Friday, February 11, 2011

My Old Man and the Sea

It’s that time of year again. My favorite holiday is almost here—February 15th. Yes, I know most non-single people tend to prefer the 14th, but I live for the day when all that leftover chocolate goes on sale for 50-80% off. November 1st has a similar charm, but I think the quality is a little better on February 15th. Maybe I’m just a bon-bon snob. This year will be a more reserved celebration, due to Operation Svelte, but I will indeed mark the occasion with some deeply discounted, deeply delicious indulgence. Romance is in the eye (or in the taste buds) of the beholder, I guess.

Valentine’s Day also happens to have been my father’s birthday. I think of my father as having had a complex personality, but amid those complexities I’d say he was a romantic in many ways; brought to tears of joy at the thought of his friends and family, or a good Asiago cheese, alike. He liked to buy my mother jewelry. For a few years when I was in high school, he seemed to me to be on a mission. We’d take a lot of trips together to NYC in those days (about three hours drive from home then), and he’d love to head to the jewelry stores on 47th street. Be it a birthday, Christmas, or Valentine’s Day, he just had to buy my mom some jewelry, despite her own protests. Often, as is her way with gifts in general, she’d have him return the jewels suggesting that, while she appreciated the thought, the particular item just wasn’t quite right for her. Eventually, though, my dad had a stroke of genius. He bought her a gold bangle bracelet and had it engraved on the inside with the line of a quite romantic song that I think really did capture his feelings for my mother. No returning this one. She kept it, and loved it, and still wears it more than most of her other jewelry, as far as I can tell.

My dad would also get the classic red roses for his wife on Valentine’s Day. Now, I hear a lot of people, especially of the male persuasion, complaining that this is “clichéd” or “unoriginal”, however I seldom hear of these men coming up with an alternative, original or not. Personally, I think it might be an excuse to hold on to their cash, or for commitment- phobes and love-phobes to not have to appear to actually express anything resembling emotions or basic gratitude for their Significant (or not-yet-sure-of-their significance) Other. It’s cowardice, really. If love is too scary, how about framing it as kindness and appreciation? And they call us the weaker sex? Sheesh! Scaredy-cats.

I’ve also heard some women complain—actually complain—about the flowers they get, too. For the same reason, it appears. This “type” seems to want some kind of Disney-scale production, as if this is the standard of proof of their partner’s feelings for them. These are probably the same women who will virtually extort a diamond ring from their guy when they give birth. Have you heard of this trend of Birth Jewelry? I think the louder you scream, the more carats. And for the stretch marks? Well, only platinum will do, darling. These same delightful catches will measure their partner’s love by the size of the engagement ring. Get a grip, ladies. And guys, if this sounds like your intended, see that red flag waving now or start putting money aside in a fund for the lawyers you’re going to need (or at least fantasize about) in a few years. To my thinking, if a guy is willing to spend half a year’s salary on a piece of jewelry, because DeBeers and his fiancée double-team him, in most cases the answer to his Big Question should be “No”, unless, of course, your girlhood fantasy has always involved a fool on a white horse, careening at a full gallop toward bankruptcy court. Anyway, to these ladies (or gentlemen) my point is, please shut up and love your flowers, if you’re lucky enough to get some. Really look at them, touch them, and smell them. Revel in them. Love takes many forms, and is expressed in a variety of ways, including simple gratitude. OK, lecture over. I’m off my soap box. Kind of. 
Where was I going with this . . . oh yeah. .  .

By way of helping you appreciate those flowers, let me tell you about my old man and his wife, and the sea. My dad had boats in his younger days. Two of them that I know of. One called The Fink, and one called Rockabilly (he was in the music biz). He loved his boats. He loved being on the water, a trait I think I inherited from him, despite simply winging it in the beginning. He really didn’t know much about safe boating, as you’ll soon see. My dad, highly distractible and practically blind in one eye, was also known for not being such a great driver, so maybe boating, with less traffic and no lines he had to stay within (apart from channel markers), was good for him. Knowing of his driving skills, it’s still hard for me to believe my mother would take trips with him on the back of his Lambretta scooter through the streets of New York in their early days. I don’t know for sure, but I’d wager that helmets didn’t play a big role in those trips.

Anyway, a boating story has been handed down to me that stands out. I’m sure that over the years it may have been embellished somewhat (or even a lot. My family likes storytelling), and I’m equally sure my memory isn’t what it used to be. But on this occasion, my dad’s idea of showing a lady a good time was taking a trip to the southernmost tip of New Jersey to pick up his new boat, The Fink, and pilot it all the way back up to New York City. Whitestone, to be exact.
Stopping along the way to face off against Russians with guns.
On the tail of Hurricane Donna. September, 1960.

And my mother married this guy.

Remember that the next time you’re asking yourself why I seem a little bit . . . “off”. It’s probably in the genes.

So, never having attempted such a trek by boat, my father and his future wife decide somehow that they will take the intra-coastal waterway, and that this will take them all the way to NYC in a day. I mean, intra-coastal sounds nice and cozy, doesn’t it? Too bad there was no Google or Wikipedia back then to tell them that it stops at around Manasquan, about thirty-five miles from NewYork Harbor by sea. [sigh]

A true Man of the Sea who lived above my relatives’ restaurant at the Jersey Shore, a commercial fisherman, I believe, suggested to my parents that taking the trip right then would be perhaps unwise. But, what did he know, right? Perhaps blinded by the excitement of finally signing on the dotted line and owning The Fink, off they went anyway. Or, perhaps already eyeing my mother as a potential mate, and knowing how trauma can create strong bonds between people, my dad figured “If we survive, she’s mine, baby!” Oh dad, you hopeless romantic, you.

The Man of the Sea, perhaps seeing that there was no convincing my father, told them that as long as they saw what sailors called blue or black water, they might be OK, but stay away from white water. When you see white water, know that there’s something just below the surface that you can’t see, and steer clear. They started in that intra-coastal waterway, on choppy seas, but managing all right. My mother was tense and nervous, and like a true New Yorker, dressed entirely inappropriately. Brown suede jacket—great for the bistro, bad for the ocean. They would take that route as far as they could, but then, for stretches, they’d be forced out to the open sea beyond the barrier islands.

I’ve been trying to keep some humor in this, but when today I asked my mother to tell me the story again, this is the part where her voice changes. It gets tighter and a little higher, a little louder. I can almost hear her muscles tensing, her body bracing, her eyes going wide. I can almost see her neurons in her brain start firing differently at this juncture in the tale—traumatic memories will do that. She begins to tell me about heading onto that roiling sea in their 21-foot vessel, and those neurons are firing like . . . . like it’s September 1960 again. It’s as if she’s facing into that harsh wind, feeling the salt sting on her face, and almost forgetting—almost—that the story didn’t have a tragic ending after all. She lived to tell the tale. But I understand as I listen that it was a very close shave. The thing about negative emotional experiences, too, is that they seem to leave very detailed traces in our memories, even more so than positive experiences (says, among others, this man, Bessel Van der Kolk). I’ll wager my mother can describe that day of more than 50 years ago better than she could describe whatever she did last Tuesday.

“The boat had an inboard/outboard motor,” she said. “Thank God it didn’t crap out on us.” They had what’s known as a Following Sea that day, which means that the waves were moving in the same direction as the boat. This little boat would ride up on the crests and down into the troughs, violently thrust upward again, then slam down hard on the next swell, over and over. “If the engine had stopped,” she said, “those waves would have come right over the transom and swamped us. As long as we could keep moving, I thought we might be OK  . .  it was . . . it was TERRIFYING.” The ocean was just constant motion, shaking like Jello, she said.

They made it as far as a place called Brant Beach the first night, where there were boat slips and my mother (and probably my father) were relieved to get one, relieved to be in port. But the next day, they had to continue, and the sea hadn’t calmed one bit. Remember, they were tailing a hurricane.

They continued within the relative shelter of the barrier islands as far as they could, but had to head back onto the ocean at Manasquan, which stands out in my mother’s mind as particularly bad. She said that not too long after this trek, they took a boating safety course (I believe we call this Genius After the Fact) with the Coast Guard or some other organization. She said that they had a movie or photos showing Manasquan as an example of a dangerous area, where many currents meet, and knew the truth of it down to her bones. At one point, they passed a stretch of beach where, for some reason, my mother suggested they just try to get in as close as they could and leave the boat. If it got smashed, it got smashed, but at least they might make it. That was probably fear talking, because my mother knows what the undertow does. My mother knows about rip-tides keeping swimmers from shore, even a strong swimmer like her. This was the thought of a truly, desperately frightened woman. The trip continued in this manner for some time, until they reached the Sandy Hook area and my father said he needed to go below deck to use the bathroom. He left my mother in charge of steering, which she says she could barely do with both hands and all her might, the currents there were so violent. But she managed and they knew, with some relief, that New York Harbor was now not so far off. They would make it home.

That is, if the Russians let them.

Here’s the thing. When you barely survive a boat trip on a sea that’s been stirred up by a cyclone, it’s really ok to say, “It’s Miller time”, go home, get a shower and some sleep, and . . .I don’t know . . . adopt the fetal position and have a good cry for a couple of days. They didn’t have Ben and Jerry’s in 1960, but I’m sure that in NYC they could find a reasonable substitute and consume a 55-gallon drum of the stuff, reaching solace at the very bottom. You know? But . . .

“Hey, look! Look at that big ship docked along the Hudson. . . let’s check it out.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that that was probably my father’s idea. I could be wrong, but . . it just sounds like him. So they did go check it out. It was a Polish ship called the Batory. Big, beautiful ship for sure. I’ll bet Nikita Khrushchev liked it, too, since it seems to have been where he was staying during the United Nations General Assembly that year. Yes, that Nikita—the one with the lively shoes. I’ll bet the other folks on the ship enjoyed it, too, when they weren’t busy pointing all their rifle-power over the sides at innocent, harried couples on 21-foot boats that got just a little too close.

Yeah, I’m not kidding. Though, it would seem that even from way up on the deck of that ship they could see my future parents already looked pretty worked-over by mother nature, and with enough arm-raising, shouting, and waving, they were allowed to move away from the ship and onward to the Harlem River without further incident. When they finally reached home, people on the docks stared at them as one would an alien life form, recognizing they had obviously just been through something pretty bad—my mother’s suede jacket had bled its rust color all over everything; all over her, her clothes, the boat’s deck. She and the jacket were caked with salt, and the jacket was so stiff she could barely remove it. The boat was littered with everything that had been tossed around, as well. Given the alternative, this is what we call a pretty happy ending.

So what’s this got to do with diamonds and flowers? At most times of the year, probably not much. But we’re coming up on Valentine’s Day, which as I said, was also my dad’s birthday. Love and Dad, they go together, right?

Look, I know I sounded a bit curmudgeonly back there. But really, I’m a romantic, too. There’s nothing wrong with jewelry and flowers and candlelit dinners. That’s really great stuff. But when, as a single woman, I dampened my pillow and prayed that love might find me, I wasn’t so much thinking about heart-shaped boxes. I wanted something as deep and unpredictable as that ocean, as Life. I knew that sometimes love is going to look like that little boat, rocked and tossed in a tempest, and there’s nothing you can do but hold on with all your might and keep going. You might sink, you might swim, but you know you’ll do it together. That’s my kind of love. That’s what I call Romance, in all its blind, thrill-seeking glory.

Happy Birthday, Dad. Happy Valentine’s Day, Mom.

And thanks.

Image credit: Steve Liss, Getty Images


  1. i remember the jewelry and the flowers, especially the cards. i have kept them in a manila folder deep in my cabinet. the name of the file is love. there were sapphires and diamonds, pearls and necklaces and much gold that i often wonder if i should sell it at the corner store. i have started to give some to my daughter and will save some for my son. but still, some may be sold at the corner store out of spite. i, too, am a romantic. one that believes the strongest and best are the ones that emerge from the wreckage standing beside those who stood beside them, sunny or rainy. why is it that some leave when the storms come, looking for fairer skies, leaving a huge divet in the lives left to pick up after the storm is through.

  2. Awww, Yolanda. Seems to me, jewels for a gem like you would be redundant. What sense gilding the lily, as they say. ;-) You can cruise with me any time, darlin'. Nice to see you here on the ol' blog.

  3. Oh Jenn..this story brings, although I have never heard it till now, reminds me so much of your dad..and mom...and many more stories that I listened to at BBQs in Aunt dees yard..over a few cocktails. although many of the stories from all the "elders" were, I am sure, dolled up a bit, they are memories I will hold near and dear to my heart...I love your Mom and Dad so much and am ald you shre these "love stories" with us..Love you Jacqui

  4. Thanks for such a sweet comment, Jacq. I have great memories from the days (and nights) at "Tara", too. And thanks for being such a faithful reader. I really, really appreciate it.

    But who's "Jenn"?

  5. I'm seeing something else you inherited. Something I love about YOU. Your intrepid heart.

  6. Why, thank you, Ms Wasp. That's sweet of you to say.


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