Sarah Tuttle-Singer
A Mermaid in Jerusalem

The ship that might have sailed

There’s too late because something's gone, and then there’s too late because we’ve left it and can’t go back
A French Ship and Barbary Pirates (c 1615) by Aert Anthoniszoon
A French Ship and Barbary Pirates (c 1615) by Aert Anthoniszoon

My son used to be afraid of pirates – he had nightmares about them all the time, and he would freak out before falling asleep each night while I tried to tell him everything would be ok, that there were no pirates in our landlocked little village that would sneak in through the crack in the window like mist and steal him off into the deep dark sea.

“But I’m afraid,” he told me, night after night until I finally said to him “Alright, dude I gotta tell you. i don’t get why you’re worried: Living on a pirate ship would be super dope.”


“No, seriously. It would rock. You’re a little young for rum, but you could play the panpipe, and dance a jig or something, plus they’ve got these cool hammocks you can lie out on and look at the stars. Also, coconuts. You love coconuts. And you can eat coconuts! And mangoes! And you can have a pet monkey and he can live on your shoulder. Also, you could make it so that the pirates only rob rich people and give to the poor.”

He smiled. He liked that. “I don’t want a monkey. I would prefer a parrot.”

“Fine, whatever. Have a parrot.”

He went to sleep that night and had the best dreams.

He woke up and he wanted a boat.

A French Ship and Barbary Pirates (c 1615) by Aert Anthoniszoon

My kids love make-believe. They love playing with dolls, especially these plastic Playmobil figurines. They build worlds out of plastic pieces and old things around the house – found architectural wonders with ladders out of scarves, pyramids out of seashells, an old brick or two from a construction site, and an errant spider, and they have a fortress.

And my son wanted a boat. He wanted to make it a pirate ship.

And then a few weeks later we were in the shuk in Acco. They’ve got everything in the shuk — barrels of spices marked in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Coffee — different kinds, and nargilla tobacco — apple, cherry, rose. They’ve got bootleg music from far flung ports — Greece and Turkey India and Ethiopia. Even N Sync and Backstreet Boys, leftovers from a thousand lifetimes ago. They’ve got wooden flutes and drums, and guitars with drawings on the side, small enough for a five year old to hold on deck a pirate ship and sing sea shanties.

And they had a boat.

A wooden boat.

A wooden boat with blue trim.

A wooden boat with blue trim and five big old sails, and a deck large enough for Playmobil figurines to march up and down, firemen, and princesses, and farmers and an astronaut, ALL HANDS ON DECK.

A beautiful boat.

My son had these cartoon eyes, his pupils were so big they damn near exploded.

He looked up at it from where he stood, five years old, rapturous.

He touched it with his little finger.

“Mama, can I have the boat?”

It was big and we were on the way to lunch – I wanted to take my kids to sit in an old Crusader fortress overlooking the sea, the feel the thump of the surf, and the taste the salt from the air. I wanted to take my kids to the old synagogue, and through the Templar tunnels, and maybe to the mosque, too, if there was time, and the last thing I wanted to do was shlep around that big old boat while doing everything else that I had planned.

“On our way out,” I told him.

He was happy.

We ate our lunch and our tunnel tour and did all the things I wanted, but we had gone around the edge of the shuk and not through it, and he never once whined or wheedled or said

“Mamaaaa I want my boat,” and I forgot, and we went to the train station, and his face crumpled.

“Dude what happened?”

Big tears shone in his eyes, spilling down his cheeks.

“We didn’t get my boat.”

I felt my insides collapse. He wasn’t angry – He was hurt. And he should be. I told him we would get the boat, and we didn’t. we did everything else that everyone else wanted, and the one thing that he had asked I had forgotten. I wrapped my arms around him and hugged him, and he sank into me.

“Baby, I’m so sorry. Next time we will get your boat.”

He sniffed and nodded.

But I had let him down.

This was three years ago, and we haven’t been back.

We’ve been busy. It’s a shlep – 2.5 hours on the train each way, a lot of money, plus we wanted to go with my dad , and it just didn’t work out. We went to Jaffa instead, or Jerusalem, or we hung out at home and drank our coffee and watched movies. Sometimes, I’m lazy. Sometimes, they are. We just didn’t go.

Three years.

I don’t regret much in life because I like where I am and who I’m becoming, but I regret this.

He would ask once in a while “Hey Mom, when can we get my boat?”

“Maybe next time Grampa Rick comes.”

And he would nod and get back to whatever else he was doing.

He’s getting big – that’s what he’s really doing. Long legs, long arms, and he kicks ass in judo. He wants to be a singer. he knows all the words to all the songs by Queen. He has a Tablet from his Saba, a birthday gift last year when he turned eight. He likes to watch clips on Youtube and play some game called Fortnight.

But he still plays with his sister – they still build castles out of old scotch canisters and duct tape. They still make up different voices for all the little Playmobil figurines, and he still wants the boat.

I promised him this visit we would go and we were all set, but then plans fell through because they do sometimes and my dad flew out this morning, and I watched his face fall along with my insides.

“Today. No matter what. We’re going.”

We get on the train – two and a half hours one way, taking turns with the headphones and listening to music. He’s into Rage Against the Machine these days. He brought a few Playmobil figurines in his little bag and he played with those, too. But I look at him with his little hat on backwards, and the scabs on his knees. I look at how he looks out the window, how he can sit still, unlike the boy he was three years ago who wanted to run up and down the train and had to be coaxed into staying in one place.

He’s getting big, that’s what he’s doing. All this time. Three years. He’s almost up to my shoulder. WTF.

“what if the boat isn’t there?” he asks.

I can’t answer.

My stomach is in knots, twisted sinew. I’m not worried the boat won’t be there. I am worried he will look at it and say “this isn’t what I want at all. This is not it at all.”

There’s too late because something’s gone, and then there’s too late because we’ve left it and can’t go back and what if he has left it forever? Three years. And he’s been busy getting big.

I could feel wings beating in my heart, faster and faster, little panicked birds chirping “so big, too late”

We get to the shuk, and they are both hungry. So am I, and it’s long past lunch, and we haven’t eaten since the morning, but I know we don’t have a second to spare because he is just getting bigger and bigger in front of me, already a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of an inch taller from when we got off the train.

I know the way without knowing how I know it, thought alleys, past the spices and the coffee.

Past the old CDS – Nsync and Backstreet Boys still on sale, past the scarves, past wind chimes, and there it is.

Still wooden with the blue trim, Still the big old sails. still the deck large enough for whole party of Playmobil pirates.

My son goes up to the boat, and he touches it with his finger – his finger that isn’t so little anymore.

“Is that the one you want?” I ask, a lump in my throat.

The longest few seconds of my life passes while he looks at it, right at eye level this time, but still … rapturous.


The boat is still there for him, and he is still there for the boat.

He’s eight already, but the boat is still beautiful and he still wants it.

He still wants it.

And yes, he will outgrow it – maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. Maybe in a year. But for now, the boat is sailing the mighty seas, and we are on it all together.


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About the Author
Sarah Tuttle-Singer is the author of Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered and the New Media Editor at Times of Israel. She was raised in Venice Beach, California on Yiddish lullabies and Civil Rights anthems, and she now lives in Jerusalem with her 3 kids where she climbs roofs, explores cisterns, opens secret doors, talks to strangers, and writes stories about people — especially taxi drivers. Sarah also speaks before audiences left, right, and center through the Jewish Speakers Bureau, asking them to wrestle with important questions while celebrating their willingness to do so. She loves whisky and tacos and chocolate chip cookies and old maps and foreign coins and discovering new ideas from different perspectives. Sarah is a work in progress.
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