Passing Ships

by Joan Frank

November 2014

A year ago I drove to a pretty town up north, to speak to a group of seniors. Their association's monthly event featured a catered lunch, door prizes, and an author as speaker: this time, me.

They were mostly widows, some quite old—reminding me, depressingly, of the accuracy of actuarial tables. Some appeared vibrant and fit, curious, mischievous. (These latter, I sensed, were the ones who'd live longest.) Others seemed vague and infirm; still others indifferent and glum.

Any writer with eyes in her head registers, with a bolt of shock, that she will one day become some version of one of these individuals. After the shock comes bewilderment. Are such personal fates (vital, dim, gloomy) happenstance? Or are they chosen? It felt like smacking into a gong to gaze at this group, because it was clear that the clamorous world had—fairly or unfairly—turned away from them. What might each day hold for these people now?

As I ate lunch at one of many filled tables in the room, I tried to learn about my tablemates. They had hobbies. They read—in scattershot ways. They doted on grown children, grandchildren. Overall they seemed a bit aimless: some more fatalistic and cheerful about it than others.

I could not ignore the obvious. One huge appeal of today's event for these elders was that it filled time. Most of the people I know, including me, never feel we have enough time. These souls had too much. The very brightness of the daylight through the windows felt—considered through their eyes—like something to be endured, an indictment. Was this the Promethean fate waiting for us all, the unfunny punch line?

I glanced around. Some seniors (including a man or two) joked and laughed. Others ate quietly. I tried not to think about what a tough crowd this would be. I took extra sips of water.

When time came to speak, I mounted my most sparkling show, projecting my voice warmly, making eye contact around the room. My talk was called "Ideas and Discovery." I described how images and ideas open out in the writing process like sprouting seeds. I offered some background about my writing path. I outlined my passionate belief that writing's a sacred dream shared, finally, one-to-one.

Yet I could not help thinking as I yammered on, Why should what I'm saying matter to them? Most listened politely. Some looked uneasy. One seemed to be sleeping. I told my listeners a few funny anecdotes, and finally asked for questions. A couple of brave souls put their hands in the air with familiar queries: when do you write (whenever I can); how much do you plan out your work in advance (very little).

Afterward I sat at a cloth-covered table piled with copies of my books, and sold several. Then, once everyone else had left, a slight, almost ghostly woman emerged, wavering. She was pale and slim with soft, white hair, and features that might once have been called patrician.

"I sat in a part of the room where I could not hear a word you said," she began. She trembled. I took her hand: it was thin, cool, fragile.

"I wondered whether I could maybe have a copy of your talk," she said. Her eyes were filling. I reached for the script beside me on the table (in extra-big print, thankfully) and placed it in her hands.

"I want you to know," she continued, "how much your being here means to me. Because you see," Her voice shook. "I want to write. And it means so much to hear about someone who has done it. I don't know how to tell you," she said.

Softly, she began to cry.

The woman was in her nineties. She lived with a grown daughter who looked after her.

"My dear!" I pressed her hand with both my own, searching her anguished face.

"Of course you must write," I told her. "You can do it. I'm sure there are writing groups here in town that can help you get started. Your daughter," I added, "can help you find one."

Silently, I prayed this could happen.

"And what," I asked, still holding her hand, "do you want to write? A memoir?"

Her eyes focused on an invisible space between us.

"I want," she said, with slow and deliberate care, "to write about sperm."

I stared at her.


She kept her eyes on the invisible crystal ball between us.

"Yes, sperm," she said firmly.

"Ah. Well. Right." My mind scoured itself for a response.

"So—what aspect of sperm did you want to write about? Was it, say, from the sensibility of the sperm itself?" (I was thinking helplessly of Woody Allen's scene in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, where he plays a single sperm sitting anxiously on a long bench with gazillions of brethren, awaiting destiny's call.)

She could not articulate it further.

"I want to write about sperm," she repeated.

I marveled. In my experience, not only can you never anticipate revelations like these spilling forth at readings and lectures: you can never be ready for how they'll humble you. What scattering of cards had caused this woman to become who she was, standing there before me? What blend of will and whim had caused me to be standing there?

Come to think of it, I guess sperm played its part.

"I believe you," I told the woman.

"Please ask your daughter to locate a writing group here in town for you. And please tell your daughter she can always e-mail me." I pressed a business card into her hand.

The woman nodded. Then I was accosted by organizers who needed help with event-related paperwork. Amidst the hubbub, the agitated woman disappeared.

I never heard from her again.

In Federico Fellini's tender, autobiographical film Amarcord, an Italian town's entire population rushes on foot at dawn to the sea, where they assemble on the beach to watch a glittering ocean liner pass by in the half-light. As if by longtime ritual, all the townspeople call out to the mighty ship, waving and yelling. Many are openly weeping. To the townspeople, the liner represents the possible lives they dream of, lives not yet lived—or that it's too late to live.

Sometimes—fairly or unfairly—a visiting writer functions, to readers, like that ocean liner.

Stranger still, and more humbling: a reader can also be that passing ship, to a writer. A life only faintly imagined, barely glimpsed in the half-light.

Joan FrankComment