MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 61 – On the High Seas
Sometime during the early hours of the morning, after Billy had slipped back to his cabin, I awoke in a cold sweat after a horrendous nightmare.
I dreamt that I was in the middle of the ocean in a rowboat that was tossing and turning on a rough sea. The wind howled, lightning split the sky, the rain fell in buckets and the tiny boat spun around and around until all of a sudden, just as the waves began to swell higher and higher, the rowboat turned into one of those flat saucers that I had seen towed slowly behind ski-boats with children riding on them. I remembered that my uncle had one too and used it for those too young to ski, or just learning to ski. It was then, as I fought to hold onto the edges of this slippery disk, that I realized that my baby was with me and in eminent danger of sliding into the water! I let go of the disk and tried to reach my infant when a huge wave tossed the saucer upside down, and I awoke on the floor of my cabin. Panicked, I looked for my daughter, but found her sleeping soundly without a care in the world in the corner of my berth where I must have moved her sometime during the night. As I tried to stand, I then felt the big ship rolling from side to side and knew that we must have encountered a storm. Finally, I managed to crawl back into the berth and put my hand on Margie’s back as it rose and fell with each tiny breath, and relieved I finally fell back into a dreamless sleep.
By morning the sea was once again calm, almost as still as the eye of a hurricane, the sun was shining and the gulls were flying around the ship, so the storm must either have been a figment of my sleep-deprived imagination or been short lived. The sun was streaming through the porthole and I could hear the ringing of a tiny bell as a steward walked up and down the seemingly endless maze of corridors while announcing ‘first call for breakfast’. As I sleepily put my feet on the ground, Margie stirred and began sucking her tiny fist, which I knew was a signal that she was hungry and soon she would begin to wail.
Billy poked his head in my door as I stood up and said with a big grin, “Better hurry, sleepyhead, breakfast isn’t going to wait for you.”
Hastily I dressed and put on enough makeup to look decent, while he changed Margie’s diaper and gathered up the diaper bag with her dish, spoon and food so that I could feed her while we waited for our order. My breasts ached to nurse her but I knew that it would have to wait until we got back to our cabin since Billy was adamant that no wife of his would nurse in public, and frankly, I was too shy to have done so anyway. I asked where Michael was, and Billy said that the steward had offered to take him along while he rang the breakfast bell, and this became a thrice-daily ritual as our small son walked up and down the corridors ringing the tiny bell, past each cabin on this deck, with the kindly steward. We caught up to them as they turned the corner from the end of their rounds, and Michael ran to his father who swung him into the air and then into his arms.
“Guess I am going to have to run him around the deck a few times a day to wear him out,” Billy said as our hyperactive son talked non-stop about his ‘job’. He had the cutest habit of placing both of his hands on either side of Billy’s or my face and if we were not giving him our full attention, he would either turn or hold our heads steady so that our eyes as well as our ears were fully focused on only him.
“I want to run,” Michael said after hearing his father, but Billy told him that after breakfast, we would go up on deck and he could run all he pleased, as long as he watched where he was going and did not run into anyone or get too close to the rail.
The latter I was not too concerned about remembering his fear of the seemingly endless water when we were at the beach, and this time he would find it all around him. Satisfied with Billy’s answer, Michael squirmed out of his daddy’s arms and led the way to the dining room since we were now in a long straight corridor that led straight to the open doors.
Our ‘table’ was against one wall with a long row of padded bench seats, and then there were three additional chairs at the table. Billy helped me get settled on the bench so that I could prop Margie’s infant seat beside me and feed her while he attempted to keep Michael in his chair and from wandering from table to table and talking to everyone. Strangely, the dining room was eerily quiet and deserted this morning, and bowls of this sticky black ‘jelly-like’ substance had turned upside down on the carpet.
There must not have been a dozen people in the dining room, which I found rather odd. Even our friends from the night before were absent. When we questioned our waiter, an islander whose skin was the color of coffee with cream, about the lack of diners, he told us that the ship had passed through a bad storm last night, and that half of the crew was sick, and almost all of the passengers. So that was what had happened when I was having my dream and was so rudely awakened by being tossed to the floor – the ship really was rolling! He asked if we were feeling well, and Billy assured him that all was fine with us, so he took our order, and when he left, I fed Margie her fruit and cereal. The waiter first brought fresh squeezed orange juice and fruit to our table, and just as soon as Michael had taken a long drink of juice, his little face broke out in a cold sweat. Suddenly he threw up right in the middle of the table! Well, never having a very strong stomach myself, I immediately dropped the baby’s spoon and rushed for the bathroom, praying that I would make it before my stomach emptied too, and I just did make it!
Entering the empty bathroom, I rushed for the only stall, and was in the throes of being deathly ill when I heard someone pulling on the door and finally saying, “I can’t wait!” Then I heard her being violently sick in the sink! “Just think,” she said when I opened the door and walked to the sink to pour cold water over my face, “I paid for this!”
While I sympathized with her and said that at least Uncle Sam had paid for us, she said, “If I am still sick tonight, I think I’ll get a helicopter to come take me home!”
It was all I could do to keep a straight face since I knew full well that we were on this ship until it got to Honolulu unless a matter of life or death, like it or not, and that there was nothing but ocean between us and the Islands. Besides, this morning the sea was obviously as smooth as glass and it seemed as if we were not even aboard a ship at all, except for our stomachs, I supposed.
Weakly I made my way back to our table, hoping that Billy had been able to stay with the children since I had no choice but to run for the bathroom. I found him still sitting at our table, and even his ruddy complexion looked ashen, while perspiration beaded his forehead, and his untouched breakfast sat in front of him with a napkin covering the plate as if he could not bear to even look at or smell the food. Michael was lying quite still on the long bench seemingly without an ounce of energy, and as soon as I reached the table, Billy said, “Let’s go back to the cabin; I don’t feel too good myself.”
What a sight we were! The little boy who just minutes earlier had wanted to run, now insisted his daddy carry him, which was not like him at all, and Billy looked as if he might be sick at any moment, while my face was as pale as a new moon. Only the baby seemed unaffected by the storm and even without finishing her cereal and fruit or nursing, she was sound asleep as the ship swayed like a giant cradle. At least we felt redeemed since the waiter had told us that most of the crew was in their berths sick too, and that we were the lucky ones since we had not partied all night. Most of the passengers who had done so were in much worse shape than those of us who went to bed at a decent hour, as if we had a choice with our children in tow, although this time it was a good thing. He even pointed to the black sticky substance and said it was the Hawaiian staple, Poi, and that the staff had been too ill to clean up the mess!
When we got back to our cabins, there was a basket of fresh fruit and soda crackers in each room, courtesy of the captain, with a note apologizing for the rough seas, as if he could help it. However, this was a cruise ship, a pleasure liner, and paying passengers were not happy when they could not ‘play’. Our waiter had suggested that we sleep as much as we could, and to eat nothing but fruit and crackers with a little bit of water, so that is what we fully intended to do, as if we could do anything else.
Although the sea was calm now I spent most of the day sleeping and eating very little, stirring only to go to the bathroom, and to feed the baby. Billy’s door never opened all day, and I wondered how he was faring with Michael, but when I glanced into their cabin, both my big boy and my little boy were sleeping soundly, so I softly closed the door and went back to my own berth for more sleep. Like magic, either the motion of the ship or the soft purring of the huge engines lulled Margie back to sleep as soon as her tummy was full, and I wondered if she would sleep this way for the entire voyage!
By suppertime, the ship suddenly seemed to come to life as landlubbers stomach’s adjusted to the ocean and those who had been sick were once again ready to party, although not quite as vigorously as the night before I would imagine. Billy opened my door and asked if I felt like going to supper, stating that he was starved, so I told him that I would try anything once, and we all quickly dressed in our ‘evening finery’. This consisted of a suit for Billy with a white shirt and tie; one of my three ‘nice’ dresses, and even Michael had a jacket and a bow tie with his outfit. I took the time to dress Margie in one of her many tiny lacy dresses, while Michael set out with the steward to announce the ‘first sitting’.
The atmosphere in the dining room was festive as tables of ‘guests’ were being wined and dined as only a cruise ship can do. We had worried that we were not dressed formal enough, but our steward assured us that the first sitting, when all the families with children aboard ate, was far less formal than the second sitting when the first class passengers tried to outdo each other with their sequined gowns and diamond jewelry.
We saw our friends from the night before, the only other ‘non-paying’ passengers that we knew were aboard, and were glad to see that their table was next to our own. We talked for a few minutes, relaying our adventures of the morning and our attempt to eat breakfast, and they said that none of them had been able to get out of bed and try to make it to the dining room until now. Hearing this, I did not feel so bad; at least I had not been sick to my stomach until my son had pushed my button by throwing up on the table! I had never been able to abide the smell of vomit, and when my children were sick, I was sure to be sick too!
As we sat down, our attentive waiter had the menus in our hands within moments, and Billy was hungrily looking for the shrimp, or ‘prawns’, as we had learned to call them. We both turned down a ‘cocktail’, and instead asked for Cokes although Billy did not even look up from his menu he was so intent on finding his favorite meal. As he read, often he would turn to me to ask what an item was, and once I explained he turned his attention back to his menu searching for something that he would eat. Finally, he found ‘fried prawns’, but on the children’s menu, so there was no doubt what he would order for our son since he knew that Michael never finished any meal, and would willingly share with his daddy in anticipation of ice cream for dessert. While I fed Margie with one hand and held the menu with the other, I decided on beef Wellington with béarnaise sauce on toast points, fresh asparagus, and a fresh fruit cup. I knew that Billy would not like my choice since he would find the pate` ‘disgusting’, so since there were no prawns on the adult’s menu, I suggested that he get a nice porterhouse steak with fried potatoes and a tossed salad. I saw nothing else that would please my fussy husband, and I just hoped that they would not get too fancy with the salad! I was really looking forward to five nights of gourmet dining instead of the plain fare that I had to prepare at home, but Billy was already fussing about ‘no decent food’, and I braced for a long journey.
He had been on a cruise ship before, so I asked what he had eaten then, and he told me that while his parents went to the dining room, he went to the grill and had hamburgers! I suggested that perhaps we could find a grill aboard the Lurline and do some exploring while we got some much-needed fresh air after supper. The storm cloud disappeared from his handsome face and his lips, which he held tightly, when upset, crinkled into a grin at this suggestion, and once again, peace reigned in the McConnell family. I knew that this was just a temporary lull as I fully intended to come to the dining room each night – the grill, if we found one, would be all right for lunch, but I longed to taste and try new foods! There are few foods that I would not at least try, with the exception of, for instance, frog’s legs, rabbit or venison, and some of the more exotic sea creatures like squid or eel, but with most foods, I was willing to order something prepared differently from the ordinary. Only a few things did I decide that I did not like, and one was poi, the same Hawaiian native dish made from taro root that had decorated the carpet that morning, but it looked more like the mixture that tarred the roads in the south. It was tasteless, at least to me it was, and after one try, I never ate it again since even the slippery substance was displeasing, more like slime than food. I also did not like my fish served with the head intact, and in fact told this to the waiter each time I ordered a fish entrée`. I simply do not like the eyes of whatever I am about to eat staring back at me! I did develop a life-long fondness for any shellfish, particularly the Alaskan king crab, and of course, the prawns, which I thought would be tough from their huge size, and instead were tender and sweet, as were the sea scallops, which I had not eaten before.
Having lived on the Chesapeake Bay and been served the local smaller version of this succulent gift from the sea, I now found the smaller scallops ‘chewy’ compared to the soft sweetness of the larger ones. Almost every night I ordered some form of seafood if it was available, broiled or steamed, since I still could not stomach fried foods. I learned that I did not like Greek olives, although I had craved, and still enjoyed, the Italian black olives, and I did not like truffles, but I enjoyed just a small bit of caviar on hard toasted biscuits. Billy was definitely adamant that he would not even try any of the ‘new’ foods that were available, even though I thought about enticing him to try something different by suggesting that he should order from the children’s menu. This listed only about half a dozen entrees with little change for each meal, but always offered fried prawns, fried chicken, and hamburger patties. Wisely, I stayed silent, and just made suggestions as to the food that I thought he might enjoy. Perhaps in the earlier days of our marriage I would have goaded him, but no longer, since I found the idea as distasteful to me as it would have been to him. Instead, I thought it would be better if we could find a grill so that he could at least fill up on hamburgers in between meals.
To save us from exploring endlessly, I asked the waiter if there was a grill aboard and while there was, it was a ‘cash’ grill, thus not included with the passage, so like it, or not, Billy had to settle for the dining room. He had not realized that his father paid for his visits to the ‘grill’ at the end of their voyage since he had just signed the ticket using his father’s cabin number. Assured that this was the only ‘cash’ meal aboard, our waiter explained to us where, when, and which meals were available during the entire day. There were, of course the three meals with two sittings each in the dining room, breakfast, dinner, and supper, then a brunch in the ballroom from 10:00 a.m. until 11:30 a.m., for the late risers.
There was an elegant afternoon ‘tea’ in the same area where trays of sweet desserts were served, for instance petit fours, éclairs, Napoleons, fruit tarts and even lemon tarts that quickly became Billy’s favorite while I preferred anything that was filled with custard and dipped into a rich chocolate. The chefs made sure that there was something to please everyone, to include large bowls full of fresh strawberries, pineapple, and the tropical fruit that none of us found to our taste. Pastry platters decorated with grapes and raspberries seemed never ending while the waiters would replace a fresh one with another when the sweet delicacies were almost gone. I could have made this my main meal of the day, but it was served so close to our early sitting, that I tried not to be greedy and ate only two or three of the pastries, but filled up on the fresh fruit. I think that perhaps the other passengers wondered what happened to all the lemon tarts, but I knew – right into Billy McConnell’s tummy! These were all the rich sweets that I loved, but that I did not need, and too much chocolate was not good for the baby. There was even a midnight buffet in another room that featured trays of cold cuts and cheeses, sliced breads of white, wheat, rye, and pumpernickel, plus the hard rolls with the soft centers that I became so fond of, and all were obviously fresh baked. Finally, an ‘early bird’ breakfast was available outside on the deck for those who either were starting their day extra early, or simply had not gone to bed yet. Therefore, the longest time between servings was the four hours between 2:00 a.m. and the 6:00 a.m. ‘Early bird’.
Actually there was food available twenty-four hours a day, every day, and anyone could order meals to be sent to their cabins, but that was for those who had ‘suites’ and room to move about, which was not so in our case. No one should or could go hungry aboard a cruise ship, except for Billy, whose list of ‘eatable’ foods was so very limited. Naively, I was hoping for a miracle, and that he would learn to be a bit more diverse with his eating habits, but it is a good thing that I did not put any money on it! He was not about to starve though even with his distinct likes and dislikes, he put away enough food each day to last a family a week! If we could not have decent cabins, he made sure that we did get our fair share of the culinary delights!
After supper we decided to see what the rest of the ship looked like other than our tiny cabins and the halls between there and the dining room, so we took the elevator to the uppermost deck, deciding to work our way down. Michael was full of himself, and talked to everyone and anyone. Soon complete strangers were coming up to him and asking his name, and where he was from. His Southern drawl was so intense that the other passengers were both charmed and fascinated, and he usually earned a quarter for his recitation.
When asked the question, our little urchin would say, “My name is Michael McConnell, and I am from Columbus, Georgia.” Honeysuckle and peach blossoms hung from each word with a lingering emphasis on ‘Mi-ia-chal and Co-lummm-bus, Geo-oorgia’.
Before long, more and more passengers, having heard from others about this charming little ‘Southern’ child, were seeking us out to hear our son speak. When Billy opened his mouth, it was obvious where his son had gotten his soft Southern accent, while my own was barely discernible since I had spent so much time traveling as a child from Navy base to Navy base. Billy did not even know why our son making money to recite his litany, not recognizing that his own sweet voice was dripping with the same honeysuckle and peaches, but I knew, and that was one of the first things that I had loved about Billy. I also knew that over the years both of them would lose this wonderful inflection, as we traveled and associated with other officers and their families, but for now, I enjoyed the sweet innocence in their voices, and the reminder of my beloved South where gentlemen still treated a lady as if she was special.
As we traveled around the ship, we peeked into the theatre and within a few minutes decided that the film was definitely not suitable for young viewers. Then we stopped at the ballroom door and I longed to be dressed in one of my evening gowns, none of which happened to fit now, and dance the night away to a live orchestra with my handsome lieutenant. However, not this time, and maybe by the time we did get to cruise unaccompanied, I would be dancing with a Colonel! At least I could dream.
In another room, there was a floorshow with tables set up in front of the stage and cocktail waitresses serving drinks. Again no place for children, and then there were the slot machines, which we certainly did not have the money to waste hoping we would strike it rich. We had enough sense to realize that the machines would never pay off, since they were for the passenger’s entertainment, but not their welfare, rather the Matson line’s income. So we ventured on, looking for something that we might do with the children in tow. Billy had thought it was safe to leave Michael sleeping in the cabin, but I did not, worried that he might wake up in a strange place and Mommy and Daddy nowhere to be found.
We finally happened upon the Bingo game, and since the cards were ‘free’ and the prizes small trinkets, we decided to play a game or two. There was a ‘money’ game, but again we felt we did not have any extra to spare, especially with the unexpected expense of the second Steward and a Stewardess. With Billy’s insistence, I made an appointment to have my hair styled the day before we landed since I wanted to look my best for whoever would be meeting us. I asked the prices before making the appointment, and since they were not outrageous, Billy, who held the money, told me that it would be O.K., and he knew it would be a treat, and a ‘pick me up’ I very much needed. He still loved my blonde streaks and insisted that I keep my hair this way always, and although I told him that it was very expensive, for our budget, he did not care. I liked it too since it put some color in my pale complexion, and I thought that the golden highlights made me look like I belonged more to Billy, whose good looks I thought I could never match. That old self-esteem thing coming through again, but he was so handsome, even with his shaven head, and I felt so plain. The least I could do was have nice hair, which was difficult for me to style, would not stay curled since it was so fine, limp, and had absolutely no body. High humidity ended any curls I had managed, and the ocean voyage was immensely humid! Anyway, I still rolled it every night, and it still looked decent, but it would be nice to have a few hours of pampering before the difficult job of setting up housekeeping began once again.
Soon bored by the Bingo game, Michael wanted to go out on deck where he could run, although we once again warned him to watch out that he did not run into the other passengers. We hoped that there would be more children on board, and indeed, there were some older children, but since Michael was even too young for the nursery, we had no choice but to have him accompany us, although I thought that he would have enjoyed the other children. I also hoped we could possibly pass him off as three since he was tall for his age and he lacked only one month from the magic number, but both of us finally decided that there was no way we could convince Michael not to be truthful about his age! He delighted in holding up two fingers on one hand and then bending one finger on the other to symbolize the ‘1/2’, and would do it for anyone who asked, and some who did not ask. The honesty and innocence of our child would thwart that plan, so we resigned ourselves to enjoying his company. We would have had to keep Margie with us anyway, so there was no point in trying to get away with breaking the rules.
Noting my disappointment as I watched the dancers, Billy promised that some day he would take me on a cruise, just the two of us, and we would dance out on the deck under a full moon. My imagination swung into high gear and I could just imagine him in a mess white uniform, left breast covered with medals, and me in a flowing blue dress dancing, as a live orchestra played all our Johnny Mathis favorites. Yes, he had his dreams too, but again they were just that, dreams.
He had always enjoyed it when I dressed up for the formal dances, and I loved dancing with him while he held me close and rested his chin on the top of my head. I could hear his heartbeat as it seemingly kept time with the music, but most of all I loved just being in his arms and ‘showing off’ my handsome lieutenant. Much to my sorrow, this would not happen on this trip, or any other time, but this I did not know, and if I had known, then sadness, instead of joy would accompany me all the way to Hawaii, and the voyage ruined. So we walked the decks with Michael running ahead of us, but looking back often to make sure we were still there. I had been right about his fear of the sea, and he made sure to stay as far away from the railing as possible.
That night as we sailed into the sunset, I could only dream about the cruise that Billy and I planned for our 25th wedding anniversary, and surely, by then he would be a Colonel! As we made love again on the narrow berth with the moon winking at us through the porthole, once again, my imagination swung into high gear. I saw us, both graying, still very much in love, walking the deck, he with his arm around me, and me looking into his still handsome face with eyes so full of love they glowed, and forever vowing that we would always love each other more than life itself.