My mother almost drowned when she was small.
She fell off the pier at Castle Island and spent four days in the hospital with tubes in her lungs. My nana clutched her rosary beads so tightly she bruised her hands. Neither of them talk about it. I once asked Mom why she still loved Castle Island so much when it had almost killed her. We were a little ways off from that same pier, plucking hermit crabs out of the sand, letting them scuttle across our palms and plop back into the Atlantic.
“Because the ocean is the cheapest medicine there is,” she said.
Castle Island does not have a castle, nor is it actually an island; it is the cigarette-scented stub of South Boston that extends into the harbor, and it holds so much of my family’s history that it feels less like a landmark and more like a second backyard.
In the competition of Most Irish Catholic Family, mine is rivaled only by that of the Kennedys. My great-grandparents were all a generation removed from the potato famine, and thus harbored the type of cynicism that, if bottled, could be used as poison. They put holy water in their tea and they put their faith in the ocean, particularly Castle Island’s ocean. Growing up, my mother used applesauce jars to scoop up water from the shores around the castle and bring them home. Most of her home remedies call for at least a teaspoon of it.
I cannot remember the first time I went to Castle Island; it is like trying to remember my first glass of milk. I spent so many Sunday afternoons there constructing sand castles and flying kites that it is no longer a destination so much as it is a home. My grandfather’s name is carved into the softening wood of a seaside bench, a relic of my grandparent’s first date sixty-odd years ago. My cousin proposed to his wife by the castle doors; they take their anniversary picture there every year, and their baby was christened with water blessed by Castle Island’s shadow and by an Irish priest. My mother kisses both the door and the bench when we pass.
I go to Castle Island by myself now; I’ll grab my notebook and jump on a tired train. I’ll wind my way through city streets until the ocean opens up before me, with the dampened fort—my castle—standing guard over the frigid water. I sit on the same bench where my grandparents fell in love, open my notebook, and write. I write about yachts bobbing in the harbor, their owners sleepy and drunk on white wine and hundred-dollar bills, about the sound the planes make when they rip apart the skies above. I write about Boston accents, which I have loved since they sang my first lullabies, and how they drift through the air like honest sandpaper, scrubbing away sins. I write about sticky feel of ice cream between fingers, the sailor knots the wind ties in long hair. I write about that first breath of salty air, and how it scours the soul like steel wool and minty toothpaste.
I write because the written word is the only medium as inexhaustible as I am, but I write at Castle Island because there, I am a part of the family without being defined by it. That place is important to all of us, but it is important for different reasons. The ocean fixes us in the ways we most need to be fixed, and lets us figure out the rest.
At the end of the day, I go home with a jar of salt water for my mother. It may be the same she choked on years ago, but she smiles, saying, “The ocean is the cheapest medicine there is.”
“Sea, riamh,” I answer. Yes, always.