ocean liner in the 1950’s. That’s how they rolled in those days. Er, that’s how we rolled in those days.
We came to North America on an ocean liner too, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean from Liverpool on the R.M.S. Sylvania in the middle of winter. It was during the last days of trans-Atlantic ocean crossings; the Sylvania was the final ship built by the Cunard Line before the whole world took to the skies, leaving ocean liners to the pleasure seekers and cruise goers. Unlike Brooklyn’s Eilis, who landed at Ellis Island in New York, we landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was February 1960 and I was five. We’d already moved from England, where my brother and I were born, to Libya, then in ’57 to Turkey where my sister was born, and back to Libya. And now we were leaving the shores of Tripoli where winter days went down to the low 50’s, for Canada. If I thought I knew what cold was, I didn’t.
That’s me wearing the scarf and the glasses with my leg hooked on the railing, with my mother and my little sister, Nancy, between us. My father would have taken the picture while my brother was likely off exploring the ship.Taking a look at my lightweight garb, the photo must have been taken in the early days of the ship’s passage, before it got really cold.
I still have an old metal steamer trunk, the iconic Cunard line stickers on it, and the photo above, but few real memories from the trip. Except for one small snippet stuck in my head, like a stray earring lost in the lining of an old suitcase, useless without the other earring; a memory of my brother giving me a tour of what he’d discovered, opening a door to reveal the empty movie theater in a deserted hallway we weren’t supposed to be in. Just our luck, he told me, the cinema was closed for the winter crossings.
My brother told me recently Cormac McCarthy sailed on the Sylvania too, except he was going the opposite direction. After the successful publication of his first novel, The Orchard keeper, and the divorce of his first wife (he told her to get a job so he could write in peace. She did, in another state entirely)McCarthy was taking his fellowship money from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and going to Ireland to rediscover his roots. McCarthy met his second wife, Anne DeLisle, a singer and dancer on the ship, on his summer of 1965 crossing.
There were no singer/dancers on our trip. Like the theater, the entertainment was shut down for the season. While the crossing lasted a little over the week, McCarthy’s shipboard romance spiraled into a marriage that lasted almost fifteen years. The couple divorced in 1981. Not a bad return on their investment.