The first time I went fishing with my grandfather was the last time I did anything at all with him, except for avoid his gaze, composed as it was of anger and disgust. I was about four, although physically I looked much younger. As a child, one of my goals was to be a midget or a jockey—but mostly a midget. My grandfather had spent his early life around kids—headmaster and lead teacher in Colebrook, then headmaster in Weare. I suspect the main reason he went to UNH to start the Thompson School there was to avoid being around kids. I don’t think he liked children, and I always knew he didn’t much like me. Fishing may have started it.
To Gramper, hunting and fishing were two sacraments to his real religion—being away from humans. At four, I was Gramper’s oldest grandchild, son of his beloved daughter and old enough to learn to fish. Although of course he never said it, even as a little boy I thought he blamed me for the series of my mother’s miscarriages that led to my adoption. Pre hoc ergo propter hoc isn’t even a proper logical fallacy, but I still felt he suspected my involvement in his daughter’s inability to bear children. He may not have liked me much, but in my mind he identified me as a pretty slick operator. But I digress.
My memory of the day are hazy and inexact, although my mother told me the story so many times I have it clear in my head. Bear in mind that I don’t know what’s original and what’s narrative spackle to fill in gaps. Regardless of what a camera might have recorded, this is my truth.
Gramper picked me up at 7 am, a wicker creel in the back seat of his Buick, and we drove to Wheelwright Pond. This was just a 15-minute drive, but I began a commentary/monologue/inquisition from the second the wheels started turning.
“Gramper, what do birds think about?”
“Have you ever seen a ghost?”
“I think Winnie the Pooh is for babies.”
“You don’t think I’m a baby, do you?”
“What’s your favorite kind of sandwich?”
“Did you ever drown?
“Even if Pooh is for babies, I still like Christopher Robin.”
“Do they really change guards at Buckingham Palace?”
“I’d like to learn to fly.”
“Do you know how to fly?”
“I wonder what it would be like if Christopher Robin turned into a ghost.”
“That sure is a big tree.”
“Could you cut down a tree with your bare hands?”
“I like popcorn.”
“Sometimes Daddy puts too much butter on popcorn.”
“Do you have any popcorn?”
After this initial quarter-hour drive, we backed the boat trailer into the water. Before getting out to release the boat, Gramper looked at me very severely and opened his mouth for the first time.
“The only rule of fishing is NO TALKING! And I mean it!”
A sensible child would have picked up on the oh-so-subtle implicit message—“Shut the hell up!”–and been quiet. I was not a sensible child.
“Why is that the rule, Gramper? Are you afraid it will scare away the fish? They couldn’t even hear us under the water. When I take a bath and put my head under the water, I can only hear nothing. How do you know there even are fish here? I don’t see any. What about whispering? Is that okay? Or laughing? If I’m drowning I think I might talk even if it scares the fish. I wonder if fish laugh when people drown. What language do fish talk, anyway? Do you know how to talk to fish? I’ve heard of flying fish but I don’t see any here. What kind of snacks do fish like? I wonder if they like butter on their popcorn. Do you have any popcorn?”
Here, I saw a particular vein on Gramper’s forehead start to throb, a vein I’ve come to know intimately as it pulsed away on teachers, bosses, wives and other authority figures. Gramper, unlike those future others, didn’t say a word. Instead, he faced the windshield, put the car in forward gear, pulled the trailer and boat out of the lake and drove me the 15 minutes home. He didn’t speak, so I needed to fill the silence.
“Guess they just weren’t biting today. Too much talking might have scared them away. I wonder if they’ll come back later. Should we turn around and see? Or maybe bears ate them all. I don’t think real bears are for babies. Just Winnie the Pooh . . . Maybe they were having a snack. Maybe popcorn. Do you have any popcorn?”
(The ellipses in the paragraph above can be filled in with mindless and innocent prattle from the mouth of a cute four-year-old. That’s how I picture that ride. My grandfather, contrariwise, likely heard buzz saws going through sheet metal while fingernails scraped mile-long blackboards.)
When he got me home, my grandfather silently got out of his side of the car, walked around and opened my door, then pointed to my house. When my mother came to our front door, roughly 30 minutes after sending me off for a day of fishing, my grandfather said to her, in a soft and controlled voice, “I don’t think he’s cut out to be a fisherman.”
Coda to Demonstrate Consistency
My daughter, Becca, was born in 1991, when Gramper was 85. As I had been his first grandchild, she was his first great-grandchild. When Becca was two months old, her mom and I left her for the first time, our little lamb, with my parents. My grandfather, dementia slowly overtaking him, had moved in with them for his last days. When Cindy and I got back from the movie, I asked my mom how things had gone. She said Becca had started fussing and Gramper had screamed, “Somebody needs to shut that kid up! Give it a good spanking!” Once he’d voiced his opinion, he returned to his twilight thoughts, dreaming, I imagine of the day when all human sounds would disappear and he could practice his faith. Later that winter, the world went silent for him and he was finally able to get some goddamned quiet.