When we were young, John and I went to the old folks’ home—the nursing home, the skilled nursing facility, whatever you want to call it—and there was an old woman clawing the air and yelling, I’m hungry, I’m tired, there used to be a doorway here, and we went to visit Gaffo, my grandfather, my dad’s father, John’s step-grandfather, if that’s actually a thing, I mean, it is, and I know this, because John’s grandfather, who we always called Grampa Jones even though his last name wasn’t really “Jones,” we just liked to call him that, and sometimes John would say a lame-ass rhyme, Grampa Jones, you sure got nice bones, and Grampa would chuckle like older folks do at youngsters while we were basically ROTFLOAO before that was a thing, texting acronyms, or even texting, for that matter; anyway, Grampa Jones was my step-grandfather back when John’s mom and my dad were married, and even after they divorced when we were in our twenties, even then, John was still my brother and Grampa was still my Grampa, I mean, whatever on the “step” part, it’s stupid and awkward and even now, three decades later, long after Gaffo died, long after Grampa died, John is still my brother and I know this because beyond family summer vacations at the lake house with John, his wife and my two nieces, who are, technically, my step-nieces, but at this point, who cares, and are now the age we were when our parents divorced; beyond the occasional snarky texts we send each other, like, often, or the Thanksgiving FaceTime calls (is that redundant? FaceTime calls? like when people say “your PIN number” and I cringe but don’t correct them, I’ll leave that to Dad, but wait…Dad’s gone, I keep forgetting this); beyond all that, John was there for me, my brother, he was there for me, he flew all day from Memphis to Maine to the nursing home where we spent the last week of Dad’s life at Dad’s side and this time no one was yelling about doorways, just the hiss of Dad’s oxygen tank surrounding our sorrow, and again, in case the extended blended family tree is just too much to deal with—like when I get the eyerolls or frowns or puzzled looks from friends who didn’t know me then, or are from families that never divorced, or whose listening skills are not one hundred, or all of the above—here is the Cliff’s Notes version of my life: my dad married John’s mom when we were young and he will always be our dad even though he’s gone and for that I love my brother.
when a foreword is the last word
My father passed away last week and I’m struggling with finding the right words for his obituary. The Foreword I wrote for Grateful Ned, his 2018 autobiography, is a far less morbid way to memorialize his life.
For me, his soul will always reside in the present tense.
My father is an explorer. For much of his life, he explored the secrets of the sea, as described in the first book he wrote, fittingly titled Exploring the Ocean Depths. His adventurous career in oceanography took our family from Boston to the gulf shores of Texas; then Miami, San Diego and finally, a return to the Maine island where he and my mother had first met.
I grew up on that island, attended the tiny three-room schoolhouse, joined the Campfire Girls and romped through the five acres of woods that was our backyard. Together, my father and I built a treehouse in the apple orchard behind the house.
We were the odd family from “away:” two intellectuals and their only child. My mother, a talented graphic artist, freelanced from home and my father, a marine scientist, had previously worked with Jacques Cousteau and traveled the globe. My parents divorced when I was eleven and I began a twenty-five-year spiral into alcoholism–a life of half measures and wanderlust, unfulfilled careers and relationships. Sobriety has brought me on a long journey of self-exploration, much like the soul quest my father has written about in this memoir.
Childhood memories were hazy and entire decades blurred, so I asked my father to help me piece things together, to tell me his story. We decided it would be a team writing project. I bought us each a workbook on writing a family history, complete with prompts, exercises and sample timelines. We planned writing workshops during our upcoming vacation to Alaska to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday.
But like most things, my father chose to do it his way and the memoir workbook grew dusty on the shelf. “I decided to start on my own,” he writes. “I chose to tell my tale on the ubiquitous yellow legal pad.” Dozens of legal pads later, he painstakingly transcribed his near-illegible penmanship, writing what would become his third book.
His life is an endless adventure from the depths of the sea to the vast world beyond. He’s explored the nation, piloting our family across the country in our 1957 Mercedes Benz, and he’s seen the world through the lens of the windshield of a Greyhound bus. He’s traveled on ships and trains and airplanes to Europe and Scotland, South Africa and South America, Mexico and most recently, on the Trans-Canadian railway through each of that country’s provinces.
Yet, as I read his story, I find that in his perpetual pursuit to live a unique life, we are one. Similar passions flow through our veins like the blood that links us as father and daughter. We share a desire for travel and road trips. A mutual delight in telling stories. A passion for writing. An insatiable thirst for reading. The conscious choice to take the road less traveled.
And even now, well into his eighties and living contentedly on an island off the coast of Maine, through its brutal nine-month winters and long summer days filled with sailing and ice cream sundaes, my father continues to explore. As he delves further into his past, he enters a new world of self-discovery, sharing it with us through the portal of this book. Today, his business cards brand him “EXPLORER.” His sight may grow dim, and his energy level wane, but my father will never stop exploring.
And for this, I am grateful.