merchant mariner families

...a highly unusual, sometimes maddening,
but mostly comical way of life.

June 04, 2013

your husband does what?

 You're at a party, speaking with a new acquaintance, going through the motions of polite conversation, when talk turns to your mariner's job.  You tell her about it and, anticipating the next question, explain that he's gone for approximately half of the year, every year.  And then she "gives face" and you've probably got a pretty good idea of the path you're about to head down with her.  Ha!

  One of the best parts of this lifestyle, I've found over time, is the varying reactions people have when they find out what my husband does for a living.  I love to mentally catalog their facial expressions and the kind of questions they gravitate toward, since they're both pretty good indicators of how they perceive my life to be, right or wrong.  I've only really started paying attention to this in my married years...when I was a kid, my friends didn't skip a beat when they heard about Big Daddy Mitchell's job, it was just another career as far as they were concerned, he might've been selling rat poison.  Kids are so flexible.
   Now I know there are quite a few different reactions, certainly more than the ones I'm about to put to paper, but these are the four I've come to really know in the past ten years.  These are the ones that surface more often than not, and move me to anger, humility, and laughter.  Perhaps you'll recognize some of them, perhaps you've got a few of your own filed away for a particularly stressful time when Mariner is away and you need a good laugh.  In any case, it's always educational for me, and even more entertaining.  I hope it is for you, too! 

   There it is...the squished together eyebrows, pouty down-turned lips, sad eyes, and that highly irritating tilt of the head.  "Oh my gosh, you poor thing...this must be so hard for you, how are you doing?" she asks while rubbing your back, shoulder, or forearm (you pick) as if your mother has recently passed.  And when you try to explain that it's really no big deal, just the way life is for you, nothing dramatic, she continues on with the Twenty Questions game about how you actually manage when he's out to sea.  Sometimes I get angry and answer in a snippy tone, "I'm quite capable of managing on my own, I don't need a man in my life to function properly."  Sometimes I get a little sarcastic, "Oh...yes, it's really difficult for me at times, especially eating as I haven't quite mastered the art of cutting my food up with a knife and fork...he usually does it for me.  Most of the time I just eat yogurt or applesauce, it makes life less complicated."  And then other times, I pull out my favorite card, a line my mother heard at a merchant mariner get together from one of the wives, except she wasn't kidding.  "It's really tough...I just wander from room to room until he comes home."  Of the four, pity is my least favorite because it's such a wasted emotion on me.  There's no need for it as I certainly don't think I live in a situation that would warrant the feeling from others. 


   The open mouth, wide eyes, and an absolute stillness over their entire body as you continue to speak, it almost seems a trance of pure amazement with you, your strength, courage, and perseverance.  "How do you do it?"  "I could never..."  "You are an incredible person, he's so lucky to have you!"  Now I know this life can be extremely trying at times and that it certainly does take a good bit of strength and perseverance to manage, however I always try to maintain a healthy sense of perspective.  Consequently, guilt surfaces pretty quickly when I hear this because I feel nowhere near deserving of the adulation and admiration.  Ever the optimist, I think a lot of people could do this if they had to, it's just a matter of circumstance.  Besides, her opinion of me would change in a hot second if she caught me in some of my weaker pajama wearing, cookie dough eating moments!  So, I usually respond with, "That's really sweet, thank you so much for saying that, but I bet you could do this, too if you had to.  It's really not that bad, I promise." 

    Her face gets pale, extreme horror floods the eyes, and her breathing becomes more shallow as you answer each and every one of her questions with delicacy, afraid to shock her even further than you apparently already have.  For this circumstance, I almost feel like I have to talk her off a ledge, reassure her that it surely will never happen to her as ' "so and so" is a really great accountant and isn't likely to take up a sudden interest in shipping out for months at a time.'  I'd laugh at this one, but the fear she demonstrates for me is so real and so touching that I would never want to insult her with derision.  And this is not someone you can tell "Oh, no biggie, I'm sure you'd be able to do this, too" because she has absolutely no faith in her abilities to do that, hence the terror.  I usually just try to reassure her that it's not such a bad life and many others besides me do just fine, so there's no need to worry.   


Image by Pixland/Corbis
Image by Pixland/Corbis
   (This can go one of two ways or a combination of both in one encounter)
    Squinched up eyes, tightening of the lips, and extreme focus and attention on each answer that rolls off of your tongue OR softening of the whole body, deep and satisfying breaths, and a far away look in their slightly smiling eyes.  This one is by far my favorite because I always try to imagine what their particular circumstance must be.  Why would they wish their spouse away for months at a time?  Why is the thought of being alone, in a marriage, for half of the year so appealing to them?  And because my imagination runs so wild, here's just a sampling of some of the things I come up with.

Was it an arranged marriage?
Does she work for the CIA and just wishes her husband would go away so she could do her job effectively? 
Is she married to a man that bites his toenails off and she's ready to kill him?  
Was she kidnapped and looking for a way to get back to her country?
Is he a Tom Jones impersonator and her taste runs more to Beethoven?
Does he smell like soup all of the time?
Did he just retire?

   Whatever the case may be, I love talking with these folks most of all because they seem to look upon Beady's absences with positivity, not pity.  They can see how living apart can be healthy and sometimes necessary for a relationship to thrive.  And these are also the people I can joke with.  When they ask me how I make it work, I can say things like, "Well, I don't really like my husband that much anyway" or "My boyfriend always helps out when Beady's gone, he's a sweetheart."  They envy that piece of my life most people give condolences for and in that way, I end up seeing Merchant Mariner Land as an attribute, not a handicap or obstacle I need to overcome.

   Look, I've figured out over the years that in all of these situations each person is most likely projecting.  The questions they ask hope for clues as to how they would manage, fail, or thrive in the same situation.  I understand that it has little to do with me and more to do with curiosity, but that doesn't mean I can't sit back and enjoy the show! 

Copyright 2013 Callie's Mariner