by Sean Lennon, Times Online
I don’t belong to that group of people who keep their childhoods neatly folded and tucked away, seldom seen, in a dresser drawer. My memories are scattered about the room like dust mites floating in sunlight. I’m unable to climb aboard even the tiniest steam train of thought without running over old origami animals in the Wild West of my youth.
I never gasp in surprise on seeing myself through the flicker of old film, my pale plumpness negotiating clumsy limbs in a sandbox vast as the Sahara. I never wonder while looking through faded photos, who it is standing on tiny bow legs between my mother and father, not yet knowing how to smile for a camera, blissfully unaware of troubles to come.
Every moment leading up to my father’s death has been permanently etched on the insides of my eyelids, like haunted hieroglyphs on the walls of a sunken sarcophagus. The day my mother told me he’d been gunned down outside our house, I awoke as if from a dream and have been awake ever since.
Because my grandfather was a sailor, my father always felt an affinity with the sea. He bought a house in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, another in Palm Springs, Florida, and another on the beach in Bermuda – the place where he famously circumvented his writer’s block, producing all the songs for Double Fantasy in a final flurry of creativity.
It was in Bermuda that I learnt to swim the sidestroke. I remember splashing vigorously with one eye submerged, the other searching for my father’s approval, his slender frame obscured by blinking rivulets.
In Florida, the seagulls ate stale bread out of my hand; I caught lizards in paper cups and watched their discarded tails twitch cryptically on the warm terracotta terrace.
Most of our summers were spent on the bay in Long Island. We had an old stone house with a swimming pool shaded by rows of oak trees, a vast green lawn overlooking a private beach, and a rickety wooden dock sinking slowly into the sea. It was there that I learnt to skip stones, to make paper planes, to build a fire, to put a worm on a hook, to draw monkeys and to steer a sailing boat.
Tyler and Pam Coneys were an American couple who worked for my parents in the capacity that most of our employees did – that is to say, in whatever capacity was required of them at that moment. Pam, whose honeycomb hair was broomstick-thick, reminded me of Popeye’s wife, Olive: frail exterior with a steel constitution. (She was once ejected through the windscreen of Tyler’s van, and was found walking in a trance miles from where the accident had occurred. She lay in a coma for days – the first time I can remember feeling truly terrified.)
Tyler was as thin as his moustache was thick, and he had the unlikely appearance of a beach-bum Charlie Chaplin. He owned a yachting club on the bay, and it was under his guidance that my father purchased the small green fibreglass sailing boat we named Flower.
It is around Flower’s maiden voyage that one of my most vivid memories revolves. My father, Tyler, our assistant Fred Seaman and I boarded the tiny vessel and set out into the harbour. Tyler let each of us have a turn at steering the boat. My father went first. Then it was my turn. “See that ribbon?” Tyler pointed at a strand of red plastic tied to the mast. “When that ribbon is pointing that way, turn the wheel this way. When the ribbon changes direction, turn the other way.” Simple enough, even for a four-year-old.
The ship’s wheel was cold in my hands, and my father snapped photos furiously with his brown leather-bound Polaroid camera. It is difficult to describe the elation of commanding a sailing boat when you’re four years old, but as the wind swept violently through my bowl-cut bangs, I felt as though I were steering unstoppably into my own unfathomable adulthood.
Then came Fred’s turn. Again Tyler reminded us about the ribbon and the direction of the wind, but it seemed that either Fred had not listened, or that he had been misnamed Seaman. As soon as the ribbon flinched, Fred wrenched the wheel, toppling our boat, and sending us all hurtling headfirst into the turbulent tide. Only Tyler managed miraculously to position himself on the belly of our boat, a triumphant smirk peeking through his moist moustache, his hand outstretched holding a white-and-red life jacket.
As I wondered what my toes might look like to the fish below, I noticed my favourite pair of flip-flops floating swiftly out to sea.
It wasn’t until I considered losing them that I was overcome by a feeling of dread. “My flip-flops, my flip-flops!” I yelped. “Don’t worry,” my father said. “I’ll get you some new ones. Just grab Tyler’s hand.” It seemed that no one realised what a tragedy it was to lose those flip-flops, adorned as they were by my favourite superheroes; they had guarded my feet against sand and stone for the duration of the summer, and my stomach ached at the thought of losing them.
Perhaps it is just coincidence that the man who toppled our boat turned out years later to be the man to topple our family’s trust. For soon after my father died, we found that Fred had been hoarding stolen goods, including my father’s diaries, clothes and some still-missing guitars. I am not sure what happened to Flower, but I can scarcely look at the ocean without wondering where my favourite flip-flops might be.
Three more famous faces look back on their formative early holidays at Times Online here.