Uncle Bobby never married. He came home from his grueling tour in the South Pacific, sold insurance for a brief time and became a teacher. He lived his entire life with his widowed mother and unmarried older sister, Rita, in a duplex on Kingston Avenue. He taught sixth-grade History for nearly four decades, and spent many bachelor summers on Cape Cod as a bartender at The Chart Room.
He had a small boat he named “Call me Ishmael”. He loves to tell the story of the name of that boat. He loves to quote Melville:
“ Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth;
whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul;
whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me,
that it requires a strong moral principle
to prevent me from deliberately
stepping into the street, and methodically
knocking people’s hats off- then,
I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
I’m quite sure that he knows he leaves chunks of Melville’s words out, and I never correct him. When you are nearly 90, and find yourself with a bit of an audience, and the prompt is just right, why not give your limited gusto to the meaty beginning and end?
And, yes, he sits a little taller when he recites. I only need to prompt, “Uncle Bobby, tell me the name of your boat again”, and Melville’s words come alive. His inflection and annunciation are perfect and when he recites I wonder if acting may have been a missed calling. Uncle Bobby loves history and literature, but no longer has the stamina to read at length. It tickles me when he recites the great writers.
I know the longing for the ocean and for too long it has been a “damp, drizzly November in my soul.” In lighter times, and especially the heady days of college, I had no patience for Melville. I found him dark and overwrought. I veered toward F. Scott Fitzgerald for sparkle, Jane Austen for Romance, and Charles Dickens for optimism. Imagine finding a happy ending for Oliver Twist in a dark and haunting London? Of contemporary writers, John Irving made me swoon with cleverness and complexity. No Melville for me, only the Cliff Notes on Moby Dick.
I suspect I would appreciate Melville now.
Ironic that the year of Uncle Bobby’s arrival would mark the only year in my 53 that I have not so much as put a toe in the Atlantic Ocean. When I need it most, I have no time for languid mornings near the sea. I have no time for day trips, let alone what I long for; a week by the shore in a cape cod house with my dog, a copy of Moby Dick, and a comfortable chair to set in the sand. Uncle Bobby would love the same.