Stories Told In The Darkest Days of Winter

A clipper ship, not unlike my grandfather’s, navigates a storm at sea. (Currier & Ives, courtesy Library of Congress)

It’s New Year’s Day and I’m shucking half a dozen of my Christmas oysters, sent this Covid-time by my son and his wife in Portland, Maine. They were too far away to make it here safely for Christmas, so the oysters were meant to fill in. Feeling very lucky, I suck down one silky oyster after another, sweet, cold and briny, and follow each with a slug of iced vodka.

Jonathan Swift remarked, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” I’ll bet it was a woman; oysters just lie there waiting to be gathered. Their defense is holding tight, but they’re not hard to pry open with the right knife. The way our minds turn often in the same groove, as I pry, I think of my father, whose earliest memory was of sitting beside his father on the cellar stairs, his father shucking and eating oysters and occasionally giving one to the boy. They were kept cool down cellar in a small barrel. Dad must have been too young, or too overawed by his father, for the ick factor to spoil their companionable sharing. By the time Dad was 4 ½, polio had struck and they say my grandfather could no longer touch his eldest son, his namesake. Grandfather believed the Bible: the sins of the father had been visited upon the son.

Suddenly I remember that on Christmas Day my brother, Paul, sent an email about Grandpa Randall. We were taught to call the absent man Grandpa, but we never knew him. He was an old man in his seventies when he sat on those stairs with his son. Our grandmother was his 4th wife, the others having died in childbirth or of the kinds of diseases that killed people before penicillin. Known in his world as Captain Randall, he died in his eighties when Dad was eight years old.

In the email, ignored in the rush of Christmas morning, Paul tells how he’s been reading one of Grandpa’s ship’s logs that had been saved and passed down. In the log, Paul deciphers his worry about finding a good crew. While at sea, he misses his wife Florence, but once at home, longs for the sea. Paul and I laugh about that seesawing of desire, how we miss the hullabaloo of family right now, but are like cats with their fur rubbed the wrong way after prolonged holiday exposure, too many sweets, and booze. Captain Randall had little hullabaloo then; he wasn’t blessed with four children until his seventies.

But Paul is interested in that concern about crew for a reason. He thinks it might shed a light on a terrible tragedy. Earlier in his life, Captain Randall hired his younger brother Austin, promising his mother to look out for the boy. Rounding Cape Horn on a run to  the west coast, a huge storm sprang up. Austin had scrambled up the mast to help down another sailor who was frozen in place during a desperate effort to reef sail. The ship lurched, there was a cry, a hurtling shape “flew from the yardarm and quickly passed astern,” Paul wrote me. The last Grandpa saw of his brother was his arm waving goodbye amidst those roiling seas. “Not waving, but drowning,” I think, now that I am old myself.

Prying at the story now, Paul wonders if the other sailor had been a greenhorn who froze in panic? One of those not very good crew members Grandpa worried about in his log? Or, as often happened, were his hands literally frozen to the shrouds by icy spray? And Austin–how long was his fall, how wild his cry in the fierce wind?

When we were children, we wanted a lifeboat. We didn’t understand that more men would have been risked, and in vain in those mountainous, freezing waves. We didn’t understand that a large sailing ship cannot simply stop and turn around on Cape Horn.

These strange, wild stories that are told and retold and parsed again in families—prying open half a dozen oysters can bring them back as we seek the meat of the story, what really happened, how a man whose ship’s logs were mostly a dull running tally of expenditures and weather, how did he feel that terrible cold day? How did it change him, and my father, and all of us? We keep our stories close, and they are never far from us, especially in the darkest days of the year—of a pandemic year—when our thoughts as naturally turn to death as to the well-loved living.

Captain Randall’s ship log from 1877. (Courtesy Paul Randall)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.