Vacation with My Father

Vacation with My Father

Everybody else on Victory Chimes is on deck savoring tame waves and the sun, calling out to seals who peek up, then disappear under the surface.

Victory Chimes

A bushy-bearded crew member just sent me below, not by command but by speculating that an island in the distance might be “Hell’s Half Acre,” which was one of my father’s favorite expressions. I sit outside the galley and stare at his life: a yellowing 8½” by 11” sheet of lined paper; Dad’s printing in pencil, his unmistakable all-capitals hand strangely shifting to lowercase for each h, d, and g.

Children. Grandchildren. Births and weights. Marriages and divorce. Graduations. Navy service. Jobs, first to last. Residence after residence.

Dad’s slender memoir is a stowaway in my leather man purse. Wife Kathy and I are sailing on Maine’s last surviving three-masted schooner from the great windjammer generation of the early 1900s. While she scans sea and sky for osprey and porpoises, I perch at the end of a long table in the salon and wonder why I decided to bring Denny Coleman along with me on vacation.

Dad has been gone for over five years, and his comings and goings, his beers and stories come to me through lines like “AMERICAN METER 3 SEPT. 46 – 15 NOV. 82.” He sat on the couch and cried for two days after new owners hauled him in and said he could run a drill press or retire. No, he couldn’t bump back to his job in the tool room, as he had been promised. Forget the years and handshakes.

How many times can one man’s length of days withstand being folded and unfolded? Dad’s record has diamond gaps down the middle, like the Shroud of Turin. It’s so vulnerable that somebody, maybe the author himself, put it in a plastic sleeve.

On what date did Dad sit down at the kitchen table, prop open his memory and make a list with no title, only an incomplete first line, “GRAd 28th MAY 1944”? He would never forget, I suppose, that he was a Wesleyville Bulldog.

I imagine him pulling the paper from his wallet and printing one last entry, my son’s birth in a disciplined strand of caps: MICAH WALTER COLEMAN – 1/18/92 – 8# 6OZ.

What am I supposed to do with my father’s fading table of contents? It doesn’t belong in the trash. Until I figure out why he kept such a determined record and why the names and dates put a lump in my throat, I’ll hold it gently, like an artifact that even loving care can’t keep from someday going to pieces.

Early this morning Kathy told me that we were anchored by Hell’s Half Acre and might be able to ride the yawl boat Enoch over for a visit.

Alas, we made for Stonington instead. It would have been nice to tell my siblings that I visited the locale Dad so often referenced, generally in annoyance. “Don’t take I-90 to Buffalo,” he might have said. “They’ve got road work all over Hell’s Half Acre.”

One of the things I loved most about my father was his use of language. Your nose was a snot locker, your hands meat hooks, your hind end a fan-danny. When he wanted you to calm down, he said, “Take it ease, disease.” Another father might have said “kiddo” or “pal,” but my dad preferred what I always heard as “Bubba Louie.” My older brother Ed tells me that Dad was saying, “Babalu Aye,” from a rambunctious Ricky Ricardo song?

When Dad wanted to let you know you were really on the wrong track, he puckered up and practically sang, “Oooh, nooo nooo hell nooo.”

Dad’s lingo, the way he leaned into his phrases, captured the man at his best: clowning around, amiable, a good sort. On board this schooner, he would be on deck cracking cans of Schlitz and “batting the breeze” with new friends. Closing my eyes, I call to mind his forearm tattoo, a fading heart with a gaudy MOTHER banner unfurled across it. I pass my hand over his wavy gray hair, as I did standing over the coffin.

Picturing my father is still easy. His voice, its rising and falling, is familiar, too, but exact words come back to me only unbidden, as if they have a will of their own.

I should have made a list like Dad did, but he hated forgetfulness more than I do. He kept everything—tools, utility bills, scrapbooks—in good order. “Coly,” as his work friends called him, didn’t misplace things.

Three years before his passing, Dad stood in the hallway of his Florida condominium, staring at framed photographs of his children and saying our names.

“I do this every day,” he confessed, aware his mind was giving out. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“Idiot light.” That was something else my father said. This gem came to me after Kathy and I left Victory Chimes and were making our way south through Maine. Only an idiot would need a dashboard light to tell him to check the oil.

That’s how on the ball Denny Coleman was, but dementia turned remembering anything into a shell game. He even forgot being a Bulldog. One bright afternoon I took him for a drive down Willow Street. “Hey, Dad,” I said, “that’s where you went to high school.”

He barely glanced up. “If you say so,” he mumbled, looking back down at his Velcro sneakers.

In his last year my father faught to retrieve himself. Each time he saw me coming his way at the nursing home, he reached out to me as if he were about to drown.

Only back home again can I name what was caught in my chest on Victory Chimes. Dad believed I could take him by the hand and lead him out of Hell’s Half Acre. The best I could do was remind him that his mother was long dead and his wife’s name was Mary.

“Yes, Mary,” he once said. “She’s my favorite.”

Now at my desk, I slide a biography free from its plastic sleeve and hold it close. One crease gives way. Another will, too, at the lightest touch.

No matter. Whether we like it or not, time will fold and unfold our pages of births, loves and labors until they go to pieces.

This truth ought to smother me, but it doesn’t. I feel a sure and certain hope: Eternal Love cradles all that we have ever been.

Nothing is lost, no happy home, no wandering, no fleeting peace, no devastation. I’m going to frame Dad’s shroud to help me remember.

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Beholding Maine

A week ago wife Kathy and I returned home to Erie, Pennsylvania, after nine days in Maine. A few thunder storms in no way choked the cleansing breath of such a generous stretch of open time. We floated from attraction to junk shop. Sometimes we held hands, in what poet Galway Kinnell called the “familiar touch of the long married.” We celebrated our thirty-first wedding anniversary on board the Victory Chimes, a three-masted schooner sailing out of Rockland. And not once in well over thirty hours of driving did we turn on the radio or pop in a CD. We either talked or kept silent. Riding along with each other was music enough. I did snip at my wife over the Internet, know it all that I can be, but the moment passed like a few drops from the sky that never really turn to rain.

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The Victory Chimes at anchor, waiting for us to return from an island walk

Vacation in beautiful Maine is an eye of the beholder situation. Did you ever ask a friend, “So how was your vacation?” And did you ever regret that question after sixty seconds? After five minutes, as your friend gushed about the charming print on the sheets at a bed and breakfast, did you ever watch her or his mouth, know sound was coming out but could no longer make out words, and think to yourself, “I’m turning to stone”? Me, too. But luckily, you can walk away now, before I get started. If you decide to stay, I’ll offer this concise observation about Maine: “Boy, I sure can be a bummer.” Do you suppose I could go on vacation and just experience the thrill of seeing whales? Or just sit on a ship deck in a quiet cove, watching the sunset with my arm around my wife? Or just take in the stunning Maine countryside from a slow chugging train?

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Kathy, watching for whales, dolphins, and seals, hair at the mercy of ocean breezes

In other words, could I just have uncomplicated, $#%&! fun? Ah . . . no! I have to notice that what disappears from the earth shines before it goes black and that death often makes me grateful—or at least gets my mind going. Still, sumus quod sumus. We are what we are. I am what I am. And I see what I see, think what I think. In Maine, a healing tension had me by the heart and head over and over. Of course, the worthy stock images—sun touching the waves, layer upon layer of hills and islands, an eagle perched hundreds of yards away on a dead tree—made the trip a bargain at any price, but what echoed in my chest’s sacred cavern and invited me to stop and breathe was the long goodbyes of beauty shining before it goes out.

Our first mission in Maine was a stop at L. L. Bean, where Kathy had already picked out binoculars from a catalog. As she waffled and kibitzed and tested at the counter with the clerk, I browsed. Anybody who has been to Freeport’s L. L. Bean knows how massive the store is; that is, stores. Lots of merchandise! We were in the hunting and fishing department. I was interested in none of it, though a slim old guy in a gabardine suit and fedora caught my attention as he studied a .20 gauge shotgun by waving its business end in every face around him. Obviously, he never took a hunter safety course as I did forty years ago: NEVER POINT A GUN, EVEN AN EMPTY GUN, AT A PERSON! Once the mindless gun handling subsided, my eyes wandered. And when I survey any setting, a bummer can’t be far away. At L. L. Bean, it was taxidermy—stuffed death. Kathy wasn’t about to drop $160.00 on binoculars without a leisurely test drive, so I took pictures.

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Varnish on the bear’s nose?

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This javalina would have been fun to pal around with–an India pale ale, Calamata olives, summer sausage, and a few bawdy jokes!

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L. L. Bean’s instruction to taxidermist: “Playful! Playful! Give us frolicking raccoons!”

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A couple of old moose at L. L. Bean, one stuffed by the taxidermist, the other by himself.

Hunting isn’t for me, but I have nothing against it. Displaying dead game is okay, too. As I wandered among the trophies, though, I hoped that the tremendous moose and white tail buck had been granted the dignity of landing on a dinner plate before assuming their position and the tribe of raccoons was on display not simply because somebody thought shooting them would be fun.

On the long-married’s first full day in Maine, we rode the aforementioned train from Brunswick to Rockland and back, two hours each way. Yes, by the fourth hour I was bored, but for most of the trip I appreciated sitting next to Kathy, sharing a turkey sandwich with avocado, and watching small towns, swamps, inlets, and green hills go by. Lining the track for miles at a time were telegraph poles in various stages of decay. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Some were in decent shape, others were listing badly, still others were in repose. All of them were pencils that outlived their language. “How long will it be,” I wondered, “before train tracks join telegraph poles?” We’re talking about patient transportation in an inpatient land. Amtrak is supposedly making a comeback, but I’ll wager by the time grandson Cole is my age, all people riding the rails will do so out of nostalgia.

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Telegraph pole: a pencil that outlived its language

My thoughts were sad, but wistful. It’s too bad that our current perception of time is pressurized, that unless movement from where we are to where we want to be involves g-forces, useable life is being wasted. Fortunately, despite my regrets about our cultural stampede, my spirit was light. I was, and am, glad that taking twenty-four hours to get from Pittsburgh to Orlando—as I did a couple of times on Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian and Silver Bullet—was once acceptable. And those wireless poles gave me hope that maybe one day the messages people take trouble to post won’t be insulting, combative, or bullying.

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Beloved Kathy and I shared lunch on a car bearing our hometown’s name as a younger couple a few rows up alternated between tonsil hockey and cuddling.

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Buddha at the Monroe Inn bed and breakfast.

Far from dying out, bed and breakfasts in Maine are like corner bars in Erie. What’s curious is the idea behind a bed and breakfast: sleep the night in a beautiful old house and wake up for a meal prepared by one or two people in an actual kitchen; or let’s pretend it’s 1900—up to a point. Kathy’s favorite B&B was Auburn’s the Munroe Inn, where we stayed in the Noble Suite. “I could live in this house,” she kept saying. “I love this house.” Well, sure, you could be skanky after a day’s travel, have breath sour enough, as George Carlin once said, to “knock a buzzard off a shit-wagon,” but walk around the spacious living and dining rooms, and you feel stately and elegant. If you’ve been saying for years, “Oh, my life, I’ll tell you what, I could write a book,” the handsome roll-top desk in our suite would have given you the urge—by Jove!—to dip your pen in an inkwell and tell your story. Titles would run through your head: My Way (no wait, that’s been used); The Road Less Traveled (dang it, that’s taken, too; Frost, some guy named Peck; can’t remember). Your musings would be interrupted because you have to use the bathroom, where old-style faucets and goats-milk hand soap make what goes on in that euphemism of a room seem dignified.

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The roll top desk was a great place to get a few words down, though not with a dip pen and inkwell. The framed print above is a Picasso.

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Stately mantle and hearth

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We slept deeply, as if embraced by a sane and gentle past.

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We awoke to sun translated by stained-glass windows.

In short, B&Bs are great because they offer something that doesn’t exist anymore. And if guests had to pump their own water and use chamber pots, I bet Super 8 and Motel 6 would smile broadly. Whatever. I loved the Munroe Inn and took more pictures there than at Sabbathday Lake, the Shaker village (stay tuned). It was a special treat to meet the owner, Olga, originally from Russia, who spent years in New York City before doing something her friends considered kooky: move to Maine and run a B&B. But she has got a fantastic gig going, made distinctive by eclectic choices in art.

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For some reason, old and dignified marry contemporary and playful with pleasing results at the Munroe Inn.

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This faces guests as they descend a spacious staircase. Where, I would like to know, did Olga find this recent photograph of me naked on a rock, throwing a discus?

       Still savoring Olga’s inn, Kathy and I headed to Sabbathday Lake, 1800 acres of woods and rolling fields, free-ranging livestock, a dozen or so buildings, a faithful support crew of paid staff and devoted volunteers, a rich history in art and architecture, several reliable sources of income, and . . . three Shakers. A baseball enthusiast would immediately diagnose at least one reason for the shortage: no farm system for developing new talent. Shakers are celibate.

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The Shaker herb garden, which provides income for the community, is managed by a paid staff member. I brought home for daughter Elena a dried flower sometimes called “poor man’s saffron.”

A month ago I met the last two monks at a Byzantine monastery near Butler, Pennsylvania. I thought of them, Fathers Michael and Leo, as Kathy and I walked around the Shaker village in the rain. There are still Byzantine Fathers in other monasteries, but the trinity at Sabbathday Lake is it. At best, all other Shaker communities are museums or libraries. At worst, they’re malls or tumbleweed. Sister Francis (the community’s mother), Sister June, and Brother Arnold are a religion of three, with a great cloud of witnesses. I may have glimpsed Arnold as Kathy and I were hopping on a wagon for a hayride. Wayne, a brother until 2006, left Sabbathday Lake after falling in love with a reporter who visited to write a story–with, in my opinion, a faithful and glad ending. I didn’t see Francis and June.

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“Tis a gift to be simple.” The Shaker Meeting House, where Francis, June, and Arnold worship, along with visitors. Women enter through one door, men through the other. I peeked in. The inside is as plain as the outside.

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The Meeting House’s wooden siding: how much longer will fresh paint make the sacred dwelling “come round right”?

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These rules were posted in a barn where Shaker-friendly items were being sold. An exacting way that embraces goodness may die, but let’s hope its fervor lives.

Short of a miracle, the Shakers will be no more during this century—that is unless Arnold, fifty-seven, breaks longevity records. Francis is eighty-seven, June seventy-six. The likelihood of their extinction made me feel blue, but also grateful. The Shaker practice isn’t for me, but I admire their devotion to a life centered in goodness. The article by the reporter Wayne eventually married noted that after the American Civil War the Shakers numbered about 5000. At Sabbathday Lake, where visitors are asked not to take photographs inside the buildings, I learned that Shaker communities were once de facto orphanages and foster homes. Poor folks turned their children over to the Shakers rather than let them starve. (Francis arrived at Sabbathday Lake at age ten.) In old portraits Shakers often wore severe expressions, but underneath their regimentation and austerity was a well of radical love.

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Over 150 graves, but only one marker. With Shakers, I read somewhere, there is no “mine” or “yours”; only “ours.”

As much as anything, I appreciate not only Shaker history, but also Francis, June, and Arnold for carrying on a practice that seems right to them and for making heroic sacrifices to be the last of a family that still has much to teach the world.

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The Victory Chimes (Credit: Wikipedia)

The official reason for our Maine trip was to sail on the Victory Chimes. If you’re not for sailing on mostly calm waters, taking naps whenever you please, going for walks on islands and in small coastal towns, and winding down by watching darkness descend on a horizon of pine trees, don’t board this vessel. And the food! Chef Pammy is phenomenal—a word I use sparingly—especially when you consider that she cooks on a propane stove that has two settings: simmer or hell. She makes the best chili and macaroni and cheese I’ve ever tasted, though these dishes don’t represent the menu. Think lobster with drawn butter, haddock in a dill sauce, curried greens soup, and smoked salmon with capers. Kathy and I were fortunate to sail this season with Pammy, since 2014 is her last. When we return, we’ll miss her presence even more than her spatula. She shares stories generously and listens without interrupting. I’ll consider myself blessed if we can catch up with her some day near her winter job at Sugarloaf Ski Resort.

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Relaxing after a day of sailing: Margaret, bridge expert from Ohio; chef Pammy; Kathy

There are a couple of minor drawbacks: the cabins are tight, and the heads are communal. I slept the hell out of my bunk and have no complaints. And about sharing three toilets amongst twenty or so passengers—some sprang for a cabin upgrade that includes a private privy—my attitude was, “Aw, look, get over it.” If there were a way of transporting the Victory Chimes routine to Erie, Pennsylvania, I’d vote for it. Breakfast at 8:00 a.m., lunch at 12:00 p.m., appetizers on deck at 5:00, and supper at 6:00. Between food, I wrote in the salon (mess hall), napped myself delirious, enjoyed deep draughts of prayer/meditation, and read. Nearly every day the boat anchored somewhere and conveyed passengers to shore for an hour or so. Of course, this is a vacation schedule, not to be expected when you’re back on company time.

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From the yawl boat Enoch, returning us to the ship after an hour on North Haven

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The Stonington Opera House. A little cultural venue on North Haven–who’d have thought?

Lots of travelers share Kathy’s and my love for a Victory Chimes cruise. Profitable as the enterprise is, Captains Kip and Paul have been hoping to sell the schooner for years. During sailing season, the work is consuming, and they purchased the vessel mainly to prevent it being sold to a Japanese interest that intended to transport it overseas and convert it into a restaurant. The last of her generation of Maine schooners, the Victory Chimes has the distinction of gracing the tails side of the Maine quarter.

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Congratulations, Victory Chimes! You know you’ve made it when you’re on currency. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The problem is, buyers aren’t coming forward. When Kip and Paul need to call it a career, I can only hope that somebody has the means and skill to take the helm. For now, the Victory Chimes is shining and delicious, and there’s no reason to assume that someone with a thick wallet and a spacious heart won’t make sure the Maine quarter doesn’t need to be revised. A final note on the boat: sailing with strangers for a few days has a way of inviting human authenticity. Kathy and I offered and received some personal stories that the waves and wind held in holiness, as if the water and air made themselves a cathedral. We told one couple a few years our senior about son Micah’s struggles with addiction and they responded with the wrenching account of their own daughter’s passing at twenty-six from the same lying thief. There was no judgment, no idiotic fixing. Just humans meeting each other in a nave and breathing in and out what is and what has been.

       A walk with Kathy on North Haven included two surprises. First, I’m pretty sure we saw author Susan Minot—no biggie, but neat. Second, we passed Our Lady of Peace Roman Catholic Church, which is for sale, a sign that the pews are anything but full on Sunday at 10:00 a.m. I took pictures of the exterior and was joined by two other Victory Chimes passengers, all of us staring up at the rust and rot. On a whim, I tried the door. Surprise! Unlocked.

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Our Lady of Peace

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I don’t imagine Our Lady of Peace will have a forwarding address.

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The nave from the balcony

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Organ in the balcony–an instrument deprived of its liturgy?

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One of the Stations of the Cross, hanging on an uninsulated wall.

This may sound odd coming from a Lutheran pastor, but I don’t particularly care if individuals go to church. Non-churchgoers meet me, look at the ground, and get stumbly and awkward. My attitude: I’m in no position to judge your beliefs. I do admit to being concerned, though. If human beings lose the longing to know the Ultimate and the impulse to gather with other pilgrims for adoration—of anything!—our race has a collective case of spiritual anemia. Of all the lights shining before going out in Maine, the rusty lamp of Our Lady of Peace on North Haven left me with a simple prayer.

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“Lamps will rust. Please don’t let the flame go out.”

       Some goodbyes, while serious, are also funny. On the way home, Kathy took a picture at a rest area on I-90 west in New York State, not far from home.

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Observation of an novice curmudgeon: Why not, “No littering”?

       I’m confident the written word has a few more generations of vitality before it takes on the shine of a long goodbye. That possibility is so far off that I laughed in our tune-less truck at the drawing of an arm hanging out a car window, its hand letting go of litter. Even a bummer has to lighten up once in a while.