A FINE DAY FOR SAILING by Peter Nolan Smith

My grandmother hailed from County Mayo in Ireland. Her last name was Walsh. Nana traveled to Boston at the age of fourteen by ship. Most of the other passengers were cattle.

“We sailed in the Year of the Crow,” she told her grandchildren in her lovely Gaelic accent.

“When was that?” I asked to pin down her age.

“That’s my secret.”

Women from the West of Ireland were experts at keeping secrets, however that ocean voyage was so traumatic that she had never returned to Ireland, even though every year my mother and her sisters offered to fly Nana to Shannon.

“I don’t want to see that sea again.”

She was adamant with this decision and avoided any sight of the sea.

In the summer of 1958 my older brother and I regularly stayed at Nana’s house in Jamaica Plains to give my parents a break from taking care of six children.

One weekend my parents proposed Nana to take the ferry and meet them for a family outing at Nantasket Beach. They were taking our younger siblings to a church event farther down the South Shore. Her other daughters were bringing her grandchildren and Nana loved us all.

“You’ll save us a long ride back here.”

“I’ll not take the ferry. We’ll take the bus.”

“The bus will take hours,” said my mother.

“Nana, can we go?” I pleaded with her. “I’ve never been on a ship.”

“It’s not the sea. It’s a harbor.”

“All the same to me, but I’ll do it, because I love you.” Nana closed her eyes, as if she were reliving a horror of that North Atlantic crossing from Long Ago.”

“Thank you,” my mother hugged her youngest daughter and they left with my brothers and sisters for our home under the Blue Hills.

The next day was a hot day and we looked forward to the swim in the cold green Atlantic. The three of us rode the train from Forest Hills to Haymarket and then walked to Lowe’s Wharf. The pennants on the SS Nantasket flapped in the light breeze.

Not a single cloud marred on the sky above the calm harbor.

“Looks like a fine day for sailing,” the purser said taking our tickets.

“I’ve heard that before and from another man staying on land.”

Nana sat us inside the steamship. The ferry departed on time and the sea breeze cooled the hundreds of the passengers. A clown prowled the lower decks to entertain the children. He had a funny wig and big floppy feet. My brother and I were scared by him and we kept our distance.

The trip was scheduled to last about 30-40 minutes, however the wind picked up once we cleared Georges Island and the sea smashed over the bow.

Nana clung to my brother and me, while the clown and scores of children slid across the tilting deck.

“Was your trip on the Atlantic this bad?’ asked my brother.

“The waves were tall as buildings. The ship was awash water. Cows were swept overboard. They screamed moos in the ocean. I can hear them now.”

She unleashed a mournful moo.

It sounded of death.

“And people were lost?” My brother gaped at the waves crashing over the hull.

“Cows only. Thank God,” Nana muttered a prayer and pulled us close.

Several minutes later the storm ended faster than it began and we landed at Nantasket on schedule.

My mother stood outside the Waiting Station on the pier.

“Say nothing,” Nana said walking down the gangplank.

The Irish knew how to hold their sand.

“How was the trip?” asked my mother, seeing the abating panic in the eyes of the other passengers.


“So what about a trip to Ireland?”

“Not a chance.”

Nana spent the afternoon in the bandshell. Her feet didn’t touch the beach. She was glad to leave Nantasket and even happier to arrive back to her house in Jamaica Plains. It was far from the wicked sea. She kissed us good-night.

“It was a fine day for sailing,” I told her.

“That it was.”

Nana had a way with words, but an even better one without words.

Her kiss was my ticket to dreamland and none of those dreams involved the ocean.

Maith á aithne agam uirthi.

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