Thursday, April 24, 2008
Penelope moved to Key West at the age of two. The year was 1981. Her father landed a job diving for gold and hidden treasures with Mel Fisher, the famous treasure-seeker who had just found the Atocia, the Spanish gallion that had sunk off the Florida straights in the early 1800s. Penelope's parents fell in love with Key West, decided to stay, but divorced shortly after the move.
When Penelope was five, she moved onto a boat with her mother, stepfather, two older sisters and two younger brothers. Her father lived on his own boat, but still played an active father role in their lives and would often bring over lobster and crab. The boats they lived on were cheap, had no engines or sails, and didn't even move. They were anchored off the shore of Christmas Tree Island, a manmade island visible from the shores of Key West. She remembers being nine years old, playing on the beach, and her father would all of a sudden appear out of no where wearing his diving gear. He would let her breath of his diving tank. Penelope saw her father as Heman, the most handsome and strongest guy in the world who dove for gold and treasures.
Penelope remembers boat-life being a new and completely different way of life. "We were so young we just got used to it," she says. There was no notion of privacy on the boat. They peed in a bucket attached to a rope and showered with a shower bag. Her mother, stepfather and youngest brother slept in the V-birth and the other children slept in the main cabin. They did not have many toys and entertained themselves by swimming, playing cards, and taking care of their dog Bootsies' puppies. They had a couple of televisions throughout the years that didn't get much reception. "I remember spending hours trying to fix the antennas just to get Scoopy-Doo or the Smurfs," laughs Penelope. Summers were long and often her parents would go to shore and leave them alone on the boat for hours. They would find creative ways to entertain themselves with other neighborhood boat kids. The community of boater and boat children would often have camp-outs on Christmas Tree Island, where they would barbeque and wash the dishes along the shore.
During the school year, Penelope and her siblings were dropped off at the closest beach. After school they would return and hang out on the beach until their parents were ready to pick them up. Other children at school lived on boats, however, Penelope was aware that it wasn't as normal of a life as most children. It was harder for the girls to adapt to the boat life. Penelope secretly wished sometimes that she could have clean clothes and live in a house like normal children. She would get scared during storms and remembers one night in particular waking up to the boat being completely tilted on one side. She found her mother naked, hammering a screw driver into one of the water tanks to balance the boat back out.
Penelope's family celebrated holidays on the boat. Some Christmas years were more plentiful than others. In her eyes, figures such as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were a fable. But for her younger brothers sake she would play the role and make up funny stories about how the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus rode jet skis or took small skiffs to bring presents to the boat.
Now, 28, Penelope says she would still consider raising a family on a boat, but has a bigger dream of living on a farm with tons of animals. She has kindred feelings when she meets other people who grew up on a boats. "I don't know a lot of kids who at the age of eight were sitting on skiffs, wearing raincoats, trying to get back out to there homes, having to turn around three times because the rain was too hard and waves too big to make it home without toppling out into the ocean." Penelope believes that we choose the lives and parents that we are born into for whatever reason that maybe. Growing up on the boat was hard in many ways, but at the same time she feels lucky that she was not raised in the suburbs or a trailer park. "We were surrounded by so much beauty that made our struggles that much easier."