License to Fish

family homestead story

“You were never a good fisherman Tim.” When he was older he said it without cruelty, just as a simple truth … a somewhat lamentable, occasionally bewildering truth he’d already caught on his line and laid to rest. I knew as a teenager I was better than many (perhaps most) he’d fished with, but that was not enough to earn the phrase “good fisherman.” To my knowledge that title was only passed on to one member of our family, his grandson (my nephew) Jack.

When we were out on a lake, Dad thought of me less as a son he’d taken fishing and more like a somewhat lame first-mate. He needed me to get the boat on and off the trailer, so I would do, but just barely so. He was kind to me, but within the understanding that, as far as fishing went I was a bit limited. It wasn’t that I couldn’t bait a hook, or make a decent guess about depth and place to drop the lines. I just never took to it the way a good fisherman does. I was there to be with Dad, to celebrate victories, but not really to catch fish.

Jack has the fishing bug bad, anyone can see that. If you counted up the hours he spent in his teenage years with a fishing rod in his hand, and compared it to hours most kids hold onto a cell phone or video game controllers, they’d probably come out about the same. Quite an accomplishment for a young man growing up in Culver City LA. Thats Jack, a fisherman like his Grandad.

Dads Fishing License – yes that does say 1978

Yesterday my seven year old son Tadg finally managed to drag all of us out to Kirby Park to fish for a few hours. We’d grabbed my Dad’s old tackle box from the house in Utah when we finally moved my Mom out, that and a couple of Dads rods and reels. They were still in good condition, though he hadn’t fished in Utah for many years.

I figured Tadg could cast his line out, catch nothing, have some fun and come home. The line on Tadgs rod was too thin to land most things swimming up the incoming tide on the Elkhorn Sough, we barely had any bait to speak of.

“Thats why they call it fishing and not catching.” A couple of locals were already there when we arrived. They took Tadg under their wing and tried to help him at least hook some of the anchovies pestering the dock. They were of course immediately aware of my limitations as a fisherman. Good for launching a boat, baiting a hook. The rest, we’ll just see now won’t we.

Digging around in the treasure-chest-of-a-tackle-box I found an old fishing license of Dads from 1978. Truly ancient history. NINETEEN-SEVENTY-EIGHT. It felt like a gift, and a reminder from Dad. I could see him leveling his gaze at me, bringing up all the gravitas of a King knighting his last hope for a serious champion: “you now have a license to fish Timothy, please use it.”

My translation: You now have a son who wishes to fish. Please oblige him, its part of who we are. No more bullshit fishing ventures for Tadg. Good bait next time, heavier line, and maybe a license for you as well.

There was a cold day, many years ago, when Jack, my Dad and I were all sitting by that same dock in Kirby Park, Tadg was too young to fish. Jack had the fishing rod, Dad and I were leaning into the wind, enjoying suffering a little for fishing even if we weren’t holding rods. A guy walked by, smiled at us and said, “three generations of fishermen?” “Yep” Dad answered. “Pretty cool,” he said. Yeah, I guess so, pretty cool.

Its not that you’re a good fisherman Timothy, but you may have landed one in your son Tadg.

It doesn’t matter if I’m a good fisherman, it matters that Tadg has the chance to discover if he is a good fisherman. Tadg was completely undaunted by the fact of catching nothing. Undaunted by the drunkard fisherman from Chicago who must have started in on the hard stuff by 10am, regaling Tadg with stories that made no sense to anyone anywhere, ever. Undaunted by his baby sister tangling up his line and stealing his bait. Undaunted by hunger wind and cold. Two hours turned into three before we finally coaxed him into the car. All he could talk about was going fishing for a full day, with real bait and decent gear. Another fisherman in the family.

Dad was always offended by the idea of closure. “What the hell does ‘closure’ mean Timothy? There’s no closure.” He eyed my response carefully, hoping I hadn’t bought into this ridiculous idea. I’ve been working on a big pool of grief and sorrow in my chest. I don’t know if its about my Dads death, or the many other deaths I’ve been connected to in my life. But its there, in its fullness, its weight. No closure there.

Grief hunts us, pulls us all to the ground, plants our feet deeply in the soil – reminding each particle of us that death, as much as life, is where we all come from.

I agree with Dad, there is no closure when it comes to grief. It just moves into you, stays there until you sink into it. Then maybe it can change a little, but it will never let you run away. I think you’ve settled into your grief when you can laugh deeply from within it. Not at it, not outside it, but within the grief. Like settling down into a giant pile of wet leaves. The smells assaulting you, the leaves sliding down your pants, into your underwear, scratching. Its all there, maybe some worms. But you can laugh. Thats great isn’t it?

I’m not laughing yet but thinking of the fishing Tadg and my Dad could have done makes me cry, and thats a start. Dad was big on responsibility, a fishing license is of course not just a right granted to you, but a responsibility. You have a license, use it well for your son and daughter, for the land you love. For all of it.

Nows the part in this piece when I’m supposed to say something sweet and emotional to close things. I think in honor of Dad I won’t, but I would like to leave you with one of my favorite images of Dad burned forever in my head. I’m a very young boy, not yet in school, thats why Dad and I are out alone on the side of this beautiful mountain stream in the foothills of Utah. After coming over to set my line Dad wades a bit into the stream and stands still. He doesn’t move for what seems like an hour, the only evidence that he has any life in him is the smoke curling out of his pipe.

There he is, motionless, at peace.

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