When I was a little kid, my father would be away for long stretches of time. First he was with Merritt, Chapman and Scott, a large maritime company that did salvage work, piloting and also did a lot of the dredging of navigable estuaries and rivers along the east coast as far north as St. Johns, New Foundland, and as far south as the Florida Keys, around them and into the Gulf. Most of their work was in the Atlantic Ocean. During World War II, my father went into the Merchant Marine, sailing Liberty ships all over the Atlantic and Mediterranean. He was the third mate aboard these vessels. They were troop carriers and managed to keep England and our allies fed with American food. These vessels were viewed as vessels of war by our enemies, and U-Boats would be waiting for them when they left port as well as trying to intercept them on their journeys across “The Pond.” The men who were on the North Sea Run suffered over 80% casualties trying to supply our then ally, the USSR!--so it was no cake walk. When my father did come home, he would take a bus from NYC, where the home office was, to Niantic. He and his chief engineer, Len Brailey, would come rolling up Washington Ave., their bodies still compensating for the motion of the ship, even on dry land, and then he would be home for a week or two.
I clearly remember one August morning (and it had to be August, because in my mature mind I can see red seaweed floating on Niantic river, and the water was warm-ish), when my dad took me along with him to tong some oysters out of the river. I’m sure that back then there was e. coli and the noxious heavy metals from the materials used for three centuries of boat building that these delectable shellfish would have between their shells, but most folks didn’t think about that stuff, and we only ate Niantic River shellfish cooked – for little neck and cherry stone clams which we ate raw, we’d rake them out of Niantic Bay. My mother was clearly exasperated with me – I was probably being a pest, asking too many questions or trying to do things in the kitchen which were not making her very happy. She had been setting up to can tomatoes from her garden, which was a big production involving many Mason jars and the sturdy pressure cooker, and I can just bet that she didn’t want me underfoot. My sister Cheryl had not been born yet, so I was probably about four. I had a favorite stuffed horse that mother had made using a red and white checked gingham-patterned oilcloth, with a russet yarn mane and tail that I was allowed to take along. My father carried the oars and tongs over his shoulder and the oarlocks in a burlap bag as we walked down to Smith Cove where my dad had the rowboat moored. I think that we left Mom’s car behind because oil and tires were rationed then, so we wouldn’t want to use it for such a mundane chore.
When he finally got the oars and oarlocks set up, and Dad had me seated in the stern of the boat where he could keep a good eye on me, we were off to a spot that dad knew, across from Turkey Point. He had always used this oyster bed when he was a kid growing up at Golden Spur, and he knew that there would be oysters waiting for him when we got there. He threw out the anchor (which looked like a grapnel), and snubbed the line so the boat wouldn’t drift. He told me, over and over, that he needed me to watch the burlap bag and I couldn’t go in the water this time. The morning overcast had not yet burned off, so it was well before eight in the morning. Mother had put a floppy cotton hat on me just in case – I had my father’s coloring and we both burned very quickly.
Looking around for something to do, I started to dunk my horse in Niantic River. I would let my horse swim, even if I couldn’t. The cotton batting with which it was filled quickly turned into a cold sodden wad right before my very eyes. . .and the wet yarn mane and tail clung to the shiny oilcloth body in stringy layers. I soon tired of dipping my horse into the salt water and put it under the seat aft, where it wouldn’t be immediately spotted - so I thought.
I then turned my attention to the burlap bag, which already had a pile of oysters inside. The oyster shells were pretty ugly and they had other things growing on them as well as small crabs running over and through the stacks. Having little more to do than to watch the burlap bag, I started taking an oyster at a time out, and I slipped each one overboard, on the side of the boat away from where my father was working. Even though it was low tide, there was enough water so that I could watch each oyster slowly turn and twist through the water as it spiraled down to the bottom. Meanwhile, my father was still tonging, and starting to wonder why he had not yet enough oysters for a “Lovely oyster stew.” I must have made a noise when I took the oyster out that gave me away. I can remember how disappointed he was, just shaking his head and saying, “Oh, no, Oh, no!” “Now why did you do that, Faithie?” Of course, I had no answer…I was then told that I had to sit on my hands for the next few minutes – it seemed like an eternity – and then we’d go home.
My father folded the burlap over the oysters we would be bringing back home, and set the bag in the stern. That is when he saw what I had done with my beautiful horse my mother had made for me. He just shook his head at me told me that when we got home, I’d have to explain it to my mother. Then he took the oars out of the bottom of the boat and off we went. When we got back to Smith Cove, Dad took the oysters bag out of the boat, but forgot my horse . . .and I didn’t remind him. The heat of the day was creeping up on us and my mother would be in a canning frenzy. After a sandwich for lunch, I stayed in the yard for the whole day. My father had said that we would be having a “Lovely oyster stew” for supper and he would be making it. I had never had oyster stew before, so I was sure that this would be a special treat.
When I was called in for supper, the bowl in front of my place at the table was filled with a dense white liquid, with melted globules of butter on top. And there were the large square crackers in a bowl close by. My mother said that when we had finished our treat, there would be (canned) fruit cocktail for dessert. That and junket were my two favorites, so now I really had a goal. I dipped my soupspoon in and to my horror, there were these gushy looking clusters, along with minced potatoes and onions in my bowl . . .as well as a couple of cooked green little oyster crabs, floating in a thick cream. I looked at my parents’ bowls, from which they were eating with great gusto, just to make sure we all had the same thing . . .and, unfortunately . . .we did. I could not even be persuaded to take that first swallow . . .and when the adults had finished their portions, I was sent to bed, with a promise that I would have the despised stew waiting for me cold for breakfast.. I didn’t have to watch them eat fruit cocktail, which would have been insult heaped upon injury.
It was still light out and I could hear the children playing in the street from my bedroom, but I couldn’t see them. My bedroom windows faced on one side, the side yard where the privet hedge had been allowed to grow up above the Reynolds’ second story windows next door. From the other window, I could see our garden, an acre which my mother tended with great care, and some of our garage. The chickens were already in the hen house. I only had some books which were left over from Christmas and my birthday . . .and so I lay there in the August evening heat and thought about what tomorrow would bring.
“Faith! Faith-eeeee! Where are you?” My earliest memory [I think I was three going to be four soon] is that of my mother calling me when we were living on Cherry St. at Pine Grove, just north of the National Guard camp on Niantic River. My mother and father and I had moved from my Grandmother Damon’s house on Oil Mill Rd., at the head of Niantic River, and into this winterized summer cottage which had a porch and a crawl space underneath, The crawlspace was dark and dank. It was an ideal place for a little girl to investigate once she got through the broken trellis-work façade. I remember so well the fog swirling around the houses and through the street. There were leaf skeletons there, residue from someone’s catalpha tree – all the soft parts had disintegrated and just the skinny tough “bones” remained. I remember a discarded gum wrapper that must have come from a stick of Wriggley’s as it had tinfoil, Most other sticks of gum were wrapped in just a thin waxed paper then. I could see the ankles and shoes of people on the street, and tried to guess who they belonged to. As my mother’s voice became more shrill, I inched backward toward the foundation of the house. I think that I realized that if I emerged then, things would not be good. Mother called, “Faith-eeeee!” again. I heard the screen door slam and footsteps walk across the wooden boards above me…And then there was silence.
After what seemed to me to be a long time, I heard her foots steps above me again and the screen door open. There was an interval, and then I heard mother calling, “Faith – Lunch!” That caught my attention! I got out of my hiding place as quickly as possible and scrambled into the house, wondering if we would have sandwiches made from one of the colorful processed cheese glass containers that held pimento, or pineapple or Rouque Bleu cheese spreads. [When the containers were emptied, they became our juice glasses.] Or would it be canned salmon, with the crunchy digestible bones? Well, I probably should have stayed under the porch. There would be no lunch that day. And I was “in disgrace” for the next few days, too. I wasn’t even allowed outside into our yard. I think my mother had thought that I had gone down to the water and drowned [This was a couple of years before I could swim]. The hook and eye latch on the screen door was moved up way beyond my reach, and I never returned to that cozy spot under the porch, again.
Faith Damon Davison (Mohegan) considers herself a “late bloomer.” She received her Bachelor degree in the same year as her youngest son, but from different colleges. She has worked at a multitude of jobs – from selling live-bait and pumping gas, arranging and cataloging over 100,000 images that were digitized at a major American museum, to driving oxen – among other employments - and as a result of her last degree [MLS], she had the oversight of the Mohegan Library and Archives, the rare books, documents and map collections and the responsibility for the Tribe’s 3-Dimensional collections from 1997 – 2010.