There is much to be heard in the silence between a father and his daughter.
The year I was twelve my father bought a boat. It was a twenty-foot speedboat with an outboard motor and we kept it at Great Kills Marina in Staten Island. It was blue and white and had seating for ten passengers, with skinny vinyl seat cushions that did not sufficiently protect ones bottom on a choppy ride. It was a modest little boat but large in our lives. Daddy took my brothers for boating lessons; they learned all about nautical knots, buoys, driving, and how to pull into the dock without wrecking the boat. My age, and I guess my gender, kept me from taking lessons too.
Coincidentally, it was the same year Jaws was in theatres. I remember one instance where I looked down and my heart stopped when I thought a shark was following us. (It turned out to be the shadow of the boat’s awning on the water.) A greater danger turned out to be the wind, which would tie my long hair in inextricable knots and coat us, boat and all, with sea salt by day’s end.
My father took us on day-long excursions that included faraway (Jersey) shores, the coastline along Far Rockaway, and Coney Island, the beach of his and my mother’s youth.
All the cousins and some friends and neighbors came along for rides that summer. Kids on the block would vie for my attention in new ways and I enjoyed the bump in status the boat gave me. The boat was a unique source of pleasure and pride for my hard-working father, who had grown up without many luxuries in life.
We didn’t speak about anything special and really couldn’t anyway, for the wind. But then my father and I never had long conversations.
One afternoon he picked me up from school and took me down to the dock. It was the end of September and I kept my sweater on against the chill. I don’t know where my mother and the boys were. It was just Daddy and I, a rare treat.
We set out about three, the sun already waning. He pointed the boat south, down along the Staten Island coast towards Princess Bay. We didn’t speak about anything special and really couldn’t anyway, for the wind. But then my father and I never had long conversations. We were joined in our enjoyment of the boat and in the freedom of having no particular agenda.
At some point I asked if I could sit up front, perched on the bow. He said yes; as long as I kept my lifejacket on, held on tightly and promised not to tell my mother. I scooted up to the front and sat with my legs stretched out, my bare feet and the blue water before me.
He started out slowly but upped the throttle bit by bit, just enough for the bow to tip up slightly and make for an exciting ride. He cruised like that for a good twenty minutes and it was an extraordinary feeling; to be so anchored and so free all at once. I couldn’t see my father’s face and he couldn’t see mine – but I was smiling and laughing all the way.
As we came closer to the end of the island he cut our speed until it was safe for me to move again and he called me back into the boat. I think he let me steer for a while. We drove back to the dock in silence.
In many ways the ‘summer of the boat’ was the last time my family was carefree, and together. Like the hard salt that stuck to the hull, the realities of life wore away at my parent’s marriage. By the time I’d finished high school they were separated, the boat put up for sale.
But that day we had no worries.
I knew my father was letting me do something forbidden and dangerous but I trusted him, and what’s more, he trusted me. In doing so, he taught me to trust myself. To sit up front. To work hard and then to play hard, to open the throttle and enjoy the ride.
That trust in him, and in myself, has survived, although I had to search for both more than once through the years. He retired to Florida a few years ago but we talk by phone, often. Our conversations have not gotten longer, but any distance between us has shrunk.
We hear each other loud and clear.
— I love you too, Daddy. Happy Father’s Day.
Photo: Flickr gobucks2