By Kathleen Sullivan
We were at the turn around point in our walk, standing at the foot of a granite pier at the end of Wolf Neck Rd., used by ships in the 1800’s for loading and unloading trade goods, mostly granite. Or so it has been said. The day was cold, but the sun was out, the ocean was a calm baby blanket blue, patches of clean white snow lay underfoot. The landscape so innocent. Walking with a friend has been a lifeline during Covid, the only time I actually see and talk with a real person at any length other than my husband.
C. asked me what seemed a strange question: what did I know about the history of Maine’s famous shipping trade in the 1800’s? Rum and sugar cane and granite of course, maybe fish, I said. Mmm, she said, did you know about the slave trade? The ships would go on to Africa from the West Indies after picking up sugar cane and bring back slaves, sometimes hundreds of them crammed in the hold. Rufus Soule made millions of dollars in the slave trade. She’d heard all this on an MPBN radio show about the history of the slave trade in Maine.
I stood stock still in shock. I lived in Rufus Soule’s house at Porters Landing for forty years. We raised our family there, had our Thanksgiving feasts in the dining room with the hand carved wainscoting with its reeded molding. My body learned that house. Traipsed barefoot up and down the front stairs with its curved walnut banister, a turned pillar from a ship’s wheel carpentered into a newel post at the foot of the stairs. I still walk its wide pine floors in my sleep, though we moved a few miles away several years ago.
This news about Rufus Soule struck me like a blow to the good name of a close family member. I felt confused, slightly ashamed.
When you live in a house with over two hundred years of history, you live with ghosts. Nights when an infant would wake hungry and crying, I would carry the soft bundle downstairs into the big kitchen with the giant fireplace and sit beside the wood stove and nurse my child. Then I would listen for the rustle and hum of the ghosts. Who are you? I know you were here in this room before me, I know you, too, woke in the night, soothed children, worried about your business, the world outside these walls. Mrs. Soule, where are you? In a jar on the sink are the shards of your willow ware, found while digging in the dirt outside in the garden. The china likely imported in the hold of your husband’s ship. How did you endure the long nights when he was on his ship, far beyond the safe harbor of the salt marsh limned cove just outside the dark window?
I grew up in a family that kept secrets. I didn’t know about the secrets when I was a child—know—as in being able to name the secret, tell its story. But all through my life the secrets operated like invisible microwave beams and, years later, I would find evidence of how they shaped my life and, eventually, I would learn the story of the secrets themselves, examine them and tell them to others, a telling which erases their hidden power, releases the energy bound up in them.
I searched my memory of those forty years’ worth of nights in Rufus Soule’s house for any signs of his involvement in the slave trade. I found instead the valiant, heroic, stories I made up. Stories about adventure, courage. Stories with images of tall spouts of breaching whales spotted on the horizon, stories of the ships caught in mouths of waves, stories of an albatross that rides the rails of the ship, rum sloshing in its hold, lookouts in the topmast for pirates. But never, never did I tell myself a story of predation. Never did I put the words slaver, slave trading in my mouth, my mind. That was what they did, they, the villainous, mendacious Southerners. We, the good people of Maine, the good people of Freeport, the good people of Porters Landing are, like the snow, innocent.
Here is the question: What does it matter that I could only imagine Rufus as a good, brave man? What does it matter that historians in Maine have overlooked evidence, right below the surface, of a thriving slave trade conducted up and down the coast by Maine shipowners and ship captains? What does it matter that it has been kept secret all these years?
What’s so wrong with a secret?
What did it matter that my father didn’t learn the secret of his birth and his mother’s death two weeks later of the Spanish Flu until he discovered his birth certificate when he was sixteen? What does it matter that only a few years ago I found a letter in a ratty cardboard box to my father from Katherine, the woman who raised him to believe she was his mother, telling him in grim detail the story of his first year of life? Told him that he lived with a foster family named Foley. That when she and her new husband, my father’s father, finally went to bring him home, she found him swaddled in rags and thin as a bone? What does it matter that in that same box I found old black and white pictures of Nagasaki and Hiroshima taken from the sky, high above the cities, all labelled Classified? Top Secret? What does it matter that my father never told me that it was his camera, his eyes, his reconnaissance plane, that directed the plane, the Enola Gay, to the exact spot over Hiroshima and changed forever the idea of what kind of destruction mankind is capable of?
This is why it matters:
It matters because secrets keep us locked in small stories about ourselves, who we are, what we feel, what we are capable of. Secrets keep our thoughts locked in small rooms. Secrets keep us from recognizing parts of ourselves when they show up in garb we are not allowed to think about wearing. My father’s grief and fear wandered, unnamed, untethered. His sorrow showed up inside me, for sorrow travels in a family like the smell of coffee or burned toast. I know this as a therapist. I know this as a mother, as a child, as a grandmother. My father’s secret, unexamined association with unthinkable destruction made him unable to see himself as anyone but an all-good soldier, a hero. Never were we allowed to challenge him, to question his goodness. Everyone loved Charlie. They had to.
Here in Freeport, everyone loves Rufus Soule, or if they don’t know his name, they love the valorized idea of him. But if we can’t look at what compromises Rufus made with his humanity in order to have enough money in the 1850’s to build the largest ship in Maine, how will we be capable of looking at ourselves now and assessing the cost of our wealth to those not so fortunate? How will we examine the institutions we are part of that keep many Black people and Latino people and poor Whites, and even poorer Native Americans trapped in bad jobs, not paid enough wages to cover the rent? If we can’t look at our own capacity for destruction on our way to wealth and prosperity, how will we save the planet from a destruction a thousand, million more times unthinkable than the destruction the atom bomb, the one they called Little Boy, wrought on Hiroshima, that fateful August day?
And that’s what happened on my walk with a friend on a beautiful, innocent Maine winter morning.