“The [whaleman’s] new wife … gradually advises and directs [the household]; the new husband soon goes to sea; he leaves her to learn and exercise the new government in which she is entered.”
~ J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur, 1782, Letters From an American Farmer
I quickly recognized the intimacy-building benefits of twenty-first century dating habits. Everyone’s mind goes straight to sex, but it’s the other things that felt strange. Not knowing which side of the bed was “mine.” Not knowing his bed-time routine (nightshirt, then prayer beside the bed, then a pipe sitting up against the pillows), or how he slept (on his side, with his arm thrown over me so I’d wake up sweat-soaked) or whether he’d snore (no, but he told me I did). Not knowing whether I should use the chamber pot in front of him, or whether I should go outside to the privy. Those two days at home felt like an in-depth primer in learning-a-person.
Mrs. V had stocked the pantry and taken herself off to her sister’s for the two days, so we had the house to ourselves. And as I got more comfortable in my own skin, I relaxed into the “weekend” feeling of the time away from the ship, and from other people. Late on the second afternoon I picked up his shirt from the floor and pulled it over my head (covering myself to the knees but feeling risque nonetheless), suggesting a raid on the kitchen. My stomach growled agreement, and Obadiah, bereft of his shirt, resorted to his breeches and followed me downstairs.
He rounded up roast beef, a cheese, butter, and bread, and began to make sandwiches (I missed mayonnaise!) and I hoisted myself up to sit on the counter and watch. His scandalized look made me realize what Mrs. Vanderhagen would think of my bare butt on her clean kitchen surfaces, but I was already comfortably perched and swinging my feet. Yet another moment when my natural behaviors didn’t fit the label of “ladylike”—but Obadiah didn’t say anything, and I’d swear he smiled over the bread-buttering. For his sake I would try in public to conform to people’s expectations, but I decided in that moment that I’d be me when I was with him.
“So we’re back to the ship tomorrow?” I asked, accepting a plate from him and setting it on my lap. He didn’t join me in sitting on the counter, but set his own plate beside me, said grace over it, and picked up half his sandwich. I had hastily bowed my head in deference to the pause-for-prayer, and looked up to see him looking at me.
“Back to the ship,” he confirmed. “But you needn’t come if you wish to stay to home.”
“Now what would I do at home if you’re not here?”
“Mrs. Vanderhagen will be back, and I’m sure you two will want to start talking about the housekeeping. Not that she needs help, you know”—he gestured almost apologetically—“but you’ll want to be taking a hand now that it’s your house.”
Um, not so much. Even if I were planning to stay, I barely know my way around a kitchen even when it has a microwave in it, let alone know what to do with a wood stove. I watched his unsuspecting face, cheek full of sandwich, and wondered if I should broach the subject now. Nah, he’d probably choke. No, let’s be more honest with yourself, Gayla—you’re probably too chicken to bring it up. But it had to happen, and soon.
I insisted on accompanying him in the morning, saying simply that time was limited between now and the ship sailing—true enough, and if he drew his own conclusions from that, I still wasn’t brave enough to disillusion him. I’d been rehearsing my argument in my head, though—and argument I knew it would be. I just needed the right combination of opportunity and courage to launch it.
I finally seized my moment as he talked about signing on sailors. “I’m sure you’ve given it some thought, but you’ll still need to sign a steward and a cook before we sail.” I tensed for the storm, and wasn’t sure if his eyes, when they swiveled toward me, held incomprehension or suspicion.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You need to hire a cook before we sail.” I couldn’t help but emphasize the word I was sure he was questioning. Getting a jump-start on my defiant tone as I barreled ahead. “I know you’re already set to sign sailors today, but the cook is a trickier matter, isn’t it?”
“No—yes, I mean. I’ve put out an inquiry for Samson Delacort, he just came in from New York after a cruise with the Abraham, and he’s as good as they come. But…”
I ran over the top of his hesitation. “Oh I’m glad. I think that’s one position where the right man can make a real difference. But of course, you know better than I about that.” At this point it was purely desperate babble.
“Mrs. Starbuck, we need to have a conversation. I will join thee in my cabin.” He matched my emphasis, and I didn’t miss the shift in his speech that indicated deeper emotion. I didn’t want him to work up a head of steam, and I didn’t relish the prospect of waiting for him in the cabin like a child waiting for a scolding. So I grabbed hold of his arm and marched him along with me. And I didn’t give him a chance to start.
“Obadiah, believe me, I have imagined every objection you might raise, and none of them will do. I will not be left at home for years with nothing to do but sweep an empty house. I will not pace that catwalk looking for ships carrying mail, or wondering what is happening with you. I will not be shut out of your world or be relegated to the status of a parlor chair, furnishing your house when you return to it. I will not be an impediment to the workings of your ship, Obadiah, I swear it. I am going with you.”
What followed was without doubt the longest silence of my life.
I don’t think I breathed through the duration.
And when he finally spoke, it didn’t lift my suspense.
“I will see thee at home, Wife, and we will speak of this.”
He left me standing there in the cabin, catching up on my breathing. Not knowing what to do with myself.
So what was the next right thing to do? Well, I guess he’d told me. He would speak to me at home. It was a new concept for me: when in doubt, do what your husband tells you.
I could give that a try. (At least until he told me to stay ashore. Then I’d have to think of something else.)
So I went home, and waited. I won’t say with patience, but with a calmness of spirit I had not expected in myself. Maybe feeling the relief of having the question finally addressed. I’d been much more wound up about it for the days previous, holding the secret of my intentions and trying to work myself up to airing them. The relief served to reinforce my wedding-night resolution of maintaining as much honesty as I could—the secret of planning to sail had been eating me alive.
Obadiah didn’t arrive home until evening. In the interim I had perused his small library, worked part of a scrimshaw scene of whaleboat-repair, and helped Mrs. V with a load of laundry behind the house. Stirring the laundry cauldron, I could picture myself as a Shakespearean witch—and I was acutely aware that the whole inconvenient process would be even more impossible onboard a ship. I didn’t imagine the tryworks cauldrons, dedicated to rendering whale blubber, would be suitable for laundry use, nor would we be wasting fresh water for washing clothes.
And it was that reflection that I shared with Obadiah in the evening to begin illustrating that I had considered in detail what I was asking to get myself into. I understood the dangers, the privations, many of the details of life aboard a whaler. I even understood that I couldn’t understand the full impact of that life without having experienced it. But I understood enough. Details like provisioning (for which I’d had a front-row seat) and laundry and water-availability and even the privy-seat over the stern had not escaped my mind. In fact, those details invaded continually.
“I understand why you’re reluctant to have me along—you have so many reasons to worry, and I know it will mean some adjustments. But I will do absolutely everything I can to be your helpmate”—another word that had stood out in the wedding ceremony—“and improve your voyage rather than detract from it. We just vowed to splice our lives together, but it’s not a marriage if I don’t see you for years. It’s not even a relationship. I want to go with you.”
If I had demanded in the morning, I pleaded now. I didn’t just want to overrule his objections—I wanted him to agree to take me. More than that, I wanted him to want to take me—though I would settle for the agreement.
He regarded me with another of his lengthy silences, then led off a series of questions that told me I’d won. Would I sail without complaint? Would I obey him onboard? Would I cede management of my household to Mrs. Vanderhagen?
That last surprised me, maybe because I’d been so focused on my plan of going-to-sea that I hadn’t taken seriously the expectations of the house ashore. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that I could be seen as dodging my own responsibilities. It didn’t really matter that I’d never wanted that particular responsibility (or whatever privileges came with it)—he saw it as mine.
While I was still considering that, he surprised me again.
“I’ve signed a crew that will sail with you.”
I gaped at him, shocked by the revelation that he’d made up his mind (or at least allowed for the possibility) while I’d still been waiting to finish pleading my case. That made twice he’d sprung on me the very thing I’d been angling for, and he’d managed to surprise me both times. I really did need to get to know this man’s mind better. Well, and now I’d have the opportunity.
“One of these days I will tell you about my parents’ marriage,” he told me, his tone making clear that it was a heavy subject. “But for now… We need to start thinking about kitting you out for a sea voyage. We’d better call Mrs. Vanderhagen.”
Less than a week later, the parlor transformed into a staging-area for packing, I stood surveying my new things—and my new look. A full-length mirror, hauled down from the bedroom, showed me a strange movie-character who didn’t seem like me. Apparently I’d gotten more accustomed than I’d realized to my skirts and petticoats. Though the straight-line trousers were baggier than any pair of Levis I’d ever owned, the yardage seemed skimpy after my full skirts. I turned in front of the mirror, taking in the billowy shirt tucked into the trousers, the suspenders buttoned to the waistband, the “monkey jacket” with its brass buttons.
And the neckerchief Mrs. Vanderhagen had tied jauntily around my neck. It looked like a costume-touch, but I was reminded of the multiple uses of my camp bandanna in Girl Scouts—ranging from First-Aid bandage to potholder to tick-protection—and figured this one probably had as many varied uses as the red one I used to tie over my pigtails.
I wasn’t sure if this packing-job rated above or below Holokai’s wedding dance on Mrs. V’s “strangeness scale,” but it had taken some tough negotiating on both sides. The chest I thought of as my “lady-trunk” was already closed, the embroidered blues from New York freshly cleaned and folded away into the cedar recesses. She had even fit in my straw bonnet, carefully molding it around the dark indigo woolen shawl Obadiah had bought for me. At the top of the trunk, the one reason I knew I’d actually open it—several thick blank sketchbooks, stoppered bottles of ink, pens, and my scrimshander’s stylus.
The second trunk stood empty still, and this time I’d watch carefully how she fit everything in. This one, with my sailor’s garb, would get the heavier use—and left to myself, I wasn’t convinced I could fit everything into it.
Obadiah’s trunk had been a simpler matter to prepare, since she had supplied it multiple times before (and since his personal articles were not a subject of scandalized debate). It—and he—had gone aboard earlier in the evening, and I’d be joining him in the morning with plans to cast off shore lines on the afternoon tide.
It had not escaped me that this night by myself would be my last time alone for the space of some years.
I woke less sweaty than I had for a week, but found I missed the muscular arm that wasn’t draped over me. My nightshirt already packed, I’d slept in the nude again, and stretched out into the luxury of the large bed and its cool linen sheets. I still wasn’t sure how well the two of us would fit into the berth onboard, though I was stubbornly determined we’d make it work. I mentally ticked off the number of days till I could expect my period—as I did every morning—and mentally checked off that the stack of soft cloths had made it into my trunk. I’d only been here through one cycle, and already I missed Tampax. Well, at least I only had to deal with cleaning these for a few days a month—just wait till it was diapers needing washing. I might be eyeing those trypots for laundry after all.
As much as I wanted to luxuriate in the roomy bed, my sense of excitement couldn’t be contained lying down. Besides, I had things to do.
I stood again in front of a mirror, this time taking one last look at my long hair tumbling around bare shoulders and down my back. I’d never cut it, aside from trimming split ends. I remembered the photos of myself as a toddler, and wondered if my hair would go as curly as that again when I relieved it of its waist-length weight. Well, I’d find out in a moment.
I gathered my hair into a ponytail, wrapped a length of embroidery floss at the top of my shoulders, and braided the length with another wrap of floss at the bottom. And then I stood there with the sewing shears in my hand.
I’d said “I do” with far less hesitation.
Finally, swiftly, I cut through the thick rope of hair above the braid. And watched my hair spring into loose curls around my face and shoulders. Somehow that was as momentous a moment as landing in a manure cart the month before. I didn’t know this woman in the mirror—but I was about to set out to meet her.