Thursday, March 24, 2011


My brother finished his bathroom, and his upstairs master bedroom. It took him a long time, but he did it, and we all congratulated him because it was a work of art. The specter of an unfinished boat drove him, no doubt. When I first saw that bedroom, I was struck by the fact that it looked like a boat.

We don't always get things right in our family, but we get them done—by God! My father breathed moral fiber into us, like wind in a sail, like the wind in these poplars I'm walking beside, whose scent I inhale and say: Thanks, Dad. At least you tried to build a boat.

The Endless Immensity of the Sea

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." --Antoine de Saint Exupéry

My father launched much more than a boat in my life. Imagination, for one thing, and we all know where that can lead: a wilderness even the Paynes wouldn't dream of fencing in. I even listen to opera now, and invite foreigners over on a regular basis. "Everything in moderation,” my father always said, but this is what I heard: eat, drink, and build boats. Plant poplar trees, have six children, and make friends with people from Estonia. Persevere, and when necessary, let go. People are more important than boats.

A Death in the Family

The day the boat left was a grievous day. It was a symbolic shipwreck, the day my father faced the reality that some dreams go unfulfilled. We stood around the backyard and ached while it was towed away. No one said a word. That boat had been with us since before some of my brothers and sister were born. His family couldn't manage anymore without him, nor could his house, but he couldn't manage without his boat. It was perhaps the day he started to drink more; the day part of his soul died.

I wish my father could have finished his boat, and I wish he could have sailed it. But he didn't have to finish it to prove his moral fiber to me, because he did that long before the boat left our yard. The day it left, we understood what he didn’t say: we were worth more than his dream. We would have done anything to help him get it back.

The Choice

My father never finished anything he started, my brother always said, worrying that, like our father, he would never finish anything either. It is a psychological scar he still bears from childhood.

For example, a second bathroom never got finished in the new house, just like a second bathroom never got finished in our old house. The toilet was functional, which saved considerable conflict in a family already sufficiently conflicted. But we could have used a second shower: now we were nine, including three teenagers and a grandmother, and this represented serious bathroom conflict.

I don't remember that my father didn't finish things. He had to sell that boat for the money. Life gave him a choice one day: he could have the house or he could have the boat. To help him make the choice, it took away his job. He almost lost the house, he almost lost his mind, and he did lose the boat. Then life left him alone for a while.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"When is it going to be finished?"

There were no poplars in our new yard. Just familiar maples, and some varieties we had never seen before: a cherry tree, a tulip tree, and a Japanese maple. By now we were used to foreigners, so foreign trees didn't bother us. Life took on a reassuring rhythm. Heino came to visit us, and I hoped he had forgotten about the war.

The new house needed plenty of work, and plenty of money, as did the boat. We were growing into impressionable adolescents, and my father's commitment to his boat, his perseverance (we didn't know about obsessions yet), infected and inspired us. We began to study his boat plans with him. That first winter he heated up the carriage house and strung lights up to put fiberglass on the hull. When the fiberglass went on, we began to think about possibly even sailing in this boat, and hoped it could happen before we went off to college.

Maybe my father chose to build a boat because it would take years to finish and that way no one could ever say, "See?" Perhaps he deliberately chose to tackle something he couldn't finish, lest in the finishing he betray his own father. Because his own father didn't finish raising him, but died suddenly when my father was twelve. Maybe that's why my father tried to build a boat. He had no one to tell him it was too big a job for him, like no one told him he couldn't be the man of the family at twelve.

We would ask impatiently, "When is it going to be finished?" and he would respond patiently, "It takes time to build a boat.”

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Moving Day

Then the Crosses moved, we moved and the boat came off its struts and moved with us. Now we knew that our father meant business, meant to finish this boat, and something stabilized in me. The boat had languished the last few years under the poplars, while my father and his Estonian friend looked grave and talked about something called a layoff, which I didn't understand but which made my stomach queasy. But by taking the boat with us, my father confirmed that he intended to finish it By God! (as he was fond of saying). My stomach relaxed.

Our new house had what my father called a carriage house. He tore out a horse stall in that carriage house and installed the boat in its place, so he could work on it through the winter. Now we all had our own rooms, the boat had a stable, and there were no weird neighbors next door listening to opera. My father began renovating the new house, and we learned how to tear off wallpaper, strip woodwork and use staple guns. My father thought he could renovate his dream house, build a boat and raise six children. We didn't think this was odd, and no one asked my mother. I guess that's why now I always do too much. My father set a blistering pace, and we all ran after him.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Man from Estonia

My father also made friends with foreigners: a Dutch man, a Japanese family and a man from Estonia, whose name was Heino. No one else knew anyone with a name like that. One day my father brought his Estonian friend home to visit. We struggled to understand his Estonian accent, and wondered how it came to be that my father brought a man from Estonia to see the boat and eat at our house. No one else's father had a friend from Estonia. No one else knew where Estonia was or why this man wore black turtlenecks all the time. But then we went to his house, and art studio, and his artwork was like nothing we had ever seen before, and we instantly approved. He and my father worked together in New York City, the mother lode of anomalies, so we knew we were flirting with a serious one now. Heino told terrible stories of life in Estonia during World War II, and I worried that those who had once been looking for him in Europe might find him one day at our house. I hoped I wouldn't be home that day, and I hoped they wouldn't arrest my father with him.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Payne family lived next door, and Mr. Payne often came over to watch my father working on his boat. He would also lend a tool or bit of advice, and chuckle at my father's pluck, like someone who knows he'll never build a boat, but sure admires the guy doing it. My parents befriended the Paynes, which troubled me. For one thing, Mrs. Payne listened to opera. And they had a fence in the middle of their backyard. Behind this fence, they let their property grow wild, another neighborhood anomaly. I worried that their wilderness would sneak over into our backyard when we weren't looking and flirt with our poplars and upside-down boat. Baby anomalies would be born and unpredictable forces unleashed.

I needn't have worried. The Paynes moved away, to be replaced by the Cross family, which cut down the wilderness and added children to itself with the same regularity as did my family. This conveniently lined up playmates for each of us, and we all got along famously. Mr. Cross was a mechanical genius, demonstrated by the fact that he owned a French car, which he could start with a screwdriver. He showed us the engine in the trunk of the car, and the piece of plywood he had built in between the front and back seats. This kept children from falling off the backseat in the days before seatbelts, and we thought this was way cool. We begged him to take us for a ride in it, even though it was an anomaly. He piled us all in and we rolled around that piece of plywood like bowling balls and bowling pins.

Mr. Cross' particular genius with engines, and the fact that he loved airplanes as much as my father, sparked a lasting friendship between them. A kindred spirit had moved into the neighborhood. My father's vision for the boat expanded, fueled by Mr. Cross' technical knowledge, which now invested itself into nautical transportation. My father peppered Mr. Cross with questions, and their heady collaboration produced a great deal of energy, which they funneled into the boat. Ribs went into place, and a hull covered the ribs. Our cat took to sleeping under its shade. Peggy Cross and I danced under that hull¬-tent in the shadow of the poplars and held tea parties on its struts.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Lew's Ark

Soon the whole neighborhood heard about the boat, and neighbors began coming over to see "Lew 's Ark"--as it was dubbed. We could have sold tickets.

I don't know how many believed my father would actually finish the boat. The general feeling-in the family and in the neighborhood-was not so much that my father was building a boat, but that he wouldn't finish something he started, and why start something so difficult to finish as a boat?

I wanted my father to finish the boat. His character and our reputation were at stake. I knew, as did everyone in the family and the neighborhood, that one shouldn't start projects one couldn't finish. Moral fiber hung in the balance. I wanted visible proof that his moral fiber would not be found wanting, to show the neighborhood, and myself. A boat would do it.