This is the second of a three-part essay. We will publish the series each Thursday through its completion. Find part one here.
For as long as my father has wanted a boat, or at least this boat, or at least this iteration of his boat wanting, if you will allow me that, eight to ten years say, my mother has wanted a new vanity for their hall bath. The one they have is horrifically ‘80s. Now, I won’t make some snarky comment as to my mother’s taste in décor, her sense of style, or the like (this is not a piece of fiction in which I can protect her sense of anonymity behind a pseudonymed caricature named Rowena). No, this is real. So I’ll just say I was pleasantly surprised that she wanted to update the horrific vanity.
We’ve looked at them, bathroom vanities. She and I. She’s looked at them with my father. She’s looked at them with my sister. She has even looked at them with her grandchild, my son Sam. She has some specific wants or needs or demands, you can call them. It must be white. It has to have drawers and a cabinet. It cannot be too deep. She and I actually were looking at a vanity on that fateful day. That day my Dad bought a boat. The vanity she wanted cost about $300. The boat did not cost $300. My mother is still waiting for her vanity. So, my Dad bought a boat.
Our next boat, the second one, came not too terribly long after the tragic dockside mauling of our first. It was not a fishing boat. It was a sail boat. Who knew my Dad could sail? I didn’t. But then I was like three when he got it, so what did I know? It was a 25-foot American Masthead Sloop christened Hesperus. A good name for a boat, I know. Perhaps you remember? Hesperus is the personification of the Evening Star in Greek Mythology. Hesperus is also an ill-fated boat in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s tragic and epic poem, The Wreck of the Hesperus. In our lives, however, it was the no named boat that sunk. But Hesperus? I grew up on her. Sort of. My sister and I both did. And come to think of it, my parents did as well.
With the purchase of Hesperus, my mother made a decision. If we were going to do a lot of boating, my mother insisted that my sister and I could swim. My mother didn’t think she was a strong enough swimmer to save us should something happen. So at three, I learned to swim and swim well.
We lived in Largo, Florida at the time. Largo is a little suburb of town in the St. Petersburg area between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Given the location, we sailed a lot! We would overnight at various islands, some with conveniences and some without. We swam, we fished, we never used sunscreen! Ahhh, the seventies, what could go wrong? Your child is pale skinned and fair, blonde hair and blue eyes? No worries, rub them down in baby oil and stick them on the white reflective surfaces of a sail boat, surrounded by water in the blazing Florida sun.
My mother always wanted my sister and I to have fun. My Dad could be a bit more serious at times. He learned to let go. One night, Lyn (my sister) and I wanted to fish. Dad didn’t want to deal with it so he insisted we had no bait. Mom insisted we could fish anyway. Dad didn’t want to go through the ordeal of baiting hooks and setting it all up for two kids who would be bored with it in ten minutes anyway. My mother asked him what else he was doing out here anchored by some little island off the Gulf Coast of Central Florida? Again he insisted there was no bait. She handed him some hot dogs. He laughed, then protested, then looked in her eyes and saw she was serious. He protested some more. Lyn and I fished. I think my sister might have caught one. But, soon enough, like Dad had said, we indeed were bored. We wanted to do something else. But my sister had caught a fish. So there was my dad, with fishing pole and hotdogs, fishing away.
Our family vacations were on that boat. Most weekends were spent on that boat. We slept on it, fought on it, ate on it, had fun on it. My sister and I actually had to be friends on it. Our families joined us on the boat. My mother dealt with my dad’s family, and my dad dealt with my mother’s. Our parent’s had jobs on the boat. My dad captained and navigated and reigned supreme. My mother cooked and manned the sails and was the final word. They fought, yelled, argued, screamed; they laughed, they talked, they loved. They learned to work together. It wasn’t always a smooth partnership, but it was theirs. It was that way on the boat, the way they learned to navigate the waters of the Gulf Coast, and the depths of family weekends and vacations too. It was how they learned to navigate the last 50 years, I would say. 50 years of marriage is no weekend getaway.
Of course with all the fun, there were the rough times. The time my father nearly went blind while painting the bottom of the boat. The time both my parents were certain we weren’t going to make it back to the marina during a freak thunderstorm. And the times my father used the boat as an escape when things got rough. If escaping my mother by going to the boat was his intention, well, that boat was as much her respite as it was his. And so now, as I think on it, he wasn’t escaping my mother, he was running to her. Running to the place where they yelled and screamed, and argued and laughed and learned and loved and worked together. Where they were one. That place where they grew up. Together.
We moved, eventually. From Largo to a little town in North Florida called Sopchoppy. Yep, I’ll write it again so you don’t have to go back to re-read that word. Sopchoppy, S-O-P-C-H-O-P-P-Y. I’ve had to spell that word to folks my whole life, well, since I was 10. We were not too far from the water, and we sailed occasionally. Not as often, but still, we sailed. Oh, but we had horses. My sister and I had school. My mother had PTA and my father had work. He traveled, my mother volunteered, my sister and I had friends that lived in a church. No, really, their house was an old church. Our lives changed drastically. Hesperus was no longer the center of our vacations, our recreation, our trips, our lives. It was no longer my father’s escape. It was no longer my father’s return.
We moved again. To Lakeland, Fla., a mid-sized town between Orlando and Tampa. We sold Hesperus in the six months we lived there. We moved again, to Alachua, near Gainesville. Gainesville is the home to the University of Florida and the Gators. The people who bought Hesperus stopped paying. My dad retrieved her and once again, Hesperus sat in our yard. She rested, unceremoniously, on her trailer. Kind of like those reconstructed whale or dinosaur bones you might find in museum. I would climb up on her sometimes, and sit. And remember. I suspect my dad did too.