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The Rowboat Ride

It's been over fifty years now, but it seems like yesterday.  I was two years old, riding on a train with my mother Cathy, father Shane, older sister Maura and my baby brother Ted.  We were on our way to New York City and, once again, homeless.  We had just left our grandmother’s house in St. Cloud, Florida.


It all started a few days earlier, when Shane and step-grandfather Robert were drinking beers together.  At first, they were friendly.  Shane and Robert were joking about their wives.  They both got very drunk.  After drinking all that beer, Shane went upstairs and started taking bennies, while Robert kept on drinking.


Later that night, Shane caught Robert in a drunken rage, punching and kicking my grandmother Charlotte.  Shane told Robert to stop, and Robert told Shane to mind his own business and kicked Charlotte in the stomach again.  Shane punched Robert in the gut and tried to pull him off his wife.


“What's wrong with you?” Shane asked. “Why are you so mean to your wife?  Don't ever kick a woman like that.  If you want to hit someone, hit me!”


Shane picked up a broken beer bottle and threw it at Robert, just missing his head.  Robert’s face was bright red.  He looked ready to explode.  Even though Shane did some strange things over the years, for the most part, he was a sweet and sensitive man.  Robert was an evil man, filled with hate.


Robert suddenly stopped kicking Charlotte and turned his anger on Shane.  Shane and Robert had a knock down, bloody fight.  Robert punched Shane in the face and gave him a bloody nose.  Shane was now in one of his crazy moods.  He was so mad, he broke three windows with beer bottles.  He also broke some of my grandmother Charlotte's antiques and kicked over a kerosene heater, setting a small fire in Charlotte's back bedroom.  Robert just stood there and watched.  Finally, Robert told Shane to leave and to not come back.


Shane took off running.  As he ran, he threw rocks at houses in the neighborhood, breaking several windows.  The police were called, but by then, Shane was long gone.


The police found Shane the next morning, lying in a ditch and not remembering a thing about the night before.  Shane spent three days in the county jail.  Robert didn't get in any trouble for kicking and punching poor Charlotte, even though she had two black eyes and broken ribs.


When Shane got out of jail and came back to grandma's house, Robert said, “Shane, get the hell out of my house and don’t ever come back!”


Shane took off running and slept in the park for the rest of the week.


My mother Cathy told her mother Charlotte, “I’m sorry about the way Shane acts when he's high or drunk.  I know that Robert doesn't like us all hanging around here anyway.  I’m leaving for New York on Friday with Shane and the kids.”


“Oh, Cathy,” Charlotte said, “you can't take the kids to the city with nowhere to stay.  Why don't you let Shane go to the city by himself to find an apartment, and then you and the kids can meet him there?”


“We'll be fine,” Cathy said.  “We can stay with my friend Grace until we find a place of our own.  I don't feel safe here with Robert around.”


“Robert doesn't care if you and the kids stay for a few more weeks,” Charlotte said. “He just doesn't want Shane around here.”


Cathy was afraid of Robert.  She didn't like him or trust him.  She knew he was an evil man, who beat her mother all the time.  There was no way she would stay without Shane to protect her and her children from Robert's angry rages.  Cathy also knew that if she left her mother alone with Robert, he might one day kill her.


“Mother, why don't you come to the city with us?” Cathy asked.  “You can leave Robert and get away from his beatings for good.”


“Oh, Cathy,” Charlotte said, “Robert's not so bad.  He only acts like that when he’s crazy drunk.  He drinks a lot now because Shane gets on his nerves.  I'll be fine.  Robert loves me.  I know he'll stop hitting me when Shane's gone.  Anyway, I can't leave my house, my friends and my job.  What would I do in New York?”


From the backroom Robert shouted, “You’re not going anywhere, Charlotte.  Cathy, mind your own business and get out, and take all the little brats with you!”


On Friday we left, leaving our poor grandmother with that evil man.


On the train, I remember sitting next to Maura, as she told me about the people and houses and animals we saw from the windows.  Maura told me they weren't real.  She told me they were just some rich kid’s toys, and I believed her.


At night, we all slept on a small pullout bed, except little Ted, who slept in a large suitcase.  I thought that was so funny; my baby brother sleeping in a suitcase.



After we arrived in the big city, we stayed with some friends for a week, and then we moved into a little apartment in the Village, a block or so from Washington Square Park.


I can remember my mother taking us to the playground at the park while little Ted slept in his carriage.  I remember being on a swing and Shane pushing me very high and fast.  I loved it.  I'd sit on the swing for hours, swinging up high to the sky and feeling free as the birdsBut my older sister Maura wouldn't go anywhere near the swings, and I didn't know why.


One hot day in midsummer, we all were invited up to our grandpa's house in Stamford, Connecticut for a barbeque and family reunion wedding party.  Webster Givens was my mother’s father, and he had just married his fourth wife.


On the way, we stopped at a little shoe store, near the Pennsylvanian Railroad station, where my mother bought Maura and me each a new pair of sandals.  The shoes we had on were old and falling apart, and they were too small.  As we got on the train to Stamford, Cathy threw the old shoes in a trash can at the train station.


When we arrived at grandpa's, our aunts, Seon and Gogo, and our Uncle Jimmy were there.  A few days earlier, Gogo had married Bill Lewis, a nice man from New York City.  My grandfather had just married his fourth wife, Helen.  Maura and I helped Aunt Seon make a huge, white cake for all the newlyweds.  We also helped Uncle Jimmy husk the corn, while grandpa and Shane cooked hot dogs and burgers on the barbeque grill.


After we ate, I had a great time playing in the backyard with Maura in an old, rusted car that had been sitting there for over thirty years.  My mother and her sisters, Seon and Gogo, played in the same old car when they were little, and it was old then.


Shane called out to my mother, “How about we all go out on the lake and watch the sunset?”


“That would be great,” Cathy said,” but I want to put Ted to sleep first.  Then we can take the girls out for a boat ride.”


When Ted fell asleep, my mother called out to Maura and me, “Sheila!  Maura!  We’re going for a ride on a rowboat with Shane to see the ducks.”


I jumped off the swing I was on and came running.


“Ducks,” I said, “I want to see the ducks.  Maura, we are going to see the ducks!”


But as soon as I got as far as the edge of the lake, I stopped dead in my tracks.  I knew I was in danger when I saw Shane and water at the same time.


“No ducks! No ducks!” I said, and ran back to the swing.



Sheila O'Neill, age 2


I was only two years old, but I already knew how Shane was around water.  I was terrified of the water when Shane was anywhere near.  Shane would take me way out in the deep water and throw me in.  He was only playing and he thought it was fun.  But I was terrified and I hated it.


Maura and my mother got in the boat first and, of course, Maura sat next to Cathy, where she knew she was safe.


“Sheila, come get in the boat,” Maura said.  “We’re going out on the lake to see some ducks.”


“No ducks,” I said.


Shane took me off the swing and put me in the old rowboat next to him.  Shane picked up the oars and started to row the boat.  I stood up crying. “I want to get out.  Stop, Gakie.”


(Gakie was the name all of us kids called our mother.  She didn't want to be called mom or mommy or mother.  She wanted us to call her by her first name, Cathy.  But Maura's baby-talk name was Gakie, and the rest of us followed.  We called her Gakie until the day she died.  We all still say Gakie when we talk to each other about our mother.)


Shane did not stop.  He started rowing even faster.  I was screaming and stood up with my foot on the edge of the rowboat, ready to jump off.


“Stop yelling,” Maura said, “you’re scaring the ducks.


Sheila and Maura, 1952

“Shane, let’s take her back to shore,” Cathy said.  “My father will watch her.  She’s too frightened to go.”


Shane didn’t say a word.  He just sat me back down and rowed even faster into the deep water.


As Shane rowed the boat into the sunset, I saw a beautiful woman standing on the dock.  She was yelling, “Cathy, bring her back to me.  I'll take care of her.  Shane, stop that please.”


The young woman had a beautiful face, dark hair, and bright blue eyes.  She looked like an angel.


“Sheila, do you want to come to me?” the young woman asked.


I climbed out of the moving rowboat and into the cold water.  I remember going under, thinking I was going to die.  The next thing I knew, I was being scooped up by an angel.


When I got to shore, I was with the beautiful woman I had seen from the boat.  We were both soaking wet.


“Sheila, do you want some hot coco and cookies?” she asked.


I was shaking all over and still terrified.


“Yes,” I said.


The beautiful woman and I went into grandpa's house, where we ate cookies and drank hot coco.


About an hour later, Maura came running in and said, “I saw some ducks and Shane caught a huge fish, but I felt sorry for him, so Gakie threw him back in the water.  You missed the whole thing because you acted like a big baby and got out of the boat.”


“So what,” I said, “I had coco and cookies with my new friend.”


Later that night, when we were about to leave, Maura couldn't find one of her brand new shoes.  Everyone looked all over the yard and house for it, but it was never found.  Maura had to go back to the city on the train in her bare feet.  When we got home, my mother had no money to buy Maura new shoes.  She had to wear her old slippers that Gakie got back out of the garbage can at the train station.


Only I knew where Maura's shoe was and I wasn't telling anyone.  I was so mad at Maura for laughing at me in the boat that I took one of her new shoes and threw it in the lake.


For years, I wondered who the beautiful woman was who had saved me from drowning.  I thought it must have been a grandma, but didn't know which one – my Grandfather Webster was married four times.  I knew it wasn't his first wife Carolyn, Seon and Gogo's mother.  She died before my mother was born.  It was not my Grandma Charlotte, my mother’s mother, who I knew lived in Florida.  I didn't think it was his last wife Helen.  She was usually quite mean.  She didn't like us kids very much.  So I always thought it was wife number three, my Uncle Jimmy's mother.


When I was about twenty, I was talking to my mother about it.


“I can remember the boat ride," she said, "but not who the sweet lady was.”  Cathy said it couldn't have been Jimmy's mother, because she died the year before Ted was born.


I still thought it must have been her, and that Gakie had gotten the year of her death wrong.  That’s until about a year ago, when I first started writing this story.  I suddenly remembered hearing my mother say, just before I went under the water, “Oh my God, Seon.  Please get her out of the water!”

Safe with Aunt Seon, 1952

Seon and Sheila, 2002

It was not Uncle Jimmy's mother.  It was my loving Aunt Seon who saved me from the cold water, so long ago.


Thank you, Aunt Seon!


Living in Aggie's House


© Copyright 2008 Sheila O’Neill. All rights reserved.


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