Local View: A day on the water teaches a key lesson on fatherhood
I never saw much advantage in being a father. My old man had to work every day, even in summer. And of his measly two weeks of vacation, he spent a good deal yelling at me and my five brothers to clean our rooms and stop teasing our two sisters. ...
I never saw much advantage in being a father.
My old man had to work every day, even in summer. And of his measly two weeks of vacation, he spent a good deal yelling at me and my five brothers to clean our rooms and stop teasing our two sisters.
Granted, he was free to smoke Salems and drink as much Pabst as he wanted. And driving his Pontiac was the coolest thing a kid could imagine. But theoretically, he could have done all that without the eight kids who seemed to cause him nothing but grief, fatigue and poverty.
Becoming a father myself did not change my opinion. Here I was, 31 years old and with two kids on a hot and sticky day in June, shaking my head at how I must have inherited my father’s lousy luck. Our window air conditioner was making a lot of noise, blowing nothing but warm air. I could not find work that summer to supplement my $11,000 schoolteacher salary. And our baby daughter had an appointment the following week with a pediatric surgeon for a neck operation.
“Why don’t you go fishing,” my wife, Marianne, said.
Her own nerves seemed to be wearing thin, and it did not feel like a good time to leave.
“Take Mike with you,” she suggested, referring to our 5-year-old son. “He’ll like that.”
She didn’t exactly have to twist my arm, so that soon I was lifting and sliding the Jon boat onto the roof rack of our Chevy. Mike packed peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and a can of fruit cocktail while I loaded the fishing gear and the ancient 5-hp Johnson outboard into the trunk.
“Where’s your hat, Mike?”
He ran to his bedroom and returned wearing his red baseball cap pulled low over the black frames of his eyeglasses.
By 3 p.m., we were driving down the interstate, headed for the boat launch on a stretch of river bordered mostly by woods and abandoned shacks and few occupied homes. The water was stained and deep and hard to fish, so we had it pretty much to ourselves. We motored upriver several miles, killed the engine, then drifted slowly back, casting the banks, using the oars to keep us in the middle. The birds, the steady current, the intermittent breeze: It clears your head. And it made me a captive audience to my son’s nonstop questions.
“Dad, did I have surgery when I was little?”
“If Jackie goes to the hospital, will we get another baby?”
I explained to him that though Jackie was only 3, she was destined to grow up to be Wonder Woman, for whom death is an impossibility.
“When she’s a grown-up, can I have my toy box back?”
I caught a smallmouth bass on a spinner bait on the edge of a seawall. Mike’s casts landed in branches several times, requiring furious rowing against the current to extract his lure.
It was growing dark, and we had another mile before arriving back at the launch. The river flowed silently. There was much dimpling on the surface, though I could not feel any rain. And then I perceived the reason: insects hatching on the river bottom and taking to flight. Thankfully, they were not mosquitoes. Nevertheless, thousands were soon swarming around the boat and about our faces and filling the space between us and the river bank.
I’d been on countless streams and lakes, ever since my own father took me 25 years earlier. So I had seen mayflies helicoptering over the water. But never anything like this: In minutes, we were drifting through a veritable blizzard, a perfect storm of light, temperature and biology that had suddenly triggered the birth of an entire generation of the white-winged insects.
Assuring Mike that they did not bite, I told him they only wished to rest a bit on his shoulder or on his hat, before resuming their lives, which, I read later, lasted a mere half hour. In twilight, Mike was glowing with snowy phosphorescence. He raised one arm to show me his sleeve covered as if with pillow feathers. I laid down my rod and sat in the stern seat. Keeping still, we became completely cloaked in mayflies, my son resembling a snowman with glasses.
His eyes were wide behind the lenses, his smile on the verge of laughter at nature’s antics. Surprising for him was his silence. It’s as though we both knew words were superfluous when witnessing the same phenomenon. Both of us cherishing a miracle that would cease in 30 minutes.
That was when I finally felt the importance of fatherhood. Understood the responsibility of being there, making sure father and son are in the same boat, so to speak, when life’s wonders, mysteries and challenges first unfold.
“Listen, Mike: Jackie will be fine,” I said. “It’s just like when she was overnight at Grandma’s. After two days, she’ll be home.” (It actually took three days.)
Sometimes, like that night on the river, we shared joy; other times, pain.
Since childhood disappears almost as quickly as the mayfly, it’s those precious moments of sharing that make all the difference and that make being a father the most crucial job in the world.
David McGrath of Hayward is an emeritus English professor for the College of DuPage in Illinois and the author of “The Territory.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .