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  • Jeremy Pataky

Bodies of Water

Dad used his hands to make things. Music stands and desks, adze and axe handles, balconies and cabinets, bread boxes and bird houses, a laddered library, frames for Bobbi's stained glass, a dollhouse, a sauna, a dock. Used his hands to make sonatas and concertos on a piano. Made me a wildflower press for high school Biology. Built stone walls of rocks we took from a scree slope in the mountains to terrace a garden. Made a long staircase with my grandpa, his dad, down to the lake. Spent a summer erecting a tall fence to thwart deer. And a thousand other things. I was two weeks old the first time he took me sailing. I grew up trying to absorb all the knowledge he could pass on. He taught me to read wind on water, telltales sewn into jibs, the signals transmitted through a tiller into fingertips. Especially when the moon was full, we’d sail at night on Coeur d’Alene Lake. The first time we went over to the coast and spent a couple weeks on the ocean, alive with tides, I gained a completely different take on the moon I thought I knew. I went back to landlocked Idaho with a changed understanding of lakes, too, no matter how long, deep, or windy they might be. The world was bigger than I thought, but reachable.

I was still a kid when I first came to appreciate Dad not just as a sailor, but as a maker. I studied things he had made when he wasn't much older than I was when I noticed them—wooden boat models built from scratch, and even a couple oil paintings that absorbed some of his high-seas obsessions as a teenager. He never painted again, though. He committed to wood and music.

As a kid, I studied those hulls he carved by hand, the tiny sails he cut and sewed. He told me how he disassembled broken pocket watches to harvest cogs for helms. He stripped wires for thin capillaries of metal inside, using them for portholes, railings, and fittings. He tied knots using hemostats for fingers, stringing delicate rigging made of thread, painting water onto any lines that were slightly loose, knowing they'd shrink and firm up as they dried. Later, he raced small boats—actual ones, not models—adding a few winner’s plaques to the wall. It would have been hard for me, back then, to imagine how his back would get so jacked it would need surgery. His first one went fine, and did the trick. A few years later, though, another one was needed in a different stretch of spine. Recovery from his second operation would take time. He would need a project requiring minimal motion. It was time to build something he'd spent his adult life looking forward to making, something that would become an heirloom. It was a complex scale model ship that he'd held onto since I was a kid, practically fantasizing about someday being able to devote, what, several hundred hours to its completion? I remember him saying he couldn’t start it till he retired. Years later, he said he’d never be able to retire. He did, though, despite setbacks that kept him grinding so long. He worked more than most people would in two lives.

He finally unboxed that ship with its hundreds of tiny parts that he'd use to replicate a real one. Ribs, bulkhead, individual planks to bend into place, three masts, the works. Nothing like the simple, small plastic ships we built when I was a kid just starting to "learn the ropes."

He started the project weeks before surgery. Of course he ended up custom-making some of the decking, unsatisfied with the supplied material. We assumed that he would spend winter recuperating and building his ship. By spring, his back would be healed. Come summer, he would make his third-ever trip to see me in Alaska, a trip postponed from the year prior. Instead, he died after a routine back surgery.

I found the unfinished—barely begun, really—ship model on his workbench in the shop when I got down there last October. I left it where he’d left it and returned home to my life in Alaska full of grief. I'll head back to North Idaho for his celebration of life calendared exactly eight months after he passed. It will be the day before summer solstice. We'll scatter ashes on Lake Pend Oreille and spend time in its strong places. When I come home, Alaska will be losing daylight again, already, though it won’t feel like it yet. I'll turn a thousand memories of Dad over and over.

It's been a few years, now, since he sailed in salt water. Even longer for me. Joking, Dad used to tell his friends and sailing buddies, Jim Lea and Mike Dixon, just to roll him off the transom into the drink when he died.

This coming June, in Idaho, we’ll go to the lake. In his final appearance, there, on one of the bodies of water where he raised me, he'll be cast as ash. But now I saw each of the waves individually, one after the other, and felt them to be in rhythm with my heartbeat. They glimmered and splashed in the moonlight. Maybe the ocean was cheering for me after all? Maybe we were on the same side, comprised of the same things, water mostly, also mystery. The ocean swallowed things up—boats, people—but it didn’t look outside itself for fulfillment. It could take whatever skimmed its surface or it could leave it. In its depths already lived a whole world of who-knows-what. It was self-sustaining. I should be like that. It made me wonder what was inside of me. —Melissa Broder, The Pisces


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