My Past Life at Sea Still Defines Who I Am

The maritime paintings my father loved help me rethink memoir and the revision process

A steering wheel at the front of the ship on a bright day, overlooking the ocean.
Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash

My father has been a sea captain nearly all his life. His home in Midcoast Maine is a museum of artifacts; everywhere, ships are imbued in the house. There is the “hall of ships” with photographs and paintings of the many boats on which he has lived and worked. There are kerosene lanterns on block-and-tackle pulleys, cabinets of scrimshaw, and ragged remnants of flags once flown from topmasts. The upstairs guest room where I sleep he calls the fo’c’sle and the basement is called the bilge. Prints of Winslow Homer—one of my father’s favorite painters—hang on several walls; he loves Homer’s later paintings best, the ones populated by darkly theatrical seascapes, boats, mariners at work. 

I’m more secure now in the inexpressible understanding of how my time at sea defined the contours of who I would be…

My father will gladly expound upon the history of Homer at any opportunity—probably over a little after-dinner-something. Life at sea shaped the composition of my family, and, growing up, I couldn’t help but know about Homer. I may not be able or eager to whip out facts about Homer at a party (something my father enjoys requesting of me regardless), but I can recognize most of his maritime paintings at a glance. I appreciate the quality of light in his work, and the implied relationship of respect between working people and the sea. One painting hangs just inside the front door of my father’s house and shows two men in tar-black foul weather gear against a white-capped sea. They are taking a noon sight—a staple in celestial navigation for determining one’s latitude. For me, this painting does not portray an anachronism; it portrays a task that was commonplace in the world I grew up in. 

Like my father, I also worked on boats for many years. I learned how to take a noon sight from him—how to select the right filters for the sun, sway the sextant back and forth to better see the alignment of the horizon, and to always say Happy Postmeridian! when calling noon. I used to tire of not being able to fully explain this life to those who had never gone to sea. I felt half-erased without this part of my life made clear, and thought that only those I sailed with would ever know me fully. But now I’ve spent most of the last ten years living and working in the Southwest, and have become familiar with the yearning that comes from belonging to multiple places. I’m more secure now in the inexpressible understanding of how my time at sea defined the contours of who I would be; just because something is not visible doesn’t mean it has no presence.

Still, there is an ease I feel when living alongside the sea. When I return for the summer in 2019, it marks six years since I spent more than a few weeks back in Maine. I am grateful to be living and working with a small field crew on Stratton, a 24-acre island that rests in the cupped hand of Saco Bay. Each day brings the sense that some core part of me is coming back to life. I splice new rope handles onto our dinghy and am relieved to find that my hands have not forgotten how to twist the strands back into the lay and roll the splice between my palms to smooth it. When I do runs ashore in Ardea, our 19-foot launch, I am content as I angle the bow into the waves and maneuver around strings of lobster pots and submerged rocks. I learn when the tide piles up waves at the mouth of the Scarborough River and how far into the harbor the sand bars spread at low tide. I love reading the water in this way. It’s about a mile and a half from Stratton Island to Prout’s Neck, and the channel between has many moods. Mornings in July the water is flat and I skim its back, warming my bare arms under the pale blue sky that displays what my father refers to as typical Maine weather. A different kind of typical Maine weather sends us sticky-hot mornings followed by afternoon squalls that churn the channel into a chop that is impassable in a small boat like Ardea. Then there are the days when the island huddles under a fog bank and I can’t see from one end to the other, let alone the water in the channel. All different, yet all what my father calls typical Maine weather. 

[O]ne of my favorites from his Prout’s Neck paintings is an unusually simple watercolor looking out to sea on a pensive, gray evening.

There was one summer when I did my best not to speak to my father. My teenage years were clouded by my father’s long absences at sea followed by his and my mother’s unending arguments when he returned. I was the unseen witness during the years of their fighting. Alone in my room upstairs, I sat stuck to the edge of my bed listening to the surge and crash of their voices and trying to determine the invisible lines which, if crossed, would demand my intervention. Only distance seemed to bring peace; when they eventually tore away from each other, my father would retreat to the pull-out couch in his office above the garage and I would creep downstairs. I would find my mother crying in some corner of the house and I would sit with her until the worries and resentments stopped pouring forth. Six months after my parents’ divorce, I moved to the Southwest to begin college, and finally had enough distance to begin piecing together the story of my family’s dissolution. In my senior year, I wrote a fifty-page memoir about my life at sea in the wake of my parents’ divorce and began to feel like I had a story I could make sense of.

In his late life, Winslow Homer moved to the tip of Prout’s Neck within view of Stratton Island. I can see Homer’s old studio tucked into the treeline on runs ashore. Homer frequently painted the view from his studio overlooking Saco Bay; he, too, must have spent hours watching the channel and the changing water. I imagine my father likes the idea that Homer also appreciated some typical Maine weather as he painted delicate sunsets over Old Orchard Beach, breakers on the rocks of West Point, and the shoreline near his studio shined with moonlight. Not gone from this period is his old flair for theatrics; in another painting from Prout’s Neck the ocean roils so heartily that I first mistook it for clouds. But one of my favorites from his Prout’s Neck paintings is an unusually simple watercolor looking out to sea on a pensive, gray evening. The thick stratus clouds have pulled back just enough to reveal a clear, unobscured horizon. 

My partner confides that he can be a little intense. My mother says that he really was a good parent when we were little.

What I find curious about this painting, and all those he made from his studio at Prout’s Neck, is the absence of Stratton and Bluff Islands. It’s not that they are imposing landmarks. Southern Maine isn’t known for dramatic topography, and with a highest point of about ten meters above sea level, both islands appear as one low bank on the horizon from Prout’s Neck. But despite their demure statures, they are still there. Homer was a careful observer. Over the course of his life, it didn’t matter whether the focus of his attention was human or non-human—mundane life, tidal currents, heroic feats, animals in flight, and every type of weather were all given equal attention and respect. I don’t believe that Homer overlooked the islands; he chose not to include them. He curated the reality of his paintings to fit his needs. If something was missing from the narrative, he added it in. If something didn’t fit the image he held in his mind, he omitted it.

There is a scene from my memoir that keeps coming back to me. My father standing at the break in the deck. All hands gathered midships, sitting in a loose coil around a gently swinging lantern. It is evening and there is an easy swell. Plates and pans from dinner have been scrubbed in salt water and stowed below. Flags have been struck for the night. My father wears a black beret at a jaunty angle over his graying hair and plastic red-yellow-green jellies plant him to the deck and speaks of the students’ impending departure. They will be going back to their old college lives in the morning and my brother, mother, and I will be going back to the farm. My father will stay on board for the remainder. An inch of Brugal is poured into outstretched mugs as he tells the ship’s company that this is the last time we’ll truly be together as a crew. In the morning, bags will be packed in anticipation, our minds already beginning to leave the ship, and with the first dock line to the pier full of waiting friends and family—the spell we have built together will break. The dim glow of the lamp illuminates my father in slow arching strokes as he quotes the lines from Joseph Conrad that he always comes back to in the end. He no longer needs the book and recites them from memory: “But you here—you all had something out of life: money, love—whatever one gets on shore—and, tell me, wasn’t that the best time, that time when we were young at sea; young and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing, except hard knocks—and sometimes a chance to feel your strength—that only….” 

Everyone lifts their mugs then empties them all together. I have only been given a drop, but it stings as it goes down. My father walks to the rail and pours a splash over the side to the dark waters below. 

“A little something for Neptune,” he says, then takes the last swig himself.

This is a memory drawn from a collection of memories. It happened a dozen times, but it never happened exactly like this. It is a composite dredged up from what I can remember and from what I put down in old journals and notebooks. It is from the stories of captains I later sailed with, from the recapitulation of mannerisms and ritual, from my mother’s handwriting on a wall. It is from the photo albums filled with images of my family at sea in which he is often missing because he was the one behind the camera. 

People who have sailed with my father sometimes say that he is as close as they’ve come to a living King Neptune. My partner confides that he can be a little intense. My mother says that he really was a good parent when we were little. My father himself gives me a birthday card this year with the quotation, “A happy childhood is terrible preparation for life.” 

Making a narrative out of a life requires a lot of distilling. You gather as much flotsam from the past as you can and try to piece it all together just the way you remember it, only now, all your memories are liquid and volatile and won’t form a complete picture anymore. Eventually, you leave out the parts that you can’t make fit or the ones you don’t like thinking about. With time, these pieces fade until you can’t even remember what you left out anymore and the narrative becomes the memory.

I’m realizing that, within this resurrected scene, I cannot locate myself. I can only see my father surrounded by saltwater with all ears hanging on his next word. My father in his element, his joy, his one true love. Caught between worlds, my father as guardian of customs that he will relay to the next generation. In this draft of my memoir, my parents loom large, but somewhere there was also a young girl, sitting in the swing of the lantern’s light, not yet able to see all the parts of this story that are becoming her own.

My father still displays a wedding photo in his stairwell. In it, my parents stand at the helm of a schooner in the middle of Boston Harbor looking windblown and joyful. When I visit him now, I wonder whether it is there for his sake or mine. For ten years, the memoir I wrote in college has sat unpublished. Time and therapy have dilated my understanding of the burdens I tried to lift from my mother’s shoulders, but it has also eased the sharpness of my memories. I don’t yet know how to write this story of who I was from the perspective of who I am becoming; I’m still in the middle of it. I am creating a life that does not rely on my parents’ absolution. This, too, is the work of revision. Reading the memoir now, the anger I felt towards my father is palpable, but it feels like an artifact from a former self. I find myself thinking that I need a narrative with more room for empathy. When I built the first one, I just wanted to make sense of things; I didn’t realize I was going to have to keep living in it. 

I try to paint the waters of Saco Bay from the perspective of Stratton and Bluff, but the rocks never look quite right.

Three years before he died, Winslow Homer supposedly told an art student to “Leave rocks for your old age—they’re easy.” Indeed, as Homer grew older, humans receded from the foreground of his paintings. People are present at times—usually walking the coastline or looking out to sea with their backs to the land—but they are more like bystanders than main characters. Homer seems concentrated on the elemental—land, water, and weather. Emptied of human narrative, the land and sea fill any void that might have appeared. 

On Stratton Island, we cook over a two-burner camp stove set inside a lean-to that has weathered gray over the years. When it’s blustery, rain cuts in diagonally through the shelter wetting our dishes, benches, and hammocks of fruit and vegetables. On cold, damp days, we sometimes switch the cooking propane over to a portable heater that we set up in the wall tent that serves as our office. We have a small weather station that runs off solar panels fixed to the roof. We haul water in jugs from the mainland, transport our groceries by boat in enormous waterproof bags, and boil rainwater for dishwashing. In quiet moments, I sometimes try my hand at watercolors. I try to paint the waters of Saco Bay from the perspective of Stratton and Bluff, but the rocks never look quite right. At night, I lie in my tent and listen to the thud of music blaring across the water from Old Orchard Beach. I feel so far from the mainland, but it is right there.

Sometimes, two-masted schooners pass by on the horizon en route between Boston and Portland. I always get out a spotting scope to see if the passing ship is one I know and, often, it is. In another lifetime, I remember the route myself: standing on a wooden deck some calm night watching the alternating white-green flash of Wood Island Light as Stratton and Bluff slid by unnoticed, except perhaps as a dark interruption in the string of lights on the mainland. Maybe my father was there, maybe he wasn’t. The schooners move through the lens of the spotting scope and I keep watching them until they pass out of view, and there is nothing left except the bare, unreliable horizon.

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