My summer home was a grand seaside hotel in Bradley Beach. The Hotel, as we called it, was owned by my father, his siblings, and their spouses and was properly named "The La Reine Bradley." But while the hotel may have been queen, I was most certainly the princess. Although my parents grew to hate the hotel and the demands of the whining guests, I loved the place.
My parents and I shared a room in the simpler La Reine building. It was not the most luxurious of rooms, but at least it had its own bathroom. On rare occasions, all the female cousins would stay in one large room. At age 6, I was allowed to join these wonderful slumber parties, and I was inducted into the world of Clearasil and hair wrapping.
From the moment our slate blue Impala rounded the circular driveway, I was free to roam my castle. Three lobbies had different shades of the same garish carpeting. The Bradley building was decorated in hot pinks and reds, while the La Reine building was done in ocean greens and blues. My father, always called Mr. G. in the hotel, and my uncle, who kept the complete Grunberger name, shared an office in the hall that straddled both buildings.
One could hear the jangling of the keys as my father approached, or the tunes and bells of pinball games. There were other ringing and whooshing sounds that came from the hall elevator. Sometimes I would operate the elevator, clanging shut the gate and pushing the lever to help guests arrive at their floors. Most opted for the wide staircase when they saw me at the helm. When I was bored, my dad or uncle would open the cash box of the pinball machine, empty the change, stand me on a crate, and I would play for hours.
My cousin and I also frolicked in the playground, equipped just for us, and found all the secret passageways to mysterious rooms. The guests may have used the grand stairs, but we knew how to find the narrow dark stairs that led right into the meat kitchen. Mean Mr. Isaacson, the butcher, would always smile at me, and sometimes he let me cool off in the cavernous fridge or freezer.
I could sneak out of the kitchen to the cream-colored children’s dining room, where the cake closet always contained fresh sponge cake, dense yellow with a golden crust. I could trace the scent of the cakes to the bakery. The mixing bowl was big enough for me to sit in, and there were always trays of delicacies, including petit fours iced in pastels and delicate cream puffs in the shape of swans. From the bakery I could find my way to the ping-pong room, the laundry, the dairy kitchen, and the dining room. I would marvel at the air-conditioners that were as large as the computers of their day, and I loved the exotic colors of the bottles behind the bar.
The waiters in gold and the busboys in red were my boyfriends, or at least pretended to be, while they hoped for attention from my sisters. The office staff thought I was adorable. Gertrude who was nasty unless my parents were around had no idea we called her Girdle behind her back. She always cooed at my starchy crinolines and the white gloves I wore almost every evening, dressing for dinner in kelly green cottons or black velvet. Sometimes I would be the opening act of the night’s entertainment, playing duets of "Heart and Soul" or singing "Sunrise, Sunset" while the crowd waited for The Four Ayalons, accompanied by the Murray Kaye orchestra.
If I was enough of a pest, my sister would let me run off the menu on the mimeograph machine. I even learned how to operate the switchboard. I knew how to draw the snakelike wires out of their perches and connect one room to another, how to ring a room or help you get an outside line.
There were many diversions, but the best part of the hotel was the ocean across the street and the two pools in the back. Sometimes, someone would take me to the boardwalk and the beach. The air smelled of Coppertone and sea salt. Overhead, small planes towed signs advertising local eateries and events. We jumped waves, climbed rocks, gathered shells, and built sand castles. On lonelier days I would sit in a rocker on the large wrap-around porch and stare at the grayish green water, with crests of toothpaste foam.
Many days I spent a few hours in the pools at the back. There was a kiddy pool, a circle of knee-deep water, and a deep aqua Olympic-sized pool with a diving board. The tan lifeguard always helped me, Mr. G’s daughter, get a lounge chair with a comfortable pad. After a dip in the cool water, I would lie on a chair and feel the tingle of the sun drying the water on my body. My sisters, Malke and Mindy, would sit slathered in coconut oil, trifold reflectors under their chins, soaking up the sun.
I was allowed to play on the steps of the pool and would hang on to the ledge and make my way to deeper water, but I could only stare jealously at the graceful moves of the swimming children. One weekend, when I was six, my favorite aunt, Tanta Clair, spent some time at the hotel. Her Hungarian accent had been almost totally replaced with the twang of Baltimore. Among all the tantas, she was the only one with her head uncovered, her chestnut hair perfectly coiffed, her skin a deep shade of toast. She was determined to teach me how to swim.
I would hold on to her hands, manicured with icy-white polish, and she would pull me across the pool, my feet kicking behind me. I would feel the warm sun on my back, see the dappled pool bottom, and hear the steady kick and my aunt’s glamorous laugh. She coaxed me to put my head in the water, but I refused. That was just too scary. After two days, my aunt announced that in order to advance in my swimming, I must learn how to put my head in the water. I did not want to disappoint her, but I just couldn’t do it.
My aunt went back to Baltimore, and I felt like a failure. Each day after lunch, I would lie on my bed for the prescribed time until I was allowed to go swimming, and promise myself that today would be the day, but I always chickened out. Finally, one ordinary afternoon, I decided I was a princess who could slay this dragon of fear.
I snuck out of our room in the La Reine building, past the shared bathroom, the children’s dining room, the lobby, and the tea room, and went out to the pool, still officially closed for the lunchtime break. Too terrified to try the big pool on my own, I decided to conquer the kiddy pool. I waded in and stood for a few minutes. Although the water was warm, I debated whether I needed to scoop water into my bathing suit like all the grown women.
I slowly got down on my knees and lowered my chin into the water. That’s not too scary, I figured. I was ready to put more of my face in the water, but my knees were feeling scraped and bruised. I sat on the bottom of the pool and bobbed in and out of the water, each time lowering my head a little more. My mouth and nose were major accomplishments, and I knew I had to get my eyes and forehead under. I held my breath and dunked. Success. It was glorious. I could join the ranks of the swimmers and my aunt would be so proud. Moments later, my sister found me down by the pool. I so wanted to show off, yet my reward for this grand accomplishment was banishment from the pool for a week. Is that any way to treat a princess?