A Family Cruise Means Everything

by Sheryl Slone Tarkoff

Sheryl (center) surrounded by family in Newport, Rhode Island
Sheryl (center) surrounded by family in Newport, Rhode Island

Lots of people take family cruises and some perhaps meet up with a family member or two, but it’s rare when a cruise itinerary literally synchronizes with the people who make up your past, present and future and you wind up seeing family in nearly every port. 

When my husband, Michael, and I took a Canada & New England cruise for my 60th birthday, it became a unique opportunity to reunite with (and in some cases be surprised by) cousins, children, siblings and precious wisps of family history at various ports along the way.

I’d been dreaming about this cruise for a while, as I’d recently had a serious health scare and was extraordinarily happy to reach this milestone birthday. I especially wanted to celebrate and connect with family, and this Eastern Seaboard itinerary provided the perfect opportunity to  see many family members and to learn even more about family roots.

The day of my birthday was the day before the cruise began. We planned a low-key celebration in one of New York’s landmark spots, Serendipity, with one of my nephews (or so I thought…).

It was wonderful to see him, but I was mildly annoyed when he seemed to spend more time texting than talking to us. I soon found out the reason for his behavior!  One after another the surprise guests arrived. I was blown away, as in walked another nephew, then my sister from Chicago and my brother all the way from Clearwater, Florida. I was astonished by their thoughtfulness, and even more so by everyone’s ability to keep a secret!

The next day, we boarded the beautiful Caribbean Princess. Just as we sailed by the iconic New York skyline and Statue of Liberty, to my complete surprise, a gorgeous floral arrangement from my sisters- and brothers-in-law arrived.  I couldn’t have asked for a more thoughtful send-off.

The ship’s first port was Newport, Rhode Island. By design this time, my daughter Anna, son Joe and Joe’s girlfriend (now fiancé), Jocelyn, had driven in from Boston and waited onshore.  They surprised me with a fantastic packet of funny, touching poems they’d written in the car. “Occasional poetry” is a family tradition started by my dad and carried on by my children.  In addition, and at my request this time, they brought a delicious homemade chocolate birthday cake using my late mother’s recipe. This excellent dessert (even better than the original) was preceded by a lovely lunch at a waterfront restaurant. The owner took a wonderful picture of the five of us, which I still treasure.

We worked our way up the east coast, pausing in Boston, where we met a young Canadian cousin for a brief visit.  The fall colors were at their peak at our next stop, the charming Bar Harbor, Maine.  Although we have no family there, we enjoyed it anyway!

Saint John, New Brunswick was the next port. on our family cruise vacation. This time, we ventured into the past and my mother’s earliest years, as she was born there in 1917. Thanks to my husband’s genealogical expertise and persistence, we were able to use the local library to find my mother’s birth certificate, census records and in turn, her first address. Although her former home is now a pile of rubble, it was incredibly moving to wander the streets once walked by my ancestors.

Our final stop was Halifax, Nova Scotia. Here, we had arranged to meet the pride and joy of our Canadian family — a retired chief justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, the province’s first and only female in that position in its 250-year history.

Although we’d met her before at family occasions, we’d never been to Nova Scotia to see her in her home town. What a treat to see the courthouse with her beautiful portrait on display. During lunch at a harbor side restaurant, that seemed to be a legal community hangout, many people greeted her warmly. We loved seeing the obvious affection and esteem she received from former colleagues. She gave us a marvelous insider’s tour of Halifax and capped off our day with a visit to her lovely, historic home.

As we bid her a fond, yet bittersweet farewell, we knew we’d reached the end of our family-themed journey. As the ship left Nova Scotia for a straight run back to New York, Michael and I took the few days to enjoy each other and appreciate the very special time we’d just spent.

As we cruised home, I reflected on how lucky I was to have had this opportunity to explore my family’s past, reconnect with its present, and meet up with those who will take it to the future.

Sheryl and Michael live in Chicago, Illinois, and have enjoyed five Princess cruises.