I live in a town that is said to once have been home to more sea captains, per capita, than any other town in the country. Main Street, on which I live, is lined with the lovely old homes those captains built – many now bed & breakfast inns – creating an ambiance of graceful, yet somewhat wistful, history that has made this town a favorite summer destination for many. A framed list hangs on my church’s wall – the Sea Captains’ church – noting all the captains who once were members of the congregation, along with the names of the ships they helmed and how they died – with causes ranging from “typhoid” to “shipwreck” to “lost at sea,” and, in some cases, even “natural causes.”
So, with all this seafaring history surrounding me, my mind often turns to nautical metaphors. One I’ve just been pondering is the anchor. Anchors are funny things. They hold us in place and help us stay rooted when we have no organic means of rooting ourselves. But, then again, sometimes anchors simply keep us from moving on to better seas.
Sometimes stories can be anchors. Through repeated telling, stories can help us create a web of familial connection and cohesion that might not have any real existence, beyond what we’ve been able to mutually construct as a result of that repetition. My father has such an anchoring story, a story that provided grounding in a reality he wanted, but which was never really, well, real. The story, at this point almost a legend, is built around actual events – the trip he, my stepmother and my then-20-year-old stepsister took from St. Louis to New England to pick me up from the Cape Cod home of my maternal grandparents, the two people who had been my surrogate parents in the year since my mother had died. We were to attend a cousin’s wedding in Cambridge and then meander our way back to what was to be my new home – an apartment in an upscale St. Louis collar suburb.
The legendary aspect of this trip for my father has always been the fact that it was otherwise inconceivable for that many members of his immediate family to spend several weeks’ time in very close quarters without even a single major fight breaking out. It was a wonderful trip, we had no fights and everybody got along. That sentence, or some version of it, almost always has ended his remembrance of that two- to three-week trip, summing up his idyllic remembrance of travelling with his happy family in his 1967 Pontiac Catalina.
Of course, there always is more to these family stories than any single family member’s recollections. For me, the trip represented a voyage into the unknown, for which I had no anchor – or, even, knowledge of whether safe harbor existed. I was just a month shy of 9 years old, and less than a year had passed since my mother had died. I was leaving the two people who had remained a constant throughout my parents’ divorce, my mother’s death and three cross-country moves, and becoming the ward of two people, my father and stepmother, whom I knew barely at all. Once we arrived back in St. Louis, I’d be starting fourth grade at the fourth school I’d been to in a year. I was quiet and smiling because that’s how I’d learned to survive.
I can’t tell you how many times Dad has told and retold this story, like a personal odyssey, which, unlike Homer’s, was a tale of happy travels bookended by discord, rather than the other way around. And always he ended the story with same summing up – “It was a great trip. Nobody got into any fights, and everybody got along” – while I would stare at my plate, into space or just smile blankly, doing my best to let him enjoy one of the few pleasant family memories he has.
So, during yesterday’s pre-Superbowl visit at his rehab center, I prepared to take myself to my own personal happy place when he started into the ritual retelling, yet again. But I was startled to hear him stop to ask me a question regarding a pretty significant detail: “Was Nonie [my stepmother] with me when I came to pick you up?”
Skipped beat. Followed by second skipped beat. The whole point of the story is that it features a full family.
“Well, yes, Dad. It was you and Aunt Nonie [my name for my stepmother] and Amy. You all drove out together.”
“Do you remember Aunt Nonie being with you?”
“Well, no. I don’t really remember the details – but it was a wonderful trip. Nobody got into any fights and everybody got along.”
Which brings me back to anchors. It appears that my father might be drifting free from one of his own personal anchors. I suppose it comes from knowing him so well that the moment had such significance to me – others could justifiably argue that it was only natural for details to slip after more than 42 years. But, for years, he has used those details to hold his vision of his life together, to tell himself that once he had this thing, this family, where no one got into any fights and everybody got along. It seems his mind isn’t so much pulling up that anchor, but cutting it free.
On the flip side, for the last few days, I’ve begun to really feel what my life will be like without the anchoring presence of my father. He will have been gone a full month by the time he comes back home two days from now, but during that time I’ve been overwhelmed with the details of my own life. I’ve been swamped with work, had a bout of miserable sinus issues and had to deal with wrangling two dogs – my easygoing golden retriever, Bart, and the elderly, somewhat high-maintenance poodle-terrier mix, Beau, I adopted three years ago – into a schedule that also had to accommodate daily rehab-facility visits and doctors’ appointments. Then, last Wednesday, Beau started getting sick. The next day, the vet informed me that his liver was failing and euthanasia was really the only humane option. I sat with him, said goodbye to him and cried a lot.
But, over the next couple of days, I began to realize that I was once again living the life I’d had in my first year back on the Cape, with a dog I could take anywhere and walk with for hours, and a schedule I could mix and match as I pleased, without worrying about 7:15 p.m. dinnertimes and morning toe-dressing changes. I slept in Saturday morning, without having to jump up several times to let an elderly dog rush outside to relieve his aging bladder. And I had dinner out with a good friend Saturday night without having to worry about prepping someone else’s meal, as well. Sunday afternoon, I enjoyed the paper and the fire while sprawling on a sofa that was, for this short while, only mine.
So, I see the possibility of two anchors in motion in the not-too-distant future – one set free by the fraying strands of its aging line, the other pulled up by a combination of deliberate effort and changing seas.