Sunday, January 18, 2009
The boy in the grainy, sepia-hued 8mm home movie can’t be more than four, maybe five years old. Frayed dungarees, flannel shirt, crew cut, freckles, ears and teeth he'd have to grow into. But you don’t catch these details right away because your focus is first drawn to the fish.
The boy loved being at the Camp, a remote three-roomed cottage overlooking a woodland creek, somewhere in upstate New York. Downstream, the water split into channels, shallow and brimming with cattails, full of the chain pickerel and bass that loved the cover. Above Camp, the water was faster, rockier, and home to bluegill and sunfish whose colors made one shade their eyes. At the cottage, the stream grew slower, wider, deeper, and held spiked bullhead - white catfish, but the old name fit perfectly - and huge, lumbering golden carp. Here he learned to fish for them all, and learned to love doing it.
When he wasn’t fishing, there was adventure in every direction. The boy never knew where the small, serpentine dirt road passing by the cottage ultimately ended, but it was certainly an exotic and dangerous destination. Across the river was only wilderness, forever unattainable due to the band of water that separated it from Camp, from civilization. Across the road, an old garage stood, full of mysteries. Mechanical. Clerical. Scatological. Previous owners had saved, and left, everything so it was a treasure trove, packed to the rafters with grownup items - rusted tools, yellow-paged ledgers, jars if coins - from which the boy attempted to decipher, and practice, the mysterious ways of adults.
The boy also loved the Camp because it was the one place where he felt sure his parents were happy together. Away from their jobs, their responsibilities, their differences, they shared what they did love - the woods, the water, the boy. He recalled the time his father set aside his fiberglass pole and, on a lark, fished instead with his .22 caliber revolver, paddling to his “catch” only to capsize the old canoe as he reached for the prize - man, gun, and fish all eventually surfacing in raucous, sputtering triumph. The boy’s mother, sitting on the dock, laughed to tears, dove into the stream, and with the long graceful strokes she’d used as a lifeguard but a few short years earlier, swam to join the gleeful wet celebration. They laughed like they never laughed at home.
One hot summer day, the boy took his trusty Zebco, an Eagle Claw hook, and a fat nightcrawler and caught the fish. The memory is brief, incomplete, but its essence is powerful.
The old home movie shows the boy dragging the fish across the yard. It's hard to imagine that such a small child could have landed the monster and there does appear to be a strong hand at the fuzzy edge of the frame, but these observations are based in mature, adult logic, and run counter to family lore. Now, fifty years later, it is still understood that the boy caught the fish. If he had help, it’s never been spoken of.
And, after fifty years, it is still understood that the boy’s parents loved one another then, and there. The bright image of them laughing and clinging joyfully to one another in midstream is not tarnished by later events. Their relationship may have been as murky as the creek's waters after a summer rainstorm and as complicated as the clutter in the old garage, but on that small stretch of water, at that point in time, their love of one another was real.
The boy, now a man, will forever hold on to the memory of catching the fish, as he will hold on to all of the memories surrounding Camp. But he is no fool. He’s looked at things with the eyes of an adult and he knows that hard truth and tender memory, like husband and wife, often drift apart over time. But the man also knows that conflicting truth and memory can coexist, that one need not diminish the other, that each has their place in our lives and in our hearts.
And, at the end, it’s the memory that remains. In the final telling, the boy caught the fish.
Written with love, understanding, and thanks to my lifeguard, my mother, who is free to dance again towards her next cosmic adventure, and to my father, already fishing in Providence, but probably not with his .22. I know that, in time, we will be together at Camp once again.