I had a large extended family whose favorite pastime was storytelling. Everything, from a trip to the drug store to a week in the country, was grist for the mill. Anecdotes were exaggerated and embellished, bordering on outright lies, in the service of their paramount purpose, which was to generate laughter. We’d sit around the table with our sides splitting, tears rolling down our faces, while my mother regaled us with a story of being mugged on the subway, or my grandfather told of his altercation with a cab driver. I remember very few of the actual stories—what I remember most is the laughter.
I was seven or eight, and spending two blissful weeks with my Aunt Minnie, Uncle Mike and Uncle Yernie at their rented summer bungalow in Rockaway, New York. Minnie and Mike were a childless couple, and Yernie was Minnie’s brother. He had the distinction of being the most interesting member of my family: he was single, he spoke fluent Italian, and he regularly went to the theater. (Small wonder that he turned out to be gay, something I learned after he died.) Yernie was not only interesting, but drop-dead gorgeous: tall and tan and young and lovely, just like the Girl from Ipanema. He had a head of rich dark hair and intense glittery blue eyes. The only member of the household who actually went to the beach, he took me with him every day. We’d walk the half-mile to the boardwalk and sand and ocean, past rows of white stucco bungalows. Housewives with scarves tied over hair curlers would lean over their porches to call out, “Hiya Yernie.” They must’ve had a system of alerting one another that he was coming, because the closer we got to the beach, the more prepared they seemed to be, already out on the porch, their hair waving free. He’d smile and nod, holding my little hand in his. Women who made a fuss over me when I was with Aunt Minnie or Uncle Mike barely noticed me now, but I didn’t care—I was just proud to be holding the hand of the most handsome man in Rockaway.
When we got to the beach, Yernie would set up his lounge chair and take his New Yorker magazine out of his beach bag. We sat close enough to shore so he could watch while I waded in the water. Although he went into the ocean, he didn’t stay as long as I wanted to—which was every single minute of every single hour.
One day we were in the water together; the sea was rough, as it almost always is in my memory, with huge waves breaking violently around my ankles…and then my knees…and then my chest. I held onto Uncle Yernie’s hand, but I wasn’t scared; from the moment I first met the ocean I was in love and unafraid. I let go of his hand to test myself, bobbing up and down, teaching myself how to stand just beyond the breaking point where the waves would gently lift me and let me down again safely. But on this day the waves were breaking all over the place, and I had to do a lot of running to and from the shore to avoid getting hit. Finally, on one particularly huge breaker, I didn’t make it. A wave knocked me down. I was swirled and hurled, and actually saw stars. I couldn’t breathe; I struggled towards air, but the undertow tugged at my little body. I don’t know how long I was under water, but I believed I was drowning when a pair of strong male hands gripped me by the arms and lifted me high up onto his chest. Uncle Yernie had saved my life.
It was the first story that I told around the table, how “Uncle Yernie saved my life.” I made them laugh with my story, and I never knew why, but I liked making them laugh, so I kept telling it. Now I realize they were laughing because, as Yernie probably told them in private, I hadn’t really been drowning, or even under water for more than a few seconds. They laughed because I’d learned, from them, the way to embellish a story and make it interesting. Now, with Yernie and Minnie and Mike and the grandparents and great-aunts and uncles all gone, I realize that Yernie really did save my life—he gave me my first story.