Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Glimpse of Cousin Joe's Shame

Rome City, July 1968

When I was 7 1/2 years old, we moved from Racine, Wisconsin to Rock Island, Illinois.  My parents didn't want my brother and me in the way during the move, so on July 18th, 1968, we left a fully-furnished house in Racine, and on July 28th, we returned to a fully-furnished house in Rock Island.

We spent the ten days in Rome City, Indiana, with my Aunt Nora.  She was a big, jolly woman who baked pies for a living -- we got pie every night for dessert! -- and who let us watch all the tv we wanted.  She and Uncle Henry (who died a long time ago) liked tv so much that they named her kids after popular tv stars:

1. Ed (left), 18 years old, after the star of The Ed Sullivan Show.
2. Eva Marie, 16 years old, after Eva Marie Saint, star of the The Phillco Television Showcase
3. Joe (top photo left), 14 years old, after the star of The Joey Bishop Show (she was fibbing about this: The Joey Bishop Show didn't premiere until 1961 and Cousin Joe was born in 1954.)

Their house was only two blocks from the Limberlost Library, where kids could use the main room, not just the children’s room, and Cousin Joe let us check out books on his card. It was three blocks from Sylvan Lake, where we went swimming and fishing and rode pontoon boats.

Aunt Nora's house had a living room, dining room, kitchen, and three bedrooms downstairs (for Aunt Nora, Joe, and Eva Marie).  Upstairs there was one bedroom for Grandma Davis whenever she came for a visit (Kenny and I slept there), and an attic "pad" for Ed.

One night I woke up late and had to go to the bathroom, so I climbed out of bed and pieced my way gingerly downstairs and through the unfamiliar hallway. The bathroom door was ajar.  I shoved it open.

Cousin Joe was standing in front of the sink.

I saw him only dimly, in the silvery-black moonlight and the glow of a nightlight attached to a wall outlet, and only for an instant, but 40 years later, the image is still vivid:  a nude, muscular backside. A smooth chest visible in the mirror, and a belly -- thin, no abs.  A dark patch of pubic hair.  And what the grownups called his shame

I had only seen two shames before, my brother's and my Uncle Paul's.  I would see another two years later, at the Rock Island Pow Wow, but by that time I would know the correct term. This one was huge, a monster, a garden hose.  I wondered how he could fit it into a pair of pants.

Was he peeing in the sink?  No -- that was a trickle of water from the faucet.  He was washing it!

Why didn't he do that at bathtime?

Noticing me, Joe swung around, hands dripping, shame swaying from side to side. "What the hell are you doing!" he yelled.  "Get out of here!"

But I was transfixed.  I couldn't look away.

Suddenly the light came on in Aunt Nora's room, and I heard Cousin Ed's voice from upstairs -- Kenny woke up and started crying when I wasn't there.  Grunting, Joe brushed past me, and ran to his own room to put on a bathrobe.

Before long, everybody was gathered in the kitchen, talking furiously while Aunt Nora made hot chocolate.  Eventually it was decided that, though I had embarrassed Joe by seeing his shame, it was his own fault.  You should shut the bathroom door, even late at night when you think everyone is asleep.

I don't understand why they called it a shame.  It was certainly nothing to be ashamed of -- I'll bet it would win first prize at the Gay Horsemen's Club in Amsterdam, where I would find an A+++-sized boyfriend years later  -- and it provided me with a fond childhood memory.

Besides, I got hot chocolate.

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