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Our captain

Last modified: 5/9/2010 12:00:00 AM
I stopped in at High Tide here in Hillsboro recently for the first time this season - the High Tide is one of those nifty, seasonal seafood places that let you know that spring is finally here - and there, tucked behind the cash register, was The Captain. My mother would be so pleased to know he was back.

I lost my mom in September 2008. It still hurts. Sometimes, unbearably. She'd been in a sort of bad zone of consistently poor health for years, and I'd taken care of her. I am not selfless. It was often not easy. We argued at times. We struggled at times. But from the time I was a kid it felt like it was often us against the world. We were fierce family, and we loved each other and we genuinely liked each other.

Then, in 2008 we faced, as the book says, a series of unfortunate events. We lost our beloved cat, Molly Goldberg, after 19 years. I had a health issue that we were assured was probably nothing. It turned out to be very much not nothing. It was and remains something that is going to take my life. That summer, my mother, at the age of 71, had to cope with the idea that she might just outlive me. I'm not sure how any parent deals with that. My mother suddenly became acutely ill, then one health thing piled on another. She died on Sept. 1. She'd been in poor health, of course, but I also have to think that she made a decision - somewhere deep inside - that she could not go on. I understand it. And I'm still a little mad at her about it.

The truth is, time does not heal all wounds, and closure is a myth. But time does lessen the kick of emotion. After more than a year, I found that I suddenly reached a point where I could think of some random thing about my mother - her affection for Big Papi, her phase in the 1970s during which she wrote only with green ink, driving around Niagara Falls in 1998 listening to Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra in our rental car and revisiting places she'd been to with her father when she was a kid - and the strongest emotion was no longer sadness. It was strong memories and a smile to myself. Now that there is some distance from her death, I can remember and honor her life again.

Which brings me back to The Captain.

When I was a kid, we used to go to an amusement park in Keanesburg, N.J. My mother loved this game - I always called it the Rolly Ball game - where you put in a dime (it's a quarter now) and you roll balls to try and get the balls to land in a sequence of holes and win a prize. (Sometimes it's a bingo board, sometimes it's a poker hand.) My mother loved rolling those balls. It was some sort of weird, Zen-carny thing for her. She found rolling those balls relaxing. She could do it for hours - or at least until her supply of dimes ran out.

We used to joke that if we ever struck it rich she would get one of those Rolly Ball machines put into her bedroom. She was also going to have someone come in and give her foot massages right before bedtime. Sadly, we never struck it rich.

But we did find Rolly Ball machines again. They have them at those great old arcades at Weirs Beach and Hampton Beach. And at least a few times, I dragged my mom out to the arcades, and set her up with a roll of quarters at the Rolly Ball machine.

Now, I'm not going to say my mother was a Rolly Ball shark or anything, but, well, let's just say that years of practice gave her a certain skill at aiming those rolling balls. So we'd end up with a big old pile of coupons for the valuable arcade prizes.

You've been to arcades. You end up pretty excited because you have, say, 1,400 points in prize coupons, and then you get to the prize counter. Usually there's a toaster - a 1983 model - for 1 million points. A lava lamp for 29,000 points. And the rest is standard-issue, often water-themed, cheesy arcade crap. Not that there is anything wrong with cheesy arcade crap.

So this is how we came to possess the Captain, a little figurine about 6 or 7 inches tall. He has a beard and is in an orange rain slicker. He could be the Gorton's fisherman, if the Gorton's fisherman were oompa-loompa-sized. He is as arcade-cheesy as you can get. I believe my mother won him at Hampton Beach with a pile of tickets that probably cost us $30 in quarters. And, for years, he held an honored, if undusted, spot on the tall bookcase in our living room.

Occasionally, my mother expressed the idea that we should throw away The Captain. Even the most cheesy thing loses its charm eventually, and she didn't know if The Captain accurately reflected our home decor. But I protested. We never had anyone over anyway, and, you know, you don't just throw away a salty sea captain.

Then the High Tide opened. We went to eat there a few times - it's located just a nautical mile or so from our house - and my mom was very fond of the fish and chips.

Over time, we fully took in the High Tide decor. Plastic anchors here and there, pretend netting, faux lobster traps. We hatched a plan. The Captain would have a new home.

With stealth and precision that would have impressed the CIA (or perhaps NCIS), we went to eat again at the High Tide. But this time, we brought The Captain with us. We sat at a table and watched carefully for our chance. And when, finally, the coast was clear, we took The Captain and placed him on the divider between the rows of tables in the dining room. We gave The Captain a hearty but whispered 'Farewell, matey!' and we went home. And giggled for hours.

After that, every time we went to the High Tide, we looked for The Captain. He was small and he got moved around a lot. Sometimes, he wasn't there at all - I think he would get packed away for the winter and wouldn't always make it out first thing. When we would finally spot The Captain - he spent some time out in various spots in the dining area before seeming to find a permanent home by the cash registers - we would look at each other and giggle. We looked a little crazy. We were.

Years later - when my mother no longer got out of the house very much - I would go to get her fish and chips takeout at High Tide. She'd always ask if I saw The Captain. I'd say 'Yeah, he's manning the ice cream counter this year.' We would both laugh, conspiratorially.

So now? My mother is gone. And I miss her more than I can tell you. But when I stopped in at High Tide the other day, I instinctively looked for The Captain, and there he was, greeting customers from his perch by the cash register. I smiled at The Captain, and I smiled for my mother.


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