Monday, April 19, 2010

the voyage

It wasn't like an escape from Tibet through the high Himalayas without a yak but travel from England to North America in the early fifties wasn't without hardship of its own. In March of 1953 we traveled by train to Southhampton where we would board a ship to take us across the Atlantic. As we walked along a huge pier we saw a dozen tugboats towing a giant ship into dock. I don't remember the remarks between my parents as we watched its stately progress but it's a conversation that was recounted many times as I grew up. My mother said, 'How wonderful you found us such a beautiful ship to sail on. I know I won't be afraid in that'. To which my father replied, 'No, that's the Queen Mary and we won't be sailing on her. That's our ship just over to the left of us', and he pointed down at a little Greek liner docked nearby.

I didn't know why she was crying. I was six, a young six even for those times, and I remember standing in the doorway of our living room watching my mother cry as she finished laying out the china that had been sold along with the dining room set and all the other furniture. We were going to Canada because I was too weak to remain in England's damp climate in the post war years what with rationed food and overburdened hospitals - the ones that hadn't been bombed or burned. There were strict limits on how much immigrants could take on the ship so almost everything had to go. Even my dolls. I was allowed one but not my favorite because a neighbor had borrowed one of the others and had sewn and knitted little outfits for him. That was the one who came with us, packed away in a trunk somewhere.

We must have boarded but I have no memory of doing so. Do you remember I mentioned it was March? That's a very nasty time of year to sail the North Atlantic with its high waves, squalls and even storms blowing. The ship was small and not having the stabilizers used on modern cruise liners resulted in me not seeing my mother again until we reached the far shore. Seasickness is a very unpleasant experience. I had my own little cabin but was too ill to get out of my bunk. I have a vague memory of a stewardess bringing me a little bowl of mashed potatoes saying they would help settle my stomach. It must have worked.

Next morning my dad came to get me. He'd been in the navy for more than six years during the war and he loved ships. There was no way he was going to leave me throwing up and moaning with the mighty ocean waiting just along the companionway and up the stairs. He said the sea air would soon set me to rights. Warmly dressed and a little wobbly kneed at first I held his hand as we walked around the outer deck. I was fascinated enough by the gulls, the deck chairs, the life boats hanging near the rails, the ropes, the giant ventilators curving up from the deck and every big and little thing but my father had a destination in mind and urged me along.

He'd been making friends with the captain and the sailors too and had permission (at least I think he did) to take me on a visit to the engine room. We went through a door and down dimly lit long narrow staircases - far, far down. The throbbing noise of the engines grew louder as we went deeper into the ship. Finally we were at the last staircase and below us were dozens of men feeding boilers, turning dials, rushing back and forth as whistles blew, steam vented and bells clanged. It was pretty crazy. Meanwhile, my dad, who'd spent his navy career in just such a place, tried to tell me what everything was and how it all worked in harmony. I knew it was important to him that I understood but I was so completely boggled by the dirt, the dark, the heat and the overwhelming noise that I all I remember now is an impression of what I saw.

The trip lasted nearly eight days and was by far the longest time I'd ever spent alone with my father. Every day he'd take me by their cabin where my mother would give me a weak little wave before collapsing back into her blankets. Most of the other passengers rarely left their cabins to come on deck so my dad and I had the ship to ourselves. We visited the captain and officers on the bridge who were kind enough to let me hold the wheel until I got bored. They let me blow the foghorn too - which was okay because it was foggy that day. The dining room tables were like big trays with shallow wooden borders so your plate wouldn't slide off during heavy weather.

Everyone was supposed to participate in the lifeboat drill but dad and I were the only ones there the afternoon the sailors demonstrated their finesse at launching the things. He reminisced about riding zip lines between ships in waves much higher than these and told me about the naval battles and ships being bombed from the air. He learned how to swim from a ship in the Mediterranean when that sea was so clear you could see a mile down to the bottom. He told me most sailors don't swim because if your ship goes down there's no place to swim to. I had a feeling my mother wouldn't approve of all he told me.

There was one place we loved to go every day and that was to stand at the bow while the ship cut through the waves. Water poured through the scuppers and dad held my hand as we watched the sun set. He told me a little saying familiar to all sailors everywhere, ' They went to sea to see the world but all they saw was the sea'.


  1. Oh my, such parallels with my own story of crossing the Atlantic in November 1951 from Copenhagen to Halifax. I don't remember much of it except the stormy seas and my cousin and I loving being on the deck, sliding from rail to wall and back with the roll of the ship. The women were tending those who were seasick, like a pregnant aunt. It was a terrible rusty old ship too. Your story sounds much more interesting, so nice to spend the time with your father and to have those memories!

  2. And, I meant to say, I love your drawings! Did you come into Halifax like we did?

  3. i love your stories and drawings, susan. when i saw that you had done another one, my heart went pitter-pat.
    its fun seeing the world through your eyes. your childhood memories are remarkable.
    the picture of you and your dad above the engine room is wonderful. the boiler especially catches my eye- it is alive with angry eyes and little wheels for cheeks and fire coming from it's hungry, square-jawed mouth.

  4. marja-leena - That's fascinating we both traveled at similar times and by similar routes. My mother swore she would never get on a ship again and never did. Five years later we flew back to England for a long holiday and I remember staring out the windows at the long gray sea.

    We docked in Quebec City.

    sera - I love knowing you love them. The odd thing for me about going back in time that way is falling all the way in and having to draw my way out. The engine room was definitely the most challenging of this group and I'm glad it worked so well :-)

  5. What a gracious sharing of your memories with us susan. Thank you. I can only imagine what my family went through on their voyages over from Europe. My Mother was born here, but she had three sisters that were very young when her Father and Mother came to America from Italy.
    On my Father's side of the family, Grandpa Alphonso came over first and worked on the railroad for a couple of years before he sent for Grandma Mary and the children. Like my Mother, My Father was born in this country, but had a brother that was born in Italy.
    Your drawings are fantastic. Simple, but enough detail to narrate your words, or vice versa.
    Thanks again.


  6. What a wonderful way to share your memories Susan. I love this

  7. I was so particularly touched by your mother's tears upon seeing the ship you would be traveling on. I can imagine how disappointed she was and how it brought up all her feelings about leaving.
    As always, your drawings are so very evocative and, whether or not you are writing about a voyage, you always take us to a new place in your art work.

  8. spadoman - The ship we sailed on was old and rickety. Like most it had been a troop ship during the war and still showed signs of heavy use. nevertheless, I'm pretty sure it was the height of luxury compared to those earlier ships that carried your grandparents at the turn of the century.

    I'm very glad the story and drawings appealed to you so much.

    jams - I started Adventures a couple of years ago as illustrated narrations of incidents I remembered. Glad you enjoyed this one.

    belette - Yes, my mother was very loathe to leave England, her home, and most especially, her family. My dad would have gone to Australia for the sake of spending twice as long on a ship.

    It's strange but I've noticed my writing skill devolves depending on the age I'm remembering while writing. Thank goodness the drawings maintain a sufficient quality to carry the story :-)

  9. This story seems so apropos to what I've been researching. And it was a delight to read. The pictures are fetching. I love the backs of characters. It lets me be part of the action in some way.

  10. lisa - Now I'm wondering what you've been researching. Hmm?

  11. falling all the way in and drawing myself out

    i love that phrase. going in all the way-- committing oneself-- is one of the hardest things to do.

    it works for you.

  12. I'm a landlubber, so the idea of crossing the North Atlantic during March isn't real high on the "ooh, cool" list, but your stories are so good that I would almost consider it. Almost.

  13. sera - There'd be many more Adventures posted if it were easy but I will dive in at another spot soon. I promise.

    randal - I had no choice about making that particular trip ;-)

  14. Vivid and wonderful, as always. You managed to make the Queen Mary look huge. I love the boiler room illustration. I can almost hear the noise and get a sense of what seemed like chaos to a small girl.

    The second illustration held me the longest, however. The transparency of the woman, the bunk visible through her... Is she the vague memory of the stewardess? The wished for mother (absent because she was so ill)? It made me think. There is so much longing in that image.

    And the final illustration - you and your father facing the setting sun, the wind from the west, and your future in a new world...

    I love the way you usually show yourself and family from the back - seeing through your eyes and seeing you in the scene, both at once. It works so well, and I can't recall anything quite like it anywhere else.

  15. steve - I was very happy to read your commentary about the story and, yes, you got everything right. I wasn't happy going down into the depths of that ship but my dad was so pleased with the opportunity I didn't make a fuss. The stewardess was actually very skinny (like my mother) but the comfortably plump version worked better for the drawing. I'd never been separated from my mother til then. The last drawing was the first I envisioned.

    Right from the beginning I've done the back view drawings. It just allowed me a little perspective on the events.

  16. i was here but not signed in so back i went because i am too lazy to do it here as that never works....this is so sweet and how you tell such a wonderful story with the drawings is's so subtle, i am always wondering if you do it somehow without us knowing....they are simple on the surface, until you really start looking at the bits of them, the little blanket on the bed, the stewardess who is half seen-through[reading your comment to steve, it makes sense now and i had that impression, it looks like a very big bed and port hole for a small child!, the night sky, the boiler and all the very big scary noisy things down there, i was waiting to see a picture of your mother but alas, that must not have impressed your young mind...there is something very sweet about you and your father standing there, holding hands, looking out to sea....i was enchanted by all of this and was sad to see it end....hoping you can find time to do more, you have such a talent ;)

  17. linda - I'm very happy you came by and noticed it was up. Drawing stories about my very early memories really is difficult for me and, as I'm sure you've experienced yourself, pulls up all sorts of unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable images into consciousness. I neither write nor draw very well but there's a strange synchrony between both forms in these illustrated events and I try to be truthful as well as I'm able. My mother really was out of the picture for this trip but got better in a hurry once we landed :-)

    I will try to do more because this seems like something important. Why, I don't know.

  18. I love your illustrated memory-stories, Susan. These would make such a wonderful children's book, too.

  19. the crow - Sweet idea, but some of them are just a little on the rude side, don't you think?

  20. Long after the event of your writing this, I find! Eureka! What an interesting blog tell the story in words and pictures--but NOT someone ELSE'S pictures or photos.

    And you do it 'exquisitely' Susan. What a nice surprise I found here tonight via Linda from Sonoma County, CA. She is a number ONE favorite of mine!

    I'm gonna read the Artist's Model" next...really REALLY like/enjoy/appreciate your work, humorous, charming, educational, and what else? I'm thinking you LOVE it!


  21. skizo - It appears I missed your visit but thank you.

    steve e - The Adventures are lots of fun to do when I work up the energy to draw 4-5 associated pictures to tell a particular story from my past. They came fast and furious at first but even now I still add one occasionally. I'm very glad you've enjoyed visiting.

    Linda is one of my oldest blog friends and I did recognize your name from comments left at VP. Perhaps we'll see each other there and meanwhile, I'll come to visit you.

    All the very best to you.

  22. Queen Mary? Small? I used to watch it along the Solent from the Isle of Wight. I’ve ‘sailed’ on it too, whilst it has been permanently moored at Long Beach, California.

    But in 1946 I made the epic voyage, like you, from Fremantle Australia to Tilbury in Essex, on the mv Rangitata, a lot smaller than the Queen Mary. Oh, how I wish I could draw like you!

  23. vincent - Oh yes, the Queen Mary was big especially when compared to the one stack Greek liner we sailed on to Canada.

    I'm happy you enjoy my drawings. Although I supported myself doing office work, drawing has always been my favorite activity.

  24. OK, I misread you, but reading again I see that your father said, "That's not the one we'll be travelling on."

    Revisiting the Island recently, I saw the cruise ship Queen Mary 2 at Southampton. Not as beautiful as the earlier namesake!