When I retired a few years ago I had a list of books to read, movies to watch, and projects to complete. It was a huge list. Recently, I watched a 1992 film based on the novella by Norman Maclean entitled, A River Runs Through It [and Other Stories]. That’s how far behind I am in my “catching up.”
The story takes place in Montana, in the late 1800s, and it’s primarily about boys and their strong father. Mostly, it’s about family dynamics via the art of fly-fishing as metaphor. And fly-fishing is indeed an art. It’s a deeply woven story and the cinematography is breathtaking. I too had a similar experience in childhood fishing with my dad. What we did was far from fly-fishing but we did a little casting, dad made some of our fishing lures, and we had a small boat we used but we also fished from shore. Being involved in an activity of such dedication and importance with a parent provides a child with lifelong power and spirit.
Dad and I built our small 14 foot Chris Craft boat. My contribution was minimal but he always made me feel as though I helped. In fact, when talking to friends he always said “we” built the boat. Everyone thought he was referring to mom or a friend but then he would say, no, it was Sharon. The boat was named after me, Miss Lee. I was small enough to crawl inside the tiny bow and do all sorts of tasks for him which included working with fiberglass and gooey stuff we placed over the fiberglass and other scary substances that make me shudder now.
Dad taught me how to fish and how to cast though again, fly-fishing is not what we did. We did some trolling in the boat and some shore fishing in lakes and I have a memory of unnamed rivers. Though I was proficient at casting I never progressed to the level of fly-fishing. Watching that movie I realized I might have missed something. But I did not miss the father/child experience. So many people I know have almost no recollection of their fathers. Either the father was absent entirely or if he was there he was absent emotionally. My dad was not absent in any way and I was included in everything.
He died at 38 and most of my early memories of him are fading now. Except for fishing and our boat. While out on the lake we bonded and rarely spoke. On shore or in the car we had many conversations but when fishing we were quiet (which is best if the plan is to catch anything) and it was just the almost telepathic communication that I remember. He was a large powerful man and had been in the Navy during WWII. His presence wherever we went caught the attention of everyone we encountered. He was hard to miss.
A few times we took our boat down the Sacramento delta and would fish and cruise for hours and hours. Small taverns dotted the river along the banks and we would stop for gas, bait–and cocktails. Even I had a cocktail when we stopped: Shirley Temples. When we finished our exploration and fishing I had to drive the boat back to the loading ramp (many miles away) because dad had way too many cocktails. I was 8, 9, and 10 when we took these trips. Sometimes he napped on our way back to the ramp and it was often dark by the time we floated to shore.
Sometimes people would see us and run to help thinking my dad was injured. They were often upset to see he was sleeping and leaving the navigation of a boat to a child—at dusk. But I had been doing it for years and didn’t understand what they were so upset about. When I was closer to 10 I positioned the boat with no help and dad would back the truck up and I’d be in charge of getting the thing on the trailer and hooking it all up. He would then pull up a bit and we would do our departure routine and checked the trailer/boat connections then off we’d go for a two-hour drive home.
We did many other activities together as father and daughter. We enjoyed yard work and at a very young age I was taught how to operate the big clunky power mower. What a scary thing that was. Not like the silent beauties we have today that we plug in. This thing was a gas mower with a pull start and it lifted me off the ground when I tried to start it. It took multiple tries and he would watch me from the garage. I know he wanted to come out and help me but I never asked and eventually the damn thing would cough and sputter and off I’d go. My little dog would run along with me. I was just a little girl tooling down the lawn with my tiny dog and I can’t imagine what he was thinking. Except that I did it and it led to the next challenge and the one after that and the one after that. And I didn’t kill the dog.
Dad did all our house repairs and I helped. I handed him tools and ran and got things he needed so I learned how to do all sorts of things. I knew the names of all the tools and how to use them. Quite often when he repaired something he made me do it. He explained what I needed to do then stood back watching. I would often struggle with the concept of the project but didn’t ask for help. It wasn’t that I couldn’t but I wanted to figure it out for myself. After countless times I would usually get my “ah hah” moment and the thing would be done. Sometimes I’d be met with a lack of strength to untwist something or tighten something. Then I’d ask him to finish and he did. I was, after all, a small child. (I still have that problem when working on projects. I just don’t have the upper body strength for some tasks.)
He was also an amazing cook and afraid of nothing in the kitchen. He was so good he eventually opened a small restaurant. People came from far away to sample his food. Many of these people we met while camping and he cooked for all the campers and made lifelong friends out of them. When we camped we had coolers and boxes loaded with food that he would prepare all week and we were the most popular campsite around. I was his helper but I was also given my own food prep tasks. I rarely needed help because dad, my mom, and grandma had worked with me in the kitchen and trained me from early childhood.
Sometimes while he prepared food at our campsite he would ask me to run to the boat and secure it for the evening. Off I’d go by myself to the boat area and do all the things to our boat that all the other “men” were doing to theirs. Again, I was under 12 when we took these trips. There are so many things about that experience that amazes me now (being alone at dusk far away from the campsite with lots of drunk men is only one memory) but I have to say they all knew my dad and it was safer for them to leave me alone.
That’s what parenting is all about. It wasn’t loading the boat onto the boat trailer and driving it for miles in semi darkness. It wasn’t struggling with the operation of the power mower, or any of the actual tasks. Though that certainly has provided me with a lifelong ability to take care of myself. It was actually about excellent parenting. He wasn’t a perfect man but he was a perfect father.
An amazing thing happened in our family however. My dad passed away at 38 from an illness brought on by his poor lifestyle choices (too much food, smoking, and alcohol) and inadequate medical attention. Many years after his passing my mom met a wonderful man. He was unlike my dad in almost all ways except he was an outstanding cook and he knew how to handle tools and could cook anything and repair or create anything. My mom was a sly woman. Though I was an adult when they met and married he was there for my kids as a strong male figure. He loved to fish and bought my son a fishing rod and reel. He talked to the kids and explained things to them and they grew up learning how to take care of themselves. Both dads loved to read and my stepdad was so fond of J.R.R. Tolkien he had memorized huge passages of The Lord of the Rings.
Watching A River Runs Through It brought back so many wonderful memories and once again I appreciate how lucky I was to have two strong dads in my life. I know my first dad would be very happy to know about my second dad. He wouldn’t have wanted me to miss any steps in my training.
[Note: My grandmother was wrong.]
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