“Sara Lee with Bloodworm Juice,” by Michael Schulman

Jan 19th, 2011 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

Travels with My Father

Not all boys inherit a love of fishing from their fathers.


“Why you are never coming with us to our boat in Antibes?” Giancarlo, my father’s Italian business partner, asks me through his thick accent as he furrows his brow. “You are not liking to be with us?”

It’s a dark boreal evening in January, 1977, and I’m in Paris for my junior year of college, living in a palatial duplex in the chic Montparnasse neighborhood with Giancarlo and Patricia, his American wife. When I arrived in September, they invited me to crash in their chambre de bonnemaid’s quarters. When I went to look for my own place, not wanting to be the homme who came to dîner, they were offended, and insisted I stay with them.

I don’t want to wear out my welcome. Yet they refuse to let me cook for them, despite my fascination with French recipes and the sensuous ingredients spilling out of the stalls at the neighborhood market. Instead, they take me to their favorite restaurants, and even to their country home in Italy for Christmas vacation. And now this boat.

“We are always inviting you, and you are not coming. Why that is?” he asks.

“Giancarlo,” I hedge. “I’m kind of allergic to boats…”

“What you are saying? ‘Arold—” my father, Harold, “—was telling us, ‘Oh I have such nice memory of de boat with my sons.’”

I scan his face for signs of irony, but find none in this gentle, guileless man. Still, I find it hard to take this seriously. “He told you what?”

 “’Arold was saying was such nice times, on this boat. You were fishing, you were together as family, everybody ‘appy.”

Patricia joins in, her New York accent a sharp contrast. “Yeah, he raved about it. He said you had a lot of Hallmark moments together—”

“My father waxed nostalgic about the boat?”

They look at me and nod. I don’t know where to begin. “Giancarlo, do you know what was the name of our boat?”

He smiles, amused. “Therapy,” he exclaims, pronouncing it “tay-rap-PEE-a,” and rolling the “r.”

“And do you know what my mother called it?”

“No…” he says tentatively.


“Is not possible!”

For my father, who rose from poverty in the Depression, the boat was an important proof of his success. During our family weekends on that boat, he wrestled with his cutting-edge electronic gadgets like a sonar depth-finder that supposedly could also locate schools of fish. He threw it overboard when it started to smoke as he tinkered with its wires, and reached for comfort in his avant-garde soda, Tab. (An older neighborhood girl—fifteen, maybe—made an impression on me by refusing to drink this new one-calorie sensation. She claimed it contained “micro-organisms that make doody on your teeth before you swallow them,” which seemed plausible at the time.)

Sometimes we’d meet up with the Yacht Club my father had joined, tying up to a dozen boats side by side in Long Island Sound. While the parents sneaked furtive glances at each other’s boats and jewelry, we kids climbed from boat to boat, exploring. I was jealous that the Rubensteins’ boat had two bathrooms (to our one,) and pitied the Schwartzes for their small boat which had none. That is, until I realized its bathroom-less-ness limited them to short day trips. Maybe they were the lucky ones after all. My brother and I could not understand, and my parents didn’t want to confront, how this boat was more of a symbol of our nouveau riche 1960s life than even the divorce to which my parents would later succumb.

To Giancarlo and Patricia I continue, “Don’t you know how I learned to speak French so well? My mother teases me about this, but it’s true. I’d sit on the naugahyde booth seat in the boat’s kitchen, working away at my homework. My father would yell up for help from the bilge—” Giancarlo raises his eyebrows, so I explain. “There was a hatch in the middle of the floor that led down to where the engines were, and it attracted trouble and my father with equal force. It was always filled with water, and my father would climb down to try to figure out what to do about it.

 “I knew that once I finished my homework, I’d have to go help my father with one of his Sisyphean projects: in the bilge, or taking apart a ship-to-shore radio, or applying toxic sealant to the boat’s teak deck. So instead, I would read and re-read—and re-read—the same passages, pretending to study. The least disagreeable ones to re-read were the French ones—slightly less boring than algebra or biology. My brother, who was a lazy student, preferred comic books. That was a bad idea, since he couldn’t refuse to get involved if he wasn’t busy with homework. His helping usually ended in screaming matches, which they often dragged my mother into.”

“He said you were liking to drive the boat. He was teaching you to do that, father-to-son,” Giancarlo protests.

I shake my head. “He was so hysterical about our ineptitude that we had to go to a special Power Squadron School for children of arriviste parents with boats.”

“But he was saying how he learned from friends, and taught himself.”

“Oh, maybe that’s why he was always running the boat onto sand bars and getting the motors’ propellers stuck in them. Did he tell you about when he was arrested?”

“Your father was never arrested. You’re making this up,” Patricia insists, her eyes wide with challenge.

“In northern Florida, on the Intracoastal Waterway.  For ‘speeding and creating an excessive wake’ in a residential zone. A bored marine sheriff saw the boat’s New York license and assumed, correctly, my father was a rich northerner.” As a New York Jew in those free-wheeling Sixties, when the space program and the civil rights movement made everything seem possible, my father had not learned not to go where he didn’t belong—especially while flaunting his toys, of which the boat was the epitome.

“The sheriff pulled him over, demanded a fine on the spot, and my dad didn’t have the cash. It was a Sunday, and most people were in church, which made us look worse. Since there was no way to get cash when the banks were closed, my father and his buddy went off to jail, and left me with my French homework and his buddy’s son with his Mad magazine. I only found out about it after I got back home, when I heard my mother tell her friends the story.”

“But how he get out of jail?”

“My mother wired him the money. It was around three hundred dollars—an enormous amount at the time.”

“It must have made a great story at dinner parties,” Patricia comments.

 “Was nothing going right on this boat?” Giancarlo asks.

“You could put it that way. If you don’t believe me, here’s some evidence you can find on the bottom of Long Island Sound, between Rye and Locust Valley, in addition to the depth-finder: One ship-to-shore radio. One made-for-boats side-mounting charcoal grill. Various hand tools that did not perform the way my father wished them to perform. Assorted comic books, wrenched from my brother’s hands.”

“Why he did not hire someone to fix?”

“Ha. His attitude was, How difficult could it be to fix if a plumber or a mechanic can do it? He tended to overlook those guys’ training and apprenticeship.”

“Your father said was such good times fishing with him.”


“If you want, we can go fishing from my boat, too,” he offers.

“If you’re trying to convince me to come with you, you’re going in the wrong direction, mon frère. Do you know what it was like fishing with my father?  Following the blips of his sonar gadget, he’d take the family out into some God-forsaken spot, the choppier the waves the better. I’d concentrate on conjugations of French verbs in my head to try to hold down my lunch.  Waiting for the fish was worse than waiting for a turn at bat in gym class—at least you knew when that would end. If we were lucky, and the sea calmed down, we’d nag him for a snack. Bad move. We had this wooden cutting board, and he cut the worms for the bait on it. They came in a white cardboard Chinese take-out container. I always wondered if that was supposed to be ironic—like take-out food for the fish. He’d pull them out of their tangled mess of seaweed, and they wriggled and dripped with slime. The average worm was six inches long, and their bottoms were entirely lined with legs or tentacles or whatever worms use to travel. He’d plop them down on the cutting board, and slice them into inch-long pieces with a cake knife.”

Patricia grimaces.

“Oh, wait. That’s just the appetizer. Since a worm has no brain, the worm tidbits didn’t get the message right away that they were dead. So they’d continue to writhe around in their gooey brown blood on the cutting board, until they ran out of calories or something.”

Giancarlo grimaces too.

“Then he’d send my mother down to the galley to bring out a pound cake. Sara Lee—do you know it?”

Giancarlo shakes his head. Patricia explains, “It’s this rich cake, a little like panettone, that comes in an aluminum pan. It was very popular back then, one of the first home made cakes they mass-produced.” To me she adds, “So what’s so bad about that?”

“He’d take the knife he used to cut the worms, wipe it on his dirty jeans, and then cut the cake with it. Then, he’d skewer the slice on the slimy knife still smeared with blood, and offer it to us.”

“No, is not possible.”

“Giancarlo, you know my father. Is possible. He’d even say, ‘You’ll have worse things in your mouth before you die,’ which somehow always made me afraid of going into the army, and of having sex.  Me and my brother, ages ten and twelve, would cringe, and say, ‘Ewww,’ which my father hated—that always set him off.

“‘Faggots!’ he would spit at my mother. ‘You’re raising me two faggots instead of sons!’”

I had just discovered the magic of psychology and how it could divine people’s motives and behaviors, but how our refusal to eat pound cake drenched in worm blood gave him insight into our sexual preferences was never clear to me.

Giancarlo wipes the wine off his nose, from which it has spurted during his convulsions of laughter.

My brother and I had a secret celebration the day my father sold that boat. We would have included my mother, but she was busy threatening divorce again if my father followed his bliss to his next plan: flying lessons.


Michael Schulman has been catering for 30 years, but none of his specialties contain worm blood. He divides his free time between teaching, cooking, and trying to stay off any boat bigger than a canoe. Everything you might ever want to know about him can be found at www.manforallseasonings.com.



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