For as long as I’ve known him, Ralph’s love of boats and boating pretty much summed up his identity:
A lover of the outdoors. A sportsman who preferred active participation in physical activity to watching from his couch. A competitor who found competing against himself (or a fish) as rewarding as competing against others. A problem-solver whose knack for fixing machinery matched his love of tinker. A perfectionist who kept his gear shipshape. A leader who reveled in being captain of his crew.
Early in our marriage, as soon as he had a little extra spending money, Ralph bought his first boat, a small daysailer. I was never a boater and I remember at least one miserable ride in the early days of my first pregnancy. Then he traded up for a racing sailboat he named HARD RAIN after the Dylan song—apropos since every time I was dragged onboard, not often, a storm showed up too. For years Ralph sailed almost every weekend, frequently both Saturday and Sunday, with my close friends as his crew, while I stayed home with our toddler(s); if you think you catch a whiff of lingering resentment on my part, you might be right. But boy, Ralph enjoyed himself. He always came home whistling with a story to a tell
Nevertheless, around the time we moved to the farm, he sold the sailboat–a matter of distance and weekend farm chores. But in the early nineties we started spending time on the Forgotten Coast, that still unspoiled stretch of Northwest Florida . Ralph being Ralph, we soon owned a lot with a house trailer near a boat ramp. Ralph bought a used skiff with a motor that seemed to die a lot, at least when I was around. I hated that boat. Then he found his beloved Paper Moon, a boat he could maneuver in both shallow streams and the sometimes rough waves of Apalachicola Bay. We moved to a piece of land with a dock on the bay and a garage apartment, but no actual house. By then Ralph and some pals had formed a Fishing Club that met for frequent “tournaments” although active participation dwindled over time to mainly Ralph and his even more obsessive first mate The–Other-Ralph.
Then our daughter introduced us to the new man in her life. Ralph, ever distrustful of her various would-be suitors, accepted this one immediately for a simple reason: he was a serious fisherman, a fly fisherman no less. Fly Fisherman also hit it off with The-Other-Ralph. The three started fishing together and Fly Fisherman willingly took on more and more responsibility for the less fun tasks like prepping the boat, organizing the lunch, and cleaning afterwards.
Over the last few years Ralph, who used to stay out on the water for ten hours straight whatever the weather, began coming home for lunch after a couple of hours, then finding reasons not to go back out in the afternoon with the others. By last spring when The-Other-Ralph’s family and ours gathered for a week of beach and boat, my Ralph found reasons not to fish at all—the heat was bothering him, he had a stomachache. Fly Fisherman ended up taking The-Other-Ralph and his family members out on the boat without Ralph. Afterwards Fly Fisherman cleaned and made repairs as well.
Since then Ralph has not stepped foot on the boat. When I suggested trips to Apalachicola he was less than enthusiastic. We’d get down there and he might cast his line from the dock but he would avoid even visiting the garage where the boat is stored. On a visit last fall, my daughter was dismayed to find the garage in disrepair with mouse droppings and nibbles on the seats.
Ralph’s boating days were clearly over. Still, if he could not quite admit that the boat had become a responsibility he didn’t need and could not longer handle, I wasn’t going to force the issue. And the idea of selling such an essential part of Ralph’s identity was an anathema. (Also daunting since I’d be the one in charge.) So what to do?
With Ralph, The-Other-Ralph and Fly Fisherman about to have milestone birthdays, although thirty years apart, my daughter had a suggestion.
Ralph looked at me askance when I mentioned the possible birthday present. “What if I want to use it?”
“You’ll get Fly Fisherman to take you out.”
The more we talked it over—and believe me we talked it over many times a day, often repeating the same exact sentences—the more Ralph liked the idea. No, loved the idea. Once our two sons, who have no interest in boats, and The-Other-Ralph gave their enthusiastic blessing, Ralph became gleefully obsessed with giving the boat to Fly Fisherman.
Here was his out–a way to acknowledge his loss of interest, not to mention stamina and capability, without losing dignity. He embraced as his own choice the possibility of keeping Paper Moon in the family while handing over the actual responsibility. He told everyone that he’d decided to give the boat to Fly Fisherman. The problem became making sure Ralph didn’t spill the beans about what we wanted to be a birthday surprise, but somehow the word did not get back to Fly Fisherman.
Last week, Ralph sent a birthday card to Fly Fisherman with a photograph of Paper Moon on the cover and a short, funny note inside i explaining n his own words that he was turning over the enclosed boat title.
He signed it, then had a thought and added a PS.
“I still expect to be addressed as Captain when aboard.”
I breathed a sigh of relief both for the smooth transition and the proof that Ralph was still Ralph.