Houseboat (Fay Jordaens)

Fay Schmahl Jordaens

My earliest recollection of life, occurred on the houseboat that my dad built for us on City Island.

According to my father’s writings regarding the houseboat and of Donald, his first born child:“That Spring, I met an old Swede who was out of work. He had shown me a blueprint that he had made of a houseboat. He said that he could build it for a price of $1,900, on a 40 foot float, which we had to provide. He suggested that we anchor it near the gasoline barge in the summer and shelter it near City Island in the winter months. The 40 foot float could be bought for $200 in Staten Island from a man who had six floats and no use for any of them. We bought one and the Swede went to work and built a little house on it. We completed it with hot water heat, plumbing, and electricity, compliments of Jacobs Shipyard.
We were expecting our first baby that spring [1928] and my wife’s sister [Esther] had come from the farm in Saskatchewan and was living with us on our gasoline barge. The baby was late in arriving, and on doctors advice, on the 18th of April, I took my wife to the Shore Road Hospital in Brooklyn. The next night I called the hospital and asked to speak to my wife. The nurse said, “She can’t come to the telephone.” When I asked why not, she replied, “because she just gave birth to a 9 1/4 pound baby boy.” That day was the second day of a northeast storm, with a driving rain. I jumped into the rowboat, rushed out to the gasoline barge, changed clothes and rowed back ashore. Then I followed a bus to the Pelham Bay subway, and took a long ride to Brooklyn. I had about a mile long walk to the hospital in that driving rain. When I arrived at the reception desk, the nurse asked me if I wanted to see my baby boy.”
So Donald and I began our lives on that little houseboat. It was moored in Long Island Sound in summer, between Harts Island and City Island. It was berthed off Robert Jacob’s Shipyard on City Island’s east coast.......and sheltered there, as soon as the weather chilled. My memory of Jacobs is of running up and down the pier, trying to cross from dock to dock, on shaky gangplanks, the mast stepping equipment and the office, where dad often took us. It was a thriving, busy yard when I was born, 15 months after my brother.
Dad owned and operated gasoline barges and provided services to the many large yachts moored off the Island. Since large yachts guzzled gas, business was flourishing. Of course this was before the depression.
Our life on the houseboat was idyllic. Donald and I slept in bunk beds in our own bedroom. The most impressive thing to me, was that we had a piano in the living room! Mom liked to play piano [by ear], but wanted to learn to read music. So, dad hired a piano teacher, who came to the houseboat to give her lessons. Oddly enough, reading music was something mom could not master and she reverted to her own way of playing. As a small child, mom had played the family organ, also by ear. Since the fingering was the same as the piano, she was already familiar with those complicated chords she loved so much. She played them in any key and sang along with the music.
Mom’s piano, our bunk beds, the tricycles, our big ice box and Donald’s red feathered gray fedora hat seem to be the most prominent things I can recall about houseboat life. My dad erected a safe fence around the roof of our houseboat, where he placed our tricycles. Donald and I rode around in our own private little rooftop playground, till mom called us down. On hot summer days, our mother used to stand on the stern platform, which was so close to the water, and cool us off by dipping us into harbor water. We kicked around and squealed with delight, the deeper into the water that mom dipped us. We always had things to do. My brother loved to fish. Years later, I asked mom if she hadn’t feared that Donald might have hooked himself while fishing....... laughingly, she said, “Oh no, we never put a hook on his line!” I do remember mother singing to Donald : “Fishy, fishy in a brook, Daddy catch him on a hook, mommy fry him in a pan, Donald eats him like a little man.” So someone was catching fish!
One day at breakfast, I was watching our father. We were laying in Jacobs boat basin. Dad had a long ladder extended from the pier to our boat. In his tee shirt, he was running up and down that ladder with all of our possessions, and placing them on Jacobs dock. This worried me. I asked mom what dad was doing. Casually, mom told us that dad was removing our things, because the boat was sinking! I thought.. ‘how is it possible that we are sinking and at the same time, we are having our breakfast?’ I even recall what we were eating...... stewed apricots and prunes.
I could not have been more than 3 ..... but clearly, I recall thinking..... ‘We need to get off this boat!’ I understood that word ‘sinking’ ....... and felt frightened.
Eventually, the houseboat did sink. By then, we were long gone and had moved into our new home at 81 Earley Street. We came ashore with all of our possessions; our tricycles, mom’s piano and Donald’s gray fedora!