When Starbuck turned three, he and I began to discuss his new bedroom. His old one was a nursery: Blue skies, cotton-candy clouds, giraffe mask on the wall, big crescent moon that lit up over the door. I had painted him a jungle mural on his wall with a smiling monkey and an elephant he named Peanut. Excited for change, and perfectly indiscriminate, he said he wanted his new room to be decorated with cars and trucks and toasters and black and monsters and policemen. And and and and.
We compromised on pirates, but then he saw the N.C. Wyeth illustrations for Treasure Island, which bring to life Robert Louis Stevenson’s “heavy, nut-brown” men with “dirty, livid white” scars, hands “ragged with black, broken nails,” greasy hair and soiled clothes. Cutlass, pistols, blue tattoo, and a gold tooth glinting in a sneer.
Precociously aware of his own limits, Starbuck said, “Pirates might be a little scary. Maybe when I get older.” He still wanted boats, maps, and the swelling sea. A Treasure Island, that is, minus Long John Silver and Captain Flint. His world was no longer only additive conjunctions.
My mother died that spring, and we wondered what to do with little-boy Starbuck. Mrs. Churm regretted that her mother sheltered her from death. She didn’t attend a funeral until she was 15. But I recalled vividly being a child in the stench of lilies, a dank room with the cold focus up front and an audience of strange faces. The director crept along the walls like a rat. What to do?
We compromised, took him to the visitation to meet all the estranged kin and old ladies who had read the obit I wrote for the paper. “No use denying he’s yours,” they joked. Starbuck was to stay far at the back of the room, but he wailed and stomped and demanded to see for himself.
I picked him up and walked down front, and together we gazed at the frail corpse, the casket saddle with Stargazers, cool wood ferns, red and white roses, spikes of Stargrass the color of unbleached muslin. He was interested and solemn, asked all the questions of a healthy little boy: Is that Grandma Helen’s body, is there a heaven, is Maggie the Golden Retriever with Grandma Helen and Grandpa Fred? Why? Can we drive to heaven? Please? Will Grandma float in the air, will you die, will I die? Why?
It was a long day, too complex for anyone—grandma but not Grandma, family gathering but sadness, intense but boring. Starbuck butterflied around the room meeting cousins, fell down the three steps in the gallery—twice—ate his hamburger and mine, went outside with others to watch a Memorial Day parade pass on Park Avenue.
My mother, rest easy, loved hilarious collage: Pallbearers checking out baton-twirlers dancing to a marching band; Catholic friends arriving late to visitation, loud and sweaty in striped shirts, with leftover Mardi Gras beads from their float for Starbuck and a pair of Groucho glasses with the ridiculous feather moustache. Starbuck put them on and insisted we admire him. Under the flag of death, so jolly with its eyelids and lips glued shut, he brought life.
At the cemetery, the little flirt sat on folding chairs in back with my nieces. We called him forward at the end, and he obeyed.
“Goodbye, Grandma,” he said sadly, waving to the coffin.
I tried hard to think only of physical life: Sycamores over the family plot; the body that, even as an infant, had held the egg of me; Starbuck’s weight and warmth in my arms. I put my lips to his soft cheek. He looked concerned that my shaking might be crying, not laughing, but was afraid to ask.
Then, as we drove away through the graveyard, his curiosity, imagination, and human spirit that wanted to know if there were bones under all those stones. “I want to see them,” Starbuck said. “Can I see them? Please?”
The unspeakable, easy courage of a three-year old boy slingshotting Blackbeard Death.