Christmas is no doubt the most wonderful time of the year. However, on Marco, Capri and Goodland, mid-September can herald in a wonderful season and a special time of the year for everyone who visits or calls our Ten Thousand Islands home.
For many islanders, June, July, and August feel the same. The weather by late May is hot and stifling and made even more irritating by the fact that we all know the African-like summer is coming. By June, the summer rains begin and last until October, but when the sun starts headed south and sunset is closer to 7:30 than 8:30 the Marco Beach Boys have always felt mid-September is a breaking point in the existence of work and play outdoors.
September also brings the very special and perceptive visitors that know our islands in the off-season can be made even more exceptional by customized and personalized service. In the hospitality industry, staffers never know what the changing weather and earlier sunsets of September will bring, but on this occasion, September brought a treasure.
With the autumn sun now on a friendlier angle, and when every excursion out on the water did not host a melting scenario where everyone believed they were ready to burst into flames, an older woman approached our beach hut and began asking questions.
“Yes, we do,” was our response. “Can we help you?”
“Would you say that the conditions are good for sailing?” she inquired before turning to look at the boat near the shore and the water beyond.
“Yes,” was our reply, “The breeze is nice, but not strong enough to make big waves. Actually, the conditions are perfect.”
The elderly looked at us closer. “How do you feel about taking older people?”
“On days like today, we take anyone who wants to go,” was the answer.
The matronly figure nodded. “Good. I’ll go and get my mother.”
After our elderly inquisitor turned away, the Marco Beach Boys had a jaw–dropping moment, but in a few minutes, the older lady and her mother arrived, and after a little help and some coaching and coxing, the two ladies were aboard and we were underway with full sails and sailing down Marco Beach.
Mother and daughter could not have been more different. The woman—that was the daughter—who first approached the beach hut was the perfect image of austerity. Her hair was gray, stiff, frazzled, and short. She wore no jewelry whatsoever, no color in her boating clothes, and her every movement was bursting with dread, doom, and trepidation. She stiffly announced that her name was Judith, and her mother’s name was Elspeth. The dutiful daughter then explained her mother Elspeth was 99-years old.
Elspeth looked much younger and everything about her was instantly delightful. Although her long hair was gray, she wore two braided ponytails, stylish sunglasses, colorful clothing, and a modern men’s waterproof digital watch.
After a few moments, Elspeth scooted away from her daughter and settled beside me at the tiller. “I have always loved sailing,” Elspeth began, and her accent was the lilting Scottish brogue. “And now, because I’ve recently had cataract surgery, I can see perfectly again.”
She then lowered her sunglasses to let me see her blue eyes. With a wink, she continued. “Now that I can see properly again, I wanted to go sailing. When I was a very young woman, American Doughboys would take me sailing. That was during World War I.” She smiled and anyone could see the youth in her face.
“This is so lovely,” she confided as she looked around the sailing boat. Elspeth missed nothing. She looked aloft to the sails and the rigging, and then out to the gulf reaching for the horizon. Her daughter seemed oblivious and wanted nothing to do with our conversation.
As if reading my mind, Elspeth whispered as if in an apology, “My daughter Judy takes after her father I’m afraid. Her faith could be stronger. I fear nothing because I have faith, but I’ve seen enough calamities to make many very afraid.”
Meanwhile, back at the tiller, I was pleasantly surprised at the turn of events. First, an older matron wants to go sailing—but only for her mother—but after meeting Elspeth and her winning personality, the 99-year-old seemed like a young girl trapped in an older woman’s body.
“Tell me,” I spoke over the sounds of a sailboat moving the water, “what was World War I like? What was it like to live through that?”
Elspeth lowered her sunglasses to once again look me in the eye. “I saw German Zeppelins bombing London,” she said as she held my gaze, “They were the size of ships, moving across the sky. They were too high for the English biplanes to shoot at them, but everyone could see the dirigibles at night when they were caught in the searchlights.”
“Wow,” I said in surprise. “I can’t imagine seeing Zeppelins. Weren’t you afraid of the bombs?”
Elspeth shook her head and smiled, “No,” she said. “We British have always had perspicacity.”
After seeing my confusion at a word I did not understand, the young girl in the older body reached over and patted my knee as she explained. “Perspicacity means shrewdness, my dear. When you could see a Zeppelin, the trick was to not be underneath one of the ghastly contraptions. Everyone knew not to be under one of the Kaiser’s flying ships because that’s where the bombs fell. Fortunately, the beastly things moved slowly.”
After Elspeth saw I was obviously dumbstruck by her recollection of history, she continued sharing her life.
“After my American Doughboys and the Great War was over, the Spanish Flu came and crippled the world. Everyone wore masks for a time and there was a children’s rhyme I will never forget: I had a little bird—its name was Enza—we opened the window—and in-flu-enza.
“Thousands suffered and the virus was over. Then came the slump—what Americans call The Great Depression—then came Mr. Hitler and another even stronger war machine. Everyone who lives long enough will see this kind of strife. Remember what the bible says: ‘There will always be wars and rumors of wars.’”
Again, I could not find words, and seeing my expression, the young girl in the older face smiled again. “Don’t worry,” Elspeth announced, “Always have faith in God and the church and you can keep perspicacity too.”
We sailed for another hour and then landed at Marco Beach for the ladies’ departure. When the boat was at anchor and Elspeth and her daughter were once again standing on the sand, my most recent 99-year old passenger gave me a big hug goodbye and departed with a final note. “Perspicacity is good,” she winked again, “But a sense of humor is better and something no one should live without!”
My ride with Elspeth and her mother was in 1997. I remember that cruise like yesterday because of her unwavering strength and the wonderful way she was.
Tom Williams is a Marco Islander. He is the author of two books. “Lost and Found” and “Surrounded by Thunder –The Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men.” Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.