On Wednesday nights, I teach a class at a nearby university. A couple of weeks ago, we were reading a text that made reference to the word “mending” — one of my students, a junior, said, “Whoa, whoa, what is mending?!” “Mending,” I said, “like when you mend a hole in your shirt?” I thought perhaps she had misread the word. “Who would do that?” she shot back.
She and my other students were born in 1992 or thereabouts. I was rendered speechless as the rest of the class offered varying degrees of comprehension or lack of same. Some, thankfully, understood the word. Others were confused and several others said something like, “No one would do that. You just go buy a new one.”
I let them talk it out among themselves as I went into a brief reverie. Just a few weeks before that, I sat in the reading room of the Nantucket Historical Society’s research library. I am working on a piece about whales and whaling which has found me burrowing into such things as old texts on whaling and 19th century ships’ logs — yellowed pages bound with twine and covered in marbleized paper, the handwriting faded but perfect penmanship, the l’s and the d’s listing like ships in the wind. One account that particularly interested me was by a man who had gone to sea as a cabin boy when he was only fourteen years old. This was not unusual. I’d been struggling to understand what it was like, to go off in a boat with twenty or thirty men on a voyage that sometimes lasted three or four years. They couldn’t come home until the hold was filled with whale oil, the precious substance that lit the world and oiled its machines back then. A young boy like that would leave a boy and come home a man. This was his education, plain and simple.
Another thing I’ve struggled to understand is how they managed to keep their clothes clean, hauling 60-ton whales aboard sometimes more than once a day, blood and guts as much a part of each day as the wind and high seas, and rendering blubber over open fires on deck, another part of those long endless days full of stench and offal. So this fourteen-year-old explained that the first and as it turned out most important lesson he was to learn in those early weeks of his first voyage was to take care of his clothes. Whalemen only brought with them two sets of clothing, kept in their small lockers. These clothes were to last them until they returned home. If their clothes were damaged beyond repair, their only choice was to buy new from the captain, depleting the already minuscule wages they received. In that way, some of these young men returned home after years at sea in debt to the ship. If I had brought this up to my students, I would have been laughed out of the classroom. And, rightly so. I would have been guilty of the same sin my parents and grandparents engaged in by telling me that they had walked miles to school when I had the comfort of a school bus.
Many generations divide my students from the lessons this cabin boy learned at sea. They have nothing comparable or even remotely similar in their lives. Clothes are disposable. Truthfully, few of us do mend our clothes anymore, though I am capable of doing so when need be and, for that matter, keep the little sewing box full of small wooden spools of colorful thread, needles and pins, and a tiny pair of scissors that belonged to my great-grandmother. The box always reminds me of my mother’s skills at mending. (I have to admit I like the box more than I like to mend.) Most of us just buy new, blithely putting it on the credit card, in debt to the company store just the same. And so the word “mending” fades from our language.
But then I thought this: none of us, even a single generation ago, imagined student loan debt that would amount to tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. In that context, that makes the cabin boy’s voyage across the seven seas and the debt on his return home seem like a bargain. Indeed, there is much that needs mending.