An old boat … A new love
By Sheryl McAlister, a writer based in South Carolina
John Irving, author of A Prayer for Owen Meany, wrote that “when someone you love dies unexpectedly, you don’t lose that person all at once. You lose the person in pieces over a long time. The way the mail stops coming or the scent fades from the closet. Just when the day comes — when there’s a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that he’s gone forever — there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.”
Another day came recently on a lake in rural South Carolina.
The old jon boat had sat in the same spot in the driveway at the lake house for a long time. It didn’t move for a couple years and stood silently as a symbol of all we had lost suddenly in the spring of 2013. The sunbaked crud from the muddy waters of Lake Murray was seared into the boat’s bottom. The trailer’s weather-worn tires flattened from sitting in the same position too long.
My Dad died four years ago this month. And the loss can still bring me to my knees.
The boat, a gift to Dad from Mom many years ago, had a lot of life in it back in the day. It – and Dad – rescued a group of stranded boaters on one occasion and towed a much larger boat back to a nearby dock on another. The boat was also the vessel for catching many fish over the years.
But in recent years, it just sat there. Through terrible weather – fierce rain and blistering heat — it sat there. When lightning struck a tree just a few feet from the boat’s bow, the tree, inexplicably, fell the other direction, missing the boat entirely. Water pooled in one canvas cover after another, ripping them all to shreds and leaving the inside of the boat exposed to collect slimy leaves, dirty water and dead bugs.
But one day, that began to change. It took two days to clean the boat properly. The hull was scrubbed until the baked-on filth disappeared to reveal its familiar white color. The rusty nails were removed from the seats. The old torn-up fishing seat was tossed away. New tires on the trailer replaced the weather worn ones. And as another winter turned to spring, the little old boat began to breathe new life.
What had once symbolized all we had lost began to suggest, once more, the promise of the carefree, wind-in-your-hair existence that is life on the water. The boat had fallen into disrepair not because we didn’t care, but because we cared so much.
Grief is like that — a disorienting, numbing paralysis. It can create an uncertainty about how to move or to reason. The sadness can create an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. Things that once were, stand still as they always had, seemingly unable to move.
This particular day, the boat found its way back to the water and rocked back and forth to the sound of laughter and youth and freedom.
A year or so ago, Mom gave the old boat to their youngest grandson. With natural instincts for protection and preservation, he is the rightful owner of the boat now. He has a deep appreciation for old things that once belonged to someone else. Mom’s only caveat was that all of the youngest grandchildren learn to drive the boat, learn about the boat and learn to care for it as well.
“In the end,” the environmentalist Baba Dioum famously said in 1968, “we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”
So now Dad’s grandchildren are part of this old jon boat’s story. One of them worries about the passenger number and weight limit. A pair of them learn how to back up the trailer and use the manual winch to put the boat into position. One enjoys driving Mom around.
They’re finding confidence in collectively caring about something Dad loved so much. The lake was, after all, Dad’s peaceful place. I can always find him there when I miss him most. And that day when the kids discovered themselves in a brand new way, I could see him in them. Laughing. Happy. The business of their young lives put aside briefly for the experience of finding something new to love.
I am grateful for this little old boat. For its resilience during harsh conditions and for staying put until we had the courage to care for it again and understand its possibilities.
Maybe one day the kids will look back on these days with a deeper appreciation for the grieving process they – we – continue to find our way through. Then again, they’re kids. And kids aren’t necessarily so introspective. At a minimum, though, I’m fairly certain they’ll remember the spring of 2017 when they helped breathe new life into an old fishing boat and had the time of their lives doing so.
Copyright ©Sheryl McAlister 2017.
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