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  • Toni Burns

Ferry Tale

- Toni Burns

We rode safe, if not completely dry, to the Delaware dock of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, little worse for wear. We’d waited out the latest blow of a coastal thunderstorm while enjoying the warmth and wi-fi of a Rehoboth coffeehouse, but another wave of the storm ambushed us as we awaited the ferry. By the time we were ushered aboard behind another couple, on a trike with Jersey plates, we could have all taken a dip in the ocean, fully clothed, and not been wetter.

Bikes secured, and following enthusiastic use of the ferry’s turbo-charged bathroom hand dryers on our clothes, we found a vacant booth next to a window on the upper deck. Seeing an older couple with a small child navigating the crowded aisle, we offered the seats across from us so that their little one could see outside. Not that there was much to be seen; with the rain bucketing down, the sky, sea, and ferry took on mingling shades of grey. The little girl was shivering under the vent directly above our table, the air conditioning still blasting, despite the chilling rain. I gave her my rain jacket, downy soft on the inside and warm enough to cook up a contented smile as she snuggled up under it on her fiery Irish gramma’s ample lap.

Grandpa cooed to the little girl and stroked her cheek when she began to cry or complain. Straightening his white cowboy hat over long dreadlocks, he revealed that illness had forced him into retirement. He didn’t mind. His sole job was taking care of his granddaughter, CJ, and she was enough of a handful. At times, I had difficulty understanding Harry, or “Dirty Harry” as he introduced himself, through his thick Jamaican accent. But he was patient when I asked him to repeat himself. We discovered that this was both he and Michele’s second marriage. I briefly touched on the question of how they had fallen in love, to which Harry replied, “She may look like this, but she has the heart of a Jamaican.” Gazing at her husband, Michele cocked her red head, a smile creasing her alabaster cheeks and dancing in her emerald-Irish eyes. She nodded at me, acknowledging that answer summed it up. Though she adores Jamaica or any place in the Caribbean, she and Harry had met in Maryland, where their families combined to define the American melting pot. Eastern Indian, Jamaican, Irish, English, Senegalese, Portuguese, and Haitian blood circulates through three generations preceding little CJ. Harry was proud of their “genetic stew,” as he called it, though Michele, as a CDC coordinator and international health director for AIDS programs in Africa, lamented the difficulties CJ may have if she ever needs a transplant or other complex therapeutic match. The downside of diversity, if there must be one.

We did not record our conversation, as it was just an impromptu chat between new friends - and the recorder was buried deep in the dry bag on the bikes a few decks below where we sat. But we did ask a few of our favorite questions. There were many that I would have liked to have delved into more deeply. But I instead contented myself to let Harry and Michele guide the conversation, telling as much or as little as they liked about their love, listening to Harry’s childhood memories and adult ailments, and about Michele’s trips to Africa for her job. The conversation was put on hold several times to take care of CJ’s whims and wants, with Harry’s infirmities never seeming to affect his trips for juice and muffins and napkins.

Hugs and farewells saw each of us down opposing stairways to our vehicles, their car in the bow of the ferry, our bikes riding the waves aft. Waiting to depart, I struck up a brief discussion with the couple on the trike in front of us, Mike and Elaine, a retired New Jersey couple, perhaps a decade or so older than us. Mike had replaced his two-wheeled Gold Wing a while back as he worried about his fading balance - and that Elaine might be unhappy if he dropped her. But neither was ready to give up the road they loved together, yet, a glimpse of our own future, no doubt. Just before the cars hemming us in began to move, I noticed a small, heart-shaped, wooden plaque affixed to the back of their trike, which they revealed as a gift from “the kids for our 15th wedding anniversary.” With the cars already in motion ahead, I hastily clicked off a couple of shots of it, hoping they were in focus. I didn’t think of it again until that evening, as I downloaded the day’s pictures into my computer. Then, I saw the warmth of a second ferry tale that had briefly touched us before the embrace of the first had even cooled into memory. The plaque read: “Two Shall Become One, Elaine & Mike, August 20, 1961, Love Forever & A Day.” They were my parents’ age.

It was a beautiful reminder that love is around all us, coming in from the rain, waiting in lines and traffic, over the horizon, and waiting for an invitation to sit right next to us. And for all the people in whom we each find it, they can find it too. In us.


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