A Blog of Personal Thoughts
Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic — Captain Tom Acker and His Grandson
I started to write a book about a commercial fishing accident in May 2003. As I began the long trek for information about the people involved and, yes, information about commercial fishing, something kept nibbling my edges and core, that part of my own commercial seafaring family. Who was this Capt. Tom I had heard the funny stories about? On the last day of June, my birthday, I called the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. The person who answered said I wanted to talk to the curator.
Capt. Tom and his grandson, my father, John B. Calkin, never met. If John Calkin ever saw a picture of his grandfather, he didn’t have one when he married and had his children. Knowing my father’s penchant for sentimentality and family history, he would have kept it where he kept his most personal family history items, in the wooden toy chest his father made for him and which his mother had lined in blue patterned cloth. My father’s mother, when pregnant, made star quilts and braided rugs for each child-to-be, and also tatted, sewed, knit, and was the person who taught me to knit.
When the curator and I spoke that day in June, he asked me if I intended to come to the family reunion.
“When is it?”
“July 14th to the 18th.”
Being a bit of a short notice, knowing no one, and having my usual passion while researching and beginning a book, I declined. Lunenburg has a population of 2,000 and 1,500 had signed up to attend the family reunion. Right, fly from Alaska to Nova Scotia, find a hotel room hopefully in Halifax, 60 miles away, rent a car…none of that sounded reasonable.
Ralph, the curator, also asked if I had spoken to my cousin, Ingrid.
“No. I seem to have lost her phone number.” Ralph gave it to me.
Meanwhile I thought, Ingrid, I didn’t even know I had a cousin named Ingrid. I called her and spoke to her chatty husband. She called me back moments later.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Mary Isabella Acker’s granddaughter.”
“But she never had any children.”
“Yes. She had three daughters, one of whom died at age 5 and the other two the day they were born. She had one surviving child, a son, who became my father. He had four children. She kept saying, “Who are you? How are we related? How are you a part of the family?”
Sadly, my grandmother’s loss of her three daughters was not the only tragedy of her life. Years before, when she was eleven years old, her father, Capt. Tom, died of natural causes aboard his ship, G. W. Pousland, on its return from the Caribbean. Maybe he had had a heart attack, food poisoning, appendicitis, or an aneurism. We’ll never know. Still two and a half weeks out from his homeport of Lunenburg, the story goes that he was much beloved by his crew and to show their respect and admiration, they wanted to take him home rather than bury him at sea. Decision made, they put my great-grandfather in the pickle barrel. My father used to say they pickled him and Ingrid said that was probably appropriate since he liked his rum. Perhaps it was nothing more than a practical solution to a sad situation.
I asked a physician friend of mine, if two and a half weeks in brine would have scented his body and clothes when the crew removed him from the barrel and took him on a dray to St. John’s Anglican Church. Yes, I believe so, he replied. When I stand in the historic church of St. John’s, my thoughts wander to the beautiful stained glass windows, the ceiling marked with wooden arches, today’s electric lanterns, and Capt. Tom’s pickled odor lingering through the service. Hopefully, his family was so bereft they did not notice.
I must say that this also gives me a bit of a chuckle. Both the Acker and the Calkin families have had a sense of wit and humor for at least five generations. I think my great-grandfather would forgive me if I laugh. Other than his being dead, it feels like he’s laughing with me. I’m not being disrespectful…just cut of the same cloth as he.
Two years later, Mary Isabella’s brother died while also working at sea.
When another cousin whom I’ve still never met, and who lives on the ‘other side’ of the Bay of Fundy, sent me a photo of Capt. Tom, I burst into tears. There I sat, blurry-eyed, wiping tears away to see the photo of my ‘father’, dressed in the clothing of perhaps 1860. When I stopped crying, there sat my father’s grandfather with that twinkle in his eyes, the almost smile of his mouth, his vest buttons tugging in their holes, his thighs pulling at the pant seams, and his pudgy fingers with one hand resting on his thigh and the other on the arm of the chair. I know that man, I thought, although my father dressed in a more dapper manner. Maybe they don’t look alike to anyone else, but they do to me.
Based on Capt. Tom’s photo, I think, even feel that these two men had similar personalities—outgoing, vivacious, capable and respected in their vocations, someone people enjoyed being around. I think both were precise men. Who would not want a precise captain of the ship he boarded, a precise person to be the navigator of his life for the next weeks and months? As a chemist, who would not want my father to have been a very precise person? Yes, I think grandson was much like grandfather in personality and work ethic. Sadly though, Capt. Tom died 27 years before his look-alike grandson was born. All his master mariner, sea captain brothers lived to be over 90.