This essay was written by the exhibit curator, Diana Lempel, for the Working Waterfront Festival’s program. Her research in the festival’s Narrative Stage collection has been supported by a Scholar in Residence grant from Mass Humanities.
In December, during a lull in between family dinners and holiday shopping, I picked up the December issue of Commercial Fisheries News. Four pages in, I read that 46-year-old David Oakes of Thomaston, ME had been taking his aging wooden boat, the Terra Nova, from Gloucester to Maine, when she started to take on water. He and his son-in-law, who was crewing, had had to put on survival suits and abandon ship. By the time the Coast Guard helicopter had brought “Oaksey” to Mass General, he had died. “Two days later,” the article read, the son-in-law “told the Bangor Daily News that his father-in-law had saved his life, pushing him over the side and clear of the vessel as it began to sink.” His obituary said that he had “died doing what he loved.”
That really struck me. I imagined the son-in-law, delivering the news to his wife, who had just lost her father. Maybe it warmed her to know that he had died saving her husband. Had she and her mother worried about this father-son trip? Had they worried every time Oakes, who was a commercial fisherman, went out?
Every month, the “along the coast” section of CFN tells these short, straightforward stories about a life lost or rescued, about bereft new widows or deep sighs of relief. These stories don’t make it into the national news. If I hadn’t picked up that CFN, in the middle of my family holidays where there is never a question of who will be home and who will be safe, I never would have gotten the sense of how fishing families live with these stories, every day of the year.
I’ve been thinking about Oakesey and his family as I listen to the recordings from the Narrative Stage during the early years of the Working Waterfront Festival. I’ve been thinking about the quiet sacrifice that fishing families make every day. As I listen I realize that the sacrifices aren’t just a fear of loss that few other families ever have to shoulder. There are little sacrifices, too, like missing birthdays and holidays, like not being able to read bedtime stories or gripe about your day at work, like having to ignore the little things so that all the time you spend together – which never feels like enough – is meaningful. In Norway, fishermen’s wives stored potatoes to make sure they’d have food from paycheck to unpredictable paycheck. I think of fishermen and their families storing memories the same way. “It is a whole way of being, being a fishing family,” said Ellen Skaar.
There’s the simple fact of being apart. The narrative stage has been filled with stories, from hilarious to poignant (and usually both) about the Fish News and ship to shore conversations. Like Betsy Pye’s frantic pre-wedding questions, “When will you be home? Well, where are you?” Which were met with silence from her fiancé. “I’m surprised he still married you,” laughed another wife on stage.
It must take practice to figure out how to keep things going while he’s away. Mothers in a fishing family become disciplinarians, handymen, advocates. In earlier generations (and probably still today), prayer became one of the only ways to feel like you might have control over the unpredictable seas, gear. “Everytime the boat leaves I say a prayer,” said Deb Shrader, “and everytime the boat comes home, I don’t care what’s in the fish hold, I just care that he’s home safe.”
I was moved to tears when Tove Bendiksen described lying awake as a child, thinking: “the captain goes down with his ship. Do you know how hard that is for a kid, a captain goes down with his ship? I used to have dreams about green water, flooding over me….You know that anything could happen out there, and you’re helpless. At home. You’re a kid.” She never really felt like she knew her dad as a child, she said, but she worried for him every time he went out. She compared being a fisherman’s kid to being a soldier’s kid. If that doesn’t say something about sacrifice, I don’t know what does.
And of course, the men sacrifice too. All those times they can’t be there when babies are born, parents and grandparents pass away. Skip Barlow didn’t want a life of long trips away from his wife and kids, so he found his way in the 1970s to year-round work in in-shore fisheries. “That ends up being what it’s about for most fishermen,” he said. Family. His best day fishing was the day his fourth child, a son, was born. It was November, the baby was delivered at 8:30 am. He spent the rest of the day quahogging and scallopping, and harvested 200 pounds. He said he was able to make the money for the hospital, in that one day. “I got all this” shellfish, he said, “and I got a son!”
Chris Wright, Sr. also talked to the audience about how hard it is to leave your family behind. “It doesn’t get any easier,” he said. “I miss my wife, I miss my kids.” So when he was finally able to bring his son out on his first trip scalloping, “it was going to be that little touch of home.” His wife was nervous. And he was nervous too, worried that his son would get seasick, that his back would get too sore. “But when we got back,” he said, “I was so proud of him.” His wife asked, “how did he do?” And that summer he watched a young boy become a young man. They made six trips. At one point, Chris Sr. turned to Chris Jr. and said, “You’re finding out now how hard the money has come, huh.”
There are many mentions of divorce on the Narrative Stage, too. Marriages that cracked under the pressure of the absence, the waiting, the worrying. Maybe some men love the sea most, really. Not every woman wants to be a safe harbor. That can be especially true when the money is coming hard. “Families are not only hurting, but they’re broken,” said Jim Kendall in 2004. “The bonds that were there just can’t hold up to the grief.” Fisherwomen, too, lose the partners that they leave behind on shore.
In 2006, there was a conversation called “The Human Cost of Regulations.” Panelists told their audience about how limits on days at sea affected whole families. They explained that fishermen – many of whom learned to fish with their fathers and grandfathers – no longer feel safe in their occupations, let alone safe at sea, because of government regulations. “My husband’s not a pirate,” said Deb Shrader, Founder of Shore Support and President of the Fisherman’s Tribute Fund, “he’s a hard working noble man.”
I think fishing families talk about the noble fisherman because noble means that the work and the sacrifice come together. Noble is that quiet worry, the sacrifice of family mealtimes and goodnight kisses. It’s wondering whether someday, absence won’t make the heart grow fonder. It’s a mother whispering into the dark as she nurses her infant son, “I won’t give you to the sea, I won’t give you to the sea,” like Charlotte Enoksen did. Noble is what we say when we don’t know what else to say about how hard it is.