Summer 1965. There are nine of us in the little rowboat. Ten if you want to count Mom’s bump. Dad sits on the rower’s seat. He had wedged Mom in behind him. She sits on a lawn chair under a brightly colored clamp-on beach umbrella with Daughter #7 sitting atop her baby bump. Daughter #7, only a year old, is afraid of the water. She is a reluctant maharaja riding high in a howdah on the back of an elephant. Mom wears a maternity muumuu, Dad a French bikini.
He had put us in a house out in Babylon for the summer. Today he had come by for the weekend and rented a rowboat to surprise us. He had pulled the boat onto the sand at the end of the backyard and called us all out to see it.
We are now on Great South Bay heading out toward the bridge. I’m Daughter #2, eleven years old and wearing my first two-piece. I sit in the bow, keeping an eye on Mom in the back. Daughters #1, #3, #4, #5, and #6 squeeze in between Dad and me. We are a heavy and precarious load. When we had all piled in earlier, the day was fine. Warm and sunny. But now we are almost to the bridge, the Robert Moses Causeway, and the weather has changed. The sky is dark, the wind is up, and the water is choppy. Dad stops rowing. The bay mud from our feet has made the bottom of the boat sandy, wet, and cold. It makes me think of the clams I dig up to feed Mom’s voracious appetite. I steam three or four—they’re big—until they pop open, I put butter on them, and then I watch as they slip down Mom’s hatch.
The boat rides up high on a wave and then slams back down. This happens over and over again. The force of the sea frightens me. We are all very quiet. I glance at Mom. Daughter #7 sucks her thumb. So does Daughter #5. I realize that we’re not wearing our life preservers. I think this is strange because Dad always insists that we wear them whenever we go to the beach, much to the humiliation of Daughter #1 and me. None of us girls can swim, not even Mom. Dad, however, is an excellent swimmer. Not wanting to look like a scaredy-cat, Daughter #1 wears a goofy smile. Daughter #3 holds onto Daughter #5 while Daughter #6 climbs halfway into Daughter #4’s lap. Big drops of rain begin to fall, pelting our bare shoulders. I look around and see that we are the only boat in sight. I grip the sides of the bow and watch as the slate-grey sea attempts to hurl us from its angry surface.
“Shouldn’t we head back?” Mom asks Dad.
“Water’s too rough.”
The rowboat is close to the foundation of the bridge. I can see little pebbles in the rough concrete of the piling. I imagine a wave crashing the wooden boat into the fortress-like structure, shattering the boat and throwing us all into the sea.
I remember that Mom didn’t want to get in the boat. Heck, she didn’t even want to spend the summer—pregnant, alone with us girls—in a little rental house on the bay. She had told Dad that he was just embarrassed in front of the neighbors back home, that he wanted to hide her away, that he didn’t want them to see that he had knocked her up again.
“You’re as big as a fuckin’ water buffalo,” he had said.
They fought all the time. They blamed each other for their inability to produce a son. Dad shouted that the male seed would curl up and die inside of Mom. And Mom bawled that Dad wasn’t man enough to make a male. They used the Catholic church and its ban on birth control as an excuse for having so many kids. But we girls knew they were trying for a boy.
On one of Dad’s earlier visits (he came by on payday to drop off groceries; Mom didn’t drive) he noticed that Mom’s time was drawing near. He gave instructions to Daughter #1: “If your mother goes into labor, go down the road to the phone booth and call for an ambulance.” He said to me, “You go with her.” We rehearsed one night. It was a long walk on the pitch-black seaside road, looking for the phone booth. At last we saw it up ahead, like a shrine, its light luminous through the murky night air.
The worst of the rowboat ride is over now. Dad rows the boat back to the house. He lifts Daughter #7 from Mom’s lap and places her on the sand. Then he helps Mom out of the boat. While he gathers up the folding chair and beach umbrella, Daughters #5 and #6 struggle to climb out. No longer afraid, I want to stay in the boat. So do Daughters #1, #3, and #4. The sky is clear; the sun’s come out again. I am happy. I sit in the front as Dad rows to the dock with ease, his burden much lightened. As Dad throws the rope to the man, the man reproaches him: “Five people. You’re overloaded.” He seems as angry with us as the sea had been. Thinking that now we are half as many as we had been, none of us say a word.
Later, after the twins are born, Mom confides in me. She says, “Remember that day your father took us all out in the rowboat.”
“Yes,” I say.
“I think he was planning to let us all drown.”
I don’t say anything. Then she laughs a loud dry ha ha ha.
“What’s funny, Mom?” I ask.
“If he knew I was about to deliver Daughters #8 and #9, we would all be dead.”