What is it about the Titanic we find so compelling? Yes, it was an epic maritime disaster, but it occurred a hundred years ago, and we already know how the story ends. Still we line up to see the latest movie version and read the newest book, even if it means waiting through forty-two library holds.
It felt like impending disaster when my husband invited me to his soccer association dinner. Its purpose–to thank board members’ wives and husbands for tolerating their spouses’ hours of service to the association when they could have been home cleaning out the garage. My preferred gift would’ve been to not have to dress up and go to a fancy restaurant with a bunch of strangers. I saw icebergs flashing before my eyes, and headed for the lifeboats.
Me: “I don’t know if I can find a babysitter for Bea.”
Thom: “She’s seventeen years old.”
Me: “But it’s finals week.”
Thom: “She can handle it.”
Me: “I don’t want to sit for three hours in panty hose listening to strangers talk over my head in a foreign tongue. I don’t speak Soccer.”
Thom: “And I don’t want to be the only one there without a significant other.”
Me: “You’re fifty-five years old. You can handle it.”
Thom: “I went to your family reunion.”
He had me. There was no escape. I was doomed.
Upon our arrival, someone filled my wine glass, the next best thing to a life vest. As they kicked soccer talk up and down the table, I speculated about the other couples’ relationships—research for my next novel. But when travel stories surfaced, my ears perked up.
An older couple was seated across from us, and the husband mentioned living in Belfast in 1956. I jumped into the game and headed the conversation back to him. Born in Belfast, he immigrated to the US as a young man. His wife, who he called Lady Marion, was a second generation Finn. She told of their travels to visit family still in Finland, and how she and John met and fell in love. But their most interesting story was about each one’s independent link to the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912.
Marion’s grandmother and her family was booked to sail on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. When her little boy took ill, reluctantly they postponed their journey. The Titanic sailed without them, and Marion’s grandmother lived to tell the tale. For that, they are still thanking God today.
Meanwhile, in Belfast, John’s grandfather was a riveter who helped build the Titanic. Everyone in Belfast, everyone in the whole country, John said, took pride and felt personally invested. When the tragic news came, grown men cried in the streets. John said they have never recovered from that tragedy. He said they never would.
Thus the story goes on, a tragedy that has spanned the generations and left its mark upon them, he, in a way, a lingering victim and she a grateful survivor. It seemed to me poetic justice that they had found each other.
I am so glad I didn’t jump ship that night! I filled up my story bank, met interesting people, earned my husband’s undying gratitude for not embarrassing him in front of his friends, and made a Titanic connection. Not just John and Marion, although I hope our paths will cross again—and they probably will at next year’s soccer dinner.
I also figured out the enduring appeal of the Titanic. Of course, there are the larger elements of an epic story; the morbid fascination with disaster, the brush with fate, the sinking of the unsinkable, death as the ultimate equalizer between the one percent and the other ninety-nine. But the Titanic was also a petri dish, a microcosm where the best and the worst of humanity was displayed for all the world and for all time. So many mistakes, so much heroism, so much courage and sorrow, so much love and sacrifice, so very many little stories imbedded into one great one.
We’re not done with the Titanic. As John said, we won’t ever be. It is a story we need to hear again and again, in all its reincarnations. Wouldn’t you stand in line to see them? Or put the newest one on hold at your library? Or maybe even write one yourself.