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A Fisherman's Lesson
By robin m. buehler
Monday, May 23, 2005
Rated "G" by the Author.
The Fisherman's Lesson
Grandpa lived in a fishing town near the Michigan coast. He lived on a hill that overlooked Lake Huron. A home he'd built for Grammy. She wanted to watch the ships return each night with their cargoes of cod, carp and trout. Only then, upon the ships' return, would she know Grandpa was safe.
"The turbulent waves are no place for a man like you," she would tell him the moment he came through the door. "You're too old to be working like this."
"Bah!" Gramps replied with a wave of his hand. He'd sit down across from her with his feet propped up against the ottoman. "You're only thinking of yourself, woman! You want to keep me all to yourself but..." he'd say, leaning forward toward her and raising a finger at her. "I'll tell ya. I put half of those men to shame. They don't have the stamina...No! They don't even have an ounce. You hear me? An ounce of knowledge that I possess. Or half the work ethic, for that matter. They just think it's all for kicks. They need to know, woman. They need to learn..."
"But when will you learn?" she'd ask, scolding him. "Going out in those seas is a young man's profession, Jeb. Do you even realize how dangerous it's become? Do you really want to wind up like the Edmund Fitzgerald?"
His eyes widened, red-hot embers surged behind a sea of emerald green. The mere mention was as troubling as the day the Fitzgerald sunk for Grandpa. Even though the men lost that fateful day were not fisherman --- the Fitzgerald carried ore --- that did not matter to Grandpa. To him, they were still seamen, and that meant they were family. "Woman! I can't believe you'd stoop so low..."
That's the way it went; for over fifty years of marriage, she'd sit and wait in the copula with a shawl wrapped around her. Upon his return, they'd argue. They would then kiss and make up; never once in those 50 years of marriage did they turn in for the night angry with one another until, that one fretful day, when one of them didn't come home...
"Let this be a lesson to you."
"How do you mean," I asked, looking up from the box of yesterday's memorabilia. Dad stooped over a pile of old books and photo albums in the far end of Grandpa and Grammy's attic.
"Not everything is as it seems." My eyes narrowed. 'Not everything is as it seems?' I didn't quite understand, and said so. "You will, son. In time, you will."
"When?" I asked, looking back down at an old catcher's mitt I pulled from the box of dust-covered memories...their memories. The sight of the glove tugged at my heart; it also served as a sad but bitter reminder of what wasn't to be. The summer was half over and, in a matter of weeks, I'd be starting back at school. I dreaded the thought, wishing it would remain summer for eternity. Days of endless playing and no cares. And, definitely, no sorrow.
"There is always next season," Dad said, reeling me back to the present. He stood, placing old photo albums into a crate for storage.
"It just won't be the same."
Many of the older boys would be moving on; of an age to play high school sports next spring. I missed playing with them one last time. No last hurrahs. No chance of saying good-bye.
"No one knew how sick she was," Dad said, again bursting my thoughts. "Granddad didn't even know. She never said."
"What does that have to do with me?" Which I knew was a lie. It had everything to do with me.
I spent every summer with them since I was little. As soon as baseball was over, Dad packed me and sent me on my way, on the next ferry over Lake Huron. Gramps did the same when the summer ended, and I had to return to school.
This year, it all changed when Dad got the call. "Don't worry." He said. "We'll be on the next ferry over."
"Go on." Dad said, nodding toward the door. "Take a break, son. I can take it from here for awhile. But don't wander off too far. It's getting dark."
Tossing the mitt back into the box, I walked out of the attic, pausing only for a moment at the door. Dad, with a smile on his face, waved me on before returning to the box.
Photographs of every size and shape lined the long hallway that lead to the stairs. There were pictures of Grandpa and Grammy in their youth; the day they were married and ones of Grandpa and his crew onboard the Emerald Queen. These were followed by ones of my father and his siblings, cousins and me in my T-ball uniform when I was five.
It felt more like a museum than a home that had once been alive with laughter and activity. No sound penetrated the walls, just the sound of my footsteps on the stairs and the fading sound of whistling from the attic. "Danny Boy." I should have known.
Grandpa stood by the shoreline with his back facing the house. Gulls flew overhead, cawing as if calling him by name. He always had that knack. Maybe it was all of those years working on the fishing boats; he still reeked of fish.
"Hmmpf." He turned, hearing footsteps on the dock's worn planks. He smiled faintly; that was his way. "I knew you'd come. Eventually. You always do.
"Come." He gestured toward a pair of old, equally worn, deck chairs along the lake's edge, separated by a cast iron table covered in rust and sea moss. Only a handful of paint splatters - sea foam green- still shown through. A pitcher of chilled tea placed on a serving tray waited to be drunk. "Sit. On second thought, take off those tennis shoes first. I wouldn't want your dad's pants rolled up in a pinch over some wet shoes."
For an eternity, neither one of us spoke. We just sat, staring out across the water. The night sky sparkled under a starlit cover.
"I'm sorry. I know that may not be what you wanted to hear right now, but I am," he said. "I can tell, from your pouting lip. You don't want to be here, and I'm sorry. I truly am...for ruining your plans, son. I know Grammy's timing has thrown you a curve ball."
The weight of the words hung heavily on the air like the mist coming off Lake Huron. I should have been the one apologizing. The words just wouldn't come.
"Is this how it's going to be, then?" He asked, his eyes cast my way. I felt their cold, hard stare. "I see," he said when I didn't reply.
Reaching for the pitcher, Grandpa poured tea in both glasses. He handed me one. "Your Grammy made the best raspberry tea. Nothing but the best ingredients. The raspberries came from that patch over by the house. She planted them right after we moved in. Nothing else grew, but them. Must have been something about the soil, or your Grammy's green thumb. She always had a knack for that sort of thing...I'm going to miss her. She's a good woman, your Grammy."
Pausing only for a moment, to take a sip of sweet tea, Grandpa continued with another quick glance my way. "You know. I was your age once. I know that doesn't seem possible, but it's true . A hundred years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Did they
ever teach you anything about that in that fancy school your dad has enrolled you in?"
I nodded. "Along with Darwin's Evolution Theory."
"Darwin, you say?" He grunted, then laughed. With bated breath, I half expected to hear an earful over that disclosure. The teacher surely had from the other parents. Yet, Grandpa held his tongue. "I must say. That school of yours is teaching you something the public schools your cousins go to don't. That takes guts. But that doesn't mean you have to believe everything they teach you, you hear? Just have an open mind, Danny. Learn to think for yourself. Kids your age, like they had in my day, had closed. They thought they knew everything. They had no interest in learning from someone who knew. Someone who wanted to share his wealth of knowledge. Showed them the world. Hmmpf! Simpletons.
"The point is, son, is this," he said, after taking another sip of tea. "Life isn't always what it seems. There's more to it than that. More than baseball. Even more than fishing. Do you understand?"
I didn't; yet, I still said, "Dad said the same thing up in the attic. He said, 'things aren't always what they seem.'"
"He's a smart man. Your dad." He reached over, patting me on the arm. "More than I ever gave him credit for. He's taught you well, son.
"Go on. Finish that tea. Then, go back up to the house and get a good night's sleep, Danny. Everything's going to be clearer in the morning. You'll see."
I lingered behind, watching Grandpa as he stammered up the path toward the house. Sighing, I, too, rose and went back to the house...for bed.
Morning's first rays drifted softly through the window, awakening me too soon. Hoping to delay waking up and having to get up, I pulled the covers over my head, mimicking one of Grandpa's 'hmmpf's.' The sound of it echoed in my ears and right down into my heart, tearing it in two.
Rising from the bed, I shuffled down to the kitchen where Dad was already sitting at the table, drinking coffee and reading the morning paper. He looked up the moment I entered, looking disheveled and worn. He looked as though he hadn't slept all night.
"I'm glad you're up," he said. No 'good morning's; how did you sleep?' Instead, he added, "We need to talk."
"What is it, Dad?" I asked, taking the seat next to him.
"It's Gramps. He's gone."
"Gone? Gone where?"
Dad shifted in his chair, lowering his eyes, trying to find the words I suddenly heard without hearing them. Grandpa was gone.
"When?" I asked.
"Last night. It must have happened when we were still up in the attic. The call came in right after you left." And it was then that his words suddenly make sense. 'Life wasn't always what it seemed...everything's going to look clearer in the morning.'
"Danny! Where you're going?" Dad asked the moment I jumped out of the chair and darted back up the stairs, toward the copula. I only stopped long enough at the edge of the stairs to utter back, "I love you, Dad," before racing up the stairs.
Reaching the copula just as the first fishing boats were pulling out from the harbor, I looked out, imagining Gramps on one of them. I smiled, knowing he had finally come home for good. "Goodbye, Gramps. Goodbye."