Tag Archives: memories

Rowboat Song

Brass oarlocks on wax-print fabric

Rowboat Song

My song is for the rowboat hauled out for winter, 
listing in a sea of leaves.  I love her lines,  
the graceful beauty of her usefulness.  But even more 
I love the way she carries the music  
of my father, his summertime humming  
and the ringing of brass oarlocks dangling from his hand 
as we walked the tangled path pungent with huckleberry 
and sweet fern in August heat. 

                                                           Our syncopated footsteps
on the wooden runway, the slight lift and sway of the float 
beneath us, slap-slap of running line on water  
bringing the dinghy in.  My father’s slender fingers  
worked the line, hand over hand, removing strands of eelgrass 
and slimy mermaid’s hair, green, and matted. 

                                                                                      And then 
his easy rowing, skilled feathering of oars, their rhythmic turning 
in the locks, a two-part pulse of leather and wood against brass: 
back and forward, back and forward.  Between strokes, 
from the oar tips a whispered staccato drips in tiny 
running steps across the water’s surface. 

Did we speak?  Maybe a little.  Mostly in silence we’d do 
what was needed—unstop the sails and hoist them,  
let go the mooring line, back the jib to bring the bow 
around, and with sails filling slip gently out the harbor. 

Strange–I remember always the setting out 
rarely the homecoming, always a new beginning, 
always another chance. 



Father on porch

Remembering My Father’s Slide Rule

Father on porch

My dad, Richard P. Curtis, c. 1964?, Marblehead, MA

My father was an engineer who died before the advent of pocket calculators, personal computers, and smart phones. Often when he came home from work, his slide rule was still nestled in the pocket of his white button-down shirt. I am embarrassed and even a bit ashamed to admit that I have never used a slide rule and wouldn’t know what to do with one. Even though I was quite good at math, I avoided calculus and chemistry and never learned to use a slide rule.

If I held one in my hand, I would treat it with respect and curiosity. Not as playful as an abacus with its sliding beads capable of making music when shaken, a slide rule by its silence and straight edges seems a sober sort of tool. But nonetheless possessing a certain sort of beauty, with its numbers so small I might now need a magnifying glass to read them. And that center panel that slides to line up universes of possibility–imagine holding the secret solution to so many puzzles!

In the old black and white photograph my father sits on a folding summer chair on our generous porch high above the ground that fell away from the ledges on which our house was built. The neighbors’ trees in the background are smaller than I remember them. The house in the far distance at the top of our neighborhood hill was less than a quarter mile from the house where my father was born.

The sleeves of my father’s white Oxford shirt have been neatly rolled to his elbows. His face is turned downward toward his hands. His long slender fingers hold the slide rule gently, gracefully, as he works some calculation that will likely be recorded on the back of an envelope in small, tidy figures.

His handwriting is neat but not fussy. He signs his name with one modest flourish at the end, so that the tail of the “s” on Curtis swoops around counter-clockwise to cross the “t.” Then his hand lifts to dot the “i.”

My father has been dead so many years I nearly clutch my heart when I come upon his handwriting–those unmistakable tracks made by his own hand. Some days I bend down and put my lips to the inked letters to kiss them, or hold the lettered paper against my heart.

*I wrote this piece with this photo in mind but not in front of me. I’m not sure my dad is in fact holding his slide rule in this photo, but it doesn’t really matter.