She was wearing what looked like a top hat, in a failed effort to compensate for the wild imbalance in their heights. Even so, at five feet five inches, my grandmother stood more than a foot shorter than her husband, the hat barely bringing her level with his collarbone. My elegant and absurdly tall grandfather had on a double-breasted wool overcoat in a luxuriant blue that one never encounters nowadays. His suit was bespoke and so were his shoes, fine clothes being among several weaknesses that also included women married to other men.
The two of them were standing at the rail of an ocean liner and tossing colored streamers to those of us below. They were en route to France. To see them off, there had been a farewell party in their stateroom, which was filled with flowers, laughter, and hampers of waxy fruit encased in cellophane. There had been champagne for the adults and Shirley Temples for my sister and me, and although it was winter and frigid at the Hudson River pier, the giddy excitement of the leave-taking provided all the warmth required to fuel the memory of an event that absolutely never occurred.
Shrinks would call the phenomenon I'm invoking "screen memory," something confabulated by the subconscious from elements of both the longed for and the real. I find the phrase seductive, not least because it sounds so cinematic:memory's home movie, each scene cued up as needed or at will. On my screen, a happy group of people is bidding farewell to a suave, if distant, couple as tugboats invisibly maneuver the behemoth they have boarded away into the dark.
The facts as I know them are a lot more prosaic, my grandfather dying when I was an infant, and my grandmother living on long enough to marry twice more. I am not certain that the two ever traveled together on an ocean liner, although I have a black-and-white photograph of them aboard a ship and dressed as I have described. Certainly she made a number of voyages during her 92 years, some with her second husband and some with the man's brother, her third. I saw her off on a few of those journeys and there was always fruit and drink in the stateroom, although by the 1960's, streamers would have been considered environmentally iffy and probably also, by the kid I was then, very uncool.
Screen memories were much on my mind on a cold, rainy night in January as the Queen Mary 2 pushed off from the dock in Southampton, England. The ship was on a shakedown cruise bound for nowhere and, at the same time, setting compass for a well-charted realm of memory.
The two-day outing I had joined was a trial run for the maiden voyage of the Cunard Line's new $800 million vessel, which at 1,132 feet long and 237 feet tall is the largest, most costly, and, unquestionably, the most optimistically conceived civilian ship in the world. A few days later, the queen of England was expected to arrive at the famous port to smash a safety-scored bottle of Veuve Clicquot against the ship's hull and utter some blandly regal benediction on the vessel, which happens to be named not for her grandmother but for another ship.
As I saw it, the clock would briefly turn back at that instant to the days when more people crossed the Atlantic by sea than by air, to a time (the 1950's) before jet travel made the 12 Cunard Line ships, then carrying a third of all passengers across the Atlantic, redundant and faintly sad.
Despite everything that has occurred in the meantime, there is a strong collective investment in the glory days of ocean travel. The anachronistic glamour that still clings to such famous passengers as Greta Garbo and Cary Grant, who routinely crossed the Big Pond on ocean liners, is available, too, in a way, to anyone who ever dreamed of putting on evening clothes to dine at the captain's side.
Remnant glamour was clearly what the Cunard Line was banking on when it commissioned a vessel evocative of an era that may not be entirely passé; early reports suggest that the strategy works. Eighteen months before the Queen Mary 2 had even left the French shipyard where it was constructed, all of its staterooms were booked.
"Ocean travel is still romantic, I believe," said Pamela Conover, president of the Cunard Line, on the second of two days spent bobbing in the English Channel, the liner thronged with excited families and friends of the companies that own or built it. "During the golden age of ocean travel, in the thirties, this was the only way to get to the United States from Europe. We're the one line that has continued to do the crossing. All along we've believed that a classic luxury travel experience would appeal to a lot of different people."
That faith was strong enough for the Carnival Corporation, which purchased Cunard from the Norwegian shipbuilder Kvaerner in 1998, to gamble that the global appetite for ocean cruises would boom again as economies recovered and the fear of possible terrorist attacks diminished. Undeterred by earnings losses attributable to the war in Iraq and by what analysts called a glut in the market, Cunard pressed on with the construction of a ship that is bigger and heavier than a Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier, although fitted out less ominously, it is nice to report.