For my 12th birthday, Christmas, 1962, my aunt Dorothy decided to take me on a Caribbean cruise during my school vacation. We departed for New York on a train to meet a very fancy ship called the Santa Rosa. It was built in 1958, had a twin sister ship called the Santa Paula and they were both part of the very lovely cruise company, Grace Line.
But my aunt feared when we left Chicago amid uncertainty surrounding a pending longshoreman’s strike, that the ship might not sail. And she was right. We did get foiled that holiday season by what turned out to be a very infamous longshoreman’s strike that required federal government intervention spearheaded by President Kennedy. And we never got on the ship.
We did, however, stay in New York for a few days, to see the sights she loved all over Manhattan, and we visited distant relatives she knew about who lived in the Bronx. They in turn had other distant relatives who were lost in the holocaust, which I found very interesting and very sad. We talked a bit about the holocaust when we got there. And I was able to see an apartment in the Bronx, which was different than any apartment I’d ever seen in Chicago.
And then we came home.
When we got re-booked for February, after the strike was settled, I was thrilled because I was going to get two weeks off school this time! I had to explain that to my teachers who were very understanding. And they even gave me some busy work to do in my free time on the ship–so I didn’t get behind.
One teacher, Mr. Medina had parents who lived in Venezuela and when he found out our ship would be stopping near Caracas, he insisted we meet them. And he even gave me a package to bring to them, too.
So, in February, 1963 we boarded our second train bound for New York to go on a cruise. We met a woman on the train who’d lost a child in the horrid tragedy of the Our Lady of Angels fire in 1958. My aunt wanted us to talk to her during our train ride and be nice to her since she’d lived through the greatest tragedy anyone could possibly endure. And so we did.
When the train pulled in, we checked into the nearby very historic Roosevelt Hotel for the night, so we could rest up for the start of our big adventure–boarding the ship the next day. But we both agreed that our overnight digs had seen their better day. Truly historic, we laughed.
And we were very excited about getting on the Santa Rosa, and sailing down the east coast of the United States, past Cape Hatteras, past the Florida peninsula and on into to the Caribbean to make our very interesting and exotic stops.
Our accommodations were exquisite. A luxurious hotel-like stateroom for two–for two weeks–with a beautiful view of the water. And a nice bathroom.
Every morning we got a newspaper delivered to our door that was published by ship’s personnel overnight, with international news–and news of what would be happening on the ship (Captain’s dinners, movies and shows and parties) and information about our upcoming stops.
And also…every day in the ship’s newspaper there was a Jumble….
My aunt was a whiz at jumbles, having done them for years in the newspapers at home. Everyone was encouraged to do it daily on the Santa Rosa, in the newspaper, and turn it in and maybe win a prize. My aunt won every day for two weeks. The pursers started telling everyone about the “The Jumble Lady. ” And she became very well-known in the dining room and at all the social events and in the cocktail lounge.
One night at dinner–which was in an impressive formal dining room, and was a very dressy formal event with white starched tablecloths, perfectly set tables and perfectly printed menus–a wonderful thing happened.
A girl exactly my age and her aunt joined us at our table. (I think her aunt wanted to meet The Jumble Lady.) We became very good friends. She was from Maplewood, New Jersey, and she was very nice and smart and fun–and we corresponded for years after the cruise was over.
Everyone called her aunt “Auntie Mame,” because she would walk into the dining room or the cocktail lounge in the evening in a beautiful mink coat, slip it off and very dramatically drop it cavalierly on the floor next to her chair. And just like Auntie Mame, she talked loudly and dramatically and her niece was like her Patrick Dennis. My aunt and I had a lot of fun being with them. We loved watching our very own Auntie Mame.
If memory serves me, Venezuela–our furthest port on the cruise–was our first stop. The port wasn’t far from Caracas, and Mr. Medina’s mother and father met us there. And drove us to a beautiful, delicate and very classy restaurant for lunch. They were such nice warm people and very regal, too. I remember feeling very grown up visiting with them as our hosts in those surroundings. They seemed to like us and we liked them. I told them I loved having their son as my math teacher.
When I think of what’s happened to Venezuela since we were there, I don’t think a day like we had that day could ever happen again, the way it happened for us.
In Curacao, we took a nice tour around the island looking at the quaint architecture and the waterfront, learning about the Dutch history and admiring the nice beaches…. And my aunt spent a lot of time shopping for booze to send home to her long time boyfriend (who she married a few years later) and who’d given her specifications as to what to get and what to pay for it. But we did get around town in our search, and we talked to a lot of people in the course of doing her errand. So we got a little feel as to what it would be like to livet there. On a shopping spree for the right liqueur, at least.
In Aruba we had a nice lunch at a nice hotel and saw some nice beaches. And again we learned more about Dutch history on the island. But my memories of Aruba from that trip were supplanted in 1980 when I went there with girlfriends. We had a great time and I met an interesting artist from Puerto Rico, who sent me some of his work as a gift when I got home. Which I framed and see every day hanging on my wall. But that happened more than 17 years after I was there with my aunt.
In Jamaica, we went to Kingston for a great tour, and I remember feeling that I was really far from home. That I was in a different place and that I wanted to learn more–maybe by staying longer or going somewhere that day that was grittier and more real than just driving around and having lunch. But we did get around that day, in any case. And we did learn about the history and the geography. But I sensed that it went much deeper than what we saw and heard.
And then there was Haiti, where my aunt went on a buying spree. And bought a ton of wooden sculptures and wooden serving pieces for dining. Again, her boyfriend thought those things would be a good buy there. And he encouraged her to splurge on those things for herself, for him, for the family and for gifts to give in the future.
So we had quite a time in the craft market and the shops in Haiti. I’ve inherited some pieces through the years because every member of my family ended up with a lot of it! And I see it every day and always think of my aunt going from merchant to merchant and picking out way too much.
(Like this appetizer-holder that has toothpick holes all around the wooden pineapple.)
Later that day in Haiti, I was on the upper deck of our ship peering over at the island of Hispaniola. We’d learned about it in school and it was a thrill to actually be there looking right at it. I was thinking that soon we would be sailing towards Fort Lauderdale, the last stop, where there was an option to disembark and fly home, which we did. And I was all alone. I think everyone was resting or getting ready for dinner.
I heard some odd noise from the water below. I went to check out the commotion and on my way, I picked up a piece of chocolate cake that was always set out late in the afternoon as a snack. They were cut in three by three-inch squares, and about two inches high. And there were a ton of them on a big outdoor buffet table on little plates.
When I got to the ship’s rail and looked down at least 30 feet, there was a huge conglomeration of rowboats hugging the hull of the ship, and in each one sat little Haitian boys, who started waving at me and throwing kisses and smiles. I thought they were so sweet and so adorable, and about the age of my little brother at home.
They were pointing at me, all of them, with big smiles. And suddenly I realized they were pointing at my piece of cake. All of them. So, I figured, why not? I let go of my cake and a lucky boy caught it and devoured it. I went over to the table and got two more and threw them down, too. And then I went back for more. And threw those down, as well. Ultimately, everyone got as many as they wanted, and I ended up throwing every single piece of cake down to them. I was gleeful and totally carried away. They were so happy.
I was so giddy that I cleared out the whole entire table of cake. And I even let go of glasses of water so they could wash the cake down, too. And I was done when everything was gone. Not only the cake but all the glasses of water, too, all skillfully caught by them. It was so satisfying.
I never forgot that moment. I’ve thought about it now and then fo 58 years. My feelings of being generous and courageous and exhilarated, and their gratefulness and friendliness and satiation at the water line.
The fact that I was on the deck all alone and no one knew what I did, and what they would have thought (the passengers and the ship’s personnel) if they’d seen me do it–more and more cakes over the side and all the water glasses that went overboard, too–really got me thinking. And I also wondered what the staff thought when they came to take in the cake and the water glasses and everything was gone…. And no one had really been around. Except me.
All the trouble that has befallen Haiti through all these year…when I’ve heard about it, I always thought of that short time when I was way up there throwing the ship’s afternoon snack to those cute little boys down below in the rowboats. I’ve always wondered if any of those boys grew up to be any of the men that might be be suffering through all that trouble.
And I guess, along with those thoughts, I wondered if those boys who grew up to be men ever thought about the crazy girl who got carried away throwing things overboard because she enjoyed how happy they were to receive the goodies below.
I thought about it when we got off the ship, too. And when I was on my way home. Never realizing that short scenario on the ship would always be the most vivid memory of my whole trip on the Santa Rosa.
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