Saturday, August 13, 2005

Angels at the Jersey Shore

Narrow steps climbed from my godmother Cath's bedroom to a barely improved second story with two rooms separated by a curtained doorway. A few feet above the floor the walls sloped inward to the roof peak. It was a tight space in a bungalow. My brother & I shared a bed in the room at the back, beneath a small window. In the other room, my grandmother Nana & Aunt Bella slept together. These were our accommodations for summer vacations in Somers Point, a small town across the bay from Ocean City.

Nana was on vacation, too. She & Bella loved each other without especially liking each other. The causes of this dislike were unknown to me in the 1950's. Eventually, I concluded that Bella never accepted her older sister's claim to the matriarchal throne, & had been griping about it for three decades. Even so, they worked well as a team if necessary, although the two of them standing one atop the other couldn't put a basketball through a hoop.

At bedtime - always too early - Nana pulled the chain on the overhead light & went into the front room. Bella came creaking up the steps, the light in their room went out & we heard them taking off & hanging up their clothes. Then they said perfunctory little prayers & got into bed.

My brother & I always had trouble getting to sleep on the first night of vacation, what with the long car ride and the excitement of arriving, and the strange bed & the uncomfortable stuffy heat of that attic. We were sunburned & stinking of  Noxema. The house was so silent it was pointless to talk, we'd only be shushed. So we just lay there blinking our eyes in the dark.

About ten minutes later the battle between Nana & Bella began with a skirmish of flailing arms & bumping old lady hips. "For love of Mary & Joseph, Bella, give me some room to breathe."

"So it's not the grand hotel you're used to, eh?"

"I've got so little mattress I'm going to fall on to this dirty floor."

"My dirty floor? & if you fall it'll be all the way into hell or the kitchen, & I won't go down there to pick you up."

My brother & I giggled at the groans & curses of achy, ancient bones until Nana shouted for us to stop. After awhile the two old sisters seemed to fall asleep & we could hear tree toads & cicadas & the sea breeze that never found our little window. These sounds were enough to start us on the journey toward sleep. But halfway down that path the snores started, slowly gaining volume with each inhalation. A hard day's labor of reciting maledictions exited those ladies' bodies like two bands playing different tunes in the same parade.

My brother fell asleep anyway, leaving me alone & trapped in an attic. Where did everyone go? Sleep took them all from me as if they were dead, & sleep is a short refuge as surely as death is the long one. What child would risk waking the dead to go to the bathroom? Even if I got to the top of the steps, Cath & her husband Jim were in a big bed behind a closed door at the bottom, blocking the way.

I rearranged shadowy objects into a gallery of horrors. I could shut my eyes but not my ears to the keening of the banshee, the Irish harbinger of death. I heard so many banshees outside the window in Somers Point that it was a miracle anyone was alive at Christmas. At some unnoticed moment, a Catholic angel or Protestant angel or sheer exhaustion took me out of the darkest valley of night & into temporary oblivion.

When I woke up, my brother was gone, downstairs watching cartoons. Nana & Bella were also downstairs, their bed neatly made. Shyly, I descended the attic steps, peeking at the assortment of bottles & costume jewelry on Cath's dresser. In the kitchen Nana smiled, & Cath hugged me with her soft. young arms & called me a lazybones, pushing me toward a box of Sugar Pops & a carton of local blueberries on the table. Outside there were birds perching on the clothesline, & dew on the grass, & a cool, cloudless morning sky stretching away to an island over the marshes & bay. I heard Laughing Gulls. By noon I was fully myself; a half-Irish brat out to collect swamp punks & poison ivy, eager to roam beach & boardwalk.

As children, we are tested by bleak nights when we cannot name our angels. But when we grow up, the location of our true home is revealed to us in a memory of those angels & of a heaven we find in the light of morning & never really leave.

(originally published by Worrall Community Newspapers)

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