On vacation, I get up every morning far earlier than I ever would on a workday back home. On vacation, my eyes snap open at 5:45 when the light must slant into the window at just the right angle. I get up and tread downstairs in the rented cabin to make coffee and wolf down cereal. My dad is already up, reading and sipping his decaf, waiting for me to get ready. And then, we’re off to fish. We only fish for these two weeks of vacation. For some reason, neither of us ever fishes at home. But on vacation, we’re out plying the waters of the lakes of central or southern Maine, and long ago, on Ossipee in New Hampshire. The boat is a different one (though no fancier) from those days when I fished with him as a kid, but the motor is the same Evinrude Fisherman that he and my uncle Bill gave their father for Christmas one year–an epic gift it took the two boys a long time to save up for.
We’re not great at fishing, a fact that I find amusing, and that my father finds mildly pride-damaging and aggravating. He watches the Bass Masters fly across the lake in their super fast boats while we plod along in his tin can one and fish with worms, even though we read that serious fisherman use the mysterious “tube jig” to catch all manner of monster fish. He tends to be convinced that everyone is catching more and bigger fish than we are. But I can assure you, it’s not because they get up any earlier. At 6am, with the sun low in the sky, the lake is nothing like it is at 3pm when the jet skiers and wake boarders command it. We drift around the little islands and submerged rocks, cursing as our lines get snagged, or a stupid little fish swallows the hook requiring a modest surgical procedure to retrieve it. Mostly, our company is the ospreys and the eagles and the kingfishers. Once in a while, an otter or a fox leaps around on the shoreline rocks. My father makes his usual terrible jokes, or concocts weird theories about mysterious ridge dwelling peoples he swears he sees in the trees from the boat. Thus, our conversations have changed little since I was nine, though I am less credulous now, and we don’t practice my multiplication tables as much.
My father’s father, my Grampy, to whom was gifted that Evinrude Fisherman, was a prickly sort of man. He was not a warm and approachable sort of grandfather. But he did like to hear how it had gone when we came back from our fishing trips when I was a kid. It’s his expression, “Nary a nibble,” that I still use for a particularly bad outing, and this vacation, I learned another. My dad had a fish on the line, got impatient, and jerked the rod up too soon. Exasperated, he said in the low, flat tone that denotes an imitation of his father, “You did everything wrong on that one.”
With such a patriarch, it should come as no surprise that we’re not an effusive family, or very demonstrative of our feelings. We tend to conduct serious conversations in longhand, by letter. But that’s progress anyway. At least we can say it somehow. And that’s why I find myself writing this very public blog post to say what I could not manage to say in two weeks of mornings on the lake. It’s what I think he knows, but that I’d hate to never have made sure about. It’s that these trips mean more to me than I ever admit. And I’m old enough now to know that I’m mortal, and he’s mortal, and there won’t always be another year. And when there isn’t, I will be utterly bereft. So with the boat tucked away in my yard for another year’s rest, I mean this as an open letter to you, Dad. You didn’t do everything wrong on this one after all. You mostly got just about all of it right.