Most familial memories are patchwork: snatches of remembered images sewn together with anecdotes told and retold by adults over holiday dinners. Sometimes the why is remembered; sometimes only the what, but the patchwork of memories is more precious for the many hands that stitched it together.
Every summer the St. Mary's River shimmered with jellyfish. Some days, more; other days, fewer; on rare occasions, none. These were the days we'd go swimming in boundless enthusiasm, jumping off the end of the dock—well, off to the one side, since the end was a bit scary. However, most mid-summer days, the surface of the water seemed to shift, nearly sparkle with rounded, gelatinous mounds of these stinging creatures with their long shreds of tentacles that were difficult to know where they started or ended. Avoiding them became a game, although in my child's imagination I wondered what it might feel like to walk across the river to the other side, tiptoeing from one mound to the next. Their solidity was an allusion; thankfully, I knew that.
My snatched memory was from one of those insufferably humid and windless days, where there were more jellyfish than water on the surface of the river. Seeking relief from the heat and the stinging sun by swimming was not an option. Why my father chose to climb into the Hampton with his older brother and sail was incomprehensible. There was no wind; you couldn't even dip your hand in the water without getting stung. But I suspect there was a race, maybe even the Fourth of July. It was certainly hot enough, and visiting family speaks of holiday.
For whatever reason, then, they had gone sailing, and we were waiting on the dock when they returned. And on such a windless day, the race must have been excruciatingly and blisteringly long. They tied the Hampton to the painter, clambered into the dinghy to come back to the dock so we could all head home.
But then my father, laughing and with a comment over his shoulder to his brother, jumped into the river! Maybe it was all of 15 yards from the painter to the shore, but he had to have swum partly, then waded the rest. Jellyfish hung from his bare shoulders, from his arms, even from his eyebrows! All I could do was stare and think, jeepers, that must hurt!
Funny enough, two thoughts emerged from staring at his reddened skin—the sunburn and jellyfish stung red indistinguishable from each other. My first, fleeting, and I suspect quickly forgotten thought: If the skin is going to sting, is it better to sting from sunburn? or from jellyfish? is the relief from the heat worth the price of the sting? I wasn't going to find out. The second thought? That my father could be unpredictable. Hasty.
I found new respect for him that day. Odd things from odd places make us what we are as a family, no?