July 29, 2011

John Masefield was the poet laureate of England from 1930 until his death in 1967. He was a sailor but tired of that life, and decided to pursue a career as a writer. He jumped ship in New York and beginning in 1895 worked for two years in a carpet factory, which still stands, just north of the city in Yonkers. It was an unusual place, far from his birthplace in southwestern England, for a young man to find himself, let alone one who would achieve fame great enough to earn burial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. Masefield is perhaps best-known for the poem “Sea Fever,” which managed to convey, in three short verses, all of the power, mystery and majesty of an ocean voyage:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

Dina’s son Andrei, her only child, my stepson, was a brilliant young man who was born in Moscow but came to America with her at a young age. After attending the Russian Mission School in New York, he started college at 16, graduated magna cum laude at 19 and was pursuing a master’s degree in financial engineering while having a successful career on Wall Street. He too found himself in Yonkers, far from his birthplace but in a new home in his adopted country, with Dina and me. He loved French cognac, Italian sausage, Cuban cigars and Russian girls, Alissa in particular, but he was all American. On Sept. 7, 2008, after a late summer barbecue with friends, he was a passenger in a car that had an accident in upstate New York, and he died. He was 21 years old. Although some of the light went out of our lives that day, his memory still shines for us like the midnight sun. Andrei was buried in an old cemetery that sits across the street from the building where John Masefield worked, on a hill near the graves of the family that owned the factory. Masefield was younger than Andrei when he left Yonkers to return to England, but I like to think of them as two old souls.

Dina is a great cook, and we love to entertain people and invite them to stay with us: friends, children of friends, friends of children. The way we take in strays, the lonely and the temporarily marooned reminds me of the last line of Moby-Dick. The shipwrecked Ishmael is rescued by a ship whose captain has lost his son to the white whale, and who was previously refused help by the obsessed Captain Ahab:

“It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

As I passed the long hours on the ship, I often thought of Andrei, and my other sons. The message that I wrote and placed into the capsule that was sunk at the North Pole read thus:

“To АНДРЕЙ, my son, who lived every day of his life

at the top of the world.”