I refuse to remember what I ate for supper last Thursday, but, as I drift off to sleep, certain in my bedroll, I do recall with perfect clarity the summer between my 11th and 12th birthdays.
There, on the South Shore of Nova Scotia in a subdivision called Pinedale Park, just minutes away from the pretty promontory known as Prospect, my younger sister and I would gambol along the shoreline for hours, picking periwinkles from seaweed, diving headlong into the surf, spearing rock eels with straightened, sharpened clothes hangars.
In the spring of 1971, my father took me to the boat show in Halifax, just 45 minutes up the road. He was thinking about a sailing ship for himself. Not finding one that suited him, he set his sites on a double-hulled skiff, equipped with a tiller, rudder, centerboard and something that actually looked like a mainsail and mast.
He presented it to me as a gift even as the ice flows clogged the moorings in the bay; I took to it like a fish does to water. I was a better sailor then than I am now, having spent a good deal of time, since age three, tacking about in Toronto Harbour with my mother’s brother and, of course, dear, old Dad.
For two months in the summer of 1971, I would drive that skiff into the swells off the coast where the grumbling of the pounding water would tell me where to make landfall and where not to afford an attempt. I would take my tiny girlfriends right across the bay to the far shore, where, God knows, anything could happen away from prying, adult eyes – even a bubble-gum kiss or three.
Once, when my craft was docked, I jumped into an open-bodied ketch of nearly 20 feet, from stem to stern, that my father had finally managed to procure from a broker in England. We sailed into the North Atlantic, under mariner’s skies. I manned the jib. Dad handled the tiller and mainsail. We tacked and jibed until the sun told us that it was time to head into Prospect.
As we ran with the wind, my father began to fiddle with the centerboard’s main line, which held the heavy, lead cleaver that served as the boat’s moveable keel. When the bloody thing slammed down, it took half of the middle finger on his right hand with it.
It occurs to me now that had we been equipped with GPS and cell-phone technology, we might have been able to rescue ourselves from certain perdition. As it was, with no tech available in the early 1970s, five miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, it was clear we were on our own. Dad, his wrecked finger dangling from his mouth, somehow started the outboard engine. I grabbed the tiller and cruised that craft to port.
I don’t remember what I ate for supper that night. I do remember the bandage my father sported after his return from the Halifax Infirmary. And I remember something else.
I remember my 38-year-old pater, hail and hardy, standing on the stoop of our Pinedale Park ranch-style bungalow, waving to me with his good hand. “That was something,” he said through the pain and the painkillers. “You know, of course, you helped me.”
The next day, my sister and I headed down to the shore to hunt for periwinkles and eels.
Just in that fragile tissue of life, lived in a moment of summertime, when the days are longer than anyone deserves, we knew we could do anything.