Every time I see a river…

Every time I see a river, it’s as if I am five years old again. Wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and a pair of beat up red sneakers, I am sitting on the stern seat of the Stella Maris watching the banks of the Hudson River pass as my father pilots his 24 foot Chris Craft cabin cruiser north for another summer on Lake Champlain. Those summer days were endless jumps off the bow of the Stella into the clear cool waters of Lake Champlain. In the evenings, I fished from the marina dock, listening to the water pulling the floating docks back and forth. Every dinner Dad attempted to cook was saved by a couple cans of small potatoes, which I still call boat potatoes when passing them on a shelf in the grocery store nearly sixty years later.

The Stella’s cabin was ship-shape, and referred to as down below. The door from the stern deck opened to three deep steps to down below. Immediately on the left, there was a tiny sink, an electric stove, and a small fridge kept cold with a block of ice, which was purchased each evening shortly after tying up at a marina. Across from the galley was the bathroom, which was just a pump-it-out toilet and an even smaller sink. The right side of the cabin had an upper and lower bunk bed, the top of which could be let down during the day so that space doubled during the day as a place to sit. Across from the bunk beds was a small dinette table with just enough space for two adults and two small children to sit. There were cushions on those seats, but by removing the cushions and lifting a lid, you would get to your clothes, for that space served as a locker. The clothes in my locker were never folded- just a jumble of shorts, t shirts, a bathing suit, red sneakers, pjs, and underwear. Dad must have gone to the laundromat sometime over that summer on Lake Champlain, but I took no notice. I do not ever recall seeing a washing machine anywhere while on Lake Champlain. When I was to go to bed, Dad would lower the dinette table where it would fit level with the seats and roll my sleeping bag out, for this area served as my bed by night.

Now, you may have noticed that two adults and two children could squeeze into that dining area, but I have only mentioned my father, my brother, and me. Mom took a pass on these summers, as she would stay at the house in New Jersey with their older five children. My parents had their first five children within the first ten years of their marriage. Twelve years later, they had my brother and then me, usually referred to as the caboose. I never questioned this set up at the time. I was only five years old that first summer Dad, my brother, and I took off on the boat for a month. From an early age, it was just the way it was.

When I was eleven, Dad turned his eyes from Lake Champlain to Ireland where, now that he was sixty years old, he wanted to find his roots. I remember packing for that trip in my bedroom. Again, my mother was staying home. I was afraid that I would get my first period while in Ireland, and could not imagine having to tell my father I needed sanitary napkins, not even sure if they had such things in Ireland. To address this concern, I layered twelve sanitary napkins on the bottom of my suitcase, and put the clothes I thought I would need on top. What amazes me in retrospect is that this packing by an eleven-year-old for a month in Ireland was totally unsupervised. The period did not arrive, so those twelve sanitary napkins returned to the States with me. The lack of variety in my clothing was never noticed, but that had as much to do with Ireland as it did anything else. More on that later.

Five years later I was again up in my bedroom packing for Ireland, but this was for a three week study abroad on the West Coast of Ireland – and I was going on my own. I had just completed my junior year of high school but had been accepted into a college-level study abroad program based on my high school grades and SAT scores. I packed for the three weeks in June, the run of the program, but I did not return to the States until Labor Day weekend, having, at the end of the study abroad program, landed a job as a waitress in Galway by which I could support myself for the rest of the summer. Miraculously, when I called home to ask if I could do this, my parents said yes.

That small bag of clothes-for-three-weeks not only got me through the summer. When I returned home on the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, it was only for one night, as I had been accepted as a freshman to a college in New York City. I had to check in on that Sunday. I remember dumping those clothes out of the suitcase, running them through the washer and dryer, and packing them up again. My brother had been tasked to drive me to college that Sunday afternoon, as my parents were in Ireland till mid-September. On Monday, which was Labor Day, the freshman class gathered in the auditorium where we lined up by alphabet….A through D, E through G, etc. I vividly recall standing on that line in a short green dress I had bought in Ireland that summer. It had looked great on the streets of Galway, but ridiculous in New York City. I did not fit in at all. However, I also recall that as I listened to the chatter around me, I was not so sure I wanted to – but that is another story. That bag of clothes got me through the first month of college, when I went home for a weekend and my mother took me shopping.

I went back to Ireland the spring break of that freshman year. A friend picked me up at Shannon, and we stopped at his sister’s flat to drop my bag, as that was where I would be staying. I never saw the suitcase again until I picked it up on my way back to Shannon a week later. This is typical of stuff that happens in Ireland. Over there it is referred to as “the life”. If you get a good taste of it, you are never the same again. I sometimes suffer cravings for “the life”  that are more fierce than my cravings were for Sara Lee all-butter pound cake when I was pregnant.

I eventually married a sailor, and U.S. navy families move around a lot. One tour of duty ended with our two sons and myself having to be evacuated, as our safety where we were could not be guaranteed. The three of us left with one small suitcase each, not sure where we would end up nor how long we would be there. We were not reunited with my husband for a year. Nor did we get our stuff back, meaning  everything we owned that had been in our house, for a year. My boys and I travelled light for that year, but we made it. Christmas was tough, as we did not have all the mementoes a family puts on the tree each year. But we went for a walk in a nearby forest, and gathered pine cones, twigs of holly, boughs of evergreens, and we sprayed them gold. These were our Christmas tree decorations that year, and the tree was splendid. I still have some of those pine cones with all our other Christmas decorations.

It has served me well that from an early age I travelled, and I travelled light. Somewhere along the line, I began to delight in it. Every year, by mid-June, I get itchy to get going somewhere for a month or so, and bring as little as possible, but I do bring my husband along. Now in our sixties, we spend five or six weeks of each summer in Ireland. I pack four pairs of black pants and twelve long sleeve cotton t-shirts. We rent the same house each year, so in the bedroom I stack them in two piles, wearing the same pants for three days but each day a fresh t-shirt from the top of that pile. At the end of the two piles, I put the pants and tops in a pillowcase and go to the wash and dry in town, only to start all over again. This is one of many simple things about these summers in Ireland that give me enormous joy. It all began with that locker under my seat at the dinette table down below on the Stella.

Thanks, Dad.

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