Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Carpet-Bag

“For my mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me.”

While bike-riding last week, my father hit his head and for a few hours could not remember the month of August.  He didn’t know that my niece had been born, and he couldn’t remember that David and the boys and I had been in Nantucket with him for almost that whole month.  I felt as if we both had been partially erased. 

My parents keep a boat on Nantucket that they named after their dead dog, although they did that before, rather than after he died.  The Great Ollie.  It’s a little motor boat, and we use it primarily to go to Tuckernuck Island, first weaving through grassy Hither Creek, then following the buoys marking the route through the Tuckernuck Flats, which are too shallow in parts even for a boat, like theirs, that draws only 3 feet of water.  Tuckernuck itself has a relatively deep harbor ringed on one side by a nice half-moon of sand, where we pull up and drop anchor among the other pleasure boats.  At the other end of the harbor there’s a dock used by the people who have houses on the island.

Every time we go to Tuckernuck, Dad wants to swim across the harbor to the dock, and he wants me to swim it with him.  And every time, I start out with him before betraying him by turning around and swimming back in.  I don’t intend to do this, but I always do this, because I’m afraid.  We swim on our backs, usually, or do that breast stroke where you keep you head up above the water, and the knowledge that beneath my body lies a living world filled with things I don’t know about unnerves me.

This past August when we performed this ritual, a ritual, on my side, of refusal, I decided that I wouldn’t let fear hold me back anymore.  I love my father, I love to swim, and while I was not going to swim the harbor with him that day, the next time I would come with my goggles and swim normally, as I swim in a swimming pool.  I would put my head under the water, and would see that there was nothing to be afraid of.  And so the next time we came, I brought my goggles, and we started swimming across the harbor, he on his back, blowing plumes of water out his mouth, as usual, and me on my front, doing the breast stroke I have done in swimming pools across the world.  But it turns out that if you put your head underwater in the Tuckernuck harbor, all you see is a blue-green wall.  It turns out, as well, that the vision of this wall is more terrifying to me than anything I used to imagine.  And even though I love my Dad, I now know that I’m never swimming that harbor with him, ever.


  1. As you are well aware, I've been to the bottom of Tuckernuck Harbor, to chase crabs and things. There's a lot of bottom feeders down there. Organic material suspended in the water everywhere you look. I've never shared this, but it's really much more disgusting than scary. That must be why the hermit crabs love it so much.

  2. I'm interested by the distinction you're drawing between disgusting and scary.