SEA Writing

On Receiving Mail from Bulgaria

I don’t check my mail very often. Very few important correspondence needs to be communicated by regular mail. These days, all I get in the mail are those bulky, useless ad fliers that I neither want or need, and that take up all the space in my small mailbox. As an aside, if you happen to know how to make those fliers stop, do let me know. They’re like the spam of snail mail.

My friend Dilyana from Bulgaria had given me a heads up about something she had mailed, so I have been eagerly checking my mailbox. Finally today, a month later, it got here!

Even as technology makes is possible to chat everyday with people living on the other side of the world, the excitement of receiving a physical object from a distant land hasn’t gotten old — I hope it never does.

Last year, while living at the SEA House in freezing, snowy Woods Hole, Di gave us these red and white bracelets called Martenitzas. They symbolize the end of winter and the beginning of spring, giving the wearer good luck, health and a long life. Martenitzas are traditionally worn from March 1st until the end of March or until you see a blooming tree.  To this blooming tree, you tie your Martenitza.

Some of us wore them the entire time.

Photos above by Jeff Schell

On one of the last nights in Charleston, before we left Mother Cramer behind for good, the remaining students from Class 228 walked together. A few weeks before, we said goodbye to Key West and to the students who opted out of the transit trip, Di among them. The watches, the people, the tables on gimbals, the strict cleaning rules — life as we had known it and with the people we had known it with was truly over. It has been over ever since. I could sail tomorrow on Mother Cramer and that adventure would still be over, because it would never be with exactly the same people, in the same circumstances.

So on that last night, as we walked back to the ship, the finality of the adventure grew clearer, and materialized beyond a far away thought.

And there in front of us was a blooming tree.

I’m sure we must have seen blooming trees, scores of them, in the different Caribbean islands we visited, yet it never occurred to me to place my Martenitza in any of them. But in front of that one blooming tree in Charleston, it made sense.

It was a perfect moment. It mattered.

To me it symbolized how far we had come from the moment we put them on, sitting at that cold kitchen table in A House, to that night, after we had lived through so much, good and bad, together. Maybe, who knows, we lived through it thanks to a Bulgarian tradition that brought us luck, good health and fair winds.

We took off our weather-beaten Martenitza as best we could, like untying one final bowline in this adventure, and left them behind.

We leave behind people, moments, conversations, places, ships, but do you ever leave behind that Martenitza that ties us to experiences? Time, unfortunately, has a way of making you feel that those experiences are so distant they were really just dreams. I know that it isn’t true, but the more time goes by, those experiences become more remote and dream-like.

At that one moment of goodbye, you can grieve. What I didn’t realize is that I grieve that goodbye still, because people like Di are no longer in my everyday life. They are in envelopes with words and small gifts, they are in the photographs stored in folders and Web sites, but they are not here to remind me to do a boat check and wake me up when my watch is called.

I hope Di and Bulgarians are not offended, but I’m going to fly in the face of tradition and wear my Martenitza well into summer, until I once again find that perfect blooming tree.

Thank you Di!

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