Saturday dawned sunny and sticky like every other day in Miami, but a cloud of misery sat on my head like an anti-halo as I anticipated a weekend scraping barnacles off the Annie Lee’s hull.
R.J. perched in the cockpit. At four years old, even today’s fifty-yard cruise to beach our boat on windbreak island sounded like adventure. A little more adventure than we’d counted on, it turned out.
Mom gripped the tiller, her shoulders tense. She hadn’t quite gotten the hang of pushing the tiller right to make the boat go left, much less translating the concept into backing the Annie Lee out of her slip.
I—and my black cloud—parked ourselves atop the fore cabin, to await Dad’s command to raise the mainsail.
Dad hunched over our ten-horse Johnson outboard motor on the aft deck. He yanked the pull rope.
No response, as usual.
Dad’s face reddened a shade. Another pull.
A sputter from the motor, then silence.
I rolled my eyes. Dad was way too cheap to buy an outboard that fired on command. Not that I wanted it to start. But I knew that even if Dad pitched the Johnson overboard, he’d find another way to get us to his barnacle scraping hoo-ha.
Dad fiddled with the choke and threw his weight against the cord.
The motor coughed and spit, chugged anemically to life as Dad slid it down the transom into the water.
I grudgingly admired Dad for taking the motor apart every week. You couldn’t really ditch a motor that ran, albeit only when it dang well pleased.
The Johnson whined loud and strong like a virgin motor from marine supply.
Part of me sidled up to the cheap gene I’d gotten from Dad.
Dad barked orders, and the Annie Lee bumped a piling, pointed her nose to the seawall, and swerved heart-stoppingly close to Pier 2 before heading toward the island. Like me skinning the cat on the chin-up bar—it wasn’t pretty but we got ‘er done.
I hauled the mainsail up the mast and Dad opened the throttle to get us going as fast as possible to run the boat aground on the island.
As I tied off the mainsail, R.J. yelled, “Dad, watch out for the boat!”
My head jerked up as our bowsprit rammed through the windshield of a speedboat anchored near shore.
A muffled, “Cool,” came from R.J. as Dad jogged down the deck to see if anyone was hurt, eat crow, and exchange insurance info.
Six hours later at low tide, the Annie Lee lay nearly on her side, exposing a two-inch thick growth of algae and sharp shells on her once pristine bottom.
Dad worked chest-deep in the water with a straight-edged shovel.
I chipped at the shells with a putty knife and hammer. I’d been working for what felt like half my life, and only cleared a three-foot square patch. Salt water and self-pity sloshed against my skin.
The garden hoe Mom had been using before she made a break for it to fix food—an hour ago—lay abandoned on the beach.
Dad’s chisel spired the most beautimous sand building of my brother’s career.
Scrubbing the hull once a month with a wire brush would keep barnacles at bay. But Pier 1’s fastidiousness had flown skyward in marijuana fumes. All the boat butts looked as bad as the Annie Lee’s. Scraping our boat at all put us one step ahead of the neighbors.
Dad waded up to inspect my work. A long breath exited his nose, signaling his dissatisfaction. He leaned his shovel against the hull and took my tools. “Here, like this. We’ve got three hours of daylight. Let’s see how much we can get done.”
Three hours? Self-pity morphed into martyrdom. Good thing I was Catholic.
Just once I’d like Dad to say, “Good job.”
He’d mastered leading by example. He worked on the boat all day every day. But, like Mom’s failure to grasp the basics of navigation, Dad never “got” praise. My A’s were too few, my words too many, too grating. I needed voice lessons to talk. He tirelessly scraped at every barnacle of imperfection.
After my maternal grandmother’s funeral—I was twenty-three and married—I asked Dad if I’d ever done anything that pleased him.
Mom and Dad—divorced for a decade—sat in the Daytona Beach Airport coffee shop with me, awaiting my flight.
Dad stared at me, contemplating my question.
I hoped he’d say he was proud of me for graduating college. I didn’t grow up to be a hooker. I’d swum competitively like he had. Surely, he could come up with something.
He gave a small shake of his head. “You’re just so artificial.”
My mouth dropped open. That was a new one.
Mom scooted out of the booth. “Shit!” She stomped away—her theory that Dad really was proud of me, blown.
I went home and made an appointment for my first counseling session.
Through the lens of adulthood, I wonder if Dad saw an ocean more potential in me than I saw in myself. Maybe because he’d been a world-class swimmer, he thought I was capable of greatness, too.
Dad tore up the water in Canton, Ohio, practicing naked, as he told it, in the McKinley High School basement pool. He swam for Ohio State University, captained the University of Miami team, and raced in the 1948 Olympic trials—the first in twelve years because of World War II. Hampered by an ear infection, he missed his best time and a berth in London.
But Dad, a backstroker, still holds the world record for the 300 Individual Medley Relay—a fact I discovered in the Jensen Beach Library as a tenth grader. I couldn’t help but be impressed.
Along with my parents’ abandoned wedding pictures, I am the owner of Dad’s swimming medals and decaying ribbons. Mom moved them from house to house in a giant glass picture frame for sixty years—regardless of the fact that she left Dad behind after the first sixteen.
Dad’s parenting, like all of ours, bore barnacles, but he got the thing done. Somehow, down in my bones, I knew he loved me. And despite all the whining I’ve done, his love has been my bedrock.
God heard the whining. He pried loose my anti-halo and has given me thirty-five years with a guy who thinks he married up—who ignores my barnacles, likes my voice, reads every word I pen.
My heart echoes Psalm 16:6, “The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places;
Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me.”