The Launching

Let me say first of all: Welcome to this house!

There’s something inviting about the wind-grayed shingles, wild roses, small pane windows, and porches. You see the sand, how it stretches out in ripples beneath the dune grass toward the blue sea. This is not a place just anyone can come to. We are privileged. I am happy to welcome you back.

I first came here as a boy. That’s a long time ago. My mother cooked apples, not apple pie, the way you might be thinking right now because of the smells in the air. She baked apples, whole, with walnuts and brown sugar in the place where the core used to be. My father smoked his curved briar pipe and sat in a white wicker rocking chair on this porch, over these same Delft blue two-inch boards. He’d have a thought, then rock forward, hold the position up against this same pine table, dip his pen in black ink and write poems that made people’s eyes water when he read them aloud. He wrote poems for friends who had died or given birth or launched boats they’d built. Once, his younger brother–my uncle Flori–built a Seabright skiff. These were Jersey beaches, and that was before the time of big highways and plastic boats. My uncle Flori built the boat, because it was a skiff with a flat bottom and could sit upright on the mud at low tide. He used yellow, pumpkin pine for planking, that mounted up, one lapstreak at a time, gleaming in the gloom of the chicken-feathered barn where he worked.

Then my father stood up. Everyone had gathered in the marsh grass beside the salt creek and the sloping ways. Really, just two two-by-ten fir planks soaped for the launch. He took out his curved pipe, held up his piece of paper and made us see the South Seas, Arctic displays of lights and crystals, and white birds and God inventing boats, and made my Aunt Bessie Kingman cry and my eyes water, and got me thinking of Indian girls lost in swamps, Hiawatha or something similar, about true love and forests, though my father’s poem never ever mention any of that.

And then Uncle Flori put Seamstress, his beloved English sheep dog, in the skiff for weight, took the sledge and tapped out a small wedge, and the skiff and Seamstress slid down and bobbed in the clear high tide of the creek, and bucked a little when Seamstress abandoned ship and swam ashore. My father said, “Congratulations, Flori, you’ve given birth!” And everyone thought that was funny.

And just when they were laughing and had their mouths open and their faces lit up with life and fun, I noticed the face of a girl I hadn’t seen before. The edge of her big straw hat was bent up in front and let the sun down on those teeth and lips and the crinkles around her eyes. And she’d been watering them, just the way I had, so we were really closer to each other than we might have been otherwise. Later, we went walking along the side of the creek, all of us, to the river, to watch Uncle Flori row. There was a spray of roses on the stern seat and a bunch of sunflowers tied to the bow, and Aunt Laura sat in the bow with her skirt pulled up so as not to touch the water, showing her legs, in her white stockings, while Aunt Bessie Kingman sat beside the roses in back and trailed her maiden hand in the water.

And then we went back up the creek, through the marsh grass, crossing the muskrat trails, and talking, and I ended up walking beside Julie, a little back from the others, the girl who had had sun on her teeth, and she seemed wonderful to me, and two months later we were married, and a year after that you Jonah, were born, then you Greg. You Roger were next, then you Mark, and finally you Jim. Always one year apart.

I know you’ve heard this all before, but on a day like this when we gather to remember your mother, here at this old house with the gray shingles and the roses and the beach stretching away, I just wanted to tell the story again. How I met her, what it was like, and why this is a special place, so all of you–your wives and children–won’t forget. As Proust, or somebody said: Reality is a state approached only through memory. Something like that. I don’t remember, and you’re not supposed to at my age.

Anyway, I think it smells like the apples are ready, and I say why don’t we go in and eat them, the walnuts, the brown sugar, all cooked togetherh, like this family, at the old table, in the middle of this house, on the blue boards. And think how very lucky we are. Especially me.

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