The Magazine

A Tanner in Summer

Christopher Caldwell's extended-family vacation

Aug 5, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 44 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Just out of college I ran into my acquaintance Mona at a party in Boston. She was leaving the next day for the house on Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, where she had spent her summers growing up. Mahone Bay was remote and beautiful, she explained, and no one had ever heard of it. I told her I had heard of it. My grandmother was from Mahone Bay. 

Tom Labaff

Tom Labaff

“What was her maiden name?” Mona asked.

“Tanner,” I said. 

She gasped. “You’re a Tanner?” She was bug-eyed. Her mouth was hanging open.

“Well, you could say that,” I said, with all the modesty I could muster. My grandmother was stylish, eloquent, and well educated. So were my great aunts and uncles. It had not occurred to me that the family might actually have been grand, but it wouldn’t have surprised me, either.

“You have got to come meet your relatives,” she said. “Promise me.” I was surprised. I had thought Mona hated me. 

But that week she phoned me from a ship-to-shore radio. Ship-to-shore made people sound like they were speaking out of the bottom of a toilet while gravel was being quarried nearby. Mona told me to get the overnight ferry from Portland to Yarmouth, and then I heard her holler: “Fummum come wimf you!

“Someone’s coming with me?” I shouted back.

Taffy Pinkwing.

“Taffy Pinkwing?”

Pickwing.

“Ah, Pickering!”

Yef. Mere bock.

“Meet her on the dock?”

Yef.

In Portland two days later I walked up to a pretty woman with a duffel and said, “Ms. Pickering?” To my delight, she said yes. We had two hours before the boat left—not only was she beautiful, she was prompt—so I suggested we get a beer. She was a friend of Mona’s from prep school. When we started telling stories about Mona and various mutual friends, it was clear she was funny, too. Lucky me! We had a whole night of travel ahead of us. We bought some good bread from a deli to eat on the windy top deck along with the rest of the travelers too young to afford (or want) a cabin. Her conversation enthralled me until the other voices quieted and the rocking of the boat lulled me to sleep.

We were entering Yarmouth Harbour when the rising sun woke me. She was lying with her back to the sun and the wind feathering her hair.

“Good morning, Taffy,” I said.

Her eyes popped open quicker than I expected. “What did you say?”

When I repeated myself, she fixed me with what used to be called a basilisk’s stare. Jeesh, I thought. Maybe she’s not a morning person. I waited for her mood to lift. 

Out on the road, as we began thumbing a northbound ride, I said, “You know, Taffy, I —”

“It’s Cathy,” she said. “C-A-T-H-Y.” And those were about the last words she ever spoke to me.

Apologies were unavailing. The innocence of my mistake didn’t mitigate it. Nor did our camaraderie of the evening before. That, in fact, was the problem. Cathy saw “Taffy” as an irredeemably low-class name. After 12 hours with her, I had deemed it plausible that it was her name, and that was all that mattered. It spoke ill of me that that name was in my vocabulary in the first place. 

We got to Mona’s around noon. At lunch, Cathy joked with Mona’s parents with the same giddiness and wit that had beguiled me over beer the night before. But for me she reserved this strange look as if she were trying to touch her brow with her lower lip. It was hard to read the exact nuance. It was somewhere between Up yours and I hope you die

“Why don’t you go visit your family?” said Mona after lunch. “They’re down on the dock.”

“Really?” I said. “How long have they been here?”

“They’ve always been here,” she said. 

There were a bunch of workmen and boatmen at the waterside, some young, some old, but all of them, I discovered, named Tanner. I spoke to a kindly old man who was sitting on the rocks, restringing lobster pots and wiping his nose on his shirt cuff. He invited me into a little cabin to speak to his wife, but she was too drunk to tell me much. I explained to her that my grandmother had been from this part of Nova Scotia, and that she had come to Massachusetts in the 1920s. I added that her name was Tanner, too.

The woman gave me a look of incomprehension, as if to ask: Isn’t it everybody’s?

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