We’d wake in the dark part of morning when it was still cold and would be for the next few hours. I’d hear the sound of my father loading the hard plastic buckets with rods, nets and the big rake. It was steel blue and vicious looking, this contraption that my father would lower into the floor of the ocean to haul up a metal, Neptune-sized fistful of quahogs. I could never get over the size of either of them; the ocean, the shellfish, the rake or my dad. Narragansett Bay isn’t actually all that big, but to me it went on forever. My body didn’t like the early morning. My mother would rush our heads under sweatshirts, help us quickly tie back our nests of hair into ponytails and usher us into bathing suits under sweatpants and sneakers. My dad would finish gearing up the boat, compulsively checking the ball hitch while my mother loaded the mighty yellow cooler with sandwiches, cheese doodles, fruit and water. The ancient, pea green blanket with the silky edge found its way into the tote bag full of towels, sunblock, bathing suits and a change of underwear for each of us.
On the drive he’d chatter in sexual innuendos to other musky voices on the CB radio. I’d distract myself with thoughts of the heavy salt smell, colors of the sunrise, the pounding of the waves against the boat and my chest and what I’d hope to find in the tide-pools on the shores of Patience Island. We were the only people I knew to ever bring live sea creatures into the projects. Neighbors liked the sealife in buckets and the food we shared, but especially fun were the live starfish, which would eventually die and get dried out on a windowsill. I tried keeping mussels alive in the bathroom sink. I thought maybe we could be friends and that if I looked over them kindly they’d come easily out of their shells. I would whisper into the sink promises not to eat them. To no avail. Some things die outside their natural habitat. Mussels and starfish don’t belong in sinks and buckets or apartments where people yelled and fought. I wondered where I belonged.
Our boat was no big deal. My father would sometimes look at clouds in the distance while concern forged lines in his forehead. ‘We have no business being out here if those clouds come any closer.’ We only really ‘got stuck’ once. That was the day we learned just how fast our ocean vessel could go. My baby brother puked and our beagle shook under the bow. I loved the mixture of speed, sea spray that felt like needles in my cheeks and getting to watch my father outfox nature and impending doom. It made me believe you didn’t always need the best or right tools for every thing you do or try in life. You just have to be aware, persistent and quick. He rarely panicked. Actually, I’ve never seen him panic; scream, howl, cry and act. If a need arose, he hunted it.
There was a little girl who lived down the street. Her face was always sewn into a permanent scowl. She ripped all the heads off her naked Barbies. It was summer and my mom had ordered pizza. She and my dad were upstairs eating on the couch covered in the red satin sheet. Bottles of beer and a roach clip sat on the lobster trap coffee table. A box fan droned in the window. I went to a sunny stoop to eat my slice when the scowler came out of nowhere, choked my throat, poked my eyes and took my food. I went upstairs with a red face and somehow the story got told. In a minute my parents were heading up the street to a man named Frank’s house. He ran illegal gambling out of his basement. I think the scowler was his granddaughter. (Before we moved away we saw him firebomb his own building to escape noise about charges.) My parent’s confronted him while I stood behind them holding the fray of my dad’s cut-offs. I was five. This erupted into a brawl. People from inside Frank’s house came out to join and our crew, which included our downstairs neighbors and their kids (Sara and Jenny, two sisters who only ate Twinkies, Spam and sometimes Shake N Bake, which my mom said we didn’t need because we could make our own breadcrumbs and mostly we never ate chicken anyway. One sister was short and chubby with very curly blonde curls. The other sister was wiry and tall with wilted yellow, strands. They had blueish face skin and sometimes took their baths in puddles in the driveway with dishsoap when it rained. I always wanted to join but my mother absolutely forbid it. I wondered how they were shaped so different when they both ate the same food.) All of us were now inside our unit hallway. The door with the plate glass window protected us briefly as the four adults including Sara and Jenny’s big mom who yelled louder than any man from behind us. She was like an industrial machine with thick, black curls. I never remember her having eyes. My parents were on the steps just above me and all the other kids piled under their eight arms which were all pounding the air and yelling at Frank and his tribe who were defending the scowler for her food-taking. The door was thundering and shaking. I looked up and saw Frank’s hairy arm punch through the glass window, grab my mother’s arm to try and pull her off the steps and through the door. Slivers of shattered glass pierced up alongside her veins which I could see through her skin. Blood trickled out in perfect droplets. My father’s arms reached out over her head grabbing fistfuls of someone’s hair through the window and punching, punching, punching the head while shining glass bits sprinkled over us. The window of the door had red, ruffled curtains with tiny yellow flowers which were now a bit crooked.
After I remember my parents talking about how much a doctor costs and watched my father using tweezers to gently pull glass strands from inside my mother’s forearm. The face he made while he did this was the same as his fishing and hunting face. Threading the needle, sewing the stitch, scraping the fur from the hide, slicing the skin into strips, gutting the fowl, scaling the fish, wrapping the eel heads on the deck of the boardwalk and looking deep beneath the water to find the next haul.
It was serious work, my mother would tell us about our father’s quahogging. We could stay on the boat with him for rod fishing but when it was time for him to rake he’d drop us off on the island to shellfish the mud flats, pick wild blueberries, explore tide-pools, swim, play and laugh. It made his raking all the more mysterious because I never got to see it, but always saw the buckets overflowing with massive, peeing shells. Shellfish are alive! They walk, make sounds, move and leak. I loved clamming with my mom and digging the wet sand with my bare hands. I loved the scraping sound of pulling back the composted shell-slush, looking for the breathing holes in the warm shallows. We were once diligently scraping the same deep trench when suddenly a 3 foot long ruffled pasta noodle with red threads and eyes shot up into the sky past our heads and plunged right back down into the same hole. We jumped higher than the creature and shook from our brush with an absolute unknown. The island was a place where curiosity and exploration were both the culture and the language. Who do you think left that here? Where did this come from? How was this island formed? Where does the ocean go to from here? Where is that glacier now? What is this? What is that? Where does this path go? I wonder what that feels like, tastes like, smells, does, lives, breathes, how? Yes. Ahhhhhhhhhhh. Wow. It’s incredible what you can discover when you slow down. In my mind, Patience is still this golden sanctuary of light, life and ease.
I remember waiting through a morning in the duck blind and not wanting to tell him I’d lost feeling in my toes. We’d spent so much time prepping the night before and practice shooting at Meme’s over the weekend and in the woods that summer. He said I was good and ready. Our black lab had frost on his muzzle but fixed his gaze eagerly across the marsh. Both he and my father were immovable in their resolve to come home with something so I sipped the coffee, crunched cold Milkbones and waited. Something must’ve read in my face because at one point, past what would have been sunrise had there been sun that day my father asked if I was cold. I shrugged.He put down the riffle and yanked off a boot. He scooped me up and had me in the front seat of the truck blasting the heater over my frozen toes, scolding me for not Saying anything. I’d wanted to model his patience for the ducks, even though I’d prayed all morning for them to stay sleeping.
Both my parents had full time jobs in addition to fishing. They also made macrame plant holders on the couch, side by side at night for a company called New England Pottery. The pieces came in 4 foot yellow plastic barrels which my siblings and I built into forts in the front room before it had a bedroom set. They stacked all the way to ceiling. Waiting for ‘enough’ to be handed to them was not how my parents operated. Complaining about lack was also not an option. When the hot water wouldn’t come my mother boiled it on the stove in lobster pots and we shared. When a housing situation needed adjusting we let go of pets, attachments and moved. I had a recurring dream for years of running after my mother with a half packed box which I’d eventually abandon in the street in order to speed up and not get left behind. My father would point out the cycle of failure in the projects, people leaving only to come back. He called condominiums upscale projects that only did one thing “cover your head”.
The harvest is in your hands, he said. It meant thinking ahead and planting seeds in Meme’s back yard after she met sweet Uncle Bee and moved off Social Street to the house behind the cemetery, which has fruit trees and wild blackberries. We planted it as a family when I was maybe 7. My father’s lived in the house for over 25 years now and that little plot is still providing. Consistency. You say ok, no one’s going to do this for me, the work and the rewards are mine to seek, the storm is mine to weather. Like the New England nursery rhyme for remembering the islands in the harbor, Patience, Prudence, Hope and Despair and little Hog Island way over there. With patience and prudence comes hope to outweigh whatever despair you perceive; the hog way over there is the plenty which is coming if you keep rowing, or raking towards it. Settlers knew that if they patiently planned and persevered with consistent action through the adversity, the discomfort, the labor, there would be reward for the effort. I could not always articulate this but I knew what the poem meant because we’d been living it.