Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Woman Overboard

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INTERNATIONAL CODE OF SIGNALS

From the Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea
A signal lamp, also called an Aldis lamp, produces a pulse of light for ships to communicate using Morse code in times of radio silence. The idea of flashing dots and dashes from a lantern was first put into practice by Captain Philip Colomb in 1867.

. .

I am altering my course to port

For half the year, we give up fresh produce, telephones, dryers, cars, and dishwashers to live in a cabin at a remote fishsite on the west side of Kodiak Island. In May, we pack up the boys and the dog. We buy a season's worth of groceries. To get supplies here, we fill and label boxes and totes and deliver them to a boat, which carries them around the island to the village of Larsen Bay. We pick them up at the cannery, haul them down the dock, carry them across Uyak Bay, and then heft them one by one over the sides of the skiff, up the slick jumble of beach rock, over the small rise of beach grass and driftwood, and then up the steep hillside. We unpack and settle in for the salmon season.

. . _ .

I am disabled--communicate with me

I can see Peter on the net as he calls on a hand-held VHF. He can't hear my replies. I walk outside and wave a second time from our cabin deck and leave the door open when I go back inside. A few minutes later I hear him shouting my name.

I remember this overzealous policeman dad who, picking up his son from the school where I taught, tried to lecture the kids on the playground about screaming. "Shouting should be reserved for obtaining help during a dangerous situation," he scolded. "It shouldn't be part of recess play."

"Good luck with that one buddy," I thought.

But maybe he was right. Every time Peter hollers my name from the beach or his boat, my heart stops and I run for the door. Is he being mauled by a bear, has his skiff flipped, did he lose a crewmen to the waves, did he accidentally cut off a finger, did he lose his lucky hat? No. Today is the first day of salmon season and he's so excited he's shouting from the skiff. His voice rides up on the wind. "Sara!" He points and hollers, "Reds in the net!"

_ . .

keep clear of me--I am maneuvering with difficulty

No need for signals, my husband knows this look. This is the look after a night like this: climb into bed at midnight, already looking forward to coffee in the morning. It's June, which means the sunlight is still bouncing off the ceiling in spite of double curtains over the windows. We all sleep in the loft of our cabin so we don't bother with sleep training out here. I'm pretty sure the "cry it out" technique requires doors and separate bedrooms. Also, a crying baby, which, to be honest, I couldn't bear even if we had doors that closed. Which means it is all my fault when the baby wakes up hungry at 1:30 and happily nurses his way through to morning. At 4 a.m. I hear crying and "Mama, I want to snuggle. Maaamaaaa." Peter doesn't wake; he sleeps heavy as a sea lion during the fishing season. Liam climbs into our bed. "I need a pillow!" I give him mine and sink back into a half sleep.

_ . _ _

I am dragging my anchor

Ron Carlson tells his writing students "When you sit down to write, whatever you do, don't get up and get yourself coffee." But I'm pretty sure he isn't up all night with a baby who is not a self-soother. I don't think Ron's daily planner reads: change diapers, pajamas to clothes, make pancakes, read stories, feed baby, make bread dough with toddler, sweep up flour, wipe egg off cupboards, fix snack, paint, clean up paint, feed baby, play with blocks, build pirate ship, fix lunch, hang laundry on line, water garden, puppet show, hide and seek, make tree fort, change diapers, read more stories, naptime! Race to computer. I NEED this cup of coffee in a way Ron Carlson could never understand.

. . . .

I have a pilot on board

I watch Peter steer us home in the skiff. His ears are peeling. His beard and cheeks are flecked with jellyfish parts and silver scales under a sun bleached ball cap stiff from days of saltwater and slime. He smells like salmon blood and sweat. His hands have swollen too big for his wedding band; his palms are Portobello mushroom thick. He is so at home in this place it's as if he leapt out of the bay and landed in this aluminum skiff. I am full of love, so much love it could sink me.

_ .

No (negative)

On our wedding day, I wasn't thinking about the fishsite as we said our vows. I wasn't thinking of work I once considered old-fashioned -- hanging laundry on the line, baking bread, hauling firewood, waiting for the hum of Peter's skiff to put dinner on the table. I was thinking of old boyfriends and how I could only have sex with one man for the rest of my life. But thanks to salmon season that rarely happens anyway.

_ _ .

I require a pilot

The thing about marrying a fisherman who "comes home at night" is that night might start at 1:00 a.m. Mornings start at 5. There is no such thing as weekends. The drawback to marrying a capable, cheerful person is how much you miss them when they're not around.

_ _ . _

my vessel is healthy and I request free pratique

the first red on the grill

the smell of beach fires and cottonwood and tomatoes in the greenhouse

whales out the window

orange poppies

rhubarb pie

such luck, to live on this island

_ _

my vessel is stopped and making no way through the water

Peter stands up midway through lunch to look at the water through binoculars.

"They're out there. They're not showing, but they're out there."

He swigs his coffee as he paces around the living room.

Friends once asked how he does it. How he can stand the fatigue and monotony of all those long days pulling on wet raingear, stinking boots, hauling nets against the waves or wind.

He says, "If you had a tree that grew money in your backyard, wouldn't you want to keep on picking it? Wouldn't you go out there until you'd gotten every last dollar?

I think of it like that."

"And then wouldn't you plant more trees and hire some immigrants to pick them?" He didn't really say that.

Out here he is the provider, the captain, the muscle. And he gets all the glory.

My aunt and uncle came to visit a few weeks after our son was born. I cooked and cleaned with the baby in a frontpack. When they boarded the floatplane to leave a week later, my Aunt said, "You married a good man, Sara." I agree. He's good-natured even when he's tired. He's smart and handy. When he does something for the first time, from building a house to wiring a cabin for solar panels, he reads and teaches himself how to do it. But sometimes, watching him leave from the shadow of the cabin, I think of the upcoming hours of mothering and cleaning and cooking and baking. I am not going anywhere. I feel a little jealous.

_ . . .

I am carrying dangerous goods

Liam just realized as he peed off the back porch that he needed to go number two. He ran for the bathroom. I think we've reached a turning point. A week ago he would have done both number 1 and number 2 on the porch and I would have praised him and cleaned it up, convinced it was preferable to cleaning poop from his big boy underpants.

From the back porch, I spot some other number two, courtesy of the dog, near my garden bed and try to chopstick it up with two sticks and fling it into the alders. It catches on a branch under the bird feeder. I didn't think that was possible with dog turds, but Schooner eats a lot of grass out here. Poop is something I didn't plan to spend so much of my thirties talking about or praising or examining or cleaning up.

"Did you go poop?"

"Yep. I did."

"What are you eating?"

"Dog food. Dog food is my favorite. "

. . _

you are running into danger

"Liam, give that toy back to your little brother. He's just a baby. He can't help drooling on things. Liam, give that back now. I'm going to count to three. You have to trade him with another toy. There you go. Wait. He can't have marbles. That's better. Hugs are nice. Gentle...That's enough. Off. Get off your brother."

. _ . .

you should stop your vessel instantly

I SAID GET OFF YOUR BROTHER

_ _ _

man overboard

Out we go. We are abandoning cabin, heading for the beach. We are going to build a castle. We settle into the peaceful rhythm of collecting. White rocks, purple mussel shells, beach glass, driftwood. Liam fills our moat with water. I admire what we have made.

_ . . _

stop carrying out your intentions and watch for my signals

As I climb into bed, Peter wakes up, sleepily horny, and reaches for me with hands like sharkskin that catch on my pajamas. He'll be snoring again within 26 seconds. "I love you. Goodnight." Nothing sounds better than sleep.

Sleep.

_ . _ .

Yes (affirmative)


Sara Loewen’s stories have appeared in the Anchorage Daily News, Pacific Fishing Magazine, and online in Terrain.org, and The Motherhood Muse.com. She lives on Kodiak Island, Alaska with her husband, two sons, and an old brown dog. Please visit her website at Saraloewen.com.


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Sara, This writing is so delightful! I love your nautical-related subtitles and how each section blends with another to create the whole picture. Every writer mom can relate to your triumphs and trials but the unique setting give all of that a fresh perspective.
So refreshing to read! I can almost taste the salt air. Thank you, Sara.
This is so terrific! I love, love Kodiak island and your depiction of it and your life there fills me with longing. I stayed for a month there and every time I spoke to the man who is now my husband on the phone -- scratchy line to the contigees -- I described eagles and otters and whales and the smell of the sea and he said, "but you are coming back, right?" Thanks so much for sharing your life!
Very nice.
This is wonderful. I especially enjoy the poem phrases in the middle, featuring whales out the window and orange poppies. What could be better and what a vivid image!
You are so talented.... There are tears on my cheeks. What beautiful thoughts about Peter. And the section written as your conversation with Liam is like an echo a million times over. I appreciate your candid way of making the ordinary into the extrordinary. Wow.
I agree with Kim - You make the ordinary into extraordinary!! All your writing is wonderful, but today I think this one is my favorite. I appreciate your honesty and your sense of humor had me laughing!! A total delight to read!
Amazing Sarah!
This makes me laugh and cry!
Sweet Sara. Love.this.tons! I smiled the whole way through and shot a few high-fives in your direction. I guess, if someone asked me how I spent my thirties (as they slowly turn into 40s), I, too, would have to say tired. Loved. Tired. Happy. Really tired. Grumpy 'cause I'm tired. Life is so sweet, but being so tired was something I neverever reckoned with.
Pitch Perfect.
This is lovely--I especially appreciate the form to the story. Thank you for adding something new to my day and perceptions.
You are incredible! This is so beautiful - and so funny and honest and precious. I love how the vignettes add up to such a great picture as a whole and yet are so perfect in themselves. You have a gift. Thank you for sharing.
Clear, crisp writing. I drank it up like sparkly, fresh breeze days on the water. International Code of Signals punctuation ... brilliant! The whole piece is beautifully crafted. Bravo, Sara!!
Sara-Love this piece!! You make everyday life come to life! :)Zoya
i love these window-pane glimpses into your life. mothering, i think, has universality whether you are doing it in Alaska or Wisconsin. beautifully written.
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