She was there for many of my firsts – first breath, first smile, first tooth. In the harbor where we lived at the end of a canal right next door to the volunteer fire department that was my father’s second home, she taught me how to swim, promising me a boat all of my own as soon as I could swim across the canal and back. I’m sure I would have learned sooner, but we only had a few months to swim in the longitude of New York, so it was the summer I turned three that I also became captain of my little red rowboat.
She would take me to Jones Beach, a south facing beach on Long Island’s south shore that reliably produced waves big enough to drown a novice.
I’d piggy back as we waited for the right wave, and ride the rush to shore, my head out of the water, she holding her breath, then out past the break to do it again.
I was four when she pushed me into my first solo wave, and I’ll never forget my indignation at being carried through the backwash by a lifeguard.
After she adjusted him, I was free to find a joy of body surfing that’s never left me.
Before she married my father, she was a showgirl with Guy Lombardo’s Aqua-shows, starting at the age of fifteen, dancing on stage and performing water ballet and synchronized swimming in the pool. She skipped two grades, and started college at sixteen, finishing three years in two, when her father, the town’s Episcopal minister, refused to pay for her last year of school, even though money wasn’t the problem.
She was dutiful for the last years of her single life, serving her father as women did in those days. That was the first in the long of lasts: last time she was dutiful.
She married my father because he was the handsomest man in town, and at six-foot-four, he was also one of the most imposing, but she said she married him for his green eyes and his grace on the dance floor. When I was older, she added that he was good in bed. Eight kids later, she returned to school to finish her degree, got a teaching degree, and that was another last: the last time she depended on a man – or anyone – for money.
As a teacher she was incorrigibly outspoken, and her naked honesty could never survive in any system that even hinted at bureaucracy. She never once bit her tongue, and it didn’t take long for her to get black-listed. To her surprise, correcting the principal’s grammar – or having original ideas about teaching – were not appreciated.
Around that time, she divorced my father, and never in the annals of marital lore has there been a greater act of generosity. My father was an anchor, but my mother was a hurricane. Even anchor-chain will chafe through if you rub it long enough.
So she found her second home in the worst school district in New York City.
Illiteracy was rampant, or so they claimed. On the first day of class, she wrote on the blackboard, in big letters: F—.That opened the door to: luck, puck, muck, truck, buck, cluck, duck etc. In this way, she taught them how to read.
Evidently, Hells Kitchen was too tame, so she applied for a teaching position at Riker’s Island, where her writing program was the most popular in the prison.
Oh, there’s so much more. She applied for a motorcycle instructor’s license, and was told that women were not allowed in that position, so she hired William Kunstler, an attorney as well known for his track record as Thurgood Marshall – and she won the case.
And I suppose I ought to mention that she got her master’s degree, from NYU, then her first of three doctorates, all from Ivy League colleges.
Years pass and time reduces heroes in ways that battlefields cannot.
She was eighty-five when she last solo-parachuted.
Her house on the canal flooded most every year, and it was also her eight-fifth year that she didn’t have the strength to ride her 1,200 CC Harley through a foot of water to safety, so it became a lawn sculpture. She stopped flying and sold her airplane at the age of eighty-eight, and that was also the last time I saw her do pull-ups.
It was the late summer of the same year when she came to visit me on Martha’s Vineyard, and, insisting on going to the beach, we headed up to Philbin, famous for body surfing waves, which proved to be the case, as their had been a storm several days prior.
She wasn’t herself, as she had cut her foot treading for clams a few days before, and was suffering a mild infection.
She stood looking at the waves. “Take me out.”
“Mom. No. It’s too damned rough.”
“Did I or didn’t I take you out when you didn’t even know how to wipe your ass?”
I dragged her out past the breaking waves, nearly drowning both of us in the process, and we spent a magic moment in the calm hills beyond the break, like we had six decades earlier, and many times since.
“For God sakes, don’t take a big one,” I warned her in vain.
She waited for the biggest wave, a house-sized wave, and launched perfectly down it’s face, washing up on the sand, and crawled up the beach.
The next year, and eighty-nine, she lost her short-term memory, and I kidnapped her and brought her to live with me, as none of my other siblings would put up with her.
Her exploits in the senior day program are still celebrated. The facilitator, a woman of great competence, informed me that she had waited fifty-two years for a mentor, and found her in my mother.
There’s always a list of lasts: the last time we went for dinner, the last car ride,
her last comb and brush for her waist-length hair, and yes, a last story, one to go out on.
She was lying in the bed she would never rise from, having been given her last goodbye’s several nights before as she faded out of consciousness. Her hospice nurses assured us it was a matter of hours, but she awoke in the morning, got up and had breakfast as if nothing could be more natural.
But now she was once again lying down. The doctor came in to check on her. She looked at his body, squinting. I could tell from her expression knew there was going to be a scene. He was overweight.
“Can you do this?” she asked, as she grabbed her foot and placed her big toe in her mouth.
“No,” he said, chuckling.
“Then maybe you ought to lie down and I’ll have a look at you.”
She died that afternoon.
On the ferry ride back to Martha’s Vineyard, my mind flashed on our life together, how she was torn by her love for me and her desire for me to be a man, giving me the freedom she never had, as she guided my attention to the equality of the sexes, independence and a life worth living.
There are a thousand stories untold, but when Frank Sinatra first sang My Way no ears ever listened that were more entitled to that song as an epitaph.
Ted Box is a shipbuilder in Martha’s Vineyard, designs and builds museum quality furniture out of driftwood, is a dancer, musician and writer. Information on the building of The Seeker can be found at seekerthescow.com