I am 99 years old. I do not expect to see 100, nor is it a goal of mine. Others have begun to show interest, to root for me (for all I know they are placing bets), but I don’t give a damn about that milestone. What is a number compared to a life?
Some want to know the secrets to my longevity, what I eat and drink, if I consider myself an optimist, that sort of thing. Anyone who has lived as long as I have will tell you the same thing: there are no secrets, you are on your own. I suppose you might better the odds with exercise and the right food; I never tried. People born before 1900 ate and drank what was there; none of us knew a thing about preservatives or saturated fats or high fructose corn syrup until long after we’d consumed quantities of them. Don’t lecture me about the dangers of red dye #4. I drink Manhattans—yes, still—and can’t tell you how many maraschino cherries I’ve sent down the hatch.
My arteries, along with everything else, have stiffened up. They tell me I have heart disease, as if that’s news. They say I could go at any time—again, not news. “Maybe in your sleep,” the cardiologist said last week, giving my hand a reassuring pat. This does not comfort me, the idea of falling asleep and never waking. I want to be there, to see it, to feel it. I can’t believe that anyone dies without knowing. I think there must be a little tap on the shoulder, a few seconds of clarity before the next world bears us away. Even if there is nothing after, even if I go out like an old television screen, a vanishing white dot and then a gray blank, I have a hunch that those last few seconds will be worth the cost.
I can’t drive anymore and my hearing isn’t good, but my mind is still spry, if wayward. It’s true what they say about memories of youth becoming more vivid with age. Though I often forget where I left my book or glasses, I can draw you a map of the flour mill I worked in when I was a girl. I can hear those stone grinders moving, can smell the buckwheat being crushed into meal, can see the powder on my skirt. There is John, grinning at me, his face coated white; there he is, pulling me close, kissing me behind a bin of corn. These stories keep coming to me, as if my mind, bored with current conditions, sneaks away, plays hooky with the past. That was you, it reminds me, you had that, you did that. Claim tickets, that’s what memories amount to. A friend of mine has Alzheimer’s; she doesn’t know me, she doesn’t know anyone. I can’t imagine that endless fog, being lost inside your own life.
My great granddaughter, Liza, attends college in Eugene and is majoring in journalism. She is on her summer break and has been coming by to “interview” me. I love this girl. Liza has no guile, not a smidge. She expects to find the good in you, and so she does. Innocence must be a gene, a recessive one, because only a few folks are born with it. I hope she stays this way, that her goodness is a match for this world.
Liza is not asking me questions about my diet. What she wants to know is how I lived, what Oregon was like in 1895, the year I was born. She is thrilled by my descriptions of the hats and corsets we wore, the horse-drawn buggies we relied on. She never tires of hearing about the drafty house I grew up in, alongside my three brothers, one who perished at the age of five, as so many children did back then. We had no central heating, no indoor plumbing, no phone, no car (there weren’t any cars to be had west of the Mississippi River). My brothers went to work instead of high school. I got through school alright, but most of my education came much later, by way of night classes and the public library. My father made $3000 a year repairing farm equipment; we saw him only at dinner. My mother died at age 45, three years sooner than average.
Liza is collecting this information for an essay she hopes to publish. She has asked for my permission and I’ve given it.
Today I will tell her about my husband John and my son Frankie. Like the rest of the family, she knows only the bare facts. I never wanted to talk about the Santa Clara and people knew this, left me alone with it. Now I am ready to tell the story, partly because it seems mingy not to, like taking a recipe to your grave. And what if I am the last person on earth who lived through that night? People should know what happened to us; there should be a record, something to lay hands on, something not lost to the waves.
We were living in Salem then, with John’s folks. I was twenty, John was twenty-four. He was working for his father, in the flour mill, and I was helping out there, too. He didn’t like the mill. He was keen on seeing San Francisco, where his brother lived. Henry had a job building ships. He told John it was good paying work and you didn’t have to be cooped up all day. John wanted to visit Henry and those shipyards. I was nervous about traveling with the baby, but John wanted to go so badly.
It wasn’t like people think. You mention ship travel and they think Titanic—private baths, telephones, fancy staircases, ladies in long white gloves. Those old steam schooners were nothing like that. All you had was a bunk in the wall, two or three in each room, and there was a little sink, and that green can near the head of your bunk—you knew what that was for pretty quick. Only one of you could stand at a time, that was all the room there was.
Whatever you brought, they put below. You slept in your clothes—if you could sleep. Everybody got seasick. The smell was terrible. They had this mechanical piano in the dining room, to try and make things cheerful, I guess, but no one put any money in it. The food wasn’t too bad—of course we didn’t feel much like eating.
There was a nice woman traveling with her little boy. He must have been seven or so, sweet little thing, had a limp from polio. His mother and I talked for quite a while. Her husband was in San Francisco, waiting for them.
There were four children, including Frankie. He was the only baby, though—thirteen months. Looked just like his father. Dark blue eyes, wavy hair. He’d just started walking.
We all went to our rooms after lunch. No one wanted to be up on deck. It was cold, the wind had picked up. Nothing to look at anyway, just gray sky, gray waves. John and I got in our bunks. We hadn’t slept much the night before and we were tired, but it was no use trying to sleep, not with the ship tossing like it was, and Frankie fussing. There was nothing for him to do, no place to play.
It was late afternoon when we hit that reef. Oh my, what a jolt. I was lying with my back to the wall, holding the baby, but John was sitting on the edge of his bunk and he got knocked to the floor. He jumped right up, wide-eyed, told me to stay put, that he’d find out what was going on.
It got my attention all right, but I wasn’t in a panic. I knew we had life boats and life vests, if we needed them. I’d never been on a ship. I trusted the crew, I guess, figured they knew what they were doing.
John came back a few minutes later. He said we were close to shore and that everything would be fine. I could hear people talking outside the room. Everyone was in the hall, all talking at once.
The captain rang the bell then, four times—we all knew that was the distress call, and everybody started rushing for the deck. The children were crying, a few of the women, too.
The ship started to turn then, slowly, you could feel the pulling under your feet. It was hard to walk, and we were tilted, we kept bumping into each other. And the noise—you wouldn’t think a ship could groan like that. I remember feeling sorry for it—isn’t that odd?
It was getting dark by then and raining hard, didn’t take more than a couple minutes to get soaked through. Mind you, the clothes were heavier then, made from wool. All the women wore woolen stockings and those long treacherous skirts. Felt like you were lugging the world around once you got wet.
The ship turned two, maybe three times, and then it started leaning more, sending us all to one side. Someone said the bow had a hole in it and water was coming in. We could see the shore then, or at least the lights on it. Folks must have known we were in trouble and were getting ready to help.
The captain was there. Gus was his name. Poor man was trying to figure out what to do. One of the men said we should stay on the ship, that the sea was too rough, but the captain was afraid we’d sink—he had us start putting on life jackets, told the crew to lower the lifeboats.
You couldn’t fault the crew. They were kind, helping us tie on the life jackets and get into the boats. They were trying real hard to keep folks calm, making sure things were kept orderly.
The wind was blowing and the rain was coming down hard on the deck, and everyone was shouting over the noise, but they finally got us loaded up. John was in the second boat, I was in the first, with the rest of the women and children.
There was no moon, just the dark sky and rain coming down. Nobody was talking, we were all just hanging onto the sides of the boat, looking toward the beach. One of the crewmen was rowing, having a hard time of it. A couple of us tried to help him, but we weren’t much use.
I think we were about halfway to the beach when the boat turned sideways and a big comber hit us. Picked us right up out of the ocean like we were nothing and flipped us over.
I lost Frankie right away. The water was so cold, and that life vest—they were bulky back then, you couldn’t get a proper hold on things.
I couldn’t feel my legs, couldn’t catch my breath. I kept reaching out, all around, trying to find Frankie, trying to keep my head above the waves. Behind me I heard people crying for help. They were hanging onto the overturned boat. I felt a hand on my arm and someone was pulling me over. I grabbed one of the boat ribs, hung on as tight as I could. I called and called for Frankie, but it was no use. The surf kept pounding the boat, smashing us against it. My legs were useless; my arms felt like they were being pulled out of their sockets. Some poor souls slipped off. I don’t know how I kept my hold, but I finally felt the sand under me. People were pulling me onto the beach.
The second boat overturned too, someone said. I kept asking about John, but no one had seen him. There were all kinds of people trying to help, handing out blankets, giving us food and coffee. They said I needed to get to the hospital, but I wouldn’t leave. They were shining lanterns on the people washed up, trying to find the survivors. When I saw two people carrying a man in a green coat, I knew it was John. I remember how his hands looked, hanging down, so long and white; I knew he was dead. They didn’t find Frankie that night, not that there was any hope for him.
The hospital was full, so they took us to private homes, people with the room to take us in. I wound up in North Bend, with the Cabots. Alfred Cabot was a doctor. He bandaged me up, set my legs—my ribs were fractured and I’d broken both legs. I stayed there ten weeks, till I could walk again.
They found Frankie two days after the wreck. The Cabots didn’t want me to see him, but I insisted, so they brought him to me. Course he didn’t look like himself anymore. It was terrible. It was like being ripped in two. We had a service for him there in the room. They were good people, the Cabots. We stayed in touch for years.
The captain lived—he probably wished he hadn’t. They found him negligent, took away his license. He was being punished, you see, for putting us into those lifeboats.
That ship would have held together for days, and it did. Looters started climbing aboard, taking whatever they could. They had it pretty much emptied in a few days, whatever hadn’t been ruined by leaking oil or water. Someone finally set fire to it, just for the spectacle.
We never needed those lifeboats. We could have used the gangplank. The next day, at low tide, we could have walked to shore without even getting our feet wet.
The wreck of the Santa Clara. You can look it up. Coos Bay, November 2, 1915. 48 passengers, 42 crewmen, 14 dead—or assumed dead; not all the bodies came back. That’s as much as you’ll learn from the newspapers.
I wanted to die of course, could not understand why I hadn’t, what point there was in sparing me when all I had left was pain. A life without John and Frankie did not seem possible, and all I could do while my bones stitched themselves together was think about Frankie, slipping from my arms, and John’s ghostly hands.
You want to die, but you don’t, you can’t. Your life keeps towing you along. In that bed, half-mad with misery, I could not have conceived that five years later I would marry a watchmaker named Alan Collins, that I would lose him too when a piece of roofing slid from the hands of a carpenter and struck him on his way to work; or that two years after this, I would marry a third time, a banker named Clyde Odell, and promptly give him twins; that we would wind up in a big gabled home in Portland, which is now worth a fortune; that I would live to the age of 99. Maybe longer.
– Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. Nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, she has also published a novel, LOST SISTER. Her debut collection of short stories, SURVIVAL SKILLS, was published in April 2013 by Ashland Creek Press and was short-listed for a Lambda Literary Award.