Pixie dust and promises

By Pamela Humbert
For Points East

One recent morning, the sun rose gently over us as we sat in the cockpit watching the wildlife catch their breakfasts. The coffee perked below as I read NOAA’s weather report to my husband Jim: “15-knot winds out of the east. Wave heights two to three feet.” In an instant our respective visions for the day were the same. We’d be traveling with the wind on our nose, against the tide, and be riding the waves with spray flying. “Let’s go!”

A very young Pam gazes out over Northport Harbor. Thanks to her dad, her childhood was filled with boats. Photo courtesy Pam Humbert

Hours later, we slid expertly into Port Jefferson’s narrow channel, passing one 300-foot ferry with one of her sisterships just 200 yards behind us and closing. Once inside, we sailed away from the channel and into an open anchorage to let her pass and to drop sail. We were beaming with the thrill of having done it so well.

I was still feeling especially grateful for the day’s exhilaration later that evening when I began to wonder how on earth our journey had led us back to the water. When Jim and I set off together to build our careers, home and a family, “boating” had been unceremoniously filed under “childhood” and forgotten – forgotten, that is, until a sailing dinghy came into our lives. When she appeared, I knew her arrival bore the marks of my dad and his best friend Al.

They’d been best friends since grade school. Dad was outgoing, an entrepreneur, a private pilot and a sailor. Uncle Al, on the other hand, was a quiet man, his feet firmly planted on terra firma, with the family dog by his side and a cigarette in hand. When they spoke, we listened. Eight kids – our combined families – would stop in our tracks when either his raised Scottish brogue or Dad’s commanding whistle sounded.

Although they were both authoritative, their approaches to parenting were vastly different. An issue brought to my dad was met with impatience and maxims, followed by a raised eyebrow and a passionate look the meaning of which we all knew: “I expect you to win; don’t disappoint me.” Uncle Al, on the other hand, would settle comfortably into a chair with a smoke and listen patiently, letting the tale of any situation take as long as needed to be told. He’d occasionally utter a throaty acknowledgement, and, when I’d finished, he’d reach over to put his arm around me. It was his way of saying, “I stand beside you, and know you’ve got what it takes to handle it.”

***

I stood quietly at the bedside of the self-proclaimed “Stubborn Dutchman,” struggling to process my dad’s near-lifeless state. He’d had a massive heart attack, and was slipping away on diminishing life support. It was my turn to say goodbye.

Having mastered myself as he would have, I held his hand in mine and spoke softly: “Dad, thank you for all you’ve taught me. I’ll make you proud, and promise Steven and Kaitlyn will know all about you and where they came from.” I rubbed my baby-bump, continuing, “and this little one, too.” Hesitating to make my final moments with him last, I paused before finishing. “I love you Dad.” As I looked longingly at him, an essence of silvery ribbon floated once around me and disappeared. He loved me too.

Stepping out of the hospital into the bright sunshine, I saw Uncle Al sitting in the visitors’ garden. Seeing me, he rose and snuffed out his cigarette before walking toward me. I could see my grief mirrored in his eyes as he reached out to put his arm around me. Though he was silent, I could feel the promise he was making to me: “You’ll be alright, and I’ll be there to make sure of it.”

And he was there through almost another decade, which flew by. It was during one of our last visits that he listened patiently to my 40-something worries of marriage, kids, work and finances. He’d said we were working too hard, and that I, much like my father; “expected too much, too soon. Stop struggling. Let it be, let your future unfold.”

A few months later, he, too, was gone. Lively stories of Uncle Al flowed when we gathered to celebrate his life. We laughed and cried, finding comfort in the thought of Dad and Uncle Al being reunited in a pub “upstairs.” Picturing them together again invoked feelings of joy and longing.

When Jim happened upon a sailing dinghy a few days later, images of my dad and uncle catching up with each other came rushing back to me. As I waited for both husband and dinghy to arrive, it was Uncle Al’s voice I heard first saying, “They’re working too hard Tommy. The two of them are losing their spark.” Then I could see my dad taking a sip of his martini and raising an eyebrow as an idea struck him. Uncle Al had seen his expression change, too, and was waiting for it. “What do you think Al? We’ll send them a boat. Teamwork and fresh challenges will bring their spark back.”

We worked together over the coming weeks making the necessary repairs so that she was safe and ready for our family to sail. Our successful efforts left us feeling invigorated. As fitting tributes, we chose the name Little Dutch, and she flew the Scottish flag. One look in our eyes when we hear the word “sail,” and you’ll see the spark Uncle Al mentioned, and the passion I once saw in my father’s eyes.

In keeping the promise I made to my dad, our children have heard all the colorful stories about their Grandpa. One of my favorite stories, though, is about the day he taught a very young me how to sail. Dad’s house was set on the sandy shores of Northport Bay. His windowed walls framed views of his treasures; a sandy beach, a floating dock, and his cherished 1960 Matthew’s 42, the Flying Dutchman.

He was sitting in his favorite chair facing the water, reading the morning newspaper when I approached to ask if I could take out the Minifish, an 11¾-foot, lateen-rigged Sunfish derivative. He carefully placed his finger on the paper where he’d stopped reading and looked at me doubtfully. “Do you know how to sail it?”

Discouraged, I shook my head no. “Well then,” he said perking up. “There’s a pamphlet on the shelf about points of sail and trim. Read it. Then, launch it, rig it, take it out past the end of the dock, but not past the Dutchman. Flip it, right it by standing on the centerboard, and come back in. Got it? Good.”

With a wave of dismissal, he went back to reading his paper. But I knew he was watching. I knew he saw me struggling to achieve each of the steps he’d laid out for me, saw the sheer determination I had had to muster to independently overcome my difficulties. I walked back into the house and approached him with confidence. He greeted my triumph with a simple nod of approval – and his permission to take her out on my own.

Thanks to Little Dutch and the boats that followed, we have all become sailors to one degree or another. In our children’s character I see a familiar inner strength, and, in their eyes, a familiar passion as they work to accept, face and overcome their challenges, both on and off the water.

Pam Humbert, a Northport/East Northport, N.Y. native who’s been boating since she was 7 years old, is a devoted wife and mother of three grown children. She is also founder of P.K. Services, providing start-ups with the skills and services they need to help keep their sails trimmed. Pam, her husband Jim, and their family cherish their days aboard Morgana (a Celtic name meaning “dweller of the sea”).

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