It's as if it never happened before.
Me, Joely, watching the ferry glide into the slip, not seeing him but knowing he's on deck, that he looks toward shore, a hint of laughter in his slate-gray eyes, engaging you, drawing you in, telling you he understands without his saying a word.
There goes the whistle, a sharp hard blast followed by two short ones.
Now I see him, taller than the others. I know he is nervous, knowing I wait as Claire once waited, my impatient excited mother who held my hand, released it to lift a camera to her eye, click click clicking until she got it right, the exact smile or expression she would develop, enlarge, and hide in her secret cache.
And when she was off island and I was alone, I would go into her files and search, not for the photographs taken for publication, but for those for her eyes only, pictures of his torso, his shoulders and legs. And in those moments, alone with Claire's secret, I did not question if I was violating her trust, I simply felt free to love him without a daughter's shame.
Sometimes there was a new photograph and sometimes one was missing. I knew she had it with her, that when she returned, she would replace it in its plastic sleeve and think she was safe.
Now he sees me and breaks free of the other passengers. He carries a briefcase and computer. His suitcase, on a gurney, is wheeled to the street. A boyhood friend who works for the steamship authority calls his name and Joe stops for a moment of talk. Then he walks down the jetty and onto the wharf.
And it's the same; it's almost the same.
Shadows lengthening in the afternoon sun, the cries of circling gulls, a splatter of sea foam against the wooden piles, the belted raincoat he wears like a uniform.
Yes, almost the same. Yet, nothing's the same, for it's not Claire who waits but me, breathless as I watch his long graceful stride and wonder if love is genetic, transmitted prenatally, like a craving for alcohol or drugs; and what does it matter, this hunger inside me, for Joe has come home and is standing beside me, his warm low voice saying, "It's a shock to see you looking like that little girl who used to wait beside her mother."
"Let's get your things," I say and ignore the remark.
He pulls a suitcase from the gurney and we get into my car. We pass a weathered bronze statue, a monument to the men lost at sea, and I turn onto Water Street with its French cafe and seafood restaurant, movie house with a garish red poster, and the Pequod Emporium with a bright neon sign.
"Notice the changes?"
"Places don't change. We freshen them up with a coat of paint or they rot in decay, but they're only brick and mortar."
"Then what does change?"
"You mean you and me?"
"I mean summer folk who come with consumer hopes, expectations of happiness, as if happiness is a promissory note and summer's the season to redeem it, but they're gone by Labor Day, and Pequod's ours and life is normal."
"Normal! What's that?"
Joe laughs. My God, the man is handsome.
"Why, normal's the coming of fall, trees turning a fiery red, a wind blowing up the sea. It's the hum of the quahog boats, the clink of bottles as the milkman makes his rounds, footsteps on a lonely street."
Joe pauses. "Normal's one day following another without dramatic upheaval or event," he says.
"Sounds too good to be real."
"Why, you little skeptic. All right, Joely, you tell me. What's normal?"
"I think normal is when all the passion we've hidden away and buried goes wild inside us and explodes."
I know he listens, that he struggles with what Claire once called his inner code of honor, and I wonder if people do change, or am I fated, a child of fate, helpless against a dark desire that is my mother's legacy.
My mother always had two men: my father, Finn, who was her husband, and Finn's cousin and best friend, Joe, who was my mother's lover. And if Claire didn't love them both, both Finn and Joe Hurley loved her.
No one talked of the danger or consequences of the way we lived. Before her marriage to Finn, the men had agreed on sharing her, and I accepted it as normal.
Once, it was the island scandal, but with time, the rumors stretched out like an old rubber band, and now everyone accepted it. No one seemed to care, or if they did, they spoke of us in whispers.
Everyone but Claire, who only wanted to talk.
"It's important you understand," she used to tell me. "The three of us and how we live was Finn's idea. What he wanted. So you see, Joely, I've got Daddy's complete approval."
Since I was a child, I accepted the fact that I was Claire's captive audience, the vessel through which she relieved herself of guilt, that there wasn't enough love in the world to protect my mother from herself, or the way she loved. She made me feel that only I could save her, so she bore her soul, tore the pain from her heart, and I gave myself up to Claire's confession, and our illusion of intimacy, a daughter sharing her mother's secret life.
And I've often wondered if my loving Joe wasn't sown in me like a little seed, watered by my mother's tears until it burst into bloom. From my earliest years, I felt the force of Claire's passion, bending, twisting, and shaping my life.
And young as I was, I knew what was happening would be the story of our lives. If I loved Joe, he was hers; from the beginning Joe belonged to my mother. And so we lived: Finn, Joe, Claire, and me, and it seemed to work, our tangled web of lust and love, and then, one day, it all went bust.
Pequod is twenty miles long, fifteen miles wide, and shaped like a half-moon. Composed of a half dozen small towns, we have farms for produce, meadows for grazing, an ocean famous for fishing, and silky soft beaches that snake along the southern shore. Rumor has it Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick, visited the island, and under the spell of the rolling hills, the high timbered oaks, and the great gray cliffs overlooking the sea, wrote in his journal, "I shall call Ahab's poor battered ship, The Pequod."
Our winters are harsh and often brutal. Towns shut down, the landscape is barren. Heavy snows turn into sheets of ice, torrential rains are followed by a thaw, and suddenly, the air is crystal clear. Bursts of sunlight fall through the treetops onto the streets, and there's an explosion of hyacinth, daffodil, and flowering dogwood. Town house porticos are scrubbed bright and white, farmhouse doors are unbolted, and everyone rushes out to greet a neighbor, free, at last, of a long winter cocoon.
At the northern end of the island, bay and ocean intercept, and a low rocky coastline flattens into a meadow, bare except for a knotty old oak. My mother loved this weathered tree. She called it a friend and wrapped her arms around its trunk. I asked her why she loved it so, and she said, "It's my soul mate. I sit under the branches and look at the sea, watch the waves swell and collapse, become a part of the undertow, and I am one with it, all of it, I am the sea and the sea is me. I lean against my trusted old friend, tell it my secrets, and under its branches, luck is with me and I am safe."
On one side of the tree, the ocean pounds against the cliffs, and on the other side, a path slopes toward the bay with only a stump, a stone, or a low-lying bush in its path. Then it smooths out, flat and perpendicular, and falls into the water.
Children love to come and play. At high tide, they climb on the rocks and watch the crashing waves, and when the tide is low, they take mud baths, catch crabs and sea anemones. They drape themselves with strands of seaweed, dancing with seaweed, a favorite sport.
We live on an island, rising out of the sea, and man, his boat, and the sea are one, intertwined and interdependent, man dependent on the sea to bring food and life to the island, the sea taking it away, or unto itself, swallowing it whole, as it did my mother's father when she was a child.
As far back as is known, the men in Claire's line were fishing men. Chasing a whale, being chased by a whale, tracking it into the treacherous currents of the Atlantic, Pacific, or the shifting shoals of the ice-bound Arctic Sea. Men were away from home for three or more years, placed in irons or punished by the lash for an infraction of the rules. It was a perilous life, but in the nineteenth century, a young man living on an island had limited choices. Whaling was a way to make a decent living and how a young man advanced himself. But the dangers and hazards of the great whale hunt convinced my great-great-grandfather to break with family tradition.
No one is certain how he came to photography or where he learned his craft, but the Pequod Historical Society lists the date as in the early 1860s.
Photography was about twenty-five years old. The North was pitted against the South in a brutal civil war. My great-great-grandfather had seen the harrowing pictures of carnage and destruction made by Mathew Brady and the brave men who lugged their heavy eight-by-ten cameras from battlefield to battlefield, and he was determined to join their ranks. So, leaving a wife and young son behind, he connected with the men who photographed the horrors. At Antietam, a bullet shattered his leg. My great-great-grandfather recuperated in a military hospital and came back to Pequod to live.
A one-legged war casualty, he set up a photography shop on Main Street. When his son was old enough to learn, he brought him into the business. His son taught his son, my grandfather, who photographed the ships, a hurricane that ripped apart the island, made stereoscopic views, cartes de visite, and portraits of visiting celebrities, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Grampa proudly hung the portrait in the window of his shop, and there it stayed until his death.
My grandfather was an old-fashioned romantic who longed to recapture the adventures of his forefathers. He heard a refurbished vessel was sailing to the Arctic to reenact the voyage of a whaling ship, and he signed on as photographer. And that was the fateful irony, that the vessel didn't explode on a faraway shore, but a mile outside of Pequod. A sudden burst of flame, a sheet of fire, millions of sparks, acrid smoke turning the sky soiled and gray, another explosion, and another, and the sea opened up to swallow ship and cargo. The only remains were bodies clinging to wood or pieces of debris.
My grandfather's body was among those recovered. He was brought back to Pequod and buried in the old Seaman's Cemetery, on a hillock overlooking the bay.
Like the heroine of a New England ghost story, my grandmother threw herself upon her husband's grave. She prayed for his ghost to appear so she could reclaim him, but his ghost never materialized, and my grandmother's hopes grew cold and dim, her only solace in a bottle of gin. And there you would find her, in the sod and the dark, sprawled upon his tombstone, a poor pathetic drunk, crying over the loss of the good times, which, according to my mother, were never very good.
My grandmother was destitute, a penniless widow living off a small insurance policy that was soon consumed by whiskey, so it fell to my mother to forage for the money they would need to survive.
Claire was young, quick-witted, and pretty. Using her great good looks, smiling a beckoning smile, she sang and danced on the sidewalks of Pequod for change or, on a lucky day, dollars from sympathetic passersby.
She enjoyed disguising her sex, her red hair tucked under a cap, her lithe body hidden in boy's clothing, and found the androgynous switch from girl to boy and back to girl was a lure in greasing the pockets of her public. She sang, danced, and strutted, and those who gave a dollar on Monday returned on Tuesday and gave her another.
In the beginning, Claire seemed unaware of her mysterious power, but she soon began to realize how attractive she was to men. It was like a secret gift and she delighted in using it, not only to make money, but because it excited her. She was like a gambler tempting fate, becoming habituated to admiration and applause.
Claire also scavenged the town dump--the dumptique, she called it--with its variety of treasures, men's and women's old clothes, children's castoffs, furniture and kitchen equipment, a half-used lipstick or bottle of cologne, discarded spoils she was delighted to find.
At first it was a struggle, the smiling and pretending, but after a while she perfected the art of it, and pretense became a second skin.
So one way or another, Claire and her drunken dependent mother endured the hardship and privation. It was useless to worry about tomorrow. All that mattered was getting the best from today.
My paternal grandfather founded the Post, a weekly newspaper serving the island and read by summer residents and subscribers who wanted the news year-round.
My father, Finn, worked on the paper weekends and vacations. On graduating high school, he became the managing editor.
When his father died, Finn took over as publisher and editor in chief. He worked a seven-day week, often into the night, and said, "I've grown up with the smell of printer's ink. It's a part of my nervous system."
Finn loved the paper and was patient with the old machines. When one grew odd or cranky, the way an old press is prone to do, he tinkered with it, ministered like a country doctor with an ailing prima donna. "You're my high-strung, nervous beauty," he'd purr, "but you're the only one I've got, and I need you strong and healthy."
This was Finn's life, the island folk streaming into the office knowing he would open his wise, sympathetic heart to whoever needed him. It seemed to Finn a part of the job. If the Post was a source of island news, its editor was a community friend, and he couldn't imagine what life would be without a daily call for help or advice.
One of the paper's most faithful readers was the editor of a Boston daily who followed the work of Joe Hurley, who, in simple emotional prose, wrote of the loneliness and isolation of those living in the long wintry solitude. Joe wrote of the drinking, the violence, the passions of ordinary men and women. But of the passion ruling his own heart, of that passion, Joe Hurley was silent.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from My Passionate Mother by Judy Feiffer. Copyright © 2004 by Judy Feiffer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.