The sea was going to take my father away.
Never mind that we were mountain people, each Friday spent packing coolers and duck boots for two days of Allegheny mountain living. Never mind that he had carved us out miles of driveway to the hand built, propane fueled cabin– not a telephone or electric line in sight. One phone call, and he would be gone. He was leaving us for the raucous waves that pushed on my childhood security from states away. And so I accidentally began to pray against my family’s good fortune.
Evening dinners were not mandatory, they were understood. Assigned seating, round robin grace saying, mum-is-the-word if you don’t like the taste, and no one leaves until the last forkful. Except, of course, for the cardinal rule of exception for weather. As an owner of a family line, ditch-digging, commercial project excavation company, my dad was required to excuse himself at the precise moment the Channel 11 weather report chimed in from the adjacent living room’s blaring, wood framed television. Through the indoor slotted window above the kitchen sink, we would listen to the low grumble of a man who needed, more than anything, for each day’s report to come up sunshine and 72 degrees to keep his family, and the families of each of his men, fed and warm. In a plot of Pennsylvania that only receives 22 full, cloudless days of sunshine a year, meteorologist Dennis Bowman didn’t stand a chance against the tirade of a tired father-of-four, slandering his poor TV screen face with you-have-to-be-kidding-me’s and bowman-more-like-bonehead’s that could give Statler and Waldorf a run for their money.
When he would return to finish his last bits of mashed potatoes and meatloaf, head still shaking, we could watch the week’s worth of 90’s graphic rain clouds hover over the too-small table until our nightly ice cream course.
Weather was the only exception to leave the table. Until the ghost ship that never came.
I didn’t quite understand the ins and outs of the business. I only remember the night he skipped the weather– who needs it?– because his ship was coming in.
“Dad, what ship? What kind of ship is coming?” I interrupted furiously. But he just kept shaking his head and smiling with my mother. A deal… finally a break… his ship is coming…
I never took my dad for a sailor. I didn’t think he much cared for the lot of cuss-mouthed drinking sons-of-bitches. But the excitement, the waiting, the new life– they were coming for him, and he wanted it to happen. As in never before, the business phone– a lower chirp of the not-so-latest technology dual line in our home– would ring past 5PM and be answered. During dinner. Because a ship was coming to take my father away to a better life.
The weather ritual resumed the following night– a fluke. But the new bustle to a ringing business phone was added to the dinner exceptions, accompanied with a holler and a hoot from sparkley-eyed father proclaiming, “This could be it! Our ship! It’s coming in!” By the time he would return to the table, his excitement would be reduced to a simmer– a hopeful glimpse of Christmas from a July evening. “No, that wasn’t it,” he’d say, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not coming.”
I developed a tasteful indifference to the ocean that year. Who needed the wild whip of the stupid sandy beaches, the sting of salt, the deep unknown creatures waiting to bite or swallow. I took special interest in the pines that lined our property. I snubbed Malibu Barbie. I prayed for the ship to get a hole in it and fill with water and sink to the bottom with all its rotten treasure and whatever else it had that dad wanted to leave so bad for. I acted entirely disinterested in my best friend’s vacation photos to Hilton Head. We are mountain people. She can sell seashells on some other shore.
What is the way we count time in childhood? Is it by season? But at least three winters could pass in a week of cold summer nights. Birthdays? But I am sure I grew three years between fifteen and sixteen. One childhood could last three or four lifetimes, at least. Any kid who has been in time-out can attest to this. I used to believe it was my parents, my teachers, the grown-ups, who could accurately report the number of minutes or days between one event and another. But it seems that the less time they have, the less generous amounts they give to those memories. Phases I was certain lasted years are reduced to a few weeks in my parents’ memory of me. Years from now, my two year goth stint may only have lasted a couple days in their recounting.
This elasticity of time stretches my father’s waiting for his ship over the course of years. And the longer the ship took, the less afraid I became. The longer the ship took, the less hop-to-it the ring of the phone would jostle him. The longer the ship took, the less I thought of a crow’s nest and the more I noticed the crow’s feet around his eyes. “Any day now,” he would snort, “…any day.”
And then, one night, the phone rang, and he said nothing at all. I had made a terrible mistake. All my selfishness in trying to keep dad here– I had redirected his ship. It was my fault. It wasn’t coming. And now, my father was devastated.
I reversed my tactic.
“Dad!” I called after him, “Your ship! It could be your ship!”
A laugh. “Yeah, maybe so.”
I carried the torch each night after that. The phone. “The ship!” “Yeah, maybe.”
And then, finally, the phone. “The ship!”
He turned. He smiled. He was kind. “That ship is never coming. Okay? That ship has sailed.”
“Okay,” I said.
I didn’t have any idea what sort of ship we were looking for, anyway. I still don’t.