Saturday, February 27, 2010


I got a call at 4:50 this morning. I was already not sleeping well, after messing my ankle up last night, and as soon as my phone started to vibrate, I knew what it was about. It was my brother, Jake, calling to tell me that Grandpa died. It was not a surprise and after the increase in calls from my sister-in-law, Debbie, this week, with news of the rapid acceleration in his body’s attempts to shut itself down, I had a feeling this would be the night. Yesterday she told me about how he could not transfer from his bed to his wheelchair, and it was only days ago he was able to get around with a walker.

This man was important to me. My parents loved me very much, but between my father’s addiction, and my mother’s co-dependence and lack of maturity, my childhood was shaping up to be a nightmare. It was my grandparents who saved me from the more nightmarish aspects. I spent a lot of time, often with my cousin Deena, at their house. It was very much a home to us. In our matching nylon nightgowns, we watched a lot of cartoons, made a lot of Barbie dolls do a lot of silly stuff, took a lot of baths together and ate a lot of “good” food there. Unlike many of men of his generation, who treated kids, especially girls, like something to be left to the women, or to themselves, he was actively involved with us. He took me on his “rounds” when he went to visit friends around town, to the hardware store (and later Wal-mart), yard sales, donut shop, barber shop, insurance office… I tagged along, usually bored in the presence of old men, but I learned to occupy myself, and he always got me treats, and included me in the conversation at times.

I don’t remember how old I was when Grandpa bought the mobile home on the Embarras river (It looks like “embarrass” I know, but it’s usually pronounced by the locals as “ambraw”), about fifty feet from the water, up a steep, but walkable bank. The mobile home itself, elderly and so close to the water seemed at first a small, dank place. Grandma furnished it with old stuff out of Grandpa’s auction and garage sale hauls, and tidied it up. She stocked the kitchen, made sure everyone had bedding, and made a rustic but pleasant weekend home out of it. It was a beautiful bit of property- the trailer giving a clear, tree-framed view of the water, in a widening spot of the river, just past a curve. The trees bowed out over the water, as if they were trying to talk with their relatives on the other side. The land included the thick, green woods along the bank, and a field that was planted with corn or beans every year and in the sunshine sparkled and buzzed with the force of millions of tiny lives. My father traded a car or a gun for a rough, bright blue pontoon boat made from old oil barrels, and covered with cheap Astroturf, and my extended family spent every summer day there that they could, having weenie roasts and picnics, playing in the river and exploring the land. This is where Grandpa usually took me fishing. He had taken me fishing, on occasion, since I was in preschool, but this is where it became a normal thing for us to do together.

He had an aluminum boat, propelled by oars and one of a series of various sized motors. He would take me, a tense, clumsy child, out to the workbench in the large storage building he had built there to hold furniture and cars he bought at auction, and he would set us each up with at least one pole, and make sure I had my life-vest on properly. We walked through the small strip of woods between the building and the boat, and each time he would point out something to me; deer, rabbits, broken trees, and mushrooms. He would get in the boat first, I would hand him my pole, and he would laugh at me as I unsteadily stepped into the wobbling boat. He always reached out to help me if it looked like I was going to end up in the water, which was most of the time.

I have no doubt that of all of the people he fished with (almost all men, of course), I was the worst. For years he re-wormed my hook, only to have me get my line caught on one of the invisible underwater trees that had lost their bearings to the river. Usually I was given a bamboo pole, for its simplicity, and to prevent one of us from ending up with a hook stuck in their head from my uncoordinated flailing as I cast. I remember him, more than once, cutting my line when I got it caught on something and he couldn’t get it back, telling me to “be still.” I shut up and held my pole, with my line unburdened with hook or sinker trailing in the water behind us. I heard a lot of “be still” “stop that, there” as I fidgeted and thumped around, the aluminum bottom of the boat broadcasting warning of my nervous presence to all living creatures below. I liked the bamboo poles, but I loved the sound and the feeling of casting with a rod and reel, and I would beg him each time to let me cast with his, or with the one he had let me bring. If he was in a good mood, and not really attached to the idea of catching anything that day, he would let me. Each attempt of mine, even with his coaching, was followed by him swearing as he rewound fishing line that I had tangled, or attempted to repair the reel I had bent or broken. Several times, when I wanted to fish and he was too busy, or not in the mood, he directed me to an opening in the trees by the water, near a good spot for fish hiding in the tree roots, and told me to catch some dinner. I usually just caught roots. That was also where I got to freely practice casting, and I usually only got the hook caught in my fuzzy, sun-bleached hair. There was a time or two when I endured hook-removal and Grandma made sure I was up-to-date on my tetanus shots. That was just a part of being a kid in our family.

The excitement when I did catch something (and I did sometimes catch something!) was almost hard to take, and he shared it with me, acting as if each fish was the most beautiful fish anyone had ever caught, and cleaning it for Grandma (who was also very proud of me) to cook for dinner, even if it was the only fish, and a small one. If it was too small for that, he would keep it for bait for the trot lines he had installed. He would tell me what kind it was, and show me how different the coloring looked under water than in my hand, and tell me it was a good tasting one. The one exception was the time I caught a gar. It was a frightening thing, with a long snout of lethal-looking teeth, and I often worried about swimming in the river, once I knew they lived there. That fear was not helped by Grandpa’s live demonstration of the pain a catfish can cause with the sharp barb on its top fin, when he got jabbed while removing the hook from its gaping mouth.

As I got older, I lost interest in fishing. The usual high school, then college, girl concerns took its place. Our families started to break apart. The river bottom flooded, and Grandpa lost all of the merchandise stored in the building. My uncle’s ex-wife eventually moved down there with her new mate. Every once in a while I when I visit I drive by on my way to Ashmore, and wonder at how different the spot looks. Grandpa continued to fish on his own or with a male family member or friend, in different places, and sometimes I wished I were nearby so I could go too. Last year, even in his pitiful state of health, he took my brother’s young sons fishing. It was so easy for me to imagine them. I could see them making their way through the tall grass and brush, and I could imagine Grandpa, crankier than he was when I was a child, but still with his sense of humor, alternately barking, joking with and teaching my sweet, rambunctious nephews, while showing them his love in the most real way possible.

I love you Grandpa. Give Grandma a hug for me. I will miss you both for the rest of my life.