A GIFT MY FATHER LEFT BEHIND
Many stories have been written about fathers or grandfathers passing down their favorite fly rods or reels. I wish I too could write such a story, but my father never fished a day in his life. In fact, as I look around my apartment I don’t see anything of his; and yet in spite of all his shortcomings—and yes, all my resentments toward him—now, in the endless, gurgling monologue of my mind, I often see something he left behind.
I’ll tell my story this way:
I wondered if I should even look. Reluctantly, I walked down the long row of recliners. I saw it: a tan, lean one that matched my furniture. I sat in it, rocked, and felt like I sat on shaped air. I was as comforted as when I fished a beautiful trout stream. Did I deserve to be? I told myself, No. Get up. Don’t even think of spending money. But I’m so comfortable, and this chair would be so good for meditating, so good for my recovery.
I closed my eyes, and thought back to when, to escape my mother’s violent rages, I lived with my father, a man who rarely listened to me and often told me I was wrong. One day he brought home a gift from his client: a beautiful, padded, antique rocker. He put the rocker in the living room, facing the sliding glass doors, overlooking the rectangular harbor of Sheepshead Bay. I sat down and rocked in rhythm, I soon noticed, with the small, rocking boats.
On the water a long path of late-afternoon sunlight divided the harbor into almost perfect halves. The path was orange, a much brighter shade than the orange streaks in the sky. Covering the path like gravel were small, flickering stars. The stars and the boats bobbed in rhythm. On the other side of the harbor an American flag fluttered violently while a row of bare trees vibrated gently; and though I didn’t hear music, I imagined that the flag and the trees were a small orchestra playing counter- melodies.
For the next hour or so I watched the harbor as if I were watching a compelling movie, but this movie had no characters, no sequence of events, just moments that seemed to repeat themselves in an endless circle that had somehow shed any hint of monotony. But the movie, I noticed, did unfold: The water darkened into gray. Suddenly the near end of the orange path of stars disappeared, as if they sank. Then more and more of the path sank, like a big ship, and seemed to pull the orange out of the sky, and pull the anger toward my mother and the imperfect world out of me.
I put on music and watched the water and the sky slowly darken to black. As they did, the stars that seemed to sink reappeared, almost magically, in the sky. They beamed brighter and brighter.
Day after day I sat in the rocker, not knowing that my growing love of watching shimmering water would, years later, lead to my love of standing in a riffled, gurgling stream and casting a fly rod.
I came home from school and the rocker wasn’t there. Stunned, I asked my father, “Where’s the rocker?”
“I gave it to Marion.” (Marion was his girlfriend.) “She needed a chair for her living room.”
“I loved the rocker. It had become mine.”
“Everything bothers you,” he said arrogantly. “I’ll get you a new one.”
It was a lie, I knew. In spite of his past promises, he never got me anything, never even took me to a baseball game, or to a movie that I wanted to see. My feelings froze, the way they had when my mother raged and cut my beautiful baseball glove in half. And so a second winter settled inside me and lingered and told me yet again I wasn’t entitled to anything good, like the comfort and security of a loving home.
I never again mentioned the rocker and tried to wash it from my mind.
Two years later I graduated from college and moved into my own apartment. One day my father telephoned and asked me to meet him. Curious, I drove to Manhattan. My father took me to a showroom crammed with wooden rocking chairs. I was surprised.
“Pick one,” he said.
I picked a wooden, antique-looking one. I could barely, however, bring myself to thank my father.
An hour later I put the rocker in my small apartment, put on music and sat down. I was comforted - for about twenty minutes. Then the hard seat and hard back began to hurt. So during the next few years I bought cushion after cushion and two foot stools. Still the rocker was uncomfortable, but for thirty years I wouldn’t allow myself to get rid of the only gift, the only amends, my father ever gave me. Besides, deep down inside me it was still winter. I still wasn’t entitled to a comfortable rocker.
For peace and serenity, I eventually looked to fishing, and soon, almost by accident, I started writing and publishing fishing articles, but writing and working full-time chipped away my energy; so finally, I decided to save up and give myself a gift, an amends, a comfortable rocker, even though I couldn’t afford to rent space and store my old one.
I returned from a fishing trip to the Beaverkill, feeling soothed by the images and sounds of the river that I replayed in my mind, and thinking, therefore, that maybe everything was all right with the world. My sister had left a message on my answering machine. My father was very sick. Shocked, I flew to Miami and walked into his hospital room. He smiled, and greeted me as if he didn’t have advanced colon cancer. He picked up the remote control and put on the Met game.
I said, “You don’t watch baseball."
“Well, not so much anymore.”
“How was your fishing trip?” he asked.
“Fishing trips are always good.”
“Boy, I never thought you’d become an angler. We were a football family. Besides, we’re from Brooklyn.”
I laughed. “I guess I was too small for the NFL.”
“Yeah. I wish I could go back and take you to play little league baseball instead of football. A few years ago Walter told me he watched you play—”
I interrupted, “Maybe there’s a reason time, like dry flies, flows only downstream. If I had played baseball and become really good, maybe I’d still be holding on to some unfulfilled dream, still be playing ball instead of fishing. And maybe I wouldn’t be a published writer.”
Are my words really true ? Right now, should I care?
My father smiled, and in his expression I heard the words, “Thank you.”
I said, “I guess one of the beauties of fishing is that you don’t have to be big or fast or good. You don’t have to hear cheering crowds to really love it.”
“How much does a real good fly rod cost?” he asked.
“About six hundred dollars.”
“Yes. So much research and development goes into a six-hundred dollar rod. To me, they’re works of science and art.”
“Then they’re probably worth it. I never saw any sense in fishing, but right now, I’d give the world to be able to become an angler. I’m glad that you have.”
Suddenly, in my mind, I drifted upstream, into the future, and saw him sitting outside with me, listening to me. Then I heard him approving me, especially the part of me that was a writer.
My vision didn’t materialize. My father never left the hospital.
I flew home, sat in the rocker he bought for me and assumed that it would again take me awhile to feel grief over losing a parent. But then I cried. Grief had found me as if it knew exactly where to look. Because I didn’t have a family of my own, I felt like an orphan, an orphan trying to hold on to the few precious possessions of his past, like the rocker.
Three months later my grief changed into a feeling that came and went. One evening I turned on my tv and watched the Mets and dreamed, for a few moments at least, that I was on the team; then I looked downstream in the river of my life. I saw myself when I was twelve. I was in a sporting goods store with my father. I looked at rows and rows of baseball gloves. I picked one on the middle row that cost twenty-seven dollars, the amount I had saved by working for my father as a laborer in his small construction company. Then, on the top row I saw a more expensive glove, a Wilson. I put it on. The soft leather molded to my hand. The glove felt like a part of me. My expression must’ve shown love because my father told me that sometimes it pays to get what you really want. He reached into his pocket and gave me some money. During the next few years I often oiled and even slept with my cherished love. But after my mother cut it in half, I forgot my father’s words and, for decades, didn’t buy anything good, until I sold my first fly-fishing memoir and, reluctantly, bought a top-of-the-line fly rod.
Still, I didn’t feel I deserved it, so I fished most of the long trout season without believing the beautiful rod was really mine.
I opened my eyes, and my mind as well as my body was back in the department store. I looked at the recliner’s price tag: three hundred dollars, on sale. In my mind I saw the antique rocker, then my beautiful Wilson baseball glove. Yes, in my father’s eyes I was entitled to have the glove, and other good things. Yes, my father gave me something more important than a rocker or a fly rod. He gave me a glimmer of self-worth: a start of a way to soothe all the pain inside me.
I stood up, walked to the salesman and said, “I’ll take the chair.” A few minutes later I walked out of the store, and thought of how my father never gave me things I wanted. Suddenly I wished we had fished together, and in my mind I looked upstream at the river of life in front of me. I said, “Dad, thanks for the gift you did give me.”
My historical novel, The Fly Caster Who Tried to Make Peace With the World, is available on Amazon