook where I clutched my towel. Fraidy cat. My Dad taunted me when I wouldn’t go back in to the Ocean. Yeah, I was scared. Whales were harpooned in that very harbor, strung up and bled like Christ and desecrated for their blubbery oils. Dark creatures dwelled beneath the surface.

No. I would not swim there if all the demons of hell were on my tail.

No weeping Virgin Mary could persuade me.

I would not court Death so lightly.

And so I was sent to a room in the basement of Cormaria to draw in solitude. The only decoration a giant cross with a thorn crowned, bleeding Jesus.

They released me at noon. We were led to a formal dining room with tables of four to six with crisp white linens and a view of the boats. Like good Catholic girls, we had to sit with legs crossed, napkins folded on our laps, hands clasped together and heads bent forward in prayer. Finally I could eat. And lunch was like a Thanksgiving dinner. Savory turkey, creamy mashed potatoes, crisp peas and corn—and what was that? Cranberry sauce? I took an extra helping, enamored of the sweet jelly rounds.

You had to eat everything on your plate. Wasting food was a grave sin and I would burn in Satan’s fires. With the relish of a sinner, I dug into my cranberry sauce. An unusual flavor hit my tongue. My face wrinkled. “What is this?” My eyes watered.

“Beets,” a nun answered.

The taste curled my stomach and I barely swallowed it down. I gulped as much tap water from my glass as I could.

You must finish everything on your plate.

Dread hit me like the sinking feeling of being swallowed by the ocean. My heart pounded, and my fork fell from my fingers. What had I done?

The allotted half hour for lunch passed in silence. One by one the sound of scratching forks and murmured conversation disappeared. I was left alone with the nun at the table. All the other children had left.

“I can’t eat them.” Tears spilled from my eyes. I wasn’t begging. I was asking for forgiveness. I had sinned, again, and for the second time that day I had failed.

The nun shook her head, mouth drawn in a stern line. I was a problem child who couldn’t follow rules. A call to my parents was in order. Only a friend of my parents picked me up and took me home. Down the winding driveway we drove, past the abandoned playground that only ghosts played on. I drove away, looking back at the white building with the eyes of an eight-year-old.

Cormaria and the Atlantic didn’t take my life that summer. More than 30 years have passed. But I haven’t swam at Scott Cameron or been to the religious retreat since, though I live close to both and I’ve courted Death more times than I have fingers and toes. I try not to lie and I don’t waste food—because I know, when the time comes, I’ll surely go back.

I’ll surely go back.