“Learn to Sail with Your Dad” by Melissa Queen

Melissa Queen


1. Just because the sign beside the boat launch cautions to beware of alligators does not mean there are alligators in the water for certain. Even though you are four and can’t yet read the words on the sign, you can pick up on the significance of the bright red lettering and the black silhouette in the shape of an alligator with a wide, gaping mouth just the right size for swallowing four-year-olds whole. But just because your father tells you there are no alligators does not mean there are no alligators for certain. Fathers have a tendency to say these things with confidence because they think that is what is required of them.

2. When it is your turn to steer the tiller, pick a point on the shore and aim the bow of the boat at that spot. Do not pick for your point of reference your mother, who is at this very moment standing on the shore waving. Instead of remaining a fixed point, she will soon resume pushing your little brother in his stroller up and down the shore.

3. When it is time, your father will take the tiller from your hands and say, either, “We’re coming about” or “We’re going to jibe,” and because you don’t yet understand the difference, you will duck your head regardless of the command in order to avoid getting hit by the boom.

4. But your father won’t settle for this. He will want you to learn the difference between jibing and tacking, when and why either is called for, as well as the principles of physics that move the wind through the jib and main sails to make it possible for a boat to sail both up and downwind. He is, of course, taking for granted that you are four. But for years to come he will hold you to these same high standards of the full comprehension of principles governing science and mathematics—like when you will be cramming for your Advanced Placement exams in chemistry and calculus and he will be dissatisfied that you can tell him the answer is A but cannot articulate why.

5. Try to remember when your father raises his voice, he is not yelling at you. He’s getting excited at you. He holds firm that there is a difference. That he does it because he doesn’t want you to get hurt, especially not by the boom that can suddenly and violently swing across the cockpit of the boat if there’s a change in the direction of the wind.

6. Today you are four years old. You are learning to sail, learning about tidal currents and sandbars. You believe what he says about the moon pulling the tides. You want to believe him when he says there are no alligators, but you know he has plenty of practice saying with confidence things even he is uncertain of.

7. In a few months he and your mother will sit you down and try to explain words like tumor and lumpectomy while pointing to human anatomy illustrations in a World Book Encyclopedia. These words will not convey ideas like sand dollar or horseshoe crab, and you will already have learned to read signs even if you can’t understand their words. Still, you will try to be reassured by him telling you everything’s going to be ok, as hard as he’s trying to be reassured himself.

8. So on the night of your mother’s surgery when you will find her side of the bed empty and have to tiptoe across to his side of the room to wake him to tell him you’ve wet the bed, remember that he is not yelling at you.

9. Remember today, how after the small boat capsized, he managed to right the boat while you, in your Sesame Street life jacket, grasped at his neck and screamed at the tops of your lungs, and how, as scared and vulnerable as you might have felt there in the water, there weren’t any alligators.

from Rattle #39, Spring 2013
Tribute to Southern Poets


Melissa Queen (Alabama): “Growing up, my grandmother had a basement filled with the remnants of what was at one point her dressmaking and fabric shop. As a child, my siblings, cousins, and I spent hours in that basement playing among the tall bolts of fabric twice our size, rummaging through the jars and tins of loose buttons and left behind notions. When a child’s imagination is supplied with the small and otherwise inconsequential objects—these notions—mixed in with the mysteries and artifacts of the lives that were lived before her own, how could she not grow up being drawn to poetry?”

Rattle Logo