First of all, let me say, Welcome Home. There’s something inviting about wind- and sun-grayed shingles and wild roses and small pane windows and wrap around porches. You see how the sand stretches out in low tide ripples beyond the dune grass toward the sea. This is what Utah Beach looks like now, but gray and menacing then when we landed there so many years ago. This not a place just anyone can come to. We are privileged to have this old house, which will belong to all of you when I am gone.
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 smell in the air. She baked apples whole with walnuts, nutmeg, cinnamon and brown sugar in the place where the core had been. My father smoked his pipe and sat in a white wicker chair on this same porch with the same Delft blue two-inch boards newly painted every year. He sat at a little round wicker table and dipped his pen in black ink and wrote poems that made people’s eyes water when he read them aloud. Which is what he did at funerals, weddings, births or when his friends launched boats they had built.
Once his younger brother—my uncle Flori—built a Seabright skiff. For beaches like this you needed a skiff with a flat bottom that would keep the boat upright when the tide went out and not tip over and let seaweed, flotsam, and crabs wash in. This was before the time of big highways and plastic boats. Uncle Flori built his skiff out of yellow pumpkin pine planking that seemed to glow in the gloom of the old barn, where he worked and where his chickens watched and commented. He used a special plane to make the bevels for the lapstrakes so they would overlap each other to form the hull. He steamed the strakes in his steam box and ran them hot through the scattering chickens to clamp them to the skiff’s backbone of already placed ribs, supports, stem and stern, all in white oak. Next, he drove the copper rivets through the overlapping laps to hold them all together. Months passed. This is what you did in the winter. There was no television to watch. The cow’s gave off just enough body heat to keep Flori and his chickens from freezing to death.
Eventually, when everything was ready— thwarts, gunnels, weighted rudder, tiller, gudgeons, pintles and cheekpieces, and thole holes sealed with a hot tapered iron, everyone gathered in the marsh grass beside the creek, the same creek you kids swim in out in back. The place where in earlier times many a New England schooner slid sideways down greased skids into a bobbing high tide.
On this occasion, with Uncle Flori’s Seabright Skiff, my father took his pipe out of his mouth, and gave a speech that made most of us see the South Seas, Arctic lights, rare stones, white birds filling the sky and God herself. They were words that made my GreatAunt Bessy Kingman cry and my eyes water. I think for a moment I was thinking, as I always had, of a beautiful Indian girl who was lost in the swamps of the forest primeval whom only I could rescue, although my father’s poem never mentioned anything like that.
“Hold on! I will answer questions in just a moment!”
And then Uncle Flori took a sledge hammer–he didn’t really need something that big–and popped out a wedge, and the skiff slid down its skids and bobbed in a clear high tide, bucking a little like a foal, and 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, I noticed the face of a girl I hadn’t seen before, with the edge of her big straw hat bent up and letting the sun down on her teeth and lips and the hint of circles under her eyes, and her amber skin. And she’d been watering her eyes just the way I had, so we were really closer to each other than we might have been at some other moment. And later we all went walking along the side of the creek all the way to the river to watch Uncle Flori row with his new self-made counter-weighted birch oars. There was a spray of roses on the stern seat and a bunch of sunflowers tied to the bow, and Aunt Laura sat on the bow thwart, showing her white stockings because she had pulled up her skirt so it wouldn’t touch the water that was entering because the pumpkin pine strakes had not yet swelled enough to make the skiff watertight. And then we went back up the creek, through the marsh grass, crossing the muskrat trails, and I ended up walking beside the girl with the amber skin, a little back from the others, and she seemed wonderful to me, smart and more than my match in everything, and two months later we were married, and a year after that you Jonah, were born, then you Roger were next, then finally you, Mark. For a long time, I had worried that all of this was little more than just another ritual of a white privilege, this house and the beach and everything. I told you boys about a few things I had learned. Like be on the lookout for someone where you laughed and could be yourself. Where love is like the water you swim in like a fish. You listened and have chosen well. And now I have a delightful brood of beautiful grandchildren, who are half Japanese, half Nigerian, part Mexican and part Native American. I know you’ve heard this all before, but on a day like this when we gather to remember your mother and grandmother, here at this old house with the gray shingles and the rock 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, so all of you won’t forget. But as Proust or somebody like that 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 cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar, all cooked together like this family–How very lucky we are! And how very lucky I am to still be here with all of you. Some of you little ones had questions and I will answer them when we are eating our apples.