My grandparents lived on a farm. My grandfather didn’t really like to leave the farm for much of anything; when he married my grandmother he brought her home to live there with his parents. But he loved to read, and so did she. My visits there are engraved in my memory as a combination of food, books and cultivation–three things I still love.
The summer after I turned eight I stumbled across an interesting book on one of the shelves and set aside my well-smudged copy of Heidi to check it out. For several visits after that my ritual would include pulling down the book and curling up in one of three prime reading spots to dwell on the story. The stories. What I loved about the book was how much of it was full of grandeur, adventure and pathos. All of it true, all of it stunningly intriguing.
That was the beginning of my fascination with the Titanic. When I was eleven my grandfather told me that I could have the book; it had belonged to my great-grandfather and he loved the idea of me loving it. Oblivious to the fact that it was a good 70 years old, I carried that book with me everywhere. A few months into ownership my English teacher, Mrs. Crawford, called my name and only at that moment did I remember I was supposed to have a speech prepared for class. Since I had been hanging around with my head in the Titanic book and knew it backward and forward I, well, I just winged it. I carried my antique friend to the front of the room and began telling stories. The wealthy passengers, the ship’s design, the theories about the sinking and the excuses for the lack of lifeboats. I was a last name of “B” back then and one of the first to give a report. Even the teacher was so enthralled with the story that she allowed me to take up the rest of the class and even to come back to her room at lunch to answer more questions. I got an A+ and a bad lesson on how to prepare for class assignments.
That was 1982. I remember thinking back then that I would be over FORTY when the 100th anniversary happened and I wondered if anyone would care about it.
Ballard found the wreck in 1985. I was simultaneously thrilled and disappointed. Until those first pictures of the silt-encrusted rusting remains came out, Titanic was still lore. Now it was yet another rotting thing in a world of rotting things and I put my interest aside in favour of the living. Boys, mostly.
When Cameron’s movie came out a decade later I felt like I was watching a childhood friend dating someone who was a real jerk. You know how you really care for someone and lose touch and then they come back into your life and are sort of shifted somehow? You can’t reconcile the Them you see before you with the memory you still treasure somewhere in your private spaces. That was Titanic for me once Cameron turned her into grief porn. I knew the personal stories well, but there were years where the History and Discovery Channels made everything about Titanic into one long punch to the grief bone. I got to the place where I was sick of hearing about Titanic because it stopped being about shipwrights and maritime salvage and started to be about Irish women dreaming portents of doom.
For some reason last week I decided I’d TiVo some of the 100th anniversary things. After 9/11 the nation has looked elsewhere for emotive histories, and I figured I might get lucky. I kind of did–there have been great specials about mapping the wreckage and analysing the collision and debris. There’s also been more than enough James Cameron. That man does NOT have a low opinion of himself. All the self-confidence I misplaced has wound up in his mojo, along with the self-confidence of about 90000 other people. He’s still the arrogant twit who turned Titanic into his mistress.
But now as I sit to write this I realise that she is for me becoming once again what she was when I was small. She’s a majestic dream who failed to meet her potential. She’s mankind misplacing our hopes in metal. She is sorrow and beauty. The ultimate mermaid.
If you are at all curious, the Kindle version of the antique book’s text is available for ninety-nine cents. Written in 1912, it’s valuable for its many eye-witness and immediate accounts.