Portland, Maine—In 1990 I enjoyed my first cruise aboard the QE2 (Cunard ship Queen Elizabeth II). What a classic ship and what a great on-board culture the British Cunard Line had developed. Some of my fondest memories come from that cruise with Elma, Sheldon, Dave, Connie, Cy, and the incomparable restaurant manager, David Thompson.
Afternoon tea with fresh scones properly served with clotted cream and strawberry preserves. Specially made fruit sorbet to clean your palate (a different flavor was made every day) served before the dinner’s entree served by servers wearing white gloves. Also enjoyable and interesting were the excellent lectures from famous authors, entertainers and business leaders.
But to me, the greatest joy of cruising on the QE2 was chatting with fellow passengers from the diverse group of around the world travelers.
On one cruise, I met a fellow passenger, Edwin Newman, (a retired NBC news journalist/newscaster) on the beach in Barbados. As we sat on a bench overlooking the beautiful blue water, he shared with me many stories of covering the Kennedy and Nixon presidencies. I also remember his lamenting the decline of proper use of the English language (this was before smart phones, mind you).
I had the good fortune to travel on QE2 several times over the years prior to its retirement in 2008.
After my father passed away from cancer, my mother spent much more time with my two sisters and I and it was my pleasure to take her on a couple of these wonderful QE2 cruises.
This story is about a legendary experience my mother and I had aboard the QE2 on a 10-day Caribbean cruise out of New York. My wife and I had a double cabin in the Columbia Restaurant category on Deck One, and my mother, Marian, had a single cabin in the Mauritania Restaurant category down on Deck Five. There were four restaurants on board, and each had its own status and group of cabins.
The Mauritania Restaurant was the largest of the four and the only one to have two-passenger seating. For dinner, if you were a Mauritania passenger, as my mother was, you were assigned to either the early (6 p.m.) seating, or the late (8 p.m.) seating.
My mother, who went to bed early and then rose early, signed up for the early sitting. Thus, after dinner she would be sound asleep in bed by 8:30 p.m.
Marian loved people and quickly made friends with her table mates. Two of whom were the parents of a kitchen staff member. Their daughter’s responsibility was to create the ice carvings used at the midnight buffet and other special occasions.
A month before this sailing, I had spent a couple days at a hotel in Atlantic City taking the tests and exam to become a fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives.
Having never been to a casino before and during one of the breaks I popped a couple quarters in a slot machine. I made $6.25, which is not typical since they are programmed to take your money.
It’s important to note that my parents were very conservative, and our religion didn't tolerate attending amusement venues such as casinos.
On the next to last day of our cruise heading to our debarkation port of New York, my wife and I had a wonderful evening. We enjoyed a sumptuous dinner, the ship’s evening show, and then a quarter-mile walk around the ships deck. Getting to our cabin around 10:45 p.m., I quickly read the daily shipboard news/announcement paper which had been placed under our door. One of the promotions being offered in the onboard casino, this next to the last night of the cruise, was a complimentary $5 in coins with the purchase of $5 in coins which could be used in the slots. I decided that I would take advantage of this promotion and head up there.
"Ted, your mother might see you, don't risk it,” my wife cautioned. I quickly dismissed this warning/advice responding, “No worries as mother is sound asleep down on Deck Five. There's no way she would be up at 11 p.m. Besides, it's a very big ship, 1,000 ft long and 12 decks with 2,000 passengers."
I made my way to the Upper Deck where the small casino is nestled between the theater and grand lounge. Went to the cashier, paid the $5, and received $10 in coins. The attendant also gave me a large white plastic cup to collect the coins and said something to the effect of "I hope you need the large cup.”
Navigated my way to a machine and dropped a coin in. The three reels spin and come up with three different symbols. I put a second coin in, reels spin again, and again three different combinations. Determined, I spin a third time. First one reel, then the second, then the third all stop with the same symbol showing. Not sure what this meant, I was startled by the blue light on top of the machine flashing and bells ringing. Then to my surprise, coins start loudly dropping into the tray. The machine flashed it’s a $600 jackpot.
My excitement was building and other players made their way over to congratulate me. The coins dropping into the tray, one at a time with a loud bang, create a systematic form of marketing. I began to realize the tray along with the one plastic cup would not be sufficient to hold all 600 coins that would accumulate. I rushed to the cashier and got another three cups.
After my first cup filled, I started on the second cup. The siren from the machine subsided, and the crowd around me dissipated.
As my adrenaline started to return to normal, I felt a hand touching my left shoulder. The touch is very soft, and my intuition has sent a tremendous sense of fear throughout my body.
Turning my head ever so slowly, I see the small frame of my mother. She starts to say my name, at first in a moderately loud tone, but speaking it in the longest possible pronunciation possible (about five seconds) “TTTEEEd- ddd…”
Although the volume of her voice began mezzoforte (moderately loud), by the time she got to the end of my name her voice had trailed off to triple pianissimo (very, very, very soft).
During those five seconds it took for my mother to say my name, I was enveloped with the greatest level of fear I had ever felt in my entire life. I was quite speechless and was actually in shock. If there were a more embarrassing situation to be in, I could not think of it.
What do I do? The continuing sound of coins filling the tray shocked me to my senses. I said, "Mother take this cup and help me scoop up all these coins” — the only thing I could think to say and do. Then we had to wait in line at the cashier window to cash out the coins. I'm sure the wait wasn't more than two or three minutes, but to me it seemed like an eternity. Each step of the way, my mother would whisper something like "What would your father say?" and "You should be ashamed of yourself."
After cashing out, and seeing me count the six crisp $100 bills, she informed me that she wanted to chat in her cabin. Walking to her cabin on Deck 5, I couldn't help but inquire about her being awake at this time of the night.
Turns out the ice carving handiwork of her table mate’s daughter was being featured on the midnight buffet and my mother had promised her friends she would attend. So she set her alarm for 11 p.m., got dressed and headed out to find the lido buffet area when she happened to walk by the casino and heard the noise. Go figure!
Once in her cabin, she gave me a motherly lecture, asked me to make sure I paid tithe on the $600, and then sent me on my way.
In the years that followed, I spent more and more time with my wonderful mother, and she lived with me for several years before her death.
She always had a great sense of humor, and many a time we doubled over in laughter as we recollected the story of when I fell from grace and received her one word rebuke, “TTTEEedddd…..”
When I see my mother again in heaven, I know her first word to me will be “TTTEEedddd…."
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Theodore Lewis is former CEO of Guam Memorial Hospital and has a healthcare consulting business based out of Portland, Maine. He is collecting stories about lessons learned in life and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.