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Sistership: The Life and Times of Author Carole Borges

Fatty with two of Carole’s books

I am three or four. We are hauled out in Chicago, and our 52-foot schooner is perched atop a rusty railroad car. My oldest sister, Carole Borges (Goodlander), is told to toss a sack of garbage into the open dumpster below. I watch as she carries the sack aft and approaches the freshly-sanded rail cap on the transom that my father has fitted-but-not-yet-fastened. She steps on it and she disappears into thin air.

It is 25 feet down to the jagged rocks on each side of the rails.

I blink. I hear no scream. Is she dead?

The rest of my family is gathering around the galley table, chatting away oblivious.

“Dad,” I say, and point in amazement, “DAD…!”

We all rush aft, horrified. We peer over the transom, fully expecting to see 14-year-old Carole splattered on the rocks at the water’s edge. Instead, we see her clinging by one hand to a piece of topside scaffolding she’s miraculously caught on the way down—still valiantly holding onto the garbage.

“… agile as a cat,” my father says as he bolts down the ladder to fetch her, “and nine lives, too!”

I didn’t realize it at the time but Carole has just revealed her entire life—that she herself is utterly charmed but her complicated life decidedly not.

To label a person is to commit an egotistical injustice—but Carole’s definition is a sexual one. It isn’t that she was just pretty or beautiful or sexy; it was that she was both enigmatic and sensuous. She was feminine mystery personified; a swaying maternal secret every red-blooded male wanted to unlock. Picture Lauren Bacall at sea with Bogie aboard Santana; picture Katharine Hepburn blowing away a strand of hair on the African Queen … or Ann Bonny as seen through the eyes of Errol Flynn.

that’s what Carole was.

Carole was also beyond mere fashion—she had an ageless style whether reciting poetry from a bowsprit, prose from the cockpit, or dancing gracefully on the foredeck. And, for all that, she was earthy too.

In Caruthersville, on a brief layover during our 1950’s Mississippi River trip, the driver of the local cesspool truck fell in love with her. He was dirt poor and his family shared the only pair of shoes, size 13EEE to fit their heavy-set father. The night of their first date, her driver/lover got double-lucky. He came skipping down the dock singing out, “Carole, I got both the truck and the shoes too!”

… for decades she wrote poems about smooching in that honey wagon.

By the time we hit New Orleans aboard the Elizabeth, she was a young lady. Within days a cheesecake photograph of her was on the front page of the Times-Picayune with the caption ‘Bronze Limbed Beauty Sails Aboard Great Lakes Schooner’.

Hempi Taylor of Taylor Diving and Salvage was the next sailor to fall—he jumped off his hundred foot schooner Jester as we sailed by, hopped into his long-fendered Jaguar, and burned rubber from his side of the West End canal to ours. His lovely old boat was riddled with bullet holes—left over from a ‘disagreement’ over a bag of cash. Tucked into his waist was a pearl-handled pistol. Money sloshed out of his pockets, his Jag, and his yacht.

“What’s not to like,” asked my father.

But no man ever owned Carole. Hempi bought her a diamond so large it required its own PFD. I remember one day it was hot ashore, we Goodlanders were broke, and I wanted a frosty A&W root beer float. Carole held up her hand in front of a pawn shop—admiring the way that huge diamond sparkled in the sun. Then we went and got our A&W floats.

Which isn’t to say Carole’s life was perfect. She was rebellious. Our father/captain was strict. She ran away for three weeks—and was arrested for running a whore house. I remember thinking proudly as a Goodlander, “Only three weeks—and she was running the joint? Wow! The cream always rises!”

Carole was never shy nor ever ashamed. When she wrote her autobiography Dreamseeker’s Daughter she covered this incident as matter-of-factly as all the other 1950s rural-south craziness.

But one sailor in particular stood out—a compact but muscular Portuguese fisherman from New Bedford named Joseph Borges. A hurricane approached. We invited him aboard Elizabeth as we left for safe harbor. Unfortunately, we ran aground on an ill-marked shoal in open water. In order to kedge off, my father ordered Joey into our small dinghy with a large anchor—with matter-of-fact instructions to row it out to windward.

It was a chaotic scene—waves breaking over the hull, our bilges flooding, the boat heeling excessively as each sea drove us up higher on the beach.

Joey wasn’t able to make much headway under oars.

“Put your back into it, you farmer!” shouted my father.

The word farmer is the worst insult a Goodlander can utter.

“F-you!” shouted Joey back as he disappeared into the building gloom.

“Well,” said my father with a smile, “at least he swears like a sailor!”

Carole and Joey married soon thereafter. They rented a hotel room on their wedding night—the first time I was able to repeatedly play with a flush toilet. (Yes, boat-kids are different.)

What followed was a rare period of bliss—they built a marriage, a family, and a 32-foot Friendship sloop in Chicago. My father and I helped with the sloop. When I purchased Corina at 15 years of age, Carole and Joe helped me with my rebuild as seamlessly as we’d helped them construct their hull. We were sailors and we were family, and that’s just what a sailing family does—we chip in without being asked.

At 16 years old I started living aboard Corina, my 22-foot Atkin’s double-ender—but during the coldest winter nights in Chicago, I’d find a warm spot on their couch. I never asked if it was okay because I knew I didn’t need to. When I was gang-stomped and left for dead on the streets of Chicago’s Southside, Carole and Joey were my first visitors after the ER.

I used their home, their tools, their darkroom, and their refrigerator as if they were my own.

Suddenly, the carefree 1960s are over. Reality sets in. Carole and Joey retire to a farm in Western Massachusetts to build yet another boat—this one a 42 footer named Ruby B. They move aboard with four children—one, a young son named after Joshua Slocum. It is the dead of winter in Boston harbor. The cabin heater isn’t up to the task. Work is spotty. Food is scarce. They live on love.

Despite it all, Carole never stops being there for me, nor I for her. When I need Carlotta looked after for a couple of months, I fly Carole to Coral Bay, St. John, to keep watch.

A local taxi driver falls in love with her.

Carole Borges
Carole and Fatty in St. John, USVI, 1970s

 

She reads Carlos Castaneda’s The Teaching of Don Juan—and goes to live on a mountainside in Mexico awash with ‘shrooms. The local men get a tad too aggressive—and she sleeps naked under the stars with a machete by her side. The villagers call her The Woman with the Long Knife—a title she wears proudly throughout the rest of her life. Unbeknownst to her, they are filming the movie Catch-22 nearby. She is meditating, contemplating all the beautiful colors coming out of her navel, as the movie plane drills into the hillside beside her. OMG! She tries to get close to the wreckage—but the ensuing fireball is too intense. She runs to the village for help—but they seem strangely unconcerned (having been warned weeks in advance of the crash).

Later, enthralled by On the Road, she is kidnapped by some Mexican pistoleros and held prisoner in an abandoned railroad car—using up her fifth life during her night escape—which involves jumping off a trestle bridge in the dark and fracturing her ankle.

The following year, in pre-imitation of Thelma and Louise, she hooks up with a recent divorcee named Strawberry Shortcake, in Texas—and flips over the GMC Pacer she is driving (seventh life), much to the amusement of the pill-popping truckers in the CB convoy she’d convened.

Carole kissed life full on the lips everyday of her existence.

Her next adventure is even stranger—she gets her MFA (Master of Fine Arts) from Goddard University and uncaps her pen. Alice James, a prestigious New England poetry publisher, brings out her Disciplining the Devil’s Country. It is well-received. She works as an English teacher, an advocate for the homeless, a real estate broker—and even a hardware saleswoman.

She opens Tizzy Lish—a vintage clothing store in Boston.

I have some success with my autobiography Chasing the Horizon, she comes out with the far more lyrical Dreamseeker’s Daughter.

Everywhere she goes, the men fall in love with her—and the women cry on her shoulder. She always has time for those in distress—she’s been in dire straits many times. Despite all the tragedy, she greets each new day with a hopeful smile. She’s unsinkable—well, almost.

Carole Borges
Carole and Fatty

I get the call in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. I fly out immediately. Jet-lagged, I enter the darkened room in Tennessee. There are a dozen sad-eyed people gathered around her deathbed—all seeing Carole off on her Final Cruise. She is shrunk and shriveled. There are tubes in her nose. The merciless cancer is eating her right in front of us—robbing her of her dignity hour-by-hour. Her chin quivers. Her false teeth float. Her closed eyes flare open when she hears my voice.

“What happened,” I asked.

“I went to a doctor,” she said, and (sort of) snorts.

We Goodlanders are notoriously doctor-shy.

I look up. There’s a muscular guy named Mike. There’s a certain way he cowboy-moved—a certain kindness that lurks in his steady eye when he looks at Carole. He’s in love with her. It is as plain as day—some things never change even when you’re 74 and running downwind and rudderless at the Pearly Gates.

I smile at Mike—a knowing smile. He nods and smiles back.

Carole signals me to get closer. I put my ear to her trembling lips. Softly she whispers, “Some people will do anything for morphine.”

I can’t help but smile—we are, after all, children of the ‘60s.

I rub her back, I feed her sips of chicken broth, I hold a straw to her parched lips. I read her the fan letters pouring in.

It feels odd—to sleep on dry land. I’m here. I’m ashore. I’ve been absent a lot, sure, but I’m here now. I’m the oldest son. I’m not much—but I’m hers, I’m all hers—from now until eternity.

“Thank you, Timmy,” she says hoarsely, using my childhood name as I pet her silky hair.

I wade through a sea of oxygen tanks and adult diapers and morphine droppers. She’s beyond pills now—first she can’t swallow; next she can’t drink. I brightly tell the room full of admirers her favorite Goodlander stories—stopping as often as possible to allow her the punch lines. Once, she gets the timing perfect and the roomful of well-wishers erupt in laughter. She smiles faintly, and says, “… not bad, for being seven-eighths dead.”

Only a sailorwoman who has spent half her life around shipwrights would say “seven-eighths.”

That evening her eyes start to flutter back in her head and she begins to forget to breathe. Her pale skin gets a green tinge.

The skin stretches ever tighter on her grinning skull.

I tell her I love her.

Her sad eyes tell me she knows.

At 2am her chest stops rising and falling. Her ninth life is gone. She dies. She was a literary trooper to the end. One of her last physical acts was holding up one of her books for a publicity shot. She’s gone but her words are not. Her muscular poems live on.

It is three weeks to the day she was told she had terminal cancer.

I, Gary Martin Goodlander, asked my namesake Gary Martin Borges (her oldest son) what the doctor actually said.

“I’m not sure,” Gary said. “I only heard her response when he told her the news.”

Which was?

“I want to see the sea one more time.”

I am back aboard in Johor Bahru now. My wife Carolyn is varnishing the starboard cap rail as I type. We both patiently await Carole’s ashes—to scatter them from sea to shining sea.

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