The house on Cornwall Avenue was two blocks from the beach. It was large and white and perfect. Out front were lilac bushes. In the back, on the driveway, we would ride our bikes and drag our red wagons and wash our sandy feet with the hose. The house had three stories, several balconies and room enough for most all of us. For kids and grandkids and friends dropping by. The neighbors had a pool, but we had the carriage house. We held birthday parties there. Fourth-of-July celebrations. It smelled of wet sand and must and sweat and memory.
We’d walk the two blocks to the beach in flip-flops, carrying fold-up chairs and coolers of water and boogie boards. Aunt Nomi would tote along peaches and plums in plastic bags and some other aunt or uncle would bring money for the ice cream man. The cousins- bolder than I- would jump waves, venturing deeper and deeper into the murky froth of the Atlantic. I, who was not-so-brave, stayed by the shore building sand castles and hunting for snail shells with my father. In the afternoon the ice cream man would ring his bell and we’d go running after him, hankering for fudgesicles and ice cream sandwiches and chocolate tacos. Our mothers would rub sunscreen onto our sandy backs as we dripped chocolate down our fronts.
At 4:00 or 5:00 we’d start back, hopping from foot-to-foot on the hot late-afternoon sand. Our feet burned and blackened, we carried our shoes clutched in our small fists, limping our way back to the house on Cornwall Avenue.
* * *
It is perfectly possible to remember an idyllic childhood that never existed. Me, I imagine mine in Super-8 film. Like an episode of “The Wonder Years.” Like a Ford ad, circa 1972. I remember thin legs in terry cloth shorts sticking to the leather of the car. I remember the view from the back seat. My parents’ voices rising and falling musically from up front. My sister faking sick next to me. Windows down. The smell of sea-salt. Tossing quarters into the toll booth. Downtheshore. All one word.
This was where my grandparents lived. My Bubbie and Zadie*. But it was more than that. Downtheshore was my grandparents. The dark blue of the kitchen carpet. The porcelain tea sets and cat figurines in the living room. Ketzie** the cat, gray and cranky, hissing at us kids from underneath Bubbie and Zadie’s bed. Oreo cookies dipped in milk. All of us cousins, one multi-legged creature with 18 tanned arms.
Like I said: it is perfectly possible to remember an idyllic childhood that never existed.
* * *
At 78, my Bubbie is still beautiful. She no longer has the tremendous breasts of her youth. Cancer got those. And she can’t walk these days. Her feet are enormous: swollen to the size of melons, fit only for special-order shoes and thick support hose. But she retains that sexy Lauren Hutton gap between her front teeth. A killer smile. Eyes that sparkle and perfectly arched brows. An enviably thick head of hair. I want badly to be told that I look like her. I don’t, though. I am 55 years her junior but all I have over her is youth.
In my favorite photograph of my grandmother, she is 16. In profile. She is wearing a fur headpiece and staring pensively away from the camera. She is young and glamorous and she has her whole life ahead of her. She hasn’t yet been introduced to my dark and handsome grandfather. She hasn’t yet given birth to her four children. She doesn’t yet know that her beloved father has only a year to live. She doesn’t yet know that in three decades she will lose her sister- her best friend- to breast cancer. She is young and glamorous and she has her whole life ahead of her. I want badly to be told that I look like her. I don’t, though.
* * *
At 78, my Bubbie is losing her memory. This is a fact, though I choose to believe it is merely conjecture.
If we don’t use the A-word then it isn’t real.
She has good days. Days when she can reminisce with fluency about yesterday and last year and thirty years ago. Days when she cracks jokes. Days when she tries to press her jewelry on me, saying, “you like this? Take it!” She has good days and this makes it easier to forget that she has bad days too.
* * *
Bubbie and Zadie moved out of the house on Cornwall Avenue over a decade ago. The house was too big so they downsized to a small yellow box of a house five blocks from the beach. It didn’t matter much. Bubbie didn’t go to the beach anymore. Couldn’t. Some years later, they built a ramp for her wheelchair. Bubbie didn’t go to the beach anymore so neither did we. We sat on the porch and ate dried fruit from candy dishes and watched the roses grow into maturity. We still held birthday parties. Fourth-of-July celebrations. We still stopped for soft-serve at the Purple Penguin on our way home. Downtheshore.
Bubbie and Zadie moved out of the little yellow box on North Union last year. To an apartment in a retirement community. They are in independent living. There is, however, the option for assisted living. Nursing care. But Bubbie still has good days and Zadie is still only 83 and we still have 15-year-old sand lodged in our toes and our tans haven’t faded completely. This is merely conjecture but I choose to believe it is fact. This is merely grasping at straws. But I’ll take it.
* * *
One night not too long ago, Bubbie woke Zadie up in the middle of the night. “What’s Debbie?” she asked him urgently. “What’s Debbie to me?” “She’s your daughter,” he said.
* * *
My mother doesn’t believe that there was blue carpet in the kitchen of the house on Cornwall Avenue. We ask my father. He has no recollection whatsoever. “What’s for dinner?” he asks instead. I remember it distinctly though. Blue carpet in the kitchen. It was there, I think, even if it wasn’t. Blue carpet in the kitchen downtheshore in the house on Cornwall Avenue.
*For those of you who aren’t Chosen- you get your Easter eggs and we get circumcision- Bubbie and Zadie are Yiddish words for “grandmother” and “grandfather.”
** Ketzie is Yiddish for cat. Go figure.