Taking a shower with my grandpop: Ocean City, NJ (1977)

I stood under the shower, and stared up at grandfather’s veiny, elephantine penis. It’s as big as my forearm and dangled in front of my nose, covered in soap. When I dropped the shampoo bottle, I’m afraid I’ll knock my head on it standing back up.

“Hurry up!” he said. I hardly recognized him with his glasses off. His gray hair looked darker wet.

Did I mention he’s naked?

“Get a good lather going!”

In the summer, Ocean City, a Christian retreat founded by Methodist ministers, filled with shoobies, day trippers like us, crammed into rentals at the end of the island. Our shower took place inside a wood lean-to built around a shower to keep indoor drains clean of sand. Grace Kelly summered in Ocean City before she went off and became a princess, my grandmom told me. I didn’t know who Grace Kelly is because it’s 1977 and I was nine. I also didn’t know what it means to “summer.”

We went to Ocean City with my mom’s family every summer for a week in a cottage on 55th Street and Asbury Avenue. Ocean City is a dry town with blue laws. My uncles loaded trunks of beer from the liquor stores that dot the highway across the bridge with bright signs.

I couldn’t stand all-day lobstering in the sand. My sister reclined for hours with her hair soaked in lemon juice until the sun turned her brown strands yellowy blonde. My aunts and uncles situated under umbrellas with beers in cozies, munched on PBJ quarters until the guards went home and fogies swept dunes with metal detectors. Some days I snuck back before everybody and grabbed the first shower, then read books in the empty house. Other days Grandpop made us wait until the girls had all finished and, to save hot water—the owners lived upstairs and we renters swelled to over 20 on weekends—the boy doubled-up for Navy Showers: get wet, turn off water, lather up, rinse off.

“C’mon, move under the water, Danny,” he said. “And rinse off your privates.”

My privates? The shower goes off. “But I’m still soapy,” I whined.

“Just dry off with the towel,” he grumbled. “Use your head. The owners have to get their showers too!”

Outside, the sun hovered over on the bay. Seagulls squawked and swooped at french fries in the church parking lot next door. After I dressed, I brought my transistor radio outside. On a single speaker, The Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” cut into my ear. It’s our second night here and I was homesick already. I moped about missing dad, about grandpop riding me. My skin hummed from sunburn. I feel so broke up. I watched the small, light-green frogs skip in and out of the puddles.

***

He mellowed in his old age. Curt was a gentleman. Worshipped Helen, his three daughters. He never went through any door first.

Toward the end, my mom and aunts took Curt under their care, changed his clothing when he was no longer able to do himself. This was an extreme indignity to him, not without sadness, but my aunts did observe that their father was, and I quote for the sake of the daughters’ modesty, “gifted in that department.”

Thirty years later, my mom is the reluctant matriarch. She’s grown into both parents’ molds, with sweeping rulings on inconsequential matters and a penchant for summing up the clan’s health woes like a hospital administrator. Whereas it was she who picked off dust bunnies off of grandmom’s coat, it’s now my sister who does it for her.

“We think that death, for the most part, comes when we are very old,” she wrote to herself in 2001, “but when I was 53, it came as a wall of pain, shock, fear and a deafening quiet.”

After Helen passed from Parkinson’s and Curt from heart disease, both of which happened, as these things go, in rather rapid succession, her second husband died as well, and, to add insult to injury, her golden Labrador retriever she got from me named Homey.

“It took almost two years of my life to become almost alive again,” she writes. “I find myself quoting all of my lost souls.”

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