{Written for Local Voice: A Broken Mic: June 2018: Theme: Things My Ancestors Did}

My son is careful to turn his back before rolling his eyes. We are on the ferry again, and I am pointing out, again, which cities and shipyards played pivotal roles in establishing and supplying the essential infrastructures of World War II – and how he and I are linked to all of it, and he needs to just shut up already because this is so not boring.

We pass through the wide, frigid shadow of the Bay Bridge and my attention turns to the Jeremiah O’Brien, the floating museum that sits in its home berth at Pier 45.

The floating museum is one of 2,700 Liberty Ships built in a rush to transport goods and materials to our allies and then to our own troops in WWII. It took an average of 17 days to build one of these workhorses. They were basically the white Econovans of the sea; All purpose, no pretty. And no comfort.

Mom. I know.

I can’t see his eyes, but I can feel them hit the ceiling. So I keep the rest of my thoughts to myself.

My grandfather served on three Liberty Ships. He was Chief Mate on one and Master (captain) of two: The William Hume was damaged at sea when it hit a mine, but it was the Samuel K. Barlow that killed him.

One man’s illness became every man’s epidemic on board those poorly designed death traps—my grandfather served in both world wars but came home at the end of the last one to die of pneumonia.

He spent his life at sea. Sailing in the Navy in World War I, Merchant Marines in World War II, and as a longshoreman out of San Pedro in between. He was either very patriotic and half merman, or he hated my grandmother as much as she hated him. I met my grandmother, and I’m pretty sure it was the latter over the former.

I have two photos of my grandfather, squinting in the sun over his boys and the model ships they built together when he was on shore leave or on strike. His face is kind, weathered, thoughtful, and slightly uncomfortable, like his sea legs made him queasy on solid ground.

On board the Jeremiah O’Brien, sister ship and exact duplicate of my grandfather’s, I lead my son purposefully through the labyrinth of ladders and passageways to the captain’s cabin. I’d say I make a bee-line for it, but that doesn’t feel very nautical.

The docents have staged the cabin to look like the captain just stepped out for a minute; a made bunk and a few old-timey books stacked here and there to personalize the space.

As I stand on the outside looking in, I imagine his books instead of theirs, and layer in visions of my grandfather moving around inside the close quarters. He pulls a black comb through his dark hair and lays it on the dresser. His hand finds the book he was reading earlier, the leather soft, supple, and warm. The pages dog-eared, familiar, and smudged only by his fingerprints.

A voice outside the door catches his attention, maybe a Good night sir! and he glances up, a soft or stern smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. He turns and pulls the chair back from his desk, or pulls the covers back from his pillow, the small book in his large hands tugging at him to read it already.

Because I am the only person who would accept my mean old grandmother’s things when she died, I have in my home the books my grandfather had on the high seas. They’re more than 100 years old. Cracks wear at their tired leather binding, and now the yellowing of time smudges their pages.

They are of a theme:

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mirror of the Sea, Two Years Before the Mast, Gimme the Boats.
But also Barnaby Rudge, Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, Webster’s Handy-Condensed Dictionary, and most precious of all, his pocket-size Bible and his Christian Science text book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.

And so these books and their stories are familiar to me. Family. Through them, I feel like I know my grandfather. Through the books laid out in this cabin in front of us, I feel like I can reach out and touch his ghost.

And maybe one day this ritual, this introduction I yearn to make between my son and his great-grandfather, maybe someday it will stick, and maybe someday my son will feel into his roots on my side of the family and own with pride some of the things our ancestors did.