Dad built two sailboats by himself. He began work on the first one in his basement workshop. It was winter, and the garage was too cold. While Dad worked on the boat, Mom came down and sat in an old upholstered chair next to a floor lamp, knitting sweaters or reading The Boston Herald that Dad bought each evening to read on the bus. They rarely spoke. At bedtime, Leslie and I went to the cellar, looked at Dad’s boat, and kissed him goodnight. Mom came upstairs to put us to bed.
When spring came, Dad moved the car into the driveway and cleared a space for his boat. He’d made more progress on the boat than expected. While preparing to move the boat, he realized the width of the cellar door would not accommodate the hull. I was in the back yard with friends when we heard a huge bellow from the cellar followed by some words I’d never heard before, but instinctively knew I should never repeat. For the rest of the afternoon, the sounds of splintering wood came from the cellar. But even after he ripped out the frame of the door, the few inches gained were not enough. He then began hacking out part of the foundation. With a neighbor’s help, he successfully transferred the boat to the garage. I’m sure his engineer’s ego was battered by the end of the day.
During the summer, Dad worked on the boat every evening and all weekend. Mom moved to a lawn chair in the garage with her novels and magazines.
Our parents never argued by shouting or slamming doors. One exception was a Saturday evening the summer when I was eight and Leslie was six. We never knew what prompted the argument. Perhaps Mom had become tired of those silent evenings, a silence more obvious in the freedom of warm weather and longer days. Or perhaps Dad had looked forward to getting away from the family and work on his boat in peace, hoping Mom would find another way to occupy her evenings. Or maybe the argument had nothing to do with the sailboat, but was the excuse that represented something more troubling in their relationship?
On that evening, Leslie and I were playing in her bedroom which looked onto the backyard and garage. We enjoyed the evenings when our parents were busy in the cellar or the garage and forgot us. We were in our pajamas, our teeth brushed, all ready for bed. Every minute past bedtime a gift.
Leslie and I became aware of loud voices coming from the garage. “Are you planning to work on this boat every free moment you have?” my mother asked.
“I want to sail it before the summer ends.”
“But you never talk to me. Sometimes I think you don’t even remember I’m here.”
“I’m concentrating. I can’t afford to make a mistake.”
This is the argument I imagine they had. Fifty years later, it’s the explanation that makes sense. As hard as I wrack my brains, I remember only four sentences, but four sentences spoken as clearly as if spoken today. Dad, irritated and out of patience, shouted, “Well, what do you want me to do? Raise the boat up to the rafters and let it crash to the floor? Will you be satisfied then?”
My mother feared he’d do something irreparable. “No, George, I didn’t say that.”
The unfamiliar sound of fright in my mother’s voice disturbed me most, but I was also afraid my father would crash the boat in anger. The thought of destruction struck a chord in me. I recognized the rage I often experienced, when, working on a project for school, I made a silly mistake. Instead of stopping to examine the situation calmly, I’d destroy the project as if it had betrayed me. When my rage passed, I’d be consumed by remorse and the fear that Mom would find out what I’d done. I had many secrets. Like a magician, I made the results of my destruction mysteriously disappear, consigned to the bottom of the trash bin.
Leslie and I leaned out the window. “Mommy, don’t cry,” Leslie screamed.
“Don’t hurt the boat, Daddy,” I shouted.
We were terrified that something irrevocable had happened, something that could never be fixed, something that would be consigned to the bottom of the trash barrel.
Our shouting ended the argument. Our distress brought home to our parents the fact that their behavior was affecting us. And if we could hear them, so could the neighbors.
Over the years. Leslie and I became used to their arguments and never again experienced the fear of that summer evening. Divorce was never a worry and unthinkable in those days.
Looking back, I imagine the seed of any evening’s argument was planted long before Dad arrived home from work. Maybe being angry was the only way he could face the family. Or perhaps my mother, having spent the day alone, hoped for an evening of companionship that would rarely happen. Most arguments began at dinner after each of them had consumed one or two double martinis. Whatever the reason, the alcohol only magnified the dissatisfaction that already existed and closed all exits but one.
I understand my parents. And I sympathize. I find parallels in my thirties when the stress of family life with two small children was overwhelming and I felt inadequate at work. On the way home alone in my car, I’d argue with Rachel over something inconsequential that I’d blown out of proportion – an offhand remark, an annoying request, an expectation that seemed unreasonable. I look back at this tendency to argue with myself, finding it disturbing, but acknowledging it was a way to relieve the stress of parenting and fight against hopelessness. I inherited my mother’s streak of stubbornness and pervasive disillusionment, and my father’s sense of being cheated out of the way he wanted to live his life. It was self-defeating, but it was a fight against an inescapable and pervasive depression with my existence that was all too real at the time.
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