Musings on an Island Childhood

January 14, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

My grandfather spoke to the fish in German, English, French, and Spanish. Bill Riedel would lean over the side, spat the dark juice from a wad of Beech-Nut wintergreen "snoose" over the bow and say, "Here fishy, fishy, fishy, komm her, fisch." That was near the middle. After we rounded the point at Honeymoon Lake on Whidbey Island, he'd start talking to the rainbow trout we were after in nonsense French. Once we got to the lily pads, he'd switch to German again. And it was there, in the weeds and snags, that we'd always nab one. Near the dock on the other side of the lake, he'd try out some ridiculous language he said was Spanish, but always scared the fish and gave me a good laugh.

My grandfather taught me how to set the hook, dip the net, reel 'em in, carefully, but with gusto. On shore, after grandma blew the signal to come home for breakfast on a wooden train whistle, he'd show me how to break the neck, strip the guts, and prepare the trout for frying. Grandma would dip the cleaned fish in flour, pepper, and salt, and fry it up. That crisp-fried trout, smelling of loam and leaves and sky and love, along with a good German spread of "Dutch Lunch" -- liverwurst on toast with cream cheese, and sausage -- repeated summer morning after summer morning, is forever cemented in my consciousness.

Grandpa Bill also taught me about kindness. He warned me about mean boys who would catch snakes in the tall grass at the edge of the lake, swing them like ropes and toss them into the water, or kill frogs and salamanders for fun. "Never love a boy who is mean to animals."

Grandfather's Boat

This is my late grandfather's boat. I can feel the rope in my hands when I see it, even now. The photo puts me there, on the porch of my grandparents' place next to the ferry dock, drinking coffee, talking about family and the weather. I say, simply, "Going out" and they know what I mean. I can feel my feet on the green all-weather plastic turf-covered steps, then slipping into sneakers, grabbing an orange life vest, my hands gripping the rope, twisting against it to flip the boat, dragging it between driftwood logs, and hearing the hopeful sound of wood on metal the oars make when they catch the water and strain in their rings, the feeling of floating, waving to the folks onshore, the ferry boat sounding its horn, the salted air on my face, becoming smaller and smaller as the shoreline thins and blurs, and then, such a beautiful peace. Dip and pull, dip and pull, muscle and breath the only fuel needed to power through soft swells. Whether it's biking or rowing or climbing or running, I still love that feeling. Human power. Unconditional love. Space and sky and sea. Belonging to something, to someone -- the earth and its people. Leaving and returning. Mutual understanding. Some things never change. The best things don't. Thank you, Grandpa Bill, and Grandma Marjorie. What a priceless, eternal gift.

I was lucky enough to have some poems published recently by Whidbey Writes, a new project. In March, thanks to connections found through the writing, I'm lucky enough to be the guest artist at Langley Art Gallery. I am thankful for these opportunities, but also for the remembering and reflection and appreciation for the place where I was born, that it has spawned.

This poem, published awhile back by New Hope Literary Magazine, is a take, in a sense, on my grandfather's influence, though it's fiction. 

Burial At Sea

A moody trout is a dead trout,
my grandfather would say, his lower lip stuffed
with a wad of wintergreen chew.
Mist flowed across the water as he pulled

the oars gently. I watched every move, took

in every word from my seat atop the
orange boat cushion, feet small
and squirming in the gum boots
chosen from a jumble in Grandpa’s shed.

Years later, I recalled those sepia days, all

golden alder leaf spin and reel, fisher philosopher,

cold blue sky, knit cap hug, and hot
sweet thermos tea with a bittersweet backdrop
of Bach’s cello suites, so achingly perfect, floating
them along. Thing is, a sullen fish just don’t last long,

he’d announce, then spit tar like a perturbed

grasshopper over the bow. Good for us.

Winter seeped in slowly, water beings languishing
in the bracken backwater of the lily pads. Too depressed
not to bite, too anemic to fight. Now, I knew,

it wasn’t the fish’s fault. My mother, bloated from

the bottle in faded flannel forgot my name.
My father, alone and far away, too slow to run,
lost to a sniper’s bullet. Winter does these

things, to fish and men.

A moody trout
is a dead trout is a lost soul is a wandering fool
is a sinking boat. Grandpa taught me to bait the hook,
set the rod, dip the net, break the neck, slit the belly,
peel the guts, turn the boat toward the cove and wait,
wait in the shadows, wait it out.

 

It feels good to acknowledge where I've come from, remember it, and understand it. There is peace and joy in that, and I am thankful. I can picture my young son playing on the beach near the Clinton ferry dock years ago. Bare feet on sand. Wind-salted waves. The smell of sun-warmed dock wood. He'll remember, too. It's in us. 


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