For Writers Island Prompt #21 The Fisherman
“Betty!” My father’s voice echoed in my ears. I immediately sat up, wide awake from my afternoon nap. My Dad had died just over fifteen years ago, at home, in a city one hundred miles to the North. Yet, the voice was unmistakable, the childhood nickname spoken in a tone of impatience, almost anger.
The call had come from the basement of my small rented home, where the debris of a fifty-plus year existence was stored along cement walls and on metal shelves. It was the tone of that voice that had me questioning, until I remembered that my father’s fishing equipment, bequeathed to me after his death, had been stored down there with all the rest of the stuff that couldn’t find a place in my little house.
My father was a generous and patient man. He loved his family, telling people stories from his childhood, driving down unknown back roads while singing silly old songs like the one about the man who watched his wife get ready for bed. Saw her place her wig on a high shelf in the closet, put her glass eye on a plate on the dresser, and her false teeth on the chair, then lamented, “My little dear, I want to love you, but you’re scattered everywhere!”
Dad made things from wood, like tables and clocks. He enjoyed playing cribbage for nickels and dimes, fishing, talking to people, and was an avid Packers fan. He drove an 18 Wheeler for a living and was a bright, affectionate and caring individual, who loved to laugh often and with others.
Those might sound like rather ordinary attributes until they are mingled with my father’s early history. Put out for adoption when he was six months old, he was placed in a foster home when he was four, and his adoptive parents discovered they could have their own children. Research points out that his history might easily have lead to some form of anti-social behavior. That isn’t a description of the man I knew and loved.
I was eight years old when Dad finally agreed to let me go fishing with him. Having nagged him for almost a year, I was beyond excited when he finally said it was okay. There wasn’t another human being I wanted to spend the time with. However, there were a few things, he said, I needed to know before I could accompany him.
First off, I needed to take care of my own equipment. That meant making sure rod and reel were in working order and I was prepared to lug them to the fishing spot, even if it was a trout stream he was sure he could locate a mile behind my uncle’s cabin in the North woods. We never found it. I lost a boot in the mud back there, but I never dropped the rods and reels.
I had to be tough, bait my own hook with torn apart segments of live night crawlers and remove whatever I landed, be it weeds, a perch, or a big, nasty catfish (he called them ‘bullheads’). On the waters of the Bay, in a rented boat, he showed me how to maneuver my line gently to work it loose from a snag, and to patiently reset it if it had to be cut away.
Filling a bucket with perch is fun and he made it a contest of who would catch the biggest and the most. After several hours on the bright water, I was ready to curl up in the car and sleep all the way home to the Southwest side of the city of Green Bay.
No such luck. Dad said if I wanted to go with him again, I’d have to be prepared to clean whatever we caught. I knew he meant it because he had recently taken two car loads of my brother’s neighborhood friends and told them the same thing as they climbed out of the cars at the end of the day. Several of them told him that he could keep their portion. He accepted the gift but they never accompanied him again.
My tired body protesting, I learned as he patiently showed me how to use the scaler, guided my small hand as he taught me to cut off the head just below the gills, make one slit all the way down the fish’s belly, then push out the entrails with my thumb, rinsing what was left in clear cold water. I was fascinated as the now cleaned and gutted fish left crimson clots that floated half submerged in the large white plastic bucket.
Finally arriving home with our prize, I refused to give in to my exhaustion as Mom floured and fried our fresh catch and Dad regaled her and my siblings with several anecdotes of our day spent on the water. He made it sound like an adventure and praised my willingness to learn the lessons he set before me.
After that, we went fishing often. He would tell me on Friday night where he intended to go and I would hug myself, not only because we were going on another adventure, but because it meant that I didn’t have to be involved in Mom’s round of Saturday morning cleaning chores.
My father always liked to get started early, believing that the fish were most hungry at dawn. That meant he would call me before it was light out. I would roll over and fall back to sleep, counting on him to call me again when it was time to leave. He told me several times that if I continued to have to be called more than once, someday he would leave without me. I didn’t believe him, we were fishing buddies.
One Saturday morning I awoke to the sound of the car reversing out of the driveway just outside my bedroom window, where I had once again fallen back into slumber. I gasped in distress, unwilling to believe he’d leave me behind. I ran to the window overlooking the garage which stood open and empty. I suddenly understood how one of the perch I was so good at catching felt; swimming along carefree one moment, hooked and pulled unwillingly to the one place I didn’t want to be in the next.
It hurt deeply. I spent the day finding quiet corners where I would cry, then get angry at my Dad for leaving me behind. My Mom and siblings quietly ignored my distress as we scrubbed floors, dusted, and vacuumed the house. Each of those chores felt like an added burden of silent punishment, an embarrassing reminder that I had really screwed things up.
With childish bravado to cover my fear that I had irrevocably and foolishly lost this special highlight of my young existence, I plotted a revenge that would see me quietly refusing to accompany Dad the next time he asked, trying to convince myself that he would ask me to accompany him again. He had to. Two weeks later, he came to me on a Friday night and asked me if I wanted to go with him to Sturgeon Bay the next morning. When he woke me up in the dark, I was out of the bed before he was out the bedroom door. We never discussed the pain-filled lesson I had learned the hard way.
We went fishing often, through my teen years and even into adulthood. The adventures were many and the memories are bits of treasure I hold onto when sorrow finds its way into my everyday moments. Six months before he died, sick with the effects of chemotherapy, my father drove with my mother, to a cottage where my husband, four children, and myself were enjoying a vacation. Too sick to trust himself to the rowboat, he sat on the dock with rod and reel in hand, and waved to my son, husband, and me as we rowed into deeper waters half way across the lake.
He was still there, in his lawn chair, when we returned with the deepening evening shadows. As the boat bumped dully against the wooden dock, he looked straight at me and said, “You caught a big one, didn’t you? I could hear you whooping and hollering all the way across the lake.”
As I pulled my first Northern from the water, I looked at him quizzically and asked how he knew it was me that had caught it. “I taught you how and I did a good job,” was his grinning response. We cleaned the Northern and my mother fried it after dragging the pieces through flour. Another adventure.
I suddenly understood my father’s most recent visit after all these years of separation and silence. Months of struggling with the depression of grief, after loosing a significant individual from my life, had found me giving in to the desire to sleep, often at odd hours of the day. My father, who loved life, didn’t want me to miss out on the adventure of my own and whatever time I still have left. It was time to get up, get moving. I certainly didn’t want to be left behind. We both knew he wouldn’t come back a second time.