Monday, June 20, 2011

My Watery Heritage

I come from a long line of seamen. My mother’s family were all fishermen - originally off the coast of Sicily and eventually out of the San Francisco bay after they immigrated to America. My maternal ancestors, all the way through much of my grandfather’s life, spent their days at sea. It’s actually a neat history – if you ever happen to be in San Francisco, and brave enough to muddle your way through what has become an overpriced and tacky tourist attraction along the waterfront, and actually make it down to the wharf (hence the name, Fisherman’s Wharf), you’ll find a path led by historical markers that tells the tale of the Italian fisherman and how they had an important place in the development of the city. There’s a teeny tiny wooden chapel there, right on the dock, dedicated to those fisherman and their families. I know it sounds cheesy, but it actually gave me chill bumps and brought a tear to my eye to think that my family – my grandfather – and his father before him – had a hand in that history.

There’s a lot of nautical history on my father’s side of the family as well. I’m not entirely sure where it started – as I’m not as clear on my father’s history as I am my mother’s – but I do know that my dad grew up around the water. His father was very much into boating – more of the recreational/party boating than commercial fishing – but boating nonetheless. A few years ago, after my dad passed away, I had the courage to dig through a huge box of family photos. Photos, that I might add in full disclosure, I didn’t ask to take after his passing – rather took out of the house he then shared with my stepmother – a decision I’ve never regretted.

Anyway, it was like sifting through an archaeological dig of my father’s history. There were faded and bleached photos of my brother and I from the late ’70’s and early ‘80’s (and by the way mom, WHAT were you thinking with my early childhood hair cut?), pictures of various vacations my dad had taken, photos of my mom and dad together from the early years of their marriage, and finally, in the bottom of the box, several old albums filled with images of my grandfather and grandmother. Those black construction paper filled pages were lovely to look through – I found loads of pictures of my grandparents in what must have been the pre-children era of their marriage. Photos of them having a picnic meal with friends on the shores of one of the Puget Sound islands – their cruiser boat pulled up on the beach in the distance. Then, pictures of my dad and his siblings, with their matching tow-head blond hair and scrawny legs, standing proudly in front of their dad’s cabin cruiser the ‘Kendonmar’ – named for my Uncle Ken, my dad (Don), and aunt (Margaret – although she’s gone through most of her life by her second name ‘Susan.’)

My dad’s early childhood was spent in the boating world. They lived in Bellingham, WA – and my grandfather (so I’m told) simply adored boating. In 1950, he was the commodore of the Bellingham Yacht Club – and the few photos that remain of him all involve either his commodore cap, his boat, or some combination of the two. I guess that’s where my own dad began his love of water – and boating – and the social aspect that can accompany it. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away when my dad was 10 years old – after which my grandmother sold the Bellingham house, the boat, and moved to the Bay Area (California) where she could procure a higher paying teaching job (where my dad eventually met my mom in high school – and the rest they say – is history.)

But that love of boating and freedom that comes with navigating the open seas was never lost on my dad. When I was almost four – he and my mom moved back to his home state – except this time to the east side versus Puget Sound. The first thing he did upon arrival? Buy a boat. I don’t remember a whole lot about that boat – except that it was really small. I don’t think we had it very long before he traded it up for a Bayliner cruiser with a flying bridge - and officially named it the “Krisdav” – for my brother (David) and I – much like the boat of his childhood.

Oh the hours we spent on that boat. Every weekend during the summer we boated – if we weren’t taking weekend trips with the yacht club my parents had joined – then we were at least out all day on Saturday and Sunday – going up and down the Columbia and Snake rivers – just cruising around, water skiing, grilling out on the back deck, making merry with friends. At Christmas my parents were part of the annual lighted boat parade – and they’d festoon our boat with loads of Christmas lights and parade up and down the river to the oohs and aahs of the greater Tri-City community. My dad l-o-v-e-d that boat with every sense of the word. And he loved everything associated with it – the friends and festivities at the yacht club (where he followed his father’s footsteps and became commodore) – and I think that sense of freedom on open waters. Several ‘big’ family vacations entailed mom and dad hauling the Krisadav over the Cascade mountains to the Bellingham marina – where we’d take off on two week vacations around Puget Sound.

Sounds nice doesn’t it? The romantic notion of a family toodling around the islands, crabbing and fishing and visiting different ports of call…what fun, right? Right. Take a family of four and stick them in a tiny boat for two weeks – and it becomes very close quarters. But we were kids, my brother and I, and it was one huge adventure. We got to be ‘first’ and ‘second’ mate – taking turns leaping from the boat when we’d pull into a marina – racing eachother to see who could tie the knots the fastest and the tightest to the mooring cleats.

We loved our time pulling fresh crabs out of the sea and steaming them right on the docks. And the sounds of the waves lapping against the boat was a lovely way to be lulled to sleep, while the sound of the gulls searching for their breakfast was a wonderful way to start our days. Looking back, those were some good family times – some of the happiest I remember when we were a family of four.

After my parents divorced, my mom had no interest in boating. Truth be told, I think she thought the Krisdav and the accompanying yacht club membership had a lot to do with the dissolution of her marriage to my dad. Of course there were other contributing problems, but they couldn’t seem to work them out – and rather than face them together – dad always seemed to head to the yacht club where he’d hang out with his pals. So when the two split, and I ended up staying with my mom, the majority of my boating days came to an end. I missed that time with my dad – and through a long and troubled series of events – he ended up moving all around the country – with not a lot of stability in one place. But wherever he went, the Krisdav went with him, and he’d find some place to ride the ‘open seas’ – no matter his geographic location.

And over that time, I lost my sea legs. The kid who eagerly hopped from boat to boat, from boat to dock and back again, who couldn’t wait to jump in the water and swim until shriveled fingers and toes resulted became timid, distant, and not too interested in being on the water. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because I missed my dad so much – and the thought of being ‘nautical’ without him felt like some sort of betrayal. Perhaps it’s because I wanted to just distance myself so much from those blissfully ignorant times of my childhood when I thought life couldn’t get any better than sitting around a campfire with my mom, dad, and brother – bellies full of fresh steamed crab – belting out campfire songs at the top of our lungs.

I realized this weekend just how much I missed the water. We’ve been spending the better part of the weekend at Deonne’s parent’s lake house. They are so generous to let us stay here – to swim and fish and play in the water, and yes, go boating on their pontoon boat. We had the kids out yesterday morning – just driving around – looking at lake houses and fellow boaters and fishermen. I looked into the faces of each of my children and saw nothing but pure joy. Anna perched at the front of the boat – the wind blowing her hair – pretending to be Ariel or some other watery princess, no doubt. James – on his knees at the side of the boat – searching the patterns in the waves and watching the sprays – something I used to do as a kid. Jack, just grinning from ear to ear – happy as a clam to feel the breeze and the sun on his face and point out all boats he saw. (He spent most all of the time we weren’t on the boat pointing to it and saying ‘I wanna go on da big boat.’)

I started to remember the summer days of my childhood – and the hours upon hours that I spent doing just the same thing. Feeling the hot sun on my face and the wind in my hair – with the spray from the waves on my fingertips.

It felt like home. And after all this time, I came to the realization that boating and the water – well, it’s just a part of me. Not only do I come from a long line of seamen, but I grew up on the water. It’s in my blood. And I’m blessed beyond measure to be able to share this love, the sense of freedom that comes with a wide span of open water – with my children.

And to my dad – on this Father’s Day Sunday – I wish I could share this realization with you. I wish I could show you that your grandchildren have the same feeling of pure unadulterated joy – and have fully inherited your love of water. I hope your Heaven consists of calm seas – and smooth sailing. I miss you. And I love you. And I thank you – for showing me the wonderful world of the sea.

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