Saturday, October 10, 2009

for my stepfather: gone fishin'

I'm in Craig, Colorado right now trying to find a way to say good-bye to a man I've loved for 41 years. How does one do that? I don't yet know. But here's a glimpse into why he means so much to me.

Apparently, all Oklahomans fish. It's not an optional activity. Even new, gangly-legged transplants are expected to pole-up and do their part. Shortly after our move from my home state to his, my new stepfather decided the seven-year old me needed an introduction. So he took our family to his favorite cabin up in the hills near a river guaranteed to yield fish. I wasn't a big fan of fish, unless it came battered, greasy, and sitting next to equally bad-for-you fries in a little paper bowl, but he didn't need to know that. I already loved my new father and wanted him to smile. And I fell in love with his favorite cabin with very little effort. Hidden in a grove of tall pine trees and surrounded by a carpet of pungent needles from those trees, that spot of the world seemed made for remembering. And indeed, forty-one years and two thousand miles later, I can still smell those pine needles.

At a hideous hour the second morning of our vacation, Daddy Roy roused me from my cot and nodded toward the door of our cabin. Still woozy from sleep, I pulled on my sweatshirt and jeans and crept across the creaky, uncarpeted floor to join him in the doorway.

"Here's your breakfast," he whispered, handing me an uncut peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I couldn't recall ever before having peanut butter and jelly for breakfast. I suddenly loved him more.

With the balance of a child, I juggled my sandwich, pole, and kid-sized box of hooks and feathery wonders while poking my feet in my rubber boots. Clomping as quietly as I could across the porch boards and down the front steps, I joined him on the piney road, and we set off.

Our walk was short. After rounding a few bends in the road and traversing a slight hillside, we landed on a flat, grassy beach and unloaded our gear.

Daddy Roy pulled a white, lidded carton out of his fishing box, then peeled the top off. With my peanut butter sandwich gone, I wondered if he might be about to top off my perfect breakfast with a handful of milk duds, or chocolate-covered raisins, or some other carton-worthy delight ... but no. Instead, he pulled out a fat worm, the sight of which sent my appetite skedaddling.

"I'll bait the first hook for you, and then you can do your own. So watch carefully."

My prayer life was birthed then and there. Oh, God ... help me to not throw up breakfast.

I wanted to obey--I really did--but at the last second, just as the tip of his hook was about to pierce the side of that wiggling worm, I closed my eyes. There's not an hour of the day when I've been awake long enough to watch that sort of violence.

"See that?" he asked.

Nodding seemed less like fibbing than an outright answer, so I nodded.

I took my pole back and held it out as though it had hooked a bomb and not a worm. The last thing I wanted in life was for that worm to somehow swing his fat body toward me and graze my arm.

I plopped him in the water. What he did below surface, I don't know. About every thirteen seconds, I checked on him. That may have accounted for the fact that I went the whole morning without so much as a single fish nibble.

"Shanny, you've got to leave it in the water a bit longer," my patient stepfather instructed. So I began leaving him in for fifteen seconds--but the added time did little to improve my results.

Midway through the experience, it occurred to me that I didn't really want a fish to bite my hook, because if that happened, I'd have to re-bait the thing. And that meant actually touching the worm. I wasn't a squirmish child, but I wasn't yet a tomboy. It would be another several months before I'd begin catching crawdads in the ditch with the neighbor kids and squishing lightning bugs on the palm of my hand to make myself glow. (To be honest, that happened only once. Or twice.) But on this morning, my bug interactions had been limited to sitting on a bee and accidentally filling my mouth with pincher bugs when I put my mouth over the outside faucet to get a drink of water.

From that point of realization on, I worried I might catch a fish. And the worrying paid off, because I didn't.

"We'll try again after lunch," Daddy Roy said.

I pulled my hook out of the water, saw the still-snagged worm, and breathed a sigh of relief. I was already set for that after-lunch go-round.

"Don't you think you'll want a fresh worm on that hook later?" he asked.

"Nope," I answered. "I like this one."

We collected our gear, climbed the hill, and set off walking toward the cabin. Halfway back, overcome by fatigue and relief, I closed my eyes and yawned ferociously--the kind of yawn that bends small trees and alters wind patterns. And just as I was getting ready to close my mouth again, at the tail end of that yawn, I opened my eyes in time to watch that hooked worm drift back out of my mouth. I'd had my pole slung over my shoulder, and apparently, the hook had swung out in front of me and then straight toward my face--and into my mouth. Had I timed that yawn for just a split second earlier, I would have garnered the catch of the day ... myself.

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I still think about that cabin in the woods now and then. I remember the scent of those pines, and the feel of the spongey, leaf-strewn path beneath my boots. I can still see the sunlight filtering through the pines and casting dappled spots of brightness on the path before me. But the memory that means the most is this: that a man who owed me nothing, offered me all he had.

Consider this an ode to stepfathers everywhere–to you who love us not by chance or whim or duty, but by choice. You likely have no idea of the difference you’ve made to us, or the gift that you are. But we know. And we’ll never forget.