I sat down at the black and pink Formica table in my studio apartment in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen to construct a paper model sailboat from an “easy-to-assemble” book. The book contained 18 boats of all types from bark canoes to ocean liners, each six to ten inches long. First I unpacked my tools – scissors, an exacto knife, glue, a cutting board, toothpicks, and nickels and quarters for ballast. During the next few hours I cut the boat from the page, scored and folded along the dotted lines, and glued the pieces together. By the time the afternoon light faded I had assembled a sailboat – not unlike Viljandi the thirty-two foot sloop, named for my husband’s birthplace in Estonia, he and I sailed from Maine to Key West, two years before he died. Although we were novice sailors we learned along the way, traveling short distances each day, making our way through the murky seas of New England to the lucid blue waters of Florida. John was most comfortable when he was moving down a waterway, whether in our Klepper kayak, in a raft on a wild river, or sailing Long Island Sound aboard Viljandi.
Constructing the little sailboat was not my first paper boat creation. I’d begun making them on a long cross-country trip to relax after a day gripping the black leather steering wheel of my van camper driving on unfamiliar roads. I didn’t tell anyone about the boats. Making them seemed a bit like the work of a crazy person cutting out paper dolls. I was not yet sixty but my daughters were looking for early signs of senility and I didn’t want to give them any ammunition. Soon after I assembled a boat I’d long to set it free, off on its own explorations, to make its way in the world.
Sending off these paper vessels evolved into ritual. Because they are made of heavy waterproof paper I can almost believe they last forever. I spend a great deal of time searching out the waterway with the greatest potential for my ships’ joy and adventure.
As I let the sailboat dry and packed up my tools, I remembered my very first send off on the Virgin River in Zion National Park in Southern Utah. I hiked a few miles up the Riverbank Trail with a six-inch paper replica of a bark canoe tucked in my daypack next to my water bottle and high-energy breakfast bar. The winding trail led me into a slot canyon along the river lined with giant pines. A mist hung in the air intensifying the fresh pine smell all around me. At a solitary spot, right before the canyon narrowed, I put my canoe into the ripples along the bank. I imagined two people in the boat; one kneeling toward the front and the other in back; both paddling with the current. The canoe was soon out of sight, lost in the shadows of the canyon walls – on its way. As I retraced my steps to the road, I felt a twinge of envy because I wasn’t part of the little canoe’s voyage and sadness because I knew I would never see the canoe again.
I put the completed sailboat on a bookshelf to dry, christened her Little Viljandi and began to plan her maiden voyage. I intended to send her off in Central Park in the middle of Manhattan. I pictured her surrounded by dog walkers, bicyclists, and sunbathers spread out on rocks. Over the next few weeks on long walks in the park I charted a course for Little Viljandi; one that would allow the boat to keep moving toward its final destination. It was a challenge to find a solitary place at the beginning of the course to send her off. Although it’s not easy to be alone in Central Park, with careful planning, it can happen.
On a late July morning, I put Little Viljandi into a large cloth bag and took the bus along the edge of the park up Central Park West to 100th Street. I hurried along a path north toward The Pool and west along The Loch. There in The Ravine in a calm pool at the bottom of a cascade I helped Little Viljandi set sail. I wanted the sailboat and her crew eventually to reach the Harlem Meer, at the northern end of the park, but I feared that she would get stuck in an iron grate or run aground in the shallow water. Although I hoped she would get some help along the way from one of the park workers or a Central Park Conservancy Guide, once I let her go I had no control over her lot. I crouched at the edge of the stream
placing the boat bow first into the water feeling my fingers turn numb from the cold. The sail caught the wind and she began to move away from me out of sight. I felt the now familiar nostalgia, a mix of loss and exhilaration imagining the adventures awaiting Little Viljandi on its journey – a journey without me.
Sending Little Viljandi on her way in Central Park was my fifth launch of a paper boat. I had let a dinghy go just as the sun poked over the horizon among the reeds of a small pond at a ranch in the Gallatan National Forest in Montana. My paper replica of a river paddle boat plies the waters of the Mississippi between St. Louis and Memphis. In Houghton Lake, Michigan I picture my mahogany runabout pulling water skiers across the lake leaving squeals of laughter in their wake. Assembling the boats was getting easier but my sense of loss and excitement when I let them go never changed. For the first time in six years, when I launched Little Viljandi, I thought about my husband’s ashes in a paper box on the back shelf of my closet. I’d never known what to do with him.
Two weeks later, at our home in Connecticut, my daughters and I arose early on a Sunday morning. Taking the box of ashes with us, we drove to the clearing at a riverbank that I had scouted out earlier in the week. Jennifer and Joanna were quiet. I think they were going to do whatever Mother wanted this time. After we parked the car I opened the square green box and took out the plastic bag holding the ashes. We walked to the water’s edge and I opened the bag, knelt, and scattered the ashes into the widening in the river called Diana’s Pool, my husband’s boyhood swimming hole. I knew they would reach the Atlantic Ocean.
Like my paper boat launches, it was over very quickly. I recognized the feelings of sadness and expectation as they swept over me. Standing by the shore with my daughters I remembered all my paper boats, and for the first time I realized that with each launch I was saying goodbye to John. I needed all of that practice to prepare me for this final goodbye because it gave me permission to start the rest of my life. It was a send off for him and a new beginning for me. When we walked back to the car I tossed the plastic bag and cardboard box into a trash can and wondered if anyone would notice it and know what it had held.
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