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Sunday, July 31, 2011

No. 59 (Part 3) Neighborhoods, Families, Homes & People


Typical of the time and place, most adult women were both wives and mothers, and worked only in the home. Add to that their assumed role at helping their husbands as watermen, and that was usually more than enough to keep them busy. But busy as they were, most of them were actively involved in our lives, at least within a radius that was close to their home and family.

Men and fathers had a broader reach that usually extended throughout the neighborhood and beyond. And because of that, at least as a group, their influence was more profound on what everyday life was like. My mother was at the center of everything that happened in our home near Hancock Landing. But, collectively at least, my father and the men who lived and worked beside him, many of them older than even him, were much more a part of my boyhood experience, and my lasting memory.

This does not mean that the women did not congregate outside their homes, especially in their churches. One  memorable gathering place for women was in the sound on some hot late summer afternoons. I don’t recall how the occasion might have been organized, but it was not unusual for the women of the neighborhood sometimes to come and join us as we were swimming. Still wearing their long skirts and dresses (frocks), they would walk out to where the water was waist deep, and then kneel down so that only their head and shoulders were above the surface. Usually in a large circle, depending on how many were there at a given time, they would escape the “dog day” heat while visiting with their friends and family. Eventually, en masse, they would head back towards the shore where they and we would wash off the salt with hoses that spouted well-water so cold it always left me shivering.

But such a gathering was so much the exception that it stands our in my memory. On the other hand, groups of men were very much the rule for the grown-ups of my world. Indeed, they usually had either already spent their day working somewhere in the water, or were preparing to spend their evening trawling or channel-netting for shrimp. Especially in mid-summer heat, most commercial fishing was done at dusk or dawn. Clamming on the shoals off of Shackleford was the only exception. Other than that the grown-up men spent their daylight hours preparing or repairing their boats, nets, and rigging for the night of hard work that lay ahead of them.
Neighborhood men working their nets on spreads at the landing.

Since most of this was done at or near the landing, the very place where we children spent most of our time, we were around our fathers and their friends as much or even more than our mothers between May and September. It was in this setting that I came to know, love and appreciate the “old men” who were at the center of the neighborhood that gave shape to my world. They told the stories that gave meaning to the lessons I was learning. They taught the skills that allowed me to appreciate how arduous the life of a waterman could be. And most of all, they helped me to understand that I was part of something bigger than myself or even my family. They never used those precise words, but they didn’t have to. The lived out their part in a way that I would never forget it.

Of all the things that I miss about that way of living, that dynamic relationship of men and fathers with boys and sons may be among the most profound. As I compare it with the life style that has taken it’s place, I sense that something important, even vital, has been lost.

My own life is my example. Outside of our home, interaction with my children and now with my grandchildren has most often been in the context of "their" world. Like other parents and grandparents I go to their ball games and recitals, their awards ceremonies and graduations, and even their parties and parades. I see them as they go about their routines and rituals, and if I am involved enough, can have some influence on what and how they learn from those experiences.

That stands in sharp contrast to the world of my youth that evidenced a pattern that was almost totally the opposite. I got to know my parents, and especially my father and other men of our neighborhood in a setting that was almost entirely theirs. I watched and learned as they prepared for and worked in the water, maintained their houses and boats, and especially as they gathered to share life stories and experiences. I was lucky! I came to know many of them in a way that was exponentially more intimate and formative than what today's prevailing model will allow.

Perhaps for mothers, or at least for those fortunate few who have the privilege of staying at home with their children, the change has been less dramatic. For fathers the role reversal has been as stark as it has been irresistible; for them and for their children - and  especially for their sons.

Perhaps I have as many contemporary friends and associates as did my father, likely even more. My children and grand kids know them only by name and a few anecdotal accounts that they might have overheard through the years. But for me and my generation of Island boys, our fathers and their friends were not just spectators as we played games and learned to sing, dance or even work. They were our teachers and mentors who helped us sense that we were part of something wonderfully special that was more than we could see with our own eyes or hear with our own ears. And, as we watched and heard them, we came to appreciate all the more how they became who they were, and, just as importantly, why and how we might carry on that tradition.

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