It started innocently enough, looking back. My 10-year-old son, Andrew, and his grandfather, Steve Gerstenblatt, decided to bond one night by watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie together. Steve made his famous, homemade popcorn and the two of them stayed up past midnight, lured by the glow of the flat screen TV.
The next morning, not much had changed, except that Andrew was tired. When the weekend came to a close, we left Steve’s house in Rhode Island and headed back home. A month or so later, Steve gave Andrew a Lego set of the Black Pearl for his birthday, and they watched the second and third movies together. It seemed benign.
Over time, though, relatives and friends in Rhode Island started to notice things. Steve’s belt, for example, suddenly exhibited the skull and crossbones emblematic of the Jolly Roger. And his socks, too. And his Tom’s shoes were covered in skulls. His Polo shirt once had a polo player over the heart. But now it showed the Jolly Roger, revealing the heart of a pirate.
Had I known that this was happening, I might not have offered him one of my SoulCycle pirate bandanas, but I didn’t know. How could I guess? No one had told us how bad things had gotten. In handing over that grey and white, skull-covered bandana, I became an enabler. I admit to cheering him on that morning over bagels, clapping as he folded the cloth into a triangle and fastened it to his head, smiling.
“How do I look?” He asked.
I threw a slew of compliments his way. Great, fabulous, fierce, I said. I may have even said “Argh.”
Oh, I am so ashamed.
In August, we spent ten days with Steve at his home outside Providence, where we vacationed as a family. A pirate flag waved to us from the lawn as we pulled into the driveway.
“I have come up with my pirate name,” Steve informed us. “It’s Captain Nevets.”
“That’s Steven backwards!” My seven-year-old daughter, Zoe, realized.
“Yes! But now you little pirates need to come up with your own names, if you want to sail with me.”
The kids decided on their names while I noticed that there was very little food in the house. Perhaps, like a pirate, he just plunders the neighbors’ kitchens when hungry. Or, like a bachelor, he has come to understand that it isn’t much fun to cook or eat alone.
The next day on the beach, my sister-in-law, Sheri, pulled Brett and me aside. “We only let him wear two pieces of pirate garb at any one time,” she whispered. The three of us looked over to Steve, who was proudly unfolding the black towel that Brett and I had sent him from our recent trip to Bermuda. Guess what it had on it?
I do not think I need to describe his bathing suit.
“Sorry,” Brett and I said to Sheri.
She shrugged. “He really seems to like it,” she said. And we couldn’t argue with that. “Did you see those shirts that Jay and Susan got him from Old Navy?” she asked, laughing. We had. They were awful.
Why did Steve’s friends indulge his interest in pirates? Why did we?
Because ever since my mother-in-law, Linda, died last summer of breast cancer, we have hoped to make Steve happy again. The trick to achieving this, we had all discovered simultaneously, seemed to contain swashbuckling and scallywagging.
When someone is grieving, and you love that person, you go out of your way to make them feel better. For us, that means continuously swabbing the deck of the Purple Rose, Captain Nevets’ ship, thus named for Linda’s favorite color and the type of flower Steve would bring home to her every Friday.
So, if Steve wants to put together a pirate montage in his backyard, complete with a rum cask, some old boxes, and barnacle-covered bottles he found on a pier, who are we to stop him?
It also means that, after saying no to the idea once or twice, Brett and I finally agreed to go on a particular type of family vacation with Steve.
What kind of a trip might a pirate wish to take?
You guessed it. A cruise.
Yes, despite Brett’s complete fear of – in his own words – “being stuck on a floating toilet ” – we Gerstenblatts have agreed to set sail from Ft Lauderdale next year on Captain Nevets’ dream vacation, a week on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas.
“You won’t believe the size of this thing!” Papa/Steve/Captain Nevets told Andrew and Zoe. “It has 17 levels! And Central Park in the middle! And a floating bar! And characters from DreamWorks walking around! And shows! Plus, the most amazing kids camp!”
(“Aye!” Brett and I said to that last one.)
Steve told us about the trip as we headed for dinner at Turtle Soup, overlooking Narragansett Bay. We had picked that destination for the ocean view as well as for the Frozen Mudslides, which Steve and Linda had liked to drink whenever they came. I had never been there, and I had never had a Frozen Mudslide. “They’re so good, and you can’t even taste the alcohol.” Steve said. “But they’re strong!” he warned.
The first sip was icy deliciousness, like a grown-up frozen hot chocolate from Serendipity. So I kept sipping.
“Good, right?” Steve asked, smiling. “We can have ‘em all day long on the cruise!”
This cruise kept sounding better and better.
“No one’s ever been able to keep up with me, though. I can drink two.”
If acting like a pirate and drinking like a fish is what will make my father-in-law happy, it’s my duty to indulge him, right?
So I ordered my second Frozen Mudslide.
I used to think that frozen mudslides are thus named because of their look and feel. But now I know they are called that because, after you drink one, your body feels like a house on stilts that is about to slide into the mud.
“Good thing we have Brett to drive us home!” Captain Nevets joked as he and I clinked glasses. “And, on the boat, there’s no need to drive at all!”
You know what they should say about vacationing with your mostly jolly, sometimes melancholy father-in-law, who is trying with gusto to navigate the rough waters of life? Yo, ho, ho: A pirate’s life for me.