Last week the thing my father loved most was towed peacefully from Commencement Bay to a scrap metal yard in Texas. On a gray day, when the water was smooth, his beloved ship made her final voyage past his home. He stood on his deck, camera in hand, and watched as her old metal frame was pulled from his view.
He e-mailed my sisters and me a picture and wrote simply, “There she goes.” We’ve long had a joke in our family that his ships are our other sisters. He devoted his life to their voyages, their repairs, their temperaments. And in my youth it felt like he was more committed to them than he was to me.
It was 1978 when my parents decided to move to a small town in the Pacific Northwest from Philadelphia so my father could start a shipping company with several other associates. They purchased two ships—the Westward Venture and the Great Land—and created a charter line from Tacoma, WA to Anchorage, AK. The move would leave my two sisters in Pennsylvania, where they lived with their mother.
“If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship,” Thomas Aquinas once said, “he would keep it in port forever.”
My father wasn’t around much when I was young. My parents had a marriage of simplicity. My mom was a housewife who spent her day creating vacuum lines in our carpet and changing the sheets on their bed. She opened the windows daily—no matter what the weather—to let out the stale scent of cigarette smoke my father left wafting in the air.
He went to bed late and rose early. When he was awake he spent the majority of his time standing in the same four square feet of our kitchen. To his right, perched on the wall, was a yellow phone that let out a trembling ring when anyone called. A notepad with his name on it sat neatly on the counter with a pencil laid perfectly next to it. In his left hand was an omnipresent glass of vodka.
He liked to eat late at night, preferably around ten, once the stress of the day had escaped his veins and the vodka had eased in. My mother stood across from him in her enclave over the stove, slowly preparing him his dinner and waiting for the signal that he was ready to sit down and eat. I typically ate dinner alone in front of the TV.
If a ship was in port, Dad wasn’t home. When he was home he stood guard by the phone, waiting for a call warning him that something had gone wrong and telling him what could he do about it. The Great Land tended to give him the most problems.
I could say the absence of my father was a direct result of the ships, but in truth he was from a different generation. There were no expectations for him to “raise” his children. He was a provider and that was his focus. He rarely attended my soccer games, never took me to a piano lesson, and rarely helped me with my homework.
My mother’s role and sole responsibility was me and ensuring there was dinner on the table every night when my father came home. She dutifully waited for him at the top of the stairs and greeted him every time he returned. I was to be quiet and meant to speak only when spoken to. I went to bed as my parents sat at the round kitchen table and let their conversations unfold over drinks and the occasional game of cards.
Over the years, the distance between my parents grew. As I became more independent, so did my mom. My father became more successful, my mother became more demanding. She wanted a life outside of the home. She wanted more. Their dinner conversations became more heated, and what was once a simple routine became a place of fighting and resentment.
They divorced after I left for college. Neither my father’s or my exit from the family was graceful. After years of fighting, blood drawn, and feelings hurt we had had enough of each other. He and I didn’t speak for five years—not until the day I was graduating from college and he called me to say congratulations. My sister pushed me into the bathroom with the phone, and I cried as he and I talked. They weren’t tears of joy; rather, it was more of a reckoning. The war that had been fought throughout my adolescence was over.
My father and I spent the next fifteen years repairing our relationship—getting to know one another all over again, proceeding with caution each step of the way. He dated a wonderful woman for many years who was instrumental in establishing a bond between us. She simply didn’t have the context to want it any other way.
As I matured, I started to understand my father better—to empathize with the challenges he had faced in doing what he did. Raising three girls, building a career, and providing for all of us. I also began to see his love and devotion to those ships. How his responsibility for their survival was intensified when they left the port. Just like us.
My father isn’t a warm, fuzzy type of man, but he is committed and he is consistent. Something that was so hard to feel in my childhood became much more evident as we both grew older: he had done his best, even though I had wanted more.
Dad loved us like he loved his ships: comfortable and nonchalant when we were in his presence, but overtly concerned when we were out in the world. These days, he is eager to hear my call letting him know I am making it in the world. That I am not drowning.
Having built one of my own, I better understand my father’s career and the sacrifices he made to build something from nothing. It makes sense now how much he loved his ships. It was his job to ensure they ran smoothly, that they could face any course they chartered. In the end, it was how he raised me.
He called me last week to see how things were going. “I haven’t been able to reach you on your cell,” he said, “are you okay?”
We did our typical small talk for a bit, and then Dad said, “They are taking the Great Land to Texas tomorrow. She is being scrapped for her metal.” I felt his sadness. This was his life’s work going to a scrap metal yard. His beloved ships were ending their days. They were being replaced by the next generation. Just like he was.
“I am so sorry, Dad. I know this hurts. You did right by her.”
“She was a girl, that is for sure.” He laughed to himself, and I knew he was remembering how she had given him so many troubles, so many sleepless nights. Just like I had.
He e-mailed the picture to me the next morning: An old, worn ship being tugged on her final voyage. No cargo on her decks. Her hollow, cavernous halls echoing for the last time. She was old. Tired looking.
I realized I owed that ship a lot. It was through her I had learned how wonderful my father was in his own, unique way. I was going to miss her too. She embodied everything that was right and wrong about our relationship.
“There she goes.”