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July 08, 2011

Ian and the Blue Gill

by Barbara O'Neal

Three women, ranging in age from senior to ancient, are settled in a half circle at the end of the dock.  The chairs have been dragged down to the pond from the main house, metal lawn chairs with green and white woven seats.  My young son and I sit on the wooden slats of the dock.  A little while ago, there were some bigger boys, young teenagers in baggy shorts and skinny chests, daring each other to swim in the murky water with snapping turtles and water snakes, but they’re gone now.

The old women wear cotton skirts and sensible shoes and soft cotton hats to protect their good complexions. Gnarled fingers fix bait. Fishing lines trail lazily in the water of the small pond.  The air 2143129809_1ffac3b16c
is thick and still, so hot I find it hard to breathe, and my son’s pale cheeks are flushed.  We are Colorado natives, and this is the countryside of the border between Missouri and Illinois. 

I’d rather be almost anywhere else.

I hate fishing. I hate humidity.  I hate the heat.  Before we arrived, I’d been excited about this gathering with my husband’s family, but the reality is daunting. It’s hard to understand some of their deep south accents, and I don’t understand references to times and people I don’t know. And maybe they’re not patronizing me, the much-younger, blond wife of an older African-American man, but all the usual in-law negotiations seem particularly exaggerated.

I’m shy.  Young—not yet thirty--and bookish, melting in this heat they all take for granted.  I don’t even know where I fit in the world I came from, much less this one, and the effort of it all is making me weepy and irritable. Ian, sitting beside me on the dock, is like me, studious and thoughtful, while his younger brother is running like a wild hellion through the orchards with his cousins, a Williams through and through, the spitting image of his grandmother, sitting here on the dock in the dappled shade of midafternoon. 

Ian and I share a more pensive nature, and we have escaped to the dock so Ian can fish with his Grandmother Lurelean, who is one of the kindest humans I have ever known and will influence my life more than I can even begin to imagine that day, on the dock.

Even in all my bristling insecurity, I know for sure that my mother-in-law loves me  and my boys.   
She sees through to the truth of things—that this marriage, for all the differences in age and culture, is a genuine love match, and she is overjoyed that her son, who wandered and wandered, is settled at last, a good husband, a kind and devoted father. 

In the oppressive, inescapable heat, I’m feeling slightly ill, and wary of complaining, since it doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone else.  Not even Ian with his earnest expression and his own fishing line, baited for him by his grandmother, who is sitting with one of her sisters and their mother, Mama Mag, who is past ninety, and wearing glasses so thick her eyes look cartoony. Mama Mag, it must be said, has no patience left in her for small children—she’s raised or helped raise too many of them.  Fishing is her passion, and she isn’t thrilled to have children on the dock. Ian promised to be quiet, and she grudgingly let him stay.

Honestly, I have no idea where he got the idea that he wanted to fish in the first place. I can’t even imagine that he’s ever heard anyone talking about it.  We live in the city and none of my family go fishing. We rarely go to the mountains or even to the reservoir, where he might have seen others doing it.  

51329992_45c09b4e0e_z But there he sits with the old women, his fishing line in the water.  He’s five.  Surprisingly pretty, with a plump mouth and vivid, changeable eyes and tumbles of  hair which tend to be too long because I’m forgetful and don’t get it cut as often as I should.  His hands, which will one day be long and graceful and very beautiful, are still a little plump.  The women murmer to one another now and then, commenting on his stillness, but I could tell them his tenaciousness is already legendary. They’ve caught some blue gills, which are kept alive in a cooler.

Suddenly, the thick dull silence is punctured by splashes.  Exclamations. Ian has hooked a fish! His grandmother leaps to her feet to help him reel it in, and there it is, thrashing and splashing against the line, a slippery, glistening blue gill.  It shines in the sun, and they land it together, and put it in its own cooler of water. It stares wildly up at us, and Ian squats down to admire it, beaming at the praise of the old women.  Even the ancient one warms the slightest bit.

 And that’s that. He declines the offer of another baited hook. He isn’t interested in fishing anymore, though he sits quietly and happily with his grandmother.  His dad comes down to the dock and Ian shows off his catch, and everyone fusses once again.

As the day wanes, the children are cranky, and it’s time to drive back to St. Louis. Ian is anxious about his fish.  “How will we get him home?” he asks.  “What will we feed him?”

One of the men now on the dock laughs heartily. “Son, you’ll eat him, not the other way around.”

“What?” His eyes fill with tears.  “I don’t want to eat him!”

Everyone chuckles this away at first, thinking he’s just encountering the reality of eating what you’ve killed.  They think he’ll change his mind once he takes a bite of that sweet flesh.

But his grandmother is looking at him in her careful way.  She puts her hand on his back. “What do you want to do with him, baby?”

Ian says, “I want to take him home.”

It dawns on me, finally, where he got the idea of fishing.  Every year at the local State Fair, there is a display by the Fish and Wildlife Organization, a giant freshwater aquarium filled with big river trout swimming in greenish water for all to see.  Ian loves it, the coppery, flashing fish, their long feathery tails. 

There in the cooler is a shimmery blue fish with ruffling fins. “You wanted a pet,” I say. “You thought you would get to keep him?”

Ian, blinking hard, nods. 

Arranged around us are the old women, who love to catch fish and eat them.  And men who’ve fed their families on the fish they caught, the animals they hunted.  They are not happy with boys who cry, and for good reason.  In their old world, it served them to make men tough and stoic. 

But there is Lurelean, who gently shakes her head at the old man.  “He’s as tender-hearted as his daddy,” she says, and that daddy steps up.

“We can’t take him home, son,” he says. “But we can let him go.”

 Someone protests. “That’s a good supper there!”

 “Leave the boy alone,” Lurelean says, enfolding her gnarled hand around Ian’s.  His daddy carries the cooler, and together, the three of them tip the fish into the water, where it dives into the depths and swims away, traumatized but free to live another day. 

Finally, we are driving back to St. Louis in the twilight.  The children are exhausted, and I sit in the back seat with them, one on either side.  Lurelean sits in the front seat with her own boy, who used to take two buses on a Saturday afternoon to go to shop for her hearing aid battery.  A boy maybe a bit too sensitive for his environment, who grew up and became a man who could help a boy tip a living fish back in the water.  They’re talking quietly, peacefully, and I am enfolded in the tenderness and coolness.

We’re passing little towns and bushes and wide fields of grass. Where, suddenly I see stars in the grass. “Stop the car!” I cry “What is that?

My husband pulls over. “What is it?”

“Are those fireflies?”

Lurelean laughs gently. “Isn’t that a wonder. Child, you’ve never seen fireflies?

1327493432_511128ee1c_z The boys and I stare astonished wonder, shaking our heads.  They don’t live in Colorado.  My
husband puts his arm around his mother, touches the back of his sons, touches my head.   We stand at the edge of the road, watching light dance in the twilight, humidity enveloping us like arms, the quiet of evening like acceptance, sparks of belonging dancing in the grass. 

And I think of the blue gill, back there in the night-dark pond, swimming free.


(As I remembered this, it was no surprise to me that my child is now a vegan.)

 Have you ever experienced being the outsider somewhere? What do others take for granted that you find astonishing? 








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Barbara, this is a beautiful blog.
I feel so happy that your son was able to express his feelings and that he was supported by you and your immediate family members.
Sometimes family gatherings are places where people cannot relate and going home to a peaceful and loving existence provides the warmth to get through life.
As an adult I have tried to create an atmosphere for my kids to be themselves and enjoy the events of everyday happiness and achievements.
I hope that I can convey this to everyone I encounter. It is a profound wish that I do so.

What a terrific story, Barbara. You made my day!

Jeez, Barbara - I'm blubbering over my breakfast coffee. What an amazing and touching story.

I often felt out of place in my own family. My parents had nine kids - the first 8 in ten years, and me six years later. When I was little, I even convinced myself I was adopted, because I could sense that everyone else was distant from me. It took until I became an adult, and learned I didn't have to please everybody all the time, to feel like I was really a part of the family.

I've lived around fireflies all my life, but I still stand and watch them. I was amazed and sad when I learned that there are places with no fireflies, and people who have never seen them.

I hate fishing! I dislike eating fish! Now I realize where those feelings come from! Ye gad, I've had a personal epiphany today. I never liked the process of baiting hooks and the gruesome hooking a fish through its mouth and hauling it into the boat and watching it gasp and die. Good heavens, no wonder I don't eat fish even today.

Barbara, you're a delight.

You write so beautifully Barbara! I am a HUGE fan of all your books!

Always an outsider, no matter the crowd size. But this beautifully evocative piece somehow gives me permission to slow down on this hectic day and let my mind wander to my own time of wonder, somewhere, if I can just remember...

Oh, I am...so silent. Thank you.

You have to love that boy to distraction, Barbara. What a lovely story.

I have always felt a half step off, mostly because I've spent most of my life with my nose in a book.

I love this blog so much, Barbara. Thank you.

I am envious of all of you who enjoy fireflies regularly. They are SO beautiful!

Definitely love that boy to distraction. His brother, too, even if I had to send him a text yesterday that said, are you alive?

What a wonderful post today. It hit so many places for me. Kowning several multi-racial couples who have not had the love from their in-laws that you do. My Great Aunt who would be at the county park each week for free senior fishing. My wonderful sensitive children. Seeing the fascination in someones eyes when they see fireflies for the first time. Being taught by a very frightened three year old that Los Angeles does not have thunderstorms, but Missouri does.

I have almost always been the outsider. The public school Jewish kid at a Jesuit college; the observant Jewish man at an all girl Catholic school; The Windows expert in an all Mac school district. Take your pick.

This reminded me so much of cane pole fishing with my grandfather in the back yard. He taught us how to put bread balls in the hook and how to hold a fish so the fins wouldn't stick you and let him off to catch another day.
The little fish we fed to the yard cats. Imagine cat sushi! The cats always came around when they saw the poles. The cranes too. They'd walk right up to you and almost sit in your lap for their lunch.
He trained the ducks to stay away when they saw the poles. Sometimes we'd just put the poles out and tap on the sea wall to feed the turtles who came in when they heard the noise underwater.
Almost all the fish in our lake were brim. People fishing along the canal and river ate them. We always marveled at the colors of their scales but we never ate them. They were too beautiful!
We collected fireflies in jelly jars with holes in the lids to see who could catch the most. Simple entertainment for kids back in the day. At the end it was like fairies dancing when we released them.
Thanks for sharing this with us Barbara!

Our California nieces, who visited every summer, loved two things our kids took for granted--fireflies and fireworks. Since they usually came to Cincinnati this time of year, it was a big treat to see both, sometimes in the same night.

Alan, I thought my experiences as the only woman in the insurance office were bad, or the only Gentile in the retail business!

What a beautiful blog! I live with fireflies. I would gladly trade them to live in Colorado, away from summer heat and humidity!

When I moved to West Virginia, I slowly discovered what it was like to live in the same place, along with an extended family, for 5 generations or more. This came to me most vividly one day when I had to bring my daughter to work because she was too ill to go to school and day care and I, a single Mom at the time, had no babysitter. My department chair looked at her, looked at me, and asked, matter-of-factly, "Why didn't your mother come take care of her?" I gaped at her in astonishment; my mother lived 3000 miles away!

Now I live in a Navy town, where everyone seems to talk in acronyms and shares a common shorthand for everything from grocery shopping (at the NEX) to doctor's visits. Even my daughter has absorbed it, and seems to speak a different language now that she's married to a sailor. Strange . . .

Alan, that explains why you are so wise.

Kerry, that's so funny on the family! I grew up in a military town, then moved to a city where it was generations together like WVA. It changes everything!

My Granny loved to fish and she and Grandpa lived on a farm with many fishing ponds. I learned at a very early age that if I threw enough rocks, I wouldn't be asked to go fishing again any time soon!

As an adult, married to an outdoorsman, I learned that the back deck of a bass boat is a great place to soak up sun and while away the hours with a stack of books - just don't perch on the the door to the fish well.

My daughters both love to fish. But, they don't clean their own catch.

Thanks for sharing your story.

Thinking about firworks, lightning bugs aka fireflies, and skipping rocks on the pond. Summertime!

Al, I admire your sense of self (and wish you had been nearby when I had to learn the PC after years of only Apples).
My only fishing experience was at a lodge in northern Minnesota, a reward for insurance sales at Prudential (first woman agent in the office). I felt too sorry for the little fish, let go with injuries from the sharp hook, and spent the rest of the weekend reading in the wonderful old lodge.
A vegetarian acquaintance once said, after I had remarked that another friend was very good about not making others feel bad about not not being vegetarian, that she should make people feel bad and that I shouldn't eat meat unless I was willing to kill it myself.
Later, I pointed out to her that I wasn't all that willing to harvest my own wheat either, and now I have a wonderful CSA share, and Jessica of Terripin Farms harvest all sorts of lovely veggies for me!
I think, though, that since the tree frog spent the winter with me, I may not be willing to eat frog legs . . . personal choice, not to deter others . . .

I am going to go out now and buy every single one of you books. That's the best damned blog that's ever appeared on TLC. Ever. Period.

OMG! That was a beautiful story. Put a tear in my eye.

I've been working my way through all the authors on this blog and haven't read one of yours yet. I am this weekend!

Barbara, you brought back lovely memories of traipsing with my grandmother through hot tobacco fields, past the barrier of briars and huckleberry bushes to get to the creekbank with our cane poles and red cork bobbers and can of fishing worms. The smell of citronella oil that kept the mosquitoes off. The cool mud between my toes. Tomato sandwiches in wax paper.

Thank you.

Your blog was beautiful, and I am holding my breath. Your son must be pretty wonderful, along with your husband. Boy, can you write. Now I have to add to my TBR pile. I'm afraid I felt like an outsider for a long time. My parents were refugees from the Holocaust, even in New York City, they were not "native." I wasn't even born in the US, and I think my life experiences made me feel like an outsider. Remarkably, it was women like the grandmothers who would make me feel welcome. To pull up a piece of lawn, sit and join in the barbecue, or the quilting and the knitting group. Thank you for this.

Thanks for all the warm words, everybody. I always worry about being too earnest.

Sarah! Thank you!

Tomato sandwiches, Margaret. Oh, I love them. Can't wait for my tomatoes to start producing.

Barbara, I love your books and love this blog. You are a wonderful story teller.

So beautiful, Barbara. This is why I love your books (as much as I love fireflies.) How fortunate your children were to have such loving, accepting relatives in their lives!

The tree frog made frogs pets, Mary, so of course you wouldn't want to eat them now.

I was very lucky in relatives--we all were, on both sides. But, seriously, the best mother in law ever.

Thanks for the beauty, honesty and courage in this post. Helps the rest of us outsiders feel we have a good friend we can trust and admire.

Oh, Barbara, it's a lovely coincidence that today on the subway in NYC, I began reading one of your books on Kindle. What a beautiful blog.

I'm in NYC with my children, who are native Californians. It has rained hard each afternoon and each day that has been their favorite thing, playing in the rain, giddy with glee at thunder and lightning that sends the New Yorkers running for shelter. They stand out in it, arms outstretched, because we live in a desert where thunder and lightning is so rare it happens only every few years (and why is that?) . . .

The night we arrived, we went to Central Park and watched fireflies, which we also don't have in Southern California . . .

I didn't get to read this until this morning, so I'm not sure you'll see my message, Barbara. What a beautiful post! Thank you for a wonderful beginning to my day. I fell in love with Ian. And you.

Ah, Skipper, what a great comment. Right back atcha.

Harley, there are fireflies in Central Park? I was there last week and never thought to go look! :( I'm glad your children are enjoying them.

Love to you, too Brunonia.

Oh my gosh, Barbara, that is the most beautiful story! And what wonderful relatives you have. It takes me back to my summers at Norris Lake, a TVA lake in TN, and summers spent at BBQ's with family and friends. Thanks!

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