Every elementary school sleepover I attended was plagued by some homesick girl, begging to be taken home just hours into the evening. I judged that girl harshly. And continued to judge, as she grew into the preteen at summer camp, the freshman in my dorm, the graduate student in Vermont, the expat in the Caribbean, the woman on vacation in the South Pacific. All of them would weep into telephones, wanting to be rescued. I would roll my eyes, unable to fathom making that kind of call. Until I spent Thanksgiving at sea, that is. Empathy kicked in at age 43 — just off the island of Rodrigues, in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
In 2014, when I embarked, with no sailing experience, on a year-long “sail training adventure,” I did not know what to expect. But my first thought — when I looked across the harbor at the 180-foot square-rigged tall ship — was “I live there now.” Everywhere I’ve stayed for any length of time has soon felt like home. I make friends easily. I didn’t know enough then about the realities of life at sea to be concerned. I couldn’t know about the lack of both privacy and intimacy or about the strange and complicated systems of government, economics, politics and sex that would emerge a few weeks into any ocean crossing.
But it became clear almost immediately that neither the ship nor the sea would ever feel like home. By Thanksgiving we were five months in. I knew the ship inside and out, could set and take in sail, splice rope and bust rust, tie lashings, steer by the southern cross, eat meals full of weevils, kill cockroaches with my bare hands, and sleep soundly through rough and rolling seas. But I was still reluctant to wear my knife. Not because I didn’t need or know how to use it, but because I still didn’t feel like a sailor.
Once, cleaning out my three-by-six-foot bunk, I removed 16 books. A shipmate looked at that pile, incredulous. I didn’t know how to tell him I was looking for comfort in these books, that every day I felt adrift. It wasn’t homesickness I felt, but lovesickness. I wanted to be known, valued and understood. But those things require intimacy, and that was a rare thing at sea, often met with derision. Tall-ship sailors were meant to be salty, not sensitive. So on the quarterdeck during night watch — as we fantasized about dairy products, hot showers, ice cubes and avocados — I’d also think about my in-laws. A funny thing to say, since I’ve never been married.
But it’s a label my family can understand. If I were married, I once said, I’d be expected to spend holidays with my beloved. They grudgingly agreed. So nearly every Thanksgiving I sit down to a feast with my chosen family of artists, musicians and dreamers, celebrating not so much harvest or heritage but our intertwined histories. It’s an anniversary as much as anything. Along with the lemon garlic green beans, the radicchio with hazelnuts and Roquefort, the orange-glazed yams, the oyster stuffing, bacon-wrapped turkey, and carefully paired flights of wine, we would retell the stories of how we first fell, and continue to fall, in love. There’s music, poetry, irrepressible laughter, a smattering of tears and, without fail, the dancing portion of the evening.
The year I was at sea, my in-laws sent a photograph of the Thanksgiving menu. First course: Cream of cauliflower soup (with Nicole’s nutmeg). They’d taken the jar from my spice cabinet as I packed my sea bag. Beneath the photo was a note: Nothing is the same without you. That broke my heart a little, reminding me of life before the ship: Before it was an accomplishment to go a day without being called incompetent, lazy, princess, pansy, pussy, ingrate, idiot, retard or moron.
No surprise, then, that Thanksgiving onboard was pale and awful, the reverie forced and false in stark comparison, despite the generous bottles of wine and the meal of potato salad and fried chicken — rare luxuries at sea. I ate halfheartedly, faking my smiles. Had there been a telephone, I would have wept into it without shame. I wanted out, in that moment, as much as any 9-year-old at a sleepover. So I excused myself from the party to sit alone on the smoker’s bench, arms wrapped around myself.
That bench was the closest thing we had to a sacred place, so when a woman I thought was my friend sat down and asked what was wrong, I was honest: “Homesick,” I shrugged. “Lovesick and sad.”
She took a long drag from her cigarette, exhaled slowly and said: “Ungrateful.”
The word felt like a gut punch, though she was trying to remind me I was in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Which is true, and my life is richer for it.
But she had it all wrong. The sadness of that Thanksgiving had everything to do with gratitude. For the gorgeous, flawed, perfect family with whom I’ve chosen to share my life. For the way they love me fiercely, without judgment or hesitation. For knowing they’ll come to my rescue, no matter how late I call.