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By Lynn Whitney
Serendipity. Its definition – luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for. And that’s what this piece is about. It’s not my usual reflection of life on the water, although that is where it started. This is about happenstance and kismet and a connection with my own history.
I am a bibliophile. I love reading and I love books. Not the electronic kind, the real kind. I love the feel of them in my hands, the sound of a turning page. But most of all, I love the memories that belong to them. I collect the memories. Before I could read, I was read to. I didn’t care what it was, The New York Times or a fairy tale. I wanted to sit close to someone and hear the words. When I would visit my grandparents there was always a quarter under my pillow, left by the fairies, and a new book with a date and inscription in it. These memories line my bookshelves now. My copies of “The Princess and the Goblins” and “The Secret Garden” are shelved along with my mother’s “Heidi” and “Jane Eyre”, and books belonging to my grandmother and even some of her family members.
My bookshelf is where this story begins. I was looking for something to read and came across a title that caught my attention, “The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine,” by Frank R. Stockton, first published in 1886. I opened it and gazed at my grandmother’s handwriting – Anne Katherine Warren, Ardmore, Pa. Here I was 100 years later, sharing my grandmother’s quest for an adventure!
Before I tell you about this delightful book, let me tell you a little bit about my grandmother, Anne. Born in 1900, she was an only child. At the age of 16, she lost her father and went with her mother to live with her maternal grandmother. She led, I imagine, a rather quiet, genteel life. Upon graduating from The University of Pennsylvania, she supported her mother teaching French, English and Spanish. After marrying my grandfather, Augustus Whitney, they resided in Camden, NJ where he was the minister of the First Presbyterian Church. Here she raised five sons while teaching at Hatch Junior High School. She finished her career in the Moorestown, NJ school system at the age of 72.
So, just why did this book make such a connection with me? My grandmother was a proper lady, quiet and polite, but there were other sides to her. There was the educated career woman, the family matriarch, the baker of pies and all good things, the lover of books and my guide to the world of fantasy. Which brings me back to Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine; two very respectable middle aged farmers’ widows, who find themselves on a sinking ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They paddle on life preservers, guided by the young Mr.Craig, to an uninhabited island, take up housekeeping in a deserted house, welcome several other castaways, escape the island and – everyone lives happily ever after. No sharks, no cannibals. All prim and proper.
What is remarkable and entertaining about these women is their sensible, levelheaded, good natured acceptance and management of life’s unpredictability. Every decision for the well-being and comfort of the castaways is made by the women, with fairness and a charming lack of guile. Not included in their master plan for a respectable existence, is the educated Mr. Craig or three other cast- away mariners who arrive later with the hypocritical missionary, Mr. Enderton and his charming daughter. With strength of character and moral fortitude, mixed in with a little righteous indignation and caring concern for all, the ladies gather together a lovely, dysfunctional little family and create a future for all of them. Quite the adventure for these two imperturbable women, who had never been farther than the gates of their Pennsylvania farm houses!
The words of the author, Frank R. Stockton, in his book, “Buccaneers and Pirates of Our Coasts,” completed the circle of my thought.
“When I was a boy I strongly desired to be a pirate, and the reason was the absolute independence of that sort of life. Restrictions of all sorts had become onerous to me…I would always be as free as a sea bird, my men would be devoted to me, and my word would be their law. I would decide for myself whether this or that proceeding would be proper, generous and worthy of my unlimited power; when tired of sailing, I would retire to my island – the position of which, in a beautiful semi-tropic ocean, would be known only to myself and to my crew, - and there I would pass happy days in the company of my books, my works of art, and all the various treasures I had taken from the mercenary vessels I had overhauled.” 1897.
Maybe that’s the connection between all of us. The desire to make an adventure out of the mundane, create a fantasy out of reality and while away the days on a deserted island, surrounded by what we treasure.
Maybe we all have a little pirate in us.