At Home in Onset: A Jack and Maggie Story

Light blue ceremaic mug with small bowl and plate, dark blue outlines and pink flower in the center

There is a funny, but perhaps universal thing about children and their parents.  We tend to think our parents had no lives until we came along, born or adopted, we think it is all about us. Truthfully, there are some things we do not want to know about our parents and perhaps that is as it should be. I say this because it occurs to me that while I know my dad was from Onset, it never occurred to me that he lived anywhere but onboard ship once he went to sea at thirteen until he and my mom got married. He was thirty-one when they met and married.

Older man, older woman, young man in a suit, holding a cigar.
Anibal, Mary and Jack

It strikes me that it is an unrealistic assumption that he did not return home for visits. Although a cousin recently shared with me that there was a period of a few years when no one in the family was sure where he was. Again, these were things my father never talked about. It does make sense though, that before he was signed on a ship at 13, that his father must have ensured that he had some skills. As one of the older children in a large poor family, he could not have been coddled or spoiled. It also makes sense that in those early years there was an expectation that all or part of his salary went to the family. Sometime in his youth he began boxing and he also learned other skills at home that he would not have learned at sea. For instance, at least two of his brothers were masons and there is considerable proof that he learned masonry from somewhere, whether it was from his brothers or some other source.

Dad sailed for American Export Lines as a Chief Mate in the 1950’s and 1960’s, which later became American Export Isbrandsten Lines. Regular trips to the Mediterranean Sea were about three months long. In between trips to other countries and a coastwise trip, he would sometimes have a week off to be home before sailing. A coastwise trip, was a journey up and down the east coast to drop off imports, or pick up products for export. Trips to the Indian Ocean were much longer, as long as five or six months, so again with some time at home in-between trips and six weeks of vacation a year, he was gone much more than he was at home. I have vague memories of him going to work on my uncle’s turkey farm on those breaks, including a time he had stepped on a nail and had to get a tetanus shot.

 While he had traveled all over the world as a sailor, both in the Merchant Marine and the United States Navy, my mother never left Baltimore, until their honeymoon. He took her to Onset to meet his parents and family. They lived in Baltimore, or rather mom did. Dad sailed out of Hoboken, New Jersey and traveled to Baltimore for the first few years they were married. Then, when my brother was not quite two, they moved to Onset and bought a house on an acre of ground in Point Independence, just up the street from the beach, and a few blocks away from my grandparents’ home. Mom had saved up the money that dad sent her, literally “socked it away” in a sock, so they had the money at least for the down-payment if not the whole thing.

 They built eight cottages on the outside edge of the property in a horseshoe configuration. Dad laid the foundation for the houses, and he also put in the cesspool himself. He worked with a neighbor and local contractor to build the cottages. They were primarily there for “the summer people” who came to visit the local beaches, but the cottages were winterized and soon there were more Air Force families than summer people living there.  Mom did the painting, made slipcovers for the couches and handled most of the business and rentals.

A young man in a suit holding a cigar

They worked together well, and it gave mom plenty to do when dad was at sea, which was most of the time. They were proud and grateful to have the land and the business. Mom also got active in the local PTA and made friends. There were no Marcellino family gatherings or parties, just occasional individual visits, but no real companionship or encouragement. I think if it were not for her two best friends, one from Onset and one from Wareham, mom would have been lost. She missed her family in Baltimore, and she missed dad at sea.

There was a black iron grate in the ceiling in the hallway that went upstairs, for heat and at night we could hear the sounds of her at the typewriter, typing letters as she wrote letters to dad, or to her family at home.  Now, one does not generally hear someone typing a letter on a computer, unless you are sitting near them. But in 1950, there were no electric typewriters, let alone computers, but old standard manual typewriters that made a racket, especially if one was typing with great emotion or in a rush, and one could always hear the ding of the carriage return. Sometimes we would hear the typewriter and sometimes we heard sobs.

Woman and boy sitting on the steps of a house, toddler girl facing the woman
Mom, my brother and me 1952

 The separations weren’t easy for him either. People made a lot of assumptions about the lure and romance of the sea, but by the time he and mom met and married he had been a sailor for almost twenty years. It was a job; it was how he earned his living.  He often said after the first two weeks at sea, everyone was all talked out. Except for doing their best in building and investing in the cottages, I doubt he saw any way out. So, they would drink their goodbyes, and mom would say that she “poured’ him onto the bus, train or plane, depending on how he was going to get back to New Jersey before it was time to sail.

Sometime after 1953 she got her driver’s license and then was able to drive him to Hoboken and they could spend his off hours together, before he sailed. I would stay with my grandmother or with family friends. Sometimes though, we would all go to Hoboken and spend family time when he wasn’t on duty and then after his ship sailed, we would travel on to Baltimore to spend some time with mom’s family before heading home to Onset.

My best memory of doing that happened when I was in high school. We were living at the Union Villa at that point, and dad went back to sea in the off season. He was scheduled to be in New Jersey shortly before Christmas. School wasn’t out yet, but it would be shortly. Mom was getting dad’s things ready to pack. A thought popped into my head and I asked, “Why can’t we just take dad to Hoboken and then go on to Baltimore after he sails?” I did not have to ask the question twice; we were packed, and in the car, heading for Hoboken in 45 minutes.  That is why in my High School Class Will it states, “Michele Marcellino leaves on another trip to Baltimore.”

Not holding back the tide,


Published by msomerville2014

About: Michele Somerville is a wife, mother, stepmother, grandmother, sister, aunt, cousin and friend. She lives with her husband and their dog Sheba. Sheba is their fourth rescue dog in 30 years. She is a retired ordained United Methodist Elder and serves two churches part-time in North Central Pennsylvania. She obtained her Bachelors’ Degree in 1999 from Mansfield University and her Master of Divinity in 2004 and Doctor of Ministry in 2016, both from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York. My Doctor of Ministry Thesis was:” Prophetic Words of Grace: Biblical Storytelling in the Local Church.” Michele began writing and performing character monologues for worship in 2008. She began by asking the question about nameless characters in the Bible, “What would they say if they could speak for themselves?” and then using her theological education and experience of the human condition to attempt an answer that is both academic and creative. Much of what you will read here are memories from growing up in a tourist town, in a bar, in the 1960’s, shaggy dog stories about our rescue dogs, life in a small town, and stories of faith and hope. Throughout her life she has lived in many states, including small towns, large towns and cities. She lived in Rota, Spain, for nine challenging months. Despite all the places she have lived since moving away from home in 1970,Michele is at the heart of all things Jack and Maggie’s daughter, and a beach girl from Onset, Massachusetts.

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