I pick up the large pink conch shell with “Rockaway Beach 1955” spelled out in gold glitter script and hold it against my right ear. I don’t hear the lapping waves of the Atlantic or even a mermaid’s sigh. I hear kvetching.
—Herman, didja bring the Coppertone? Where in your bag? I can’t find nothing in here, you have too much junk.
—Ma, Jakie hit me.
—I did not.
—You did too.
—I did not.
—Ma, he’s lying, wash his mouth out good.
—I ain’t lying.
—There ain’t no ain’t in the dictionary, snot breath.
—I only hit you back, that doesn’t count.
—Herman, what is this? Pornography you’re bringing to the ocean? This is a family beach. Why’d you pack this magazine for? What, you're a playboy now, not a tailor? Don't be such a putz.
—Ma, can I go in yet, it’s been twenty minutes since I ate. Ten more minutes? I only had a half a sandwich. It was tuna, Ma, that’s a fish, you can’t get a cramp in the ocean from a fish.
My Grandma Essie had an apartment filled with kitsch, only we called them tchotkes. The plastic rickshaw with wheels that really moved. The yellow porcelain candy dish shaped like a pineapple. The tissue box decorated with pieces of painted macaroni. A door knob shaped like a breast. To be fair, I can’t blame her for the doorknob, it was a Mother’s Day gift from her son, my Uncle Arnie.
In fact, I can’t blame Grandma for anything. She was a simple, pious woman. She never did an unkind thing and, as my mother always said about her mother-in-law, “She never complains.”
Zero taste in home furnishings, but she was a good woman.
Even so, I was not overly generous in my love for her. And I can tell you why. It’s because everyone always said how much I looked like her. My Aunt Mindy, My Uncle Herman, Tante Thelma — the entire clan opened their collective mouths to exclaim: “Look at those eyes, those are Mama’s eyes exactly.” “Is this Mama’s hair or is this Mama’s hair? It’s Mama’s hair!”
Aunt Vivian would grab hold of my cheek, her red-lacquered fingernails squeezing until she broke skin. “You’ve got Mama’s coloring, Bubelah. I look at your face and all I see is Mama. Oy, you shayna maideleh you.”
“She’s got Mama’s ass,” was Arnie’s contribution, but I wouldn’t have expected anything less from him.
What were these people talking about?
My grandmother was four feet tall. She had exactly two teeth in her head. Her nose slouched down and rubbed against her upper lip. Her thin gray hair was pulled back into a small rat’s nest of a bun. Her fingers were stained yellow from nicotine and her red fingernail polish was forever chipped. Her thick old lady stockings sagged; her shoes were ugly.
Was the whole family crazy? I did not look like her. Forget the eyes, and the hair, forget coloring. There was no resemblance. None. None.
—Mamela, hold this shell up to your ear, you can hear the ocean.
—No, Grandma, I can’t, I don’t hear anything.
=== === ===
echoes Mamela, Mamela