When the Sea Breaks the Dunes
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My grandfather drinks a pot of black coffee in the morning, and a varying but substantial amount of scotch in the afternoon and evening. He used to drink regular coffee until one of his doctors told him to switch to decaf. It would help with the tremors, the doctor had said. He uses that 50-50 mix now. Or, rather, one of his home health aides uses it. I can’t recall the last time I saw him drink a glass of water, and I emphasize this point often when I talk to his daughter—my mother—about how he’s doing. “How can he be so dehydrated all the time?” I ask, rhetorically. Of course, I’m in my mid-twenties and my grandfather is in his mid-eighties; the only thing I know about aging is that I now need to stretch my skinny six foot frame before I run (which is rare), sometimes my back hurts when I get out of bed in the morning to attempt to teach college students the art of writing, and hangovers can last for days, not hours as they once did.
I don’t see my grandfather as often as I did when he and my grandmother lived fifteen minutes away from where I grew up in west-central New Jersey. He sold that house ten years ago and moved to the Jersey shore, into the beach house where he and my grandmother had spent the prior five summers. Last year, during the winter of 2011, I drove the seventy-five miles from my parents’ house to Lavallette, to go out to lunch with Poppy, my grandfather.
It was the beginning of January, cold and gloomy. I had taken the drive on the Garden State Parkway South hundreds of times and I got lost in my thoughts, recognizing suddenly that I’d switched lanes and miles had gone by—always a disturbing kind of realization. I remembered the trip down to the shore with my grandparents almost fifteen years earlier, on the day they had bought the beach house. They were both happily retired, excited to live out their lives on the Atlantic coast, in the dream they had shared.
I took Parkway Exit 98, leading into Point Pleasant on the Barnegat Peninsula—a thin strip of land 20 miles long that separates the Barnegat Bay from the Atlantic. Lavallette is near the middle of this peninsula. In 1614, Dutch settlers named the bay “Barendegat,” or “Inlet of the Breakers,” which took into account the often rough seas marked by whitecaps. In 1609 Henry Hudson, on a trip along the New Jersey coast, described the bay’s inlet: “The mouth of the lake hath many shoals [underwater sandbanks], and the sea breaketh on them as it is cast out of the mouth of it.” Before my grandfather sold his bow rider, we spent long summer mornings cruising the channels of the Barnegat Bay. When my grandmother was alive, she liked slow rides, when the twenty-two foot boat seemed to become part of the water, moving with it. If we had traveled up the coast thirty miles, we could have been in Sandy Hook. From there, and on a clear day, you can just make out the silhouettes of buildings in Brooklyn and Staten Island.
Three town blocks stretch from the bay to the ocean in Lavallette, with twenty-five of these blocks extending along the peninsula’s length. Few of Lavallette’s sixteen hundred people live there year round; some of those who do call the tourists “Bennies.” “Benny” is a belittling word—allegedly an acronym standing for the tourist’s residential origins: Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark, or New York. These places are also stops on the train route from New York to Point Pleasant, the only train station on the peninsula. Poppy grew up in Secaucus in the 1930s and 40s, near these cities in northern New Jersey. When he lived there everyone called it Sea-caucus, not the Sa-caucus that almost everyone calls it now. It had pig farms as far as the eye could see. He had said that if your eyes forgot where you were, your nose never did.
Coming from Point Pleasant, I drove down the southern section of Route 35, a two-lane road where the speed limit is also 35. The traffic lights blinked yellow as I approached Lavallette, and few cars were on the road. I’ve always preferred the Jersey shore in the fall and winter: it’s the only time of year when peace is possible in this place.
I turned left onto Camden Avenue and drove to the ocean block. If I had continued driving on Route 35 for a few more miles, I would have ended up in Seaside, the origins of the TV show “Jersey Shore.” Lavallette is the opposite of the fist-pumping, twenty-something Benny crowd of Seaside. Lavallette is a quiet community of street fairs that has somehow held onto the Jersey shore of yesteryear. The small businesses are locally owned. Iceberg ice cream sells homemade flavors, like Cotton Candy. The Crabs Claw Inn, a bar and restaurant where my grandfather goes almost every day, sends over someone to bring a meal to Poppy on the eve of holidays. The police telephone their elderly residents, like my grandfather, every morning. If no one picks up, they send a car.
On the corner of Route 35 and the ocean block of Camden Avenue is Saint Bonaventure Church, a 22,000 square foot light brown gothic structure. Poppy used to walk to church almost every day. We used to call him The Pope.
I parked on the vacant street in front of his house around noon. The American flag hung from a pole on the front porch, whipped by the wind every now and again. I stepped out of my car, stomped on the cigarette I’d been smoking, and the cold, salty January breeze lingered under my nose. I climbed the four steps and opened the front door.
His dusty golf clubs were in the corner of the small foyer. Murphy, his eight-year old black miniature poodle, leaped from the edge of the living room into my midsection. Mom calls him “the gay dog” because he seems to prefer humping men more than women and the groomer tends to put a bright-colored bandana around his neck that no one ever bothers to remove. I leaned down and petted the dog, who whimpered from excitement and ran in circles in front of me.
Virginia, Poppy’s home health aide, greeted me in the living room. She was a tall middle-aged brunette whom I always saw in blue scrubs. She had been spending the daytime with Poppy for a couple of years. During the spring of 2010, about eight months earlier, Poppy was found sleeping in the bushes in his backyard. Virginia got to the house at 9 AM and found him there. The sliding backdoor was open and Murphy was asleep on the small porch just outside the door. When Virginia woke him up, he couldn’t recall how he’d gotten there. The walker was in the house. He had only minor scratches, and he was cold. After that, my mother and aunt decided that he needed someone there all of the time, or he needed to check into “the home.” They didn’t call it “the home,” of course. No one calls it that when they’re serious.
They researched locations in central New Jersey, close to the house my grandparents had owned for over thirty years. My mother and aunt picked up colorful brochures with elderly people dancing on the covers, or eating a feast in a luxurious looking cafeteria—always smiling. “I’m not going to one of those places,” he had said when we’d all gone down to visit a few weeks later and they showed him the brochures. I sat in the living room, on the other side of the house, listening to the conversation come through his open bedrooms doors. A month later he went on a cruise. When he came back, a home health aide moved into one of the upstairs bedrooms to ensure he was okay at night.
Virginia told me that he was awake and sitting in his chair, watching TV. I veered right through the living room and saw that Murphy had destroyed another screen in the window that looked out onto the front porch. The clear glass lamp with shells inside that my grandmother had made sat on one of the coffee tables. A photograph of my grandparents, brother, sister and me at the Cape May Zoo fifteen years earlier was in a small frame on the bookshelf near the stairs.
I stepped into the tight kitchen hallway that opened into the dining area, turning left into the exposed den. A lingering smell of ammonia crept through the wooden sliding door of Poppy’s bedroom, behind where he sat in his chair.
He had bought the chair about a year earlier—a leather mechanical beast with a remote control that can elevate him to a near standing position without him having to use his legs; it simultaneously reclines parallel to the ground so he can sleep in it if he can’t get up. Or if he chooses not to.
I walked over and kissed the eighty-three year old on the cheek—his inconsistent gray-brown scruff scratching my face—and gave him a long hug.
“How ya doin’?” I asked him.
“Eh. I’m alive,” he said with a smile.
Through big thick glasses with rounded corners, his faded blue eyes looked out at me, having turned closer to a deep glassy gray—his pupils lost in those hazy marbles. Poppy’s inconsistent shave gave way to longer hairs that sprouted from his neck like blades of grass missed during one of the meticulous summer mows he hadn’t been able to complete in at least half of a decade. His mouth stayed open just a tad, and small bits of saliva had dried in the corners. He had a small contusion above his left eye from when he had fallen out of bed a week earlier. There were puddle-sized blood stains on his bedroom carpet that I saw through the open bedroom door.
“How was the drive?” he asked.
“It was beautiful. The Parkway was empty, and I made it down in about an hour and fifteen.”
He smiled. “Your mother would be proud.”
“I think Princeton just came out with a study. Apparently having a lead foot is genetic.”
He laughed. Even as he tried to hold his hands together, they shook.
“So, are you hungry, kiddo?”
“Sure. Do you want to go now?”
“Yeah. Why not? My schedule’s free,” he said, smiling.
“And so is mine.”
Virginia helped him with his jacket. She was patient with him. I had seen Poppy snarl at her for a scotch before: “Vir-ginia, get me a scotch, would you?”
I helped Poppy out the front door, down the four steps, as Virginia watched from the doorway. He pushed his walker up to the Cadillac’s passenger’s seat and I put my hand over his head as he shakily sat down. I folded up the steel walker and placed it in the back seat.
He had bought the Cadillac the prior summer, as he had done every three years since he retired—trading in one for the next.
“What are you buying a new car for?” My mother had asked him. “You can’t even drive.” The last time he had driven, Virginia drove the car over to the Crab’s Claw, and he drove back after a few scotches. When he realized he was about to miss his turn, he swerved across the two lanes of traffic without looking, making it onto Camden Avenue.
“What do you mean, what am I buying a new car for,” he had said. “I want a new car. That’s why.” I had tried to explain to my parents that the car—like so many other things—was part of his routine. If he hadn’t bought the car, it would have been like giving up. “Who cares about the car? Who cares about the money?” I had said.
I drove the five blocks north on Route 35 to the Crabs Claw Inn. From a handicapped parking spot, I went through the process of unfolding the walker, opening his door, and guiding him up the stairs to the restaurant. A silent couple behind us smiled toothlessly.
Poppy slid the walker along the hardwood floor of the crowded restaurant, past the V-shaped bar on the right. When we reached our table, I could feel the eyes of the younger crowd sitting at the bar and I wanted to ask them what the hell they were looking at. I helped him take off his jacket and sit down on his chair. We sat at the center of the main dining room, facing the bar. Poppy was out of breath. I refolded the walker and placed it against the wall, sat down, looked at the fireplace behind Poppy, and up to the big screen TV over our heads.
“Dewar’s on the rocks with a twist,” he said when the pretty brunette waitress came over to take our order. His call for a Dewar’s sounded like a man walking out of the Sahara asking for a glass of water.
“I’ll just have a water,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Do-da-do,” Poppy half-sung, attempting to imitate the notes coming from Frank, the piano player. Poppy’s loose translucent hands shook. The doctor had said he might have the early onset of Parkinson’s. I wondered if it was exhausting, if his arms ever hurt from all that shaking, if he even noticed that they shook, anymore.
“Go put this in his jar, will you kiddo?” he said, handing me a five. Frank, in his mid-eighties, wore a newsboy hat and nodded when I put the five in his jar. He played something, probably from Irving Berlin or Joe Bushkin.
I sat back down and looked through the menu.
“Get whatever you want, kiddo. Okay? Even if it’s not on the menu, they can make it for you.”
Each sip of scotch seemed to cheer up Poppy. The pauses in conversation grew shorter.
“So how’s school going, kiddo?”
“It’s good. Really good. I’m just waiting to hear back from these programs I applied to.”
“Now, you’re doing a Masters, right?”
I told him that I was hoping to move somewhere south, to concentrate on writing. I had told him this before, but he listened as if he’d never heard me say it. He asked some of the same questions he’d asked me months earlier, and I got the distinct feeling of déjà vu, of time collapsing in the dimly lit restaurant as a drunken woman in her forties danced by herself near the bar. I expanded on the answers to his questions because I knew he wanted me to. I knew that this lunch was the highlight of his week, and I knew that when I remembered to call him, it was the highlight of his day. I knew this because of the way that he smiled. Because he said it to my mother. Because when we remembered him, pride let him forget about everything else.
“Your grandmother would be proud of you.” He said as our clam chowder arrived. I smiled.
Poppy had another scotch when his fried flounder and my flat-iron steak arrived. After we ate, I had a cup of coffee and he had another scotch.
When we got back to his house from the Crab’s Claw around two, Poppy had Virginia bring him a fresh glass of scotch, which she had probably diluted with water. My mother and aunt had conspired for this to be the case. MSNBC was on the TV and Poppy seemed to stare through it. I sat on a recliner next to him. On top of the piano a couple of dozen Christmas and birthday cards stood partly open.
“Do you ever play that thing anymore?” I asked him.
“Oh no. I haven’t played in years,” he said. He twisted his body to the right and moved his shaking right hand toward the side table where his glass of scotch sat. He knocked it with his hand, which caused a small amount of the yellowish liquid to spill down the sides. “Damn it,” he said before he grabbed hold of the glass. The ice clanked around as he brought the glass to his face. He took a mouthful, let go of a euphoric sigh, and then placed the glass back down.
The last time I heard him play the piano was the Thanksgiving before my grandmother died. It was the last Thanksgiving he’d spent at his house in Bridgewater, fifteen minutes from where I’d grown up. While the turkey was still in the oven, he sat at the piano with a lamp on above the vacant music stand, playing simplified versions of Erroll Garner songs, like “Jeannine” and “Misty.” Then he took a sip from the Heineken bottle he’d brought with him to the piano and switched to some Sinatra songs he knew, like “It Was a Very Good Year.” He couldn’t hit the highest notes, or the lowest ones, but he had a good enough voice to occasionally sing along: “I’m in the autumn of the year And now I think of my life as a vintage wine, do-dah-do.” When I was small, he would sit me next to him on the piano bench and place my hands on a couple of keys, and then he would try to teach me simple melodies so we could play together.
As I sat next to him in his mechanical chair, and pretended to watch MSNBC, I asked, “How’s Bud doing? Do you still see him around?” Bud was a drinking buddy of his that he’d gotten relatively close with since he moved full-time to the beach.
“Eh. Not too much. Since he had the surgery for the clogged artery in his neck, he doesn’t come around much anymore.” Before Bud’s procedure, Poppy had had a surgery done on his neck as well. It was supposed to be the first in a series of three surgeries that was to grant some relief from the herniated discs in his back that had led to the purchase of a cane. He didn’t react well to the anesthesia. When he woke from the surgery, he was confused and screamed obscenities. He didn’t recognize either of his daughters, and it took him a couple of days to return to some semblance of normalcy. The family speculated that the high volume of scotch he’d been putting into his body for years had caused him to react poorly. “Withdrawal will do that,” I’d said.
“How about Gail?” I asked him, as I took my eyes off MSNBC. Gail had married Billy, a cousin of my grandmother, about twenty-five years earlier. Gail, twenty years younger than Poppy, was also widowed, and happened to live a quarter mile closer to the bay, on Camden Avenue, the same road as Poppy. Gail was a nurse. She checked in on Poppy, and they often went to lunch together. They had grown close a couple of years after he had permanently moved to the beach, and Poppy took her on that cruise he went on after talk of “the home” had come up. Poppy had footed the bill, which made my mother and aunt talk.
“Oh, she’s down in the Dominican this month. I think she’s coming back in about two weeks—something like that. I can’t tell one week from the next,” he said and laughed loudly. “Hey Virginia?”
“Yes, Robert?” She had come from the kitchen where she had been putting away a couple of dishes.
“How about a scotch?”
“Are you sure you don’t want a cup of coffee?”
“Yes. I want a scotch. Not coffee.”
“You don’t want a cup of coffee first?”
“Damn it. I want a scotch.”
“Okay, Robert.” Virginia said. She and I exchanged a glance.
“It sounds like Gail has a pretty good deal down there in the Dominican, huh?”
“Ohhh yeah. Well, she splits it with her two daughters, and when none of them are there they rent it out. Yeah.” I had heard him describe the situation a dozen times. “Apparently, there are a lot of Americans building houses down there.”
Virginia came in with a cup of coffee while Poppy talked.
“Damn it. Virginia, this isn’t scotch. This is coffee. I said scotch.”
I laughed because I didn’t know what else to do. I had witnessed situations like it more times than I could count. I had stopped trying to tell him to slow down on the drinking. I had stopped trying to tell him to just drink beer. I had stopped trying to tell him anything because he’d lived long enough to go out in whatever way he wanted—scotch and all.
Virginia brought in another glass of scotch. She didn’t get offended at his outbursts; every now and again she’d bring the coffee and he wouldn’t say anything, so if it worked once, she figured she might as well keep trying. Poppy reached for his glass.
“You want a beer or something? There should be some Heinekens in the fridge. There might be some cokes in there, too.”
“Yeah. I’ll grab something.”
I walked into the kitchen and looked at the messy stack of magazines, newspapers, and bills on the table. I looked over at Poppy who was taking another shaky sip of scotch, and then took a couple of steps to the right, where the kitchen narrowed. I opened the refrigerator, across from the sink, and grabbed a coke. When I closed the refrigerator door I saw a white clip-magnet with Trust Company Bank written on it in blue letters.
Poppy had started work for the bank as a teller in his twenties. He stayed with them for his entire career—over forty years—moving up steadily, eventually to Vice President. He never finished college.
As I walked back to the recliner I saw some old stationary on the kitchen table. “Notes from Robert Degelmann” was written in bold black font on the top of the pad. The paper had yellowed a bit, and some of Poppy’s incomprehensible cursive was scribbled in blue ink. I wondered if that pad had been to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where my grandparents used to spend the winters after they’d both retired.
My grandmother and I had written letters to each other while they were gone. I’d found a stack of them in the back of a drawer in my childhood desk when I was moving out after college. On February 10, 1994, she wrote: “Tell mommy that yesterday when we came out of the water, Pop-pop was washing the sand off my feet. They ask you to take the tar off your feet and provide a solvent which smells like turpentine. Pop-pop was using it on my foot—I told him those were freckles and not tar!!!”
“Ahhhhh.” Poppy made a sound in the den like he was clearing his throat while simultaneously signaling the beginning of a drunken disagreement. The sound had surprised me, even though I should have been accustomed to it. It was the sound that signaled his intoxication. I knew that soon he’d start yelling at the TV and Murphy, before falling asleep in his chair.
I got back to where I’d been sitting and placed the coke down on a coaster on top of the piano and told him, “I’m gonna go see if the ocean is still there.”
“I’ve heard there’s not much left,” he said. “The last storm hit pretty damn hard.”
I put on my jacket and walked out of the house. I took a right out of the driveway and glanced up at the dark gray sky as cold air snuck through my jacket. The wind gusts grew longer and more severe as I walked by the seven houses on the way to the beach. The gusts brought with them the smell of cold ocean salt and I remembered the summer days of my early teens, when my brother and I walked up and down the street barefoot, talking about older girls we’d seen on the beach, and how we couldn’t wait to be their age. It seemed unfair, we’d told each other.
I took off my sneakers and socks where the cool sand met the boardwalk and stepped onto the dried seafloor, feeling rocks and shells under my feet. I lit a cigarette, sat near the dunes, and watched a fisherman wade out into the water near the rock jetty with a pole in hand. I could smell the mussels that lined the rocks which formed the jetty, fading under the water thirty feet from shore. I remembered spending summer evenings wading into the water around that same jetty, looking for seashells with my brother and sister as the sun set over the bay.
I remembered sneaking out of my grandparents’ house when I was sixteen, from the upstairs bedroom my brother and I had shared—a bedroom left vacant the past two or three years. I had gone to the beach and sat in the same spot, where I got high under the midnight stars I seemed to take more notice of then, dreaming about being older so I could talk to those girls on the beach.
It struck me that Poppy would never see the beach again. He had tried once, after my grandmother died. But he had left a few minutes later, upset.
The locals say that the Barnegat Peninsula won’t be here forever. They say that it will eventually fall into the sea. They say that it’s only a matter of time.