Holding Fast: A Memoir of Sailing, Love and Loss
One Saturday when we still lived in Connecticut, my husband John and I took our daughter Kate, seven, to Mystic Seaport. As we reached the town of white picket fences and tidy window boxes of petunias, geraniums, and zinnias, John turned to Kate in the passenger seat and said, "In a few weeks, we're going to move on Laughing Goat and go sailing."
I sprang to attention in the back. We had discussed breaking the news to Kate, but I hadn't known when John would do it. He had waited until we came under the spell of the tall ships and recreated nineteenth-century village where blacksmiths and carpenters plied their trades. As usual, John took his time, raising a cigarette to his lips, inhaling, flicking ash in the tiny metal tray, flashing a grin at me, and waiting for Kate's response. Though the smell of his cigarette smoke no longer intoxicated me as it had twenty years ago when we were first together, I still loved the sensual curve of John's hand around a cigarette.
John was six when his family moved to Africa. Before they went, his mother told him about lions and tigers and elephants and snakes, anthills as big as houses, and the wild bush that would surround their new house where he could play. He couldn't wait to go. He wanted to impart a similar excitement to Kate about our voyage.
"Where are we going?" Kate asked.
"South. First to Florida. Then we'll figure out where we want to go from there —somewhere in the Caribbean. We'll snorkel. There are fantastic coral reefs, like nothing you've ever seen."
"What about school?"
"You and Mom will do it on the boat."
"What about our house?"
"We'll rent it out."
Kate glanced at me. Passing the schooners on Mystic River, I could imagine sailing down the Intracoastal Waterway through charming towns like those on Long Island Sound.
"It'll be fun," I said, feeling like Judas. I didn't share my doubts or fears.
Kate told her class the next day that she was sailing to the Caribbean and snorkeling, and she wasn't going to school anymore. Her teacher, a sailor, was thrilled for her and asked her to write the class about her adventures. She promised they would write Kate back.
I wish it had been that simple for me. I did not want to go. John would tease me and say, "I'll have to drag you out kicking and screaming, clinging to the garden." I imagined myself red-faced and shrieking, my fingers black with dirt, while John yanked my legs and Kate stared open-mouthed.
I was not a person who yelled. John wasn't, either. In our twenties vacationing in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, I was surprised when one of the locals with whom we convivially joked at a bar described us as the "quiet couple." There was so much feeling between us that we never felt quiet to me. From the outside, though, we appeared so.
We, us. When we fell in love, I glommed onto John as though he would save my life. He glommed onto me, too, as a way out of roles that smothered: husband and father at eighteen, John Jr. to his dad's John Sr., the inherited mantle of a family who sailed to America on the Mayflower. The youngest of four, with three older sisters, he was "irresponsible John" in his family, a party boy and artist in high school who beat to his own drum.
I, too, was the baby in my family, arriving nine years after my sister and eleven after my brother. A much unexpected, unplanned third child. The four were already a family, locked in one argument after another, instigated by my volatile mother. My dad was the only one who lit up when I came into a room. I learned to stay under the radar, to feel out the temperature before I ventured a word. In audiotapes my mother recorded of our family dinners, mine was the high voice piping up, "Shut up and listen." My dad died of heart disease when I was ten, and I was lost until I met John.
John and I had lived in our house in Fairfield for nearly ten years, and Kate had lived there her whole life. Before that, John and I lived on old wooden boats in Long Island Sound for fifteen years. On the water, we had no address.
Our address on land, 425 Brookside Drive, sounded so solid, a red farmhouse on a hill alongside the Mill River and a nature conservancy from which deer would thunder out of early morning mists. At first, I would repeat the address over and over, pinching myself as I wandered through the house on polished hardwood floors and flung open the tall casement windows.
I wasn't ready to give the house up to live out John's dream of sailing off. As we sailed, the house became a beacon for me, the cozy red house on a hill, lights twinkling from the windows, river gurgling, the smell of wild strawberries drifting through the air, and a tattered tire swing suspended from a maple tree that Kate and her friends swung on over the stream, waiting for our return.
Now many years later, John has passed away and the voyage occupies a space in my mind as bright as the lights of Havana when we drifted outside the harbor waiting for daylight to enter, but I can no longer ask him what he thinks it all meant.