New York Times best-selling author Laura Munson (This Is Not The Story You Think It Is...A Season of Unlikely Happiness) has opened up her page to guest bloggers this month for her Haven Writing Series. I am honored that she kicked off the series, whose theme is Long Ago: Community, with my piece The Salwater Cure. You may read it here or click on the link below. I hope you enjoy it! --Mary
“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.”
–Anne Morrow Lindbergh
My mother grew up in a town by the sea. Her mother did as well. The women who came before them were mostly born and buried in Ireland, surrounded by the sea—except for a few who managed to escape the poor and inhospitable place in the 1880s. Born in Ballyvourney, or Baile Bhuirne in Gaelic, meaning “Town of the Beloved,” my great grandmother Nora crossed the Atlantic to the port of Boston on the SS Pavonia when she was 17 years old. Just a few years prior, my other great grandmother, Katherine, had arrived via the SS Samaria at the tender age of 15 from the County Limerick town of Abbeyfeale. Years later when her children began to pool their funds so they could send her back for a visit, Katherine told them not to bother, that she certainly had no intention of returning, however briefly. Her aversion to Ireland surely was fed by bitter recollections of famine, hardship and death in a land that later would be romanticized, idealized even, by my mother’s generation and my own.
I think about their blood—Nora’s and Katherine’s—running through my own. Even more so, I think of the sea, the punishing Atlantic that carried them humbly in steerage class to Boston, where they’d meet their mates (also from Ireland) and launch our family’s journey in America. Were they cold? Racked with seasickness? Were they frightened? Alone? I like to imagine there were shipboard romances, but I suspect there were not.
The sea was releasing them from somewhere as much as drawing them toward anyplace else. And so it is for me when I stand barefoot on the shore. Just as I have idealized my ancestors’ birthplace, so have I affixed some grand and majestic qualities to the sea. I wouldn’t be the first though, would I? How dare I, really, when others—Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Rumi, the Psalmist—have said pretty much all there is to say? And yet I do stand there feeling not only a connection to these women who came across—women I have never met in life, but perchance in spirit once before or, hopefully, in the future—but I am bonded to the ocean. Is it because of them I feel most at home by the sea? Or is it the sea that ties me to these women?
Their sea allowed them to escape. I doubt they looked upon the Atlantic—from either shore—as anything more than utilitarian, a place for men to fish or go off to war and, for Nora and Katherine, a means to an end, a way to get from there to here.
My life is not their life. I have never sent a man off to sea, or relied on it for my livelihood. When I flee it is by choice, running toward happiness and not, very often, from misery. My sea is my escape. I don’t have to board a steamship or slip into a kayak to be lost in it, although I do love to get my feet wet. Always have, and that must be innate. Unlike my mother and my grandmother, I was not raised in a town by the sea, unless you count Lake Michigan, which some call the “inland sea.” I don’t count it, though, because it is not salty and the preservative nature of salt somehow seems essential to my connection with the ocean.
Isak Dinesen, the Danish author best known for Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast, once wrote, “The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea.” It’s been a mantra of mine for many years now, as appropriate in the Pacific as it is in the Atlantic. In the four corners of this country and on foreign shores, I can count on the steady, healing presence of the ocean whether its mood is angry or light, its countenance threatening or playful, its color Caribbean blue or a steely New Hampshire gray. She’s a faithful friend, the sea. She listens and soothes. She reminds me of the relative smallness of my problems and nothing else seems as monumental or important as I tend to make it before I ground myself on her shore.
In 1905, my father’s father crossed to New York at age 18 to escape Northern Ireland, eloping with an older neighbor girl against his mother’s wishes. Five years later, he would return briefly to County Tyrone, a widower entrusting his four-year-old daughter Rose to the care of his sister in the family homestead. Charles returned to New York where he married my grandmother and had four more children, including my dad, who was the youngest. More than my grandmother or my father’s other siblings, it’s his half-sister Rose who’s forever lodged in my heart. All I know of her I’ve learned in the twelve years since my father’s death, from genealogy research and conversations with long lost family–still living on the homestead–in Tyrone, and Rose’s granddaughter, Marie, in New Jersey, the cousin I never knew I had.
I have nearly wept at Rose’s abandonment by my grandfather, a man I never knew and of whom my father rarely spoke. I’ve decided, perhaps unfairly, that he must have been another of Ireland’s angry, mean drunks, remote and authoritarian, harsh with his children. But what do I know of his pain for losing his first love? Still, it is Rose’s pain that resonates within me. What was it like, that voyage from New York to the port of Londonderry? In steerage, of course. They departed less than two months after Rose’s mother died. Was my grandfather loving and protective of her? Or was he off drinking with the men, anesthetizing his grief, leaving his daughter in the care of unfamiliar women? Did she have any idea her father was about to walk out of her life for the next fifteen years? That when she returned to New York as a young woman of 19, her father would have four more children with a new wife, including my dad, the youngest, at three years old? Whenever I picture Rose, I see her standing on the deck of that ship, tiny and alone, and I always wonder if she had a warm enough coat.
I never met Rose. I’ve never met her granddaughter, my cousin Marie, in person, although we’ve corresponded since we found each other several years ago. We share blood and history and, naturally, our love of the sea. It wouldn’t surprise me if Rose wasn’t too crazy about the sea, considering it separated her from her father for most of her life, but I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Marie about that.
I don’t recall my grandmother ever coming to the beach with us, as near as it was to her home. She was fair, redheaded and freckled and perhaps knew better than to subject herself to the sun. My mom has always loved being near the water; even on the water in a sizable boat was okay. But she’s never been comfortable in the water since she was caught in the undertow, nearly drowning at Plum Island, when she was three years old. You can bet I’ve carried that bit of trauma within my mother-self, always cautious with my kids at the shore.
More than six decades after my mom nearly drowned, our family gathered at Plum Island to fling my dad’s ashes into the sea—the same sea that once delivered our forebears to this shore, now somehow uniting for eternity ash and blood and sea water. I close my eyes and recall the salty spray of the Atlantic that day and imagine sweat and tears and sea. I wonder how many tears have been shed over the comings and goings of the sea. I picture Nora, Katherine, Rose—and me. I marvel that, through the sea, I am inextricably tied, like the most expert sailing knot, to these unmet, beloved women and I am in awe. Within that awe lies the truth: You can’t have a love affair with the sea without having the requisite amount of respect for its cataclysmic capabilities. You can’t see only its power to heal without knowing its authority to destroy. Therein is the reminder of its magnificent ability to give and to take. And that even after its most turbulent seizures the sea returns to a semblance of calm, leaving little treasures for us to pick up from the sand.