When I was ten, when we were happy, still a family all together on Glenn Road, I began a plastic model of the USS Constitution on my little desk. The hull rose from the keel; masts were erected; the longboat was placed on the deck, at hand for boarding enemies; and cannon were positioned, readied for powder and shot. I never quite got to the rigging and sails.
The Constitution is a three-masted, wooden-hulled, fifty-cannon frigate of the United States Navy. Commissioned by President George Washington, she was constructed in Boston and launched in 1797. She fought the French in the Quasi-War, the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean, and the British in the War of 1812. The Constitution was perfectly suited for battle – built to annihilate her nation’s enemies. After her victory over HMS Guerriere, she was named “Old Ironsides.”
When I was fifteen, when we lost the house and dry cleaning business to bankruptcy and moved into town, to the rental on Hamtramck Street, the Constitution sat unfinished, drydocked beside the twelve-cylinder 1932 Duesenberg, the Panther and Tiger tanks that fought the Russians at Kursk, and Doolittle’s B-25 Mitchell that bombed Tokyo soon after Pearl Harbor. Only a year later, Dad, my little sister and I moved out – to a tiny upstairs apartment with rickety stairs across town. In the house we left, Mom remained alone with her paranoia and rage. I marooned the Constitution on that distant, inhospitable continent. The rest of us, refugees in our spare rooms, patched together the resemblance of a family again.
You could say it was a bad day. Horrific. And the skirmish remains vivid nearly fifty years later. It was winter. Bitter cold. Six inches of snow during the night made the streets treacherous. No one was going anywhere, but by noon the day was also beautiful. The sun appeared in a brilliant clear sky, and with the new snow, the town was bright, immaculate but incongruous with the events of my obligation. Mom called. Car wouldn’t start. Demanded a jump. I agreed (the good son still deferential to the parent). Drove there. Big four-door Ford. Unwieldy former family car. Eased into a drifted driveway. Knocked at the door. For the key to her car. Did not intend to go in. She insisted upon the removal of my remaining possessions and there was the Constitution, awkwardly aground upon clothes I’d outgrown. Wanted none of it. Told her so. I turned to go.
(We stood just inside the door. Warily, my hand gripped the knob, and I wouldn’t let her get between me and my retreat. This was the very spot where, a few months before, I knocked her down as she refused to allow me to pass with the laundry – mine, hers, my sister’s. Apparently, she was a “Mother-on-Strike,” but I didn’t know what that meant or how to navigate the rules or her logic. I intended to take it all to the laundromat as it hadn’t been done for weeks and I, a self-conscious teenager, wanted to go to school in clean clothes. This seemed reasonable.)
I turned to go. She followed me onto the icy porch. Screamed at me. Cursed me. Kicked at me. Viciously. She missed. She slipped. (I’ll admit, there was a comical aspect to the scenario. The scene turned black and white – Laurel and Hardy. If it weren’t for the intended violence, we might have laughed.) I paused. Was she all right? My mistake. Stumbled to the car. Tires spun and spun. Escape doubtful. Enraged, she opened the car’s rear door. I got out. Pushed my mother (carefully, strategically) into the snow. Returned. Locked the doors. She retrieved the Constitution. Placed it behind a tire. Just stood there. Wild-eyed. Triumphant. She showed me, didn’t she? (Did she comprehend the “making of a memory?”) A wheel found the depth of the snow, caught a bit of gravel, and the hull of Old Ironsides was crushed. I drove off. With the Constitution scuttled, there would be no more battles. My childhood was over. Forty years later, my mother would die alone.
David Sapp, writer, artist, and professor, lives along the southern shore of Lake Erie in North America. A Pushcart nominee, he was awarded Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Grants for poetry and the visual arts. His poems appear widely in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.