“I Will Always Come Home to You” Part I
As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been learning more and more about my family (the family that shares my last name) over the last 10 years or so. My father, as he and I have grown closer, has told me stories about growing up in rural middle-of-nowhere Maine in a fishing town, about my grandfather, and about his grandfather. I’ve learned in no uncertain terms, where I come from…and I’ve wondered if I’d have measured up to some of these people I’ve learned about.
Stories like this one are the reason I wonder. I’ve heard this from my father, my great uncle, my grandmother, and from my great grandmother, Ruby, over a glass of Tang, a bowl of Tomato soup with a grilled cheese (she made this meal for me right up until she died…when I was in my mid 20’s) and the smell of her Newport cigarettes.
In the early 1900’s my great, great grandfather was a shipping boat captain (Not a Forrest Gump-like Shrimpin’ Boat Captain, mind you) in Maine. He and his crew made a living going up and down the Eastern Sea Board transporting all kinds of goods from one sea coast town to the next. He would leave Northern Maine with a ship stuffed to the gills with fish and come back with god only knows what. It was not, to saythe least a glamorous life. For those of you that know anything about the New England coast, you know why. For those of you that don’t; New England is all rocks. It’s treacherous stuff. There are rocks everywhere…and the storms come out of nowhere year round and blow you right in to them. Ships go down constantly.
The houses in Northern Maine, if you look…most had a room on top of the house….a small area for wives to sit and watch for their husband’s ships coming in.
They called it a Widow’s Walk.
My great grandmother, Ruby, had a house with a widow’s walk. She rarely if ever went up there. She couldn’t stand the thought of it, because she hated that her husband went out to sea at all. She had it in her mind that the sea would be the end of her beloved husband…that her son (at the time there was only the one, my grandfather) would grow up without a father because the Atlantic would swallow him up.
It didn’t help any that my great grandfather couldn’t swim. Then again, most sea captains shunned the idea, preferring to go down with the ship rather than trying to survive in freezing water with “hellacious riptides”…her words, not mine. She would also remind me that, back then, assuming you did somehow manage (1) not freeze to death in waters that only changed about 5 degrees from the dead of winter to the heat of summer, and (2) you didn’t go down with the boat in the rushing tides and (3) weren’t smashed to pieces on the rocks in the waves…that somehow you made it to shore…”well” she would say to me…
“There was nothing there.”
Maine in those days, especially that far up North, was an expanse of emptiness “just the way that God made it” she said. “If you did get to shore, you wouldn’t be able to meander in to town for a bowl of hot soup and a change in to warm dry clothes. You were stuck in the wilderness god only knew how many miles from home.”
You could tell when she told the story that she’d clearly thought about that freezing water and those tides far, far more than he ever did. For him, it was something that you simply couldn’t think about. To dwell on that would guarantee panic at some time that you just couldn’t have it. But she could do nothing but think about it. This was her husband, and there was no way for her to just put those thougths out of her head.
So it was that every time he left home to set sail, she’d shake and pray and grip tight to handles in the hopes that this wasn’t the time that proved her right and him wrong. But every time that he left her, he’d look at her face and see the fear and the pleading for him to stay, and he would say the same 7 words to her…
“I will always come home to you”.
He would calm her by explaing that nothing could keep him from his home and from her, “his Ruby.” That yes, there were things to fear, that it wasn’t an easy thing that he did, but that nothing would keep him from her. He would kiss her on the head, his bags packed, and leave her with those words.
“I will always come home to you.”
“Each time he left, I just knew it was the last time” she told me. “and then, one day…word came that your great grandfather’s ship had indeed gone down. My friend came and told me…she knocked on my door in the middle of the day, and I knew, INPY. I just knew. She said that there had been a storm (which we’d caught the end of here in Lubec) and that they’d hit rocks some to the South and to date, no survivors had been found. You see”, she said, leaning in to me, “it wasn’t like today, INPY. Oh no. This was days after the boat went down. We didn’t hear things so fast. So when my friend came to tell me, she knew that she was telling me that he was gone.”
(At this point I should tell you again, that I’ve heard this story told to me by several people in my family. They would all get the same look at this point. It’s a pause, and then they continue…as if this is the point where something happens that they wonder about. When I tell it now, the few times I have…I understand why.)
It seems that when my great grandmother met my great grandfather, she says she just knew he was the man for her, and he’d felt the same. There wasn’t a great deal of “hemmin’ and hawin'” she said. “We just knew”.
That feeling…that just knowing? That’s what kept my great grandmother Ruby sitting in her widow’s walk for another week after her friend came to tell her he was gone.
She knew that he was not.