Come Sail Away

toy sailboat

Choice—it’s that most precious of constructs, and sometimes it seems like nothing but an illusion. But I do know this—even small choices can matter. And the first time I realized how important that could be was in third grade.

This was back in the seventies, and although some changes had worked their way through our society, for a girl in grade school, it wasn’t that different from my mother’s childhood. My closet contained homemade dresses and hand-knit ponchos, we girls played jump rope and hopscotch at recess, and mothers were usually full-time homemakers. Things seemed traditional and stable, and mostly, I liked that.

That is, until the day my teacher announced that we were lucky enough to have several parents volunteer to help us with some practical lessons, like a primary school version of shop classes. One of the boy’s dads would help some of us make our own wooden boat. And during the same class time, several mothers had offered to give embroidery lessons.

And she didn’t say it out loud, but the temporal math wasn’t hard. We couldn’t do both.

Well, that was one of the easiest decisions I ever made. Being a well-brought-up young miss, I’d already poked my fingers many times trying to get my stitches just right. Embroidery needles provided instant, painful feedback on any errors made. And okay, I got past that, but we’d spent hours embroidering poinsettias on dishtowels, and for eleven months out of the year, no one would even look at them. On top of that, my satin stitch never rose above passable, no matter how hard I struggled. Trying to convince my mother to let me embroider lazy daisies instead was a losing proposition.

Still, I was a mostly obedient child, and I could accept all that. However, one final consideration was a complete deal-breaker. Mom’s family also gave embroidered dishtowels as presents, and we never used them. I literally bled and cried tears of frustration over the things, and they’d be looked at for maybe five minutes. Then they’d be packed away forever because they were too nice to get dirty.

Besides, I really wanted to make a sailboat. Looking back as an adult, they weren’t that impressive—a dowel glued into a hole drilled in a precut piece of wood. But this was a real, tangible thing that I could actually use. Seattle, where we lived, was riddled with lakes, and our neighborhood boasted a small one just around the corner from our house. I couldn’t wait to sail my very own little boat out among the ducks and lily pads.

I can still remember the look of surprise on my teacher’s face. To her credit, she didn’t want to force me to embroider—this was supposed to be fun—so she attempted to use sweet reason and persuasion instead. She pointed out how lovely embroidery could be, how useful a skill it was, and how handy it could be when making gifts.

Well, those words were a waste of breath. I was adamant—I wanted to make a boat. A red one, so I could see it when it floated out among the mother ducks with their flocks of brown-striped ducklings. I could picture the fluffy little things hopping on for a quick spin, which I would be more than happy to provide. I already fed the ducks table scraps whenever I could and spent way more time watching them than anyone I knew.

Apparently, my longing for a sailboat became quite the tempest-in-a-teapot. My mother was called, in the hopes that she’d set me straight. But Mom wasn’t up to much advanced parenting just then. She was very pregnant with my little brother, and our family was breaking apart, although I wasn’t aware of that last part yet. She basically told me not to get into trouble at school, and that was it.

Not a problem—I was a very well-behaved child. I always brought home report cards with good marks in academics and citizenship. I followed the rules and tried to be kind to everyone. I had no intention of starting any kind of student revolt at school. But I also had no intention of embroidering there, either.

At one point even the principal was called in. Not that I was sent to his office—that would have convinced even stubborn little me—but his opinion was sought, and in the end, bless them, they all decided, well, okay. If she wants to make a boat that badly, let her.

So, I sanded my wooden pieces until they were so smooth, they were slippery—just like silk. I still remember when I took my little prepared bits to the volunteer father in the classroom next door. He was the only one who didn’t seem surprised and awkward over the whole affair; I got the feeling he thought wanting to make a boat was just good sense. He drilled the hole in my little hull, and I proudly took my budding vessel back to my desk and glued the mast in.

Then I painted it fire-engine red. Once it dried, I threaded the sail onto the mast, tied a string to the eye screwed onto the front, and ta-da! A new sailboat was ready for its maiden voyage on our little lake.

We moved away shortly afterward, and I never got a chance to go back and thank everyone properly. But it was the first time I refused to simply accept something the way it had been planned out for me, and that refusal actually mattered. I was allowed to make a small decision about my life, and that decision stuck. What an absolutely marvelous gift.

It’s late, but I’d like to finally say: thanks.


February #BlogBattle: Revolution

Avid writer and reader of Faerie tales and noblebright fantasy.

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Posted in My Stories
46 comments on “Come Sail Away
  1. I love this story, Cathleen. When I was at school the traditional roles of girls and boys were starting to loosen a little although I had to do home economics and learn to sew when I wanted to learn carpentry. I went to a convent so there was no chance of woodwork lessons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Robbie. I didn’t mind the home ec classes so much–after all, I could wear the clothing. I sewed my periwinkle blue eighth grade graduation skirt; it had eight panels and was floor-length, and I remember it took forever to hem. I think the thing that got to me so much about embroidery was how futile it seemed.

      But I’m with you on woodworking. Currently, I’m trying to figure out how to build a little hobbit hole as a fun project. The round door is beyond my skills, though. I may have to settle for a facade on regular doors. But the whole process is satisfying to me in a way that pretty stiches never could be.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Everyone is an individual and I think our modern society supports this concept better than when we were at school. There is a lot more freedom of choice. I loved embroidery and was very good at it. I hated knitting though. I was very naughty and divided my knitting project pattern by four, producing a tiny pink panther. There was no size requirement so I still got the marks but you can bet the sisters changed that the following year. It still makes me laugh when I think about it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • You lawyered your way through your knitting project–now there’s a story you don’t hear every day. You should consider writing a few flash memoirs, too. Even if you don’t want to publish them, they’re the sort of thing that kids and grandkids get interested in, especially as adults.

          And I’ve found that it’s way easier to tackle memoir as a series of stories, a la “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” which is a terrific book, btw. Real life is poorly organized, and I don’t really feel a need to chronicle everything in sequential order. So I’m just writing about the interesting bits.

          Anyway, I’d be interested to learn about what it was like growing up in South Africa. It seems incredibly exotic to Americans, although for you, I guess it’s merely home. Just in case that matters. : )

          Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, I have often been told I should have been a lawyer and there is a lot of regulation and legal considerations in my job. I am a chartered accountant in a lawyer’s suit or a lawyer who is good with numbers.

          I have so many ideas for stories and books, Cathleen. Sadly, I don’t have that much time to write. I started with children’s picture books, then moved on to a middle school book and then a fictionised account of my mom’s life growing up during WWII in Bungay. I wrote that one in the style you have suggested here. I had Laura Ingalls Wilders books in mind when I wrote it. I am now writing the sequel to that book.

          I have been writing short stories about South African history and my new novel, A Ghost and HIs Gold, is partially set during the Second Anglo Boer War. I love South African history.

          I started writing a series of vignettes about my life growing up in South Africa during the 1980s. I haven’t been back to it recently though – so many stories and so little time. Thanks for your interest. I enjoy Africa, it is very different to a Western country.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. balroop2013 says:

    What a heart-warming memory Cathleen! Thanks for sharing and taking me down the memory lane. I liked my embroidery lessons and learned all sorts of stitches in school. We only had paper boats to float whenever little pools of water collected after the rains.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Embroidery can be lovely. I didn’t mind it when it actually got used–framed and hung on the wall, perhaps. It was having it immediately stashed away forever that made me want to avoid it. I still like lazy daisies. : )

      Liked by 1 person

      • Maureen Bingham says:

        Hi Cathleen,
        Thanks for sharing a great story. I was fortunate enough to have both wood-shop and home EC. and this was in the 60’s. You really drew me in to your story. I felt like I was a friend and you were personally sharing a triumphant moment in your life.
        Love you my friend,
        Maureen ( Happy St.
        Valentine’s Day}

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks, Maureen. Of course in our case, we actually are real life friends, but online friends are great, too. : )

          But even though I’ve known you for years, I had no idea you had shop classes back in the 60s. Go you. One of the things that’s really saddened me is the demolition of practical education over the last 20 years. I remember when our local high school demolished its cooking classroom, and that was a mistake, IMO. There are a lot of people now who have no idea how to cook beyond warming things up in a microwave, and that’s a shame. Thanks for stopping in!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Antoinette Truglio Martin says:

    AMazing story. Being a child of the 60s/70s, I too was a good girl, but not as brave as you. It has taking me 60 years to do what I want.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, there’s such a thing as being too good, isn’t there? Or at least too amiable. That’s why this incident stuck out so much to me. I still did a lot of things the way they were scripted out for me–it took until my fifties before I finally took the time to start writing–but at least it was always in the back of my mind that this was possible. : )


  4. Wonderful story, Cathleen! 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you liked it, Bette. : )

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hubby made toy sailboats for grands Ceilia and Gage who are now young adults. I sewed the sails and we had a most wonderful time chasing the sailboats down the brook in early April that year. Daughter Lori (their mom) asked for a race car set for Christmas when she was eight and had no qualms baiting hooks with worms when out fishing with daddy. A refreshing change from the 50s when I was oh so young… ❤ xo

        Liked by 1 person

        • I wish I could have seen the sailboats floating down your stream. There’s something special about a sailboat–even toy ones share in some indefinable sense of rightness, like this was a thing that was always meant to be. : )

          Liked by 1 person

  5. It was a magical day… ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A lovely story, Cathleen. How important and personal the experience was to you comes through and warms the heart. It was wonderful to read it again. And great to see you sharing your writing.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Gary says:

    That takes me back to the same era Cathleen. Woodwork or home crafts depending on your gender. All apparently accepted at the time as that was how things were. Personally I developed my own thoughts at Uni. No parent or school pressure. Something I always reacted against looking back. I’m me, not them kind of thing.

    This sounds quite a nostalgic piece for you too. Not sure that’s the right word to use, as it’s quite possible some of it might be looked at in annoyance now. That said at the time did any of us really question the way things were?

    Obviously this has me reflecting back now too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We have a lot more choices now, and that’s often a good thing. But I’m afraid the main point of the piece was that my teacher and principal were willing to take a long look at the situation and reach a decision based on my character and my needs, rather than referring back to a preset response that had been scripted in advance. Even if that went against the way things were usually done.

      Unfortunately, an individual response was more likely then than it is today.

      If the story has an official moral, it’s to treat people as unique individuals, rather than generic representatives of the groups they belong to.

      But if the story’s any good, people will bring their own interpretations to it. Its meaning is no longer completely under the author’s control. And that’s okay. : )

      Liked by 1 person

  8. willowdot21 says:

    Cathleen, this is a lovely recollection from your childhood. I am so pleased that you stuck to your guns and made your boat…. Two questions did you manage to keep it and did it sail well. 💜

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ann Coleman says:

    I loved this story! I’m old enough to remember how strict the divisions were between what girls could do and what boys could do at that time, so I know it took some courage for you to stand your ground. And I loved the way you did it, quietly but firmly (I know a few thousand adults who could learn from your example). I was lucky as a child in that my father firmly believed that anything a boy could do, a girl could also do, so we were allowed to break those gender barriers at our house. Looking back, I don’t know if part of his attitude came from the fact that he had no sons three daughters, but for whatever reason, I benefited from his outlook.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it could have very easily have been an unhappy memory, if my teacher hadn’t been open-minded enough to let me make my boat. I think we’ve all got a few of those unpleasant memories, but I don’t want to keep them alive by writing about them here.

      I’m so glad your father let you try things that some thought only boys should do. And it might have helped, having daughters, but he could have soured and become bitter and disconnected from his girls. Some men did. Being able to step back and evaluate each situation as it came, rather than relying on someone else doing some shorthand version of the thinking for him, is really a gift. What a terrific dad! : )

      Liked by 1 person

  10. aebranson says:

    Such a lovely, insightful piece. As my reading progressed, I began to wonder just what happened after the boat was finished. So when the memoir wrapped up somewhat differently than what I expected, I was left wondering how well it floated and what became of it (reading the comments filled me in). 🙂 The bigger picture about how choice plays out in our lives is nicely illustrated in the microcosm you presented. And, of course, the title stuck the tune and lyrics of a certain song in my head (come sail away with me)…. Nicely done!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, the Styx song was a big hit in the seventies, which is probably why I thought of it.

      And I didn’t want to include sad details, like the boat not surviving the move. The important thing was that I got to make it in the first place.

      Thanks so much for the kind words! : )

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Agency is indeed one of the greatest gifts we can give children, and exercising it — especially in the face of resistance — helps shape a sense of identity when we’re still developing one. Great story, Cathleen! Thanks for sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Jina Bazzar says:

    It’s the little things that make the biggest changes. It’s a lovely memory you shared here, cathleen. Glad they allowed you to make that choice. Did you keep the boat?

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This is lovely. The description is, anyway. The story… Well, I remember the 70s with homemade dresses and hand-knit ponchos. Yup. Had those. But I’m thrown by how far they went and how many administrators got involved in this. I’m so glad you got to finally make your sailboat. A small decision can make a big impact.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. This was a lovely little piece of writing, Cathleen! As a boy from the nineties, you really made me feel as if I were in your shoes. I’m so glad you got to make your boat in the end — I feared there might be a bitterly unfair ending. The father that had no issue whatsoever was very endearing — positive masculinity, I think. Beautifully written, as I’ve come to expect. I very much enjoyed this read. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Joshua. This experience was something I took with me into the years I was a teacher–to try and look at each child individually, rather than doing a quick mental shorthand and deferring to predetermined settings. Because without both men and women willing to do that, this would have been an unhappy memory. So, a cautionary tale with a happy ending, in this case. : )

      Liked by 1 person

  15. […] “Come Sail Away” by Cathleen Townsend […]

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  16. Was that true or fictitious? It definitely read like something that happened to you. The story was very engaging and the character likable.

    People are so weird when they put things away because they’re “too pretty.” Show it! Use it! Take care of it, but don’t let it rot away under a pile of dust in the back of the drawer.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. tjbegot says:

    Hi there Cathleen, I so much like sailboats, as much as I like walking around CP lakes, watching ducks, duckling, and geese. That sort of goes together. Thanks for sharing your beautiful milestone memory. LoVe, TJ

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Cathleen! I’m finally here! 🙂 What a sweet memory! I just knew you’d get your boat made, and that made me so happy. Your experience was probably a catlyst for others to follow suit, too, which in this case is such a good thing. The only thing I kind of wished from the whole thing would have been to have it written more as a narrative tale than a telling story as it is. I could see this being lenghtened and making for a lovely story to encourage children. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I see what you mean–it is a story that’s definitely told. The problem is that it’s so long ago that a lot of details have faded. For instance, I asked a beta friend to read it, and she wanted me to show what the father in the classroom next door did, rather than have me just tell you that he didn’t seem upset. But I couldn’t remember what it was that he said or did, only that he didn’t have a problem with it.

      I had my own children journal from time to time, so they’ve got some source material to work from if they ever tell memoirs. But I never kept a diary, so memory cells are all I have. I agree, though, that more details, and some dialogue, would have made the story stronger. : )

      Liked by 1 person

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