A Mother's Words to Her Son at Sea

There were no ship-to-shore radios 110 years ago. When the Quinnams of Wiscasset, Maine, wanted to know the whereabouts of their son at sea, they searched the port-of-call listings in the Portland newspaper for word of the Castalia. On board was their eldest son, Cleveland, first mate of the square-rigged brigantine. Occasionally, a letter from Cleve would make its way home to the deep-water harbor on the Sheepscot River.

What we know about the Quinnams (my wife's ancestors) comes from family stories. The details, however, are found in a packet of 13 letters, compiled and annotated by my wife's cousin, Dean Shea, an English teacher in East Millinocket.

Only one of Cleve's letters survives, and only one from Alexander, his father. The rest are in the hand of Margaret Albee Quinnam, who filled her letters to her son with the routine goings-on at home.

No stranger to challenges, Margaret Albee had finished high school at 16, then accepted the position of teacher in the one-room school on Monhegan Island. That September she climbed into a dory and was rowed the 15 miles to the island. She didn't return until June. Whether it was separation from family or the bitter island winter, one year was enough. The following year she married Alexander Quinnam.

A year later, Margaret gave birth to the first of 10 children, a daughter who died in her first year. Two years later, in the second year of the Civil War, Cleveland was born. Then came May, Alexander, Carrie, Daisy, Samuel, Georgia, Lucy, and Harry.

By the time Margaret corresponded with Cleve in the mid-1880s, life on the Quinnam farm left her little time for reflection. Writing by lamplight at the kitchen table after all the work was done and the children put to bed, she chronicled a life as robust as it was severe:

We have got three lambs, she tells Cleve in a spring letter. Dan has got a black one. Other excerpts from her letters sketch out news of family and town:

Al is cutting wood for winter and your father is jobbing.

Frank's wife has got a baby girl.

Harry has got a pair of skates and a wilder boy you never saw.

Ellen F. Pushard was married sometime today to a fellow by the name of Will Read.... She had a garnet silk dress and wedding cake that cost seven dollars.

A son of Bill Hassen was drowned last Friday crossing the bog-pond.

The tugboat George Groves goes in is out of employe.

Blue Berries and raspberries are very plenty, we go every day.

According to family history, Margaret was well-read. She shared the only magazine subscription in the town. She doesn't mention her own reading, but she does write of her husband's:

Your father has got a pair of glasses and most every evening [reads] "Old Uncle Tom" ["Uncle Tom's Cabin"].

Some of Margaret's sentences express the poetry of Maine idiom:

Been marrying time, down to Wiscasset. And: We had a little flirt of snow Friday.

Like all Maine mothers, Margaret was concerned about the warmth of her children's hands and feet. After knitting woolen socks and mittens for her son at sea, she sought opportunities to get them to him.

What are you loading? she asks Cleve in one letter. Then she adds: Will send some stockings tomorrow.

Cleve's absence from the family table was particularly felt on holidays. Margaret writes:

Thanksgiving day was the 26th Nov., we had spare ribs and plum pudding and Harry wished you were here, and so we all did.

As I browse through these letters, spread out on my kitchen table, I sense lives linked to each day in a way that we - so distracted by the fantasies of sitcoms and advertising - cannot fully understand. Expressed in their simple detail is an acceptance of the realities of 19th-century life. In the same letter are reported politics, accidents and death, courtship, and the birth of livestock.

The Quinnam letters are not eloquent or philosophical, and there is little talk of dreams or aspirations. Instead, there is work and the search for work. There are the farm, crops, livestock, children, relatives, neighbors, and the talk of the town. Rarely mentioned, however, are the sea and its dangers.

By December 1885, Margaret had not received a letter from Cleve for a long time. Two weeks before Christmas, referring to the lack of a letter from him and to what may have been an injury incurred in a storm, she expressed her concern:

I hope your leg does not bother you. You did not write, but I think about you exposed to the cold and water.... Take care of yourself.

Cleve Quinnam had advanced rapidly in the merchant service. He had recently earned his captain's papers, and at 26 was due to command his own ship. He never got that opportunity. Nor did he receive his mother's last letters. Sometime in late 1885 or 1886, on a voyage to the West Indies, the Castalia disappeared, presumed lost in a storm.

For years, Margaret and her husband, Alexander, searched East Coast papers for news of the Castalia. Family members say that for a long time at night she left a lamp lit on the kitchen table.

For my wife and her cousins, the Quinnam letters are family saga. For me they are more than that. They are voices from an age that only vaguely resembles our own. Yet what these voices say about the enduring dimensions of life - work, hardship, self-reliance, love, delight, and loss - about living in the fullness of the present, I want my children to know.

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