By Jodi Hiser
Susannah had never wanted to be a fisherman’s wife.
Growing up in a household with an absent father and an exhausted mother had seared that conviction into her heart. So far in her lifetime, three out of her five sea-bound brothers were lost to accidents of that trade. And despite the tragedies and the losses, her brothers kept leaving for the sea.
“The ocean is in our blood, Susannah!” her boisterous father had once said. This was on a day when he had just arrived home from a three-month voyage. “You just wait! You cannot escape it!” With a deep chuckle, he picked her up and carried her away from the docks.
That was just two years before her father was lost forever. She still felt a catch in her chest when she thought back to that day, the day she was supposed to celebrate her twelfth birthday with her Papa. But his schooner had been mercilessly pounded to pieces in the northwestern gale of 1862. She was one of 140 children that were left fatherless from that wretched storm. And as she watched her mother raise six children alone, Susannah promised herself she would never marry a fisherman.
As she matured, Susannah had different aspirations. She was a woman of science, and she was interested in medicine. Her plan had been to attend the Medical College for Women in New York City. She gained her credentials and even earned an acceptance to this prestigious institution. Everything had been set for her departure to New York.
Oh, why…why did she have to meet Nicholas Clark on that train?
He had caught her eye immediately with that shock of blonde hair and eyes as blue as the summer sky. His smile seemed to light up his entire face with dimples that made her blush. And when he spoke to her in that first introduction, his voice engulfed all of her sharp edges, like a soft blanket, delivering warmth to her most secret places. She learned that he was traveling to his grandparents’ home in upstate New York. From the moment they met, she was enraptured. They talked the entire length of the train ride. And surprisingly, Susannah never made it to the Medical College for Women. Her agenda had been swept away right along with her heart. Instead, she went with Nicholas to meet his grandparents.
And on that particular visit, his grandparents had tried to coerce Nicholas to come and live with them and find work in New York.
But Nicholas had politely refused.
He had already signed his contract with the fishing company in Gloucester.
And that was when Susannah ended up right back where she came from: at the edge of the sea. At the time, she didn’t mind it. She was in love and couldn’t think of being anywhere but there, with Nicholas, as his bride.
“Let’s have lots of children!” Nicholas said to Susannah on their wedding night.
“With blonde hair and blue eyes like their daddy,” said Susannah.
“And strong minds for books and learning like their mother,” said Nicholas.
“And hearts that always come back to their family,” she said.
Always come back…
Their first year had been like a fairy tale. To love and be loved was like the most potent of tonics, infusing her mind and body with exhilaration and joy.
But a spark of worry began when Nicholas was given the role of captain along with his own schooner. He was now gone for longer periods of time. His routes became more and more dangerous as he searched for fish in more precarious waters.
And her anxiety grew worse with his every departure. She couldn’t kiss him goodbye without wondering if it would be their last embrace. She didn’t regret her love for her husband, but she lamented the life he was determined for them to live.
The years passed, and Susannah learned to live with a knot in her middle. The seasons came and went, and Susannah birthed a beautiful baby boy, followed by a precious little girl three years later.
“Kiss me for luck, Susannah,” Nicholas said to her one June morning. He looked handsomely smart with his hair combed and his fishing gear slung on his shoulder.
“You know I don’t believe in luck, Nick,” she said.
With their toddler squirming in her arms, Susannah reached towards his scruffy blonde beard and kissed his dimpled cheek. Her daughter reached over and hugged his neck; their little boy hugged his daddy’s leg, and the four of them stood in a huge mound of hugs, silent and strong, as if time ceased to move in that one moment.
As Susannah and the children waved goodbye to him from their front doorstep, Nicholas turned around and waved one last time. “Be watching for me in August! I’ll be watching for you on the shores as you watch for me.” His blue eyes twinkled in the morning light.
I’ll be watching for you….
The familiar foreboding sank into the pit of Susannah’s stomach, and she sighed a heavy sigh. Three long months to be alone. Again. This was the lamentable life of a fisherman’s wife.
* * *
The long summer days melted into long, sweltering months. Susannah did her best to stay busy, filling her time with caring for the children, keeping up their home, working in their miniature garden, selling her tonics in the weekly market, and keeping up with friends and family in their community.
She could tell that worry had worn away her body and her soul. Her already lean frame was gradually waning thinner, and her simple linen dress hung loosely upon her petite frame. Her reflection showed dark circles under her deep brown eyes, and her sandy brown hair had lost its curly luster.
One night, after Susannah finished the children’s bedtime reading and singing, she stole away to the front porch and stood outside. Her skirts rustled in the sharp winds, and the loose hairs of her long braid whipped across her face. She closed her eyes and prayed, “Dear Lord, please bring him back to me. Please…bring him back…”
Back inside, her turbulent mind finally gave way to a fitful rest, and Susannah felt herself tossing and turning in the night. Her dreams were confusing and frightening, mixed with unusual creatures from the sea and calamitous sounds. Those sounds became louder and louder until Susannah awoke with a BOOM-BA-BOOM of thunder that crashed right over their roof.
A ferocious storm swirled over the ocean, angrily whipping and whirling its way overhead. Susannah looked through her tiny bedroom window. A crack of lighting lit up the sky, illuminating a tempestuous sea. She closed her eyes, trying to escape the wildness of the sounds. But it was of no use. She crinkled her brow and prayed again, “Lord, please bring him back to me! Please…bring him back…”
The next morning, Susannah dragged herself out of bed. As she stood at the stove stirring a pot of breakfast beans, she stared out their kitchen window with eyes glazed. How had her Nicholas fared in the storms last night? she wondered.
“Mama, Mama! When’s breakfast going to be ready?” asked Benjamin. “I’m hungry, so hungry!” He bounced from place to place around the dining table. His five-year-old legs hammered the worn-out cushions of her chairs.
Susannah popped out of her rumination with a jolt. “Just one minute, Benny,” she said. “I haven’t finished your baked beans.” She carefully ladled the hot beans upon his plate and cut a thick slice of sourdough bread. After lathering the bread with butter, she handed the plate to her son.
“Aww, Mama, no jam?” he asked. “It’s too plain without the jam!”
“We will have to wait until your father receives his pay from the docks soon,” she said.
“Today? Will he come home today?” he asked again, his eyes bouncing this time inside his head.
Susannah looked beyond their kitchen window to the sea beyond. Waves churned up and over a high crest, crashing into the shore with crackling booms. Shimmering masses of green seaweed were strewn about the coast, vomited up from the depths of the sea in the night. Stray boats from the docks had been upturned and tossed onto the beach, a clear sign of the turmoil that had reigned just a few hours before.
“It is today, isn’t it Mama?” He scooped a bit of beans into his mouth and talked hurriedly. “You said it was today! It’s August 25th! The day Daddy comes home!”
How could she ever break it to Benjamin if her worst fears had actually come true? What would she do? Where would they go?
A small gasp caught upwards inside Susannah’s chest. “Oh, yes, my love. Today,” she said in a quiet voice. “As soon as we clean up, we can go to the shore and watch for the boats.”
Benjamin quickly washed his breakfast dish and ran to the door to grab his straw hat. “Come on, Mama! The sun is already shining bright! We’ve got to go and find our place to wait!”
“Just a minute, my bouncy boy,” Susannah said to her son. “Let me finish dressing your baby sister.” Susannah reached down and picked up her baby girl. Little Clara had been enjoying the crumbs on the floor, much to Susannah’s dismay. She carefully buttoned up her toddler’s red linen dress. Susannah had made it herself, from one of her old Sunday dresses. It was the nicest thing that her little girl owned.
She nodded to herself in satisfaction. They must all look respectable, as they waited for Nicholas to come back to them. She would choose to believe the best. Oh, why was that so difficult?
She smoothed her hair and forced a smile onto her face. “Okay, my little chicks. Ready to go?”
Benjamin opened the door and raced across the cobblestone road, headed for a place to perch on the beach. Susannah quickly followed behind, with Clara in her arms.
Today was supposed to be a joyous day. They hadn’t seen Nicholas in three months! How surprised he would be when he saw their Clara! She was so big now! Fireflies seemed to dance up and down Susannah’s stomach. But her excited energy was mixed with something worse. She couldn’t shake a feeling of dread.
Benjamin found an upturned boat and climbed onto the top, watching and waiting. Susannah stood close behind, humming a sea shanty to calm her nerves.
Susannah looked toward the horizon. He would come back, wouldn’t he?
Would the Lord ask her to sacrifice her Nicholas—to sacrifice everything she had—again?
Susannah took a deep breath and willed herself to calm her breathing. She closed her eyes and listened to the rolling waves of the ocean.
The minutes turned into an hour. Susannah bounced Clara in her arms, hoping the child would nap on her shoulder while she held a silent vigil for her husband.
The hour turned into two. Benjamin sat as still as a statue, scanning the horizon, watching and listening for boats.
At long last, four white sails drifted into their view. Susannah’s heart leaped into her throat as she and Benjamin began to name them.
“There’s Ephraim’s boat, and Daniel’s, Mama!” said Benjamin. “And there’s Jack’s boat, and William’s….”
Her heart thudded in anticipation. She knew that she could recognize Nick’s boat anywhere. It had a red stripe lining its sides with the outline of a codfish painted at the back. Oh, where was that precious red stripe?
“Would you like to go down to the docks, Benny?” asked Susannah. “We could count the boats from there.”
Benjamin slid off his upturned boat perch with a silent solemnity. Did he have a feeling of dread, too?
One by one, the sailors made their way into the docking areas. By this time, other mothers and children had also made their way, murmuring their conversations of worry and fear. Meanwhile, boat after boat kept piling into the docks.
The serene sounds of the waves rolling into the shore were soon overtaken with the commotion of men unloading cargo and the ruckus of sailors in their exasperation. Every which way, Susannah heard raging words:
“Winds were stronger than I ever seen!”
“Lost our anchor!”
“Never a storm like it!”
“Dragged two miles off course!”
“Our cargo tipped right in—“
“Seven hundred pounds of fish, just gone!”
“And the ocean gobbled up our gear!”
A tangible quivering rattled inside of Susannah, convulsing her middle with sharp vibrations. She looked at her hands that held her sleeping toddler. They were shaking, and she couldn’t stop. Benjamin looked equally frightened, his head darting to and fro, looking for his dad.
Susannah’s vision began to blur, and her breathing became erratic. Oh Lord, please help me! I cannot bear this!
Just then, old Ephraim Edwards lumbered towards her, twisting his hat in his hands. Susannah recognized the Old Irishman at once. His bushy red hair and his uneven gait gave him the appearance of a waddling red rooster. Ephraim was Nick’s long-time friend and mentor.
“Och, Susannah, I’m awful sorry,” he said. “I’m right sick to have to tell ya,” he paused and took a deep breath. “In tha’ storm… last night…Nick’s boat was swept into tha’ deep waters. The winds came up somethin’ mighty, and turned his boat on its side, tossin’ it upside down.” Ephraim’s hands mimicked the actions of his story, looping in waves with a final chop in the air. He furrowed his brow and looked down at his feet. “His crew was pitched into the waters, and there they were, all tryin’ to stay afloat.”
Susannah’s heart beat faster and faster. She didn’t want to hear the words that were coming next. She closed her eyes and hung her head. “No….” she managed to squeak. It was all she could think to say.
“By the time our schooner reached his men in the water, Nick was gone,” quavered Ephraim.
“The whole crew?” asked Susannah, not daring to look at him in the face.
Just then, a soft voice spoke behind her. “Uhm…Mrs. Clark?”
Susannah spun around to see Abe Goldman. Abe was just a bit younger than she, newly married with a wife expecting her first baby.
Abe cleared his throat and began. “Mrs. Clark, I wanted you to know…I just wanted you to know…” He seemed to choke on his words, but diligently continued. “Our crew was saved, but Nick…well he gave me his life preserver and….”
Abe stopped with a short gasp in his breath and he looked away for a quick moment. He wiped his eyes and began again.
“Nick tossed his life preserver to me, Susannah,” whispered Abe. “He said he could tread water better’n’ any of us. I didn’t even have time to refuse it. He simply threw it at me.” Abe looked down at his feet and furrowed his brow. “And then he… he just disappeared under the waves.”
“Och, we’re awful sorry, my Dear,” Ephraim quivered.
Susannah looked up to see Abe’s wife steadying herself on his arm. She held her round belly and shifted her weight underneath her dainty feet. Susannah knew this woman’s look. It was the look of sadness for someone else, but sheer relief that the grim reality wasn’t about her husband.
“He was like that, you know?” said Abe again. “Never thought of himself. Only protectin’ others.”
Susannah’s feet became like jelly and she crumpled to the ground in a heap with her toddler still in her arms. She felt like she would explode with grief. She wanted to wail, but no sound would come out of her mouth. She wanted to cry and yell and ask more questions, but she couldn’t even breathe. She just lay there, gasping for air, with silent tears streaming down her cheeks.
Where was the protection for her? Was Nick thinking of her when he decided to squander his life for another? Was he considering her when he chose not to fight and survive? She would never be the same. She had been stripped of everything good and lovely and beautiful. With hot tears flooding her eyes, she could only feel bitterness. This was the miserable, wretched life of a fisherman’s wife!
* * *
Four years later, Susannah stood on the porch of Clark Medical Clinic, overlooking the sea. She closed her eyes and breathed in the cool salty air. Despite all that the sea had taken away, her father had been right. The ocean was in her blood, and she couldn’t escape it.
In the beginning of her grief, Susannah had only felt raw, searing pain. Nick was in her thoughts every moment of every day. She could only feel the great weight of what she had lost, and the heaviness crushed her from the inside out. At first, she had simply wanted to escape. She couldn’t stay in a place that had robbed her of so much joy. She knew that she needed to think of something, anything, that was different from Nick or the sea or the fact that he wasn’t there anymore.
She had left Gloucester with her children in tow, headed for New York. Nick’s grandparents had graciously invited them to stay while she attended classes at the medical college for the next four years. During their stay, Susannah forged deep and loving relationships with the elderly couple. Despite their age, they laughed and played heartily with the kids. Susannah somehow felt her husband’s presence surrounding her as she lingered on the lawn and dined in the kitchen of his childhood home. Upon her graduation, Susannah had entertained the idea of starting a practice in upstate New York.
But to her astonishment, the sea had beckoned her home.
A wintry breeze swept up from the ocean, fluttering her hair and whipping her skirts. The sign of her clinic creaked loudly in the wind.
“I guess I’ll have to tighten that,” she whispered to herself. “We can’t have our medical sign flying around with every wind that comes out of the north.”
She crossed her arms and hugged her shawl closer to her heart, trying to keep warm from the sudden cold. Her thoughts drifted towards the memories of her late husband. Nick had taught her that the risk of a deep and committed love was the risk of heart-wrenching loss. But she didn’t regret loving him, not one bit. At first, she had been angry with him for giving his life away. But she realized that the traits that made her fall in love with him ten years prior were actually the same traits that led Nick to sacrifice his life on that dark night in the sea. And his sacrifice had become her sacrifice too. But Nick wouldn’t have had it any other way. He was the kind of man who knew the risks, and loved with his whole heart anyway. And that was the kind of person she wanted to be.
“Mama, Mama, when’s breakfast going to be ready?” asked a bigger nine-year-old Benjamin. His curly blond head and laughing blue eyes were a spitting image of his father. “I’m so very hungry!”
“In one moment, Ben,” said Susannah. “Would you help your sister with the jam? It’s in the cupboard. And gather the fresh butter too.”
As the three of them sat around a new table for a hearty breakfast of fish, eggs, and bread, Clara spoke up.
“Mama, after you see your patients today, can we go down to the docks? I’d like to watch the boats coming in! It’s always so exciting when they come into the harbor.”
Susannah tightened her smile and looked into her daughter’s eyes. “Yes, my love, we’ll watch the fishermen coming home today.”
As they finished their breakfast with their normal morning chatter, a surprise revelation alighted into Susannah’s mind. She realized, that for the first time in four years, she wasn’t feeling that familiar pain in her chest. She felt lighter, tranquil, and at rest. It was at that moment that she knew; the scars of grief would always remain, but the bitterness of the wound had cooled, and her heart was actually at peace.
She couldn’t help but feel thankfulness for the gifts of children that Nicholas had given her. Her life with Nick, although short, had been rich. And even in his passing, God had given her a wealth that was beyond the money she could ever earn from her medical practice. She had the privilege of raising two precious souls that were growing up before her very eyes. And she had a special place in this tiny fishing community, a place with people who knew what it meant to love well.
She was so grateful that she had been a fisherman’s wife.
* * *
This fictional narrative was based upon a true story that most likely inspired Winslow Homer in his painting of Dad’s Coming Home. Winslow spent a summer in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1873. On August 24, a northwesterly storm hit the coast of this fishing town, sinking 9 vessels and claiming the lives of 128 men. This storm was another tragedy amongst many to hit this town and this trade. It was the catalyst toward change in making sea vessels more fit and safe for the working fishermen.