Rites of Passage 3


I have blogged before about the angst ridden period of growing up, between leaving school and becoming a fully-fledged adult. My teenage son is in the midst of this maelstrom. We, his parents, are becoming experts. Bearing witness at close quarters.

There is a certain freedom to be had for having made it through the trials and tribulations of school life together, of being there for them and with them. Of coming out the other side. However this is juxtaposed with the new worry about their safety out there in the world now that they are untethered, their movements not dictated by the rigours of school life.

I am getting better at going to sleep instead of wondering where he is, how is he going to get home, what state is he in, who is with him, what has he been up to…it helps to have an equally concerned spouse. I now let him do the worrying for both of us, believer as I am in economising our resources.

Last night the adults had the place to ourselves. We played our music with gay abandon, ate what we felt like, watched our favourite channel on TV, waiting for the youngest member of the family to come home reeking of pubs, sweat and aftershave (I ask myself: what’s wrong with this scenario?).

I am often reminded of Alison in Wonderland when she falls down the rabbit hole and everything is not as it should be: he emerges from his darkened den – where I can make out the winking lights of his PlayStation console, his IPad and other detritus of teenager hood – and the room shrinks away from him as he grows in stature before my eyes.

Our 3 washing baskets are overflowing with his clean but not yet folded clothes (he has been washing his own clothes for a few years. There was no way this busy mum was going to be made responsible for a potential crisis in the clean underwear department). He ends up washing everything again before it finally gets put away – just so that he can reacquaint himself with his wardrobe after a lengthy absence.

The other chores remain undone – recycling, dishwasher, rubbish. There is always a reason (‘I was going to do it when I got up’. At 4pm?). We put up with the mounting refuse until one of us loses it. A heated exchange ensues. Then all is rectified and forgotten until the cycle is repeated again.

He tip toes round the house after a late night, bumping into furniture. A gorilla in ballet slippers comes to mind. We lie there in the dark, listening to him foraging in the fridge for leftovers. Knife scraping plate in the early hours.

His day starts (whatever time that may be) something like this: long shower, much preening behind the bathroom door, music blaring. Then he is out of the house, headlong into his future, running late as usual. But not before he has begged his mum to make him some lunch to take (‘because I’ve run out of time/money’), or asked my humble opinion about what to wear – long or short sleeves? – or what to pack – do I need an umbrella?

Funny how parents are looked upon as indispensable when it comes to matters of practicality (‘Mum I can’t untie my knotted shoelaces and I have to leave in 5 minutes!’). Yet if we dare express an unasked-for opinion we are looked down upon as pariahs.

This morning I heard him crashing around the house as usual. He was surprised to see me, forgetting that I had told him about my day off. He apologised for making such a racket (makes a change!). As he stood in the doorway of his room – on his way for some more sleep until a mate picks him up later to play basketball – I saw a calmness in him. I wanted to hug him tight, feel the warmth of his bedclothes on him. He had made it through his first semester at college. Now it is time to let go for a while.

Still some growing up to do yet.


The Blue Boat

fishing boat

I was inspired to write this short story post after reading The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

The old man grew up with fishing. His father, grandfather and great grandfather were amateur fishermen. Any spare moment they had would be spent out on the wharf dangling a line or, if time permitted, further out to sea in a wooden boat for hours at a time. Fishing preoccupied his thoughts as it did theirs, waking and sleeping. He couldn’t remember a day when he didn’t think about it.

Picturing himself out there rising and falling on the swell waiting for a tug on the line soothed him.

He became friends with the sea from an early age. His grandfather rowed out with him (no outboard motors then) for miles in his rickety wooden boat with the powder blue paint blistered and peeling from the sun.  They sat out there until the light started to dim or his grandfather felt a chill in his bones, bobbing on the horizon, their lines dangling over the side. The world was pared back, simple then. Not much was said between them as they sat there waiting for movement on the line. He was very young, perhaps six years old.

Later in life when he was a parent himself, he thought back in amazement at being allowed out so far from the shore. Sitting there sometimes all day, in a floating meditation, waiting for the limp line to come alive but at the same time not really caring.

He recalled the deep sense of peace, and eating corn bread for lunch washed down with a flask of sweetened black coffee. Sometimes they ate freshly caught fish – usually snapper but occasionally mahi mahi, sliced up sashimi style by his grandpa with his very sharp fishing knife on the wooden bench. He sluiced the area with a bucket of sea water after his preparations but the stink never really left their crude wooden vessel. It became a smell he associated with happiness.

He recalled feeling small and insignificant in the gently swelling blue. The sea quietly breathing beneath him, the repetition of movement at times sending him into a brief sleep. He sensed his own personal power at these moments, though he couldn’t articulate it.

They would return home in the gathering dark, sometimes empty handed. He felt connected to his grandfather after those long languorous days out there, so much said in the silence between them.

When his grandfather passed he wept quietly in the church, tears streaking his face. The old fishing net that he had watched him repair with his thick calloused fingers many times over was draped across the cheaply constructed coffin like a cloak, his collection of seashells scattered on the lid like jewels. He recalled the smell of candle wax, the sound of shuffling feet and the quiet whirr of a fan somewhere in the distance. And never felt so alone.

As an adult he returned to the ocean less often, the responsibilities of life demanding his time. On these occasions, it was in an aluminum boat with a little outboard motor. He cut the power when out of sight of land and sat, taking in the monochrome view that surrounded him: clouds scudding across the sky, a pale blue path stretching forever over his head completing the tableau. This is where he came to feel whole and at peace. He was tempted to leave his phone behind but his wife insisted that he take it. Just in case.

One Saturday in early July, he ventured out and didn’t come back. A helicopter and water police search ensued. He was seventy four. His wife stopped ringing his number after three days. The family sent a wooden raft out to sea at his favourite time of day, dusk, a week later. Its solemn cargo contained a neat fire ringed with frangipani flowers from a tree in their garden. That was his wish, not a church funeral. The entire village gathered neatly at the water’s edge like a necklace to farewell this quiet man.

They held hands in silence until someone started singing his favourite song, a sea shanty that his grandfather had taught him. Those who knew the words slowly joined in. A campfire fueled by drift wood was lit later on the shore and a few bottles of whisky produced. The singing carried on late into the night, way after the younger families had gone home to bed and the sand became cold underfoot.

His wife, raw with grief, was comforted by the fact that this was a fitting send off and that he would have approved.

His only child, a daughter in her forties, took up rod fishing from the beach after he died. Wearing his favourite checked lemon and grey shirt, she stood calf deep in the lapping waves and thought of him as she cast her line with a flick over her head, the movement creating a question mark in the sky. She imagined him rowing towards her, back into her life, as she looked wistfully ahead where sea meets the sky.