The line of wash crackles in the freezing salt wind. “Stiff as boards,” Ma says as she unpins the ice encrusted flannel shirts, letting them fall like cedar planks into the old tin bath she uses as a laundry basket.
How her fingers don’t freeze as she hauls it back across the frozen waste that is our lawn in summer, I’ll never know. But in she comes, cheeks the rosiness of the huckleberry pasture in the fall, lips as blue as Da’s old coveralls, kicking the kitchen door behind her with her boot. She plonks the old tin bath down and repeats herself, “Stiff as boards.”
“Just smell the sea.” She grins, “smell Da’s ole shirt, isn’t that just the smell of The Narrows?”
She thrusts the ‘stiff as boards’ clothes under our noses and we, as we know we must, smell. With loud sniffs to please her. Nicky snorts. Benny laughs, a broad laugh showing all his teeth, looking more like Da every day.
Then we sit around the table while our sister, Freda, butters the mountain of hot tea biscuits fresh from the oven. Arms reach, as they have done since we were little kids, in competition to reach the platter first. To grab the hot biscuits and cram them in our mouths before the butter melts. Before it trickles down our chins.
Freda smiles and pours steaming tea from the big brown pot into our blue enamel mugs that all say ‘Admiral’ on the side.
Da won them in a dory race years ago. Back and forth across the gut, ten times. Middle of summer. Arms muscle-bulging. Face redder than the rosy knobs out on the island. Sweat pouring down his bare back like Niagara Falls. Or at least like the pictures of the falls in last year’s calendar. The day he won was a day for celebration. He came home with the box of mugs, giving one to each of us four kids and Ma. “Well,’ he said, “I can only drink out of one at a time, cannot I?” And with that he turned to the jug of screech and poured himself a healthy dose, downing it in one before collapsing with exhaustion on the old swing chair on the stoop.
I can see him now, and I know Ma sees him every day too. We miss the old guy. Drunk or sober, we miss him. That’s why we all still wear his shirts to this day. So we can feel him close, remember the good days, forget the day he went out on the scallop dragger to the George’s Bank. It was the 30th January when it went down. 14 hours out, so heavy with ice it just sank with all five crew. Including Da.
“Come on now Callie, let’s not sit here dreaming. Help me shake this lot out so we can fold ‘em,” says Ma.
So I shake and fold the frozen wash, I smell the sea. And Da.
“Stiff as Boards” first appeared in a longer form, in print, in 100 Voices, 2016.
IMAGE: Marta Orlowska, ‘Untitled’ – 2009, Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/martaorlowska/3722723189/in/gallery-elizabethhudson-72157629512544192/