Widows’ Walks: 1

In Nantucket, Uncategorized on November 6, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Photograph of lobster traps, Nova Scotia.

My MFA program requires a “creative thesis.” The thesis must be a book-length manuscript of my own design, in this case an essay collection called Ruins. The essays concern my “encounters” with historical places and events. In workshops, my peers have fervently opposed the inclusion of some essays, for various reasons. In forthcoming days, I will present these rejected excerpts on The Ark as “B-Sides.” The first: “Widow’s Walks.”

“See that?” Mr. Kaplan points to the roof of a house. I follow his index finger to a porch. But the porch isn’t attached to the first-floor; it balances on the roof. The floorboards and balustrade are painted white, and it wedges between two slate slopes, high above the cobblestone street. “That’s called a widow’s walk,” Mr. Kaplan explains. “They built them so that wives could watch their husbands go out to sea. And then they waited for the ships to return. But the sad thing is, sometimes they didn’t.”

My fifth grade class stands on the sidewalk. We fidget and bumble – we’re tired of all this walking, and we just want to go back to the Sherburne Inn, which is supposed to be haunted. We’ve spent the day trudging through museums, passing display cases of harpoons and scrimshaw thimbles. We’ve glanced at more yellowed newspapers and etchings than we’ll need to see in a lifetime. Most of us have already purchased our fisherman’s caps, our nautical maps, our coffee mugs that read i ♥ nantucket. We’re full up on museums and souvenirs, and we’re hungry. And now Mr. Kaplan has to stop and point again. Jeezum Crow, it’s a porch. Who cares?

But as our parent-chaperones usher us along, snapping pictures and chatting amongst themselves, I think about the widow’s walk. I think about it that night when we eat chowder at a fancy pub and sleep on lumpy mattresses. When we bike out to the lighthouses, and the wind whips us from all sides, I flash to the widow’s walk, because these are the waves that seduced so many sailors, and sometimes kept them for good. We ride the ferry back to Cape Cod, through the drizzle and crush of waves, and long past fifth grade – for years and decades – I flash to the widow’s walk, and wonder who stood there, gazing at the sea.

If you grow up in New England, you learn about whaling. This is taught without judgment. The world needed oil, and sperm whales had blubber to spare. Yes, the whalers nearly slaughtered whales to extinction; entire species disappeared in a half-century; but the lifestyle wasn’t glamorous, and none of these men grew rich. They were tough, tattooed, hailed from all over the world. They drank heartily and chased after floozies. Months and years passed, and when they returned home – if they returned, if they had a home – hardly anyone recognized their gaunt, bearded faces. Even after its invention, photography was rare. Men who took to the sea were often forgotten. Pity the whales, we learned, but also the ghostly souls who chased them.

We learned all about whaling ships, harpoons, open-boats, and the much beloved “Nantucket sleigh ride” – the act of a speared whale pulling a row-boat by hemp lines, until the animal became too exhausted and a harpooner dealt his killing blow. Even though I lived in landlocked Vermont, a land of loggers and dairy farmers, whaling was a part of New England pride. It was grisly and insane, but also adventurous, romantic. In the damp northeast, Nantucket is a magical island, where rusty hooks and rotting piers make tourists giddy. Of all New England’s images, visitors most love the yellow rain-jackets, the piles of lobster-traps, the mariner’s detritus.


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