Finding Family on The High Seas by Erin Bottino

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Putting the sunglasses on the lobster was the best decision I made all day. John and Sarah, the pair of middle-aged Michiganders we’d been seated next to, started chuckling when they noticed what I’d done.

“Don’t say anything!” I begged, checking to see how far my mother was from the table. Sarah mimed zipping her lips, then cracked her own lobster open and went to work.

When my ma got back to the table, she laughed so hard she nearly dropped her plate. “How did you do that?” she asked, joining me at her seat along the long banquet tables set up to accommodate the hundred-odd cruise patrons joining us. I showed her the glasses’ temples, hooked behind the first pair of the lobster’s bright red legs, then took a couple pictures before tucking the shades away and tucking in.

We were dining at The Inn on Peaks Island, a house turned banquet hall used by cruise lines to host authentic New England lobster dinners. Rather than an interior room, the meal was set up in a windowed outdoor event tent, allowing us to see the pristine waters of the Atlantic where our food came from as we ate. The weather was picturesque, and if I had seen it on TV I would have thought it looked fake—perfect blue sky, a few puffy clouds dotting the sky, waves big enough to see but not choppy enough to make anyone nervous.

Once we finished eating, Ma and I split up. She headed to the restroom, passing me her fancy Canon with a quick command: “Go take some good pictures!”

The Inn is built atop a hill on a road that lead all the way down to the pier in one straight shot. I took some photos of the flowers out front: bright red hydrangeas, butter-yellow lilies, and some unknown plant with tiny blossoms perched on a tangle of blood-red stems and leaves. When I crossed the street towards the water, the views were even better, and I played around with the environment as I waited. A squat sedan with a dented bumper sat front in center with the cruise ship visible in the distance. In another picture, a fat bumblebee flew lazily through a copse of sunflowers, pollen dusted across its legs.

When Ma joined me outside, we snapped a few selfies in front of the water before heading across the intersection to Peaks Island’s premier gift shop. The building couldn’t have been more than fifteen feet in any direction, and it was jammed with other cruisers. We joined the horde, and in a few minutes, I made my way back to show her my finds.

“This for Maria,” I said, showing off the lobster-printed shot glass to join the others I’ve collected for my sister during my last few years of travel. “And this for me.”

I pulled it out from behind my back: a foot-long, cherry-red stuffed lobster, complete with dangling cloth antennae.

“He’ll look great in sunglasses!”

The water was what struck me first; it was a dark, deep blue, but the steady gusts of wind that tipped the water with frothing white sea foam. It had also forced my mother and I to each purchase warmer accessories earlier in the morning, her a pair of thick wool mittens with CANADA emblazoned across the backs and me a hand-knitted scarf made by a local craftswoman that kept the breeze from blowing down my neck.

“Always be careful about getting too close to the edge of the coast,” our bus guide had warned during the 45-minute drive from our ship’s port of call in Halifax to Peggy’s Cove, a small village on the eastern edge of St. Margaret’s Bay with a collection of shops and restaurants popular with tourists. A couple years prior, she added, a man visiting from Ontario had gotten too close to the water and been swept out to sea. His body was recovered a few days later.

Thoroughly spooked, Ma and I stayed inland at first. A collection of weathered wooden buildings was clustered around a few calmer pools of water. If you closed your eyes you could imagine it as it might have been decades ago, bustling with workers hauling in the day’s catch. There we snapped photos of old fishing equipment that was left behind (or more likely, artfully placed) while nibbling on strips of dulse, a Canadian snack made from dried seaweed.

With fifteen minutes before the buses left—with or without us, as the guide had made very clear—Ma and I split up. She headed to Peggy’s Point Lighthouse, the cove’s most distinctive structure and the center of the tourist swarm. I, on the other hand, began picking my way towards the coastline, anxiety prickling in my gut.

“Be careful,” my mother commanded. “Don’t get too close to the edge!”

“No worries,” I responded, more calmly than I felt. “I’ll keep my eyes open, I promise.”

Unlike many islands, the ground that makes up the edges of Peggy’s Cove is not sand or grass but massive grey batholith rocks shoved together like misshapen puzzle pieces by traveling glaciers thousands of years ago. Mindful of the gaps in the stone, where pools of saltwater collected and bursts of green and red wildflowers stubbornly survived, I made my way towards the ocean.

I was grateful I’d worn my tennis shoes, as I had to channel my inner mountain goat to jump from rock to rock looking for the best lookout spot. Each careful breath I took carried the salty, algal scent of bay water with it, sharper than the clean ocean air that I’d been smelling when the cruise ship was out at sea. When I finally summited my rock of choice, standing tall to survey the stretch of Atlantic glinting under the strong noon sunlight, I felt like an intrepid pioneer—like I’d accomplished some great feat, and like the whole world stood before me, just waiting to be explored.

If the port days on a cruise are about taking advantage of new adventures, days at sea are all about ferreting them out. Despite the boasting of the Carnival staff, after my ma and I wandered through our ship’s not-so-hallowed halls on the first night of the trip, we came to the hasty conclusion that it didn’t seem like there was much to do. However, we found the case to be opposite—in truth, the boat was bursting with life, if you knew where to look.

We utilized our free time by hitting up as much as we could. Scampering from deck to deck, we reveled in our common interests—a breakfast of plump yellow arepas, an ice carving demonstration, a high-octane game of bingo—and startled at our divergences, namely betting on the casino’s slot machines and a game of human Sorry, the intrigue of which escaped me in both cases.

But the real adventure on my part came when we parted ways. We’d stuck to scheduled events until then, and while Ma attended the evening’s show, I wanted to explore the nooks and crannies of the boat, to discover a space I could retire to at the end of each night. One of my favorite aspects of being on a cruise is the chance to meet new faces and new places every day, but I’ve always been skittish of crowds, and by the end of the day I needed somewhere to hide away without having to introduce myself to another set of travelers.

With that goal in mind, I nabbed the book I’d brought and started on my quest. The pool area was breathtaking, constellations unknown to me scattered across the night sky as though someone had taken a handful of sequins and flung them into the heavens. Unfortunately, it was also home to a brisk October breeze that drove me back indoors after only fifteen minutes. I scuttled down to the fourth floor for a latte, then nursed it as I settled in to a plush seat between one of the ship’s bars and a live music stage. There was a meetup scheduled for the ship’s queer passengers, but after half an hour I realized that I was either the only one who’d shown up or that everyone was trying so hard to keep the other shipmates from judging us that we were hidden even to each other.

At long last, I finally came across my promised land: the Library Bar, a small, quiet space that oddly enough never seemed to entertain an actual bartender. it was the one place where patrons modulated their volume, content to play a lively game of cards or click away on their laptops at the worst, and one wall was lined floor-to-ceiling with texts other had left behind in languages both familiar and foreign to me. Midnight found me alone, curled in a leather armchair, book in hand. There would be sights anew tomorrow, but for now, this was adventure enough.

The restaurant was tucked into the back of the building; to get there, my mother and I had to wind our way through the stalls of the cavernous St. John City Market, past vendors of fruit and maple syrup and dulse, a salty dried seaweed snack sold in paper bags for a few bucks to locals and tourists alike. For being only a wall away from the bustling Market, the place was surprisingly quiet, and for being two in the afternoon it was surprisingly empty. In fact, the two of us were the only ones in the place when we walked in. Despite the lack of diners, the single waitress on staff didn’t seem dismayed; she greeted us cheerfully, seating us in a windowed corner with a view of next door’s construction and a small side street. From our table I could also see the fresh seafood counter, which I would have given my right arm to raid. Brimming with fillets of rosy salmon, craggy oysters, and a mound of fat grey shrimp, the scent of salty sea brine tickled my nose each time I breathed deep.

St. John was the last stop on our seven-day self-titled “Food Cruise,” and as such we decided on going out in style. After ten minutes of hemming and hawing, we finally settled on our orders: for my mother, fresh Prince Edward Island mussels and an order of crab cakes, and for myself, a lobster roll with a side of seafood chowder. When the waitress sidled off to place the order, we were finally able to take a moment to rest from the day, sipping our waters quietly and indulging in a slightly awkward silence.

Once our meals arrived, however, the conversation began anew. Now that I lived more than fifteen hundred miles from the suburbs of Chicago where I grew up, there was always some new aspect of each other’s lives to understand. But even as I spoke all I could focus on was the food—it was divine, fresh and full of the complex flavors we hadn’t found on the cruise ship save for our Chef’s Table dinner. My soup was rich and creamy, with chunks of haddock and scallop flaking away between my teeth. The lobster roll was even better—the fresh meat was incredibly sweet, the softness contrasted by a crisp coleslaw crunch, and the drizzle of sweet vinegar sauce that on top gave it a hint of acidity that rounded out the buttery roll’s richness. Filching one of my mothers’ mussels, which shimmered like polished obsidian under their garlicky sauce, yielded a burst of salty meat that melted on my tongue. Her crab cakes too were rich and tangy, and despite my hatred of mango the fruity salsa cut the richness with floral notes. In my family, food is a language all its own, and by living fully in this culinary moment we were finally able to sidestep the lingering awkwardness that travel brought, on the same wavelength once more.

After a week on the high seas, pulling back into New York Harbor felt like a bit of a letdown. Normally I’m thrilled whenever I get to visit the Big Apple—not only am I staying in one of the most vibrant cities on earth, but I get to see some good friends and family when I do it. This time, though, it came on the heels of six days of new adventures around every corner and meeting some of the most interesting strangers I’d ever met, including the parents of a famous surfboarding dog.

The night before my mother and I had made the most of our last day on the ship. I partied hard by turning in my punch card for a free chai tea latte and reading in the Library Bar. My ma, on the other hand, joined a veritable horde of cruise-goers at the ship’s 80’s night event. To preserve my sanity I didn’t attend, although I vividly recall waving at her as she and the rest of the line Congaed past me.

Now as the light of morning filtered through our porthole window and the skyline of eastern Manhattan rose into view, reality had started to snap back into place. We woke early to pack, and as we folded up our clothes we were also digging up the memories we’d bought, collected, or otherwise picked up along the way.

“You should just eat these before we go,” Ma said, tossing me the remains of a bag of gummy lobsters. I snapped up the last couple of claws, turning back to our pile of treasures.

“Thank God I brought the bigger duffle bag,” I said after few minutes, trying to jam a framed art piece I’d picked up in Portland between layers of clothes. “This picture would have never fit in the carry-on.”

“I’ve got some extra space in mine,” she offered. “You can put your new books in here until we get to the airport.”

After a grueling half hour of souvenir Tetris, we were finally ready to go. Keys in hand, we headed out to the dining area for our last breakfast—oatmeal and soymilk for Ma, arepas and hot chocolate for me. We ate quietly, but I took the time to both enjoy my food and reflect on the cruise that was about to come to an end. Even though I was still on the boat it felt like the whole trip was a nice dream, slowly fading away as the stress of work, class, and real life bore down upon me. In a few months’ time how much of this would I even remember? But sitting there across our tiny table came the realization that this week had been the longest period my we’d spent together without other family around. Living across the country, it’s easy to pull away, but going on those adventures together—in Boston and Canada, in the cities and the cliffs—built our bond back up even stronger.

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