NOTE: It’s an unofficial holiday in this state – the Minnesota fishing opener – and Mother’s Day this weekend, just as it falls every May. Did you know that moms fish for free on opening weekend? We ran low on space this week in HTF with a number of letters on the school referendum, so it was left up to me to combine a little about both in this column. Happy Mother’s Day and good luck chasing the big one this weekend.
Fishy, Fishy in a brook Daddy caught it with a hook Mommy fried it in a pan [Deep voice] And baby ate it like a man
Say what you will about
poor Humpty-Dumpty; at least he didn’t suffer the fate of poor Fishy and get fried in a pan. Or scrambled. Or worse – made into a quiche.
But I digress.
My grandma used to like when I digressed in this column. And every time I would bring a friend over to meet my grandparents, almost invariably, Grandma would tell this story about me:
“When Brian was a baby, he was so cute and chubby. I remember there was a nursery rhyme that he loved, you know the one “Fishy, fishy in a brook?”
And if the friend looked like they hadn’t heard it, she would continue with the lyrics and continue:
“And he would laugh and laugh and laugh every time. No matter how many times you heard it, Brian, you would just giggle.”
I think it must have been her favorite memory of me as a child, one little clip among thousands all filed away in that splendid vault that was her memory. The joy she had on her face as she told it will always be one of my favorite memories of her. She housed a million happy memories I’m sure, of her six girls and five boys, of her 52 grandkids and the dozens of greatgrandkids that poured into the family, especially over the past decade, of births and weddings and hundreds of first days and first times and holidays and hugs and answered prayers.
When I sit in her open chair reading to Grandpa each Monday afternoon, it’s hard to fathom sometimes. I should be sitting on the bed, facing them, engaged in lively conversation with Grandma, as she every once in a while, leaning over to pat the hand of the man she was still so deeply in love with and to whom she was so proud and thankful to be married, and Grandpa answering her inclusions with his short, little quips. What a pair they made. I imagine Mother’s Day will be hard for him, but I am moved by his unwavering faith in the face of the loss of his wife of 72 years, in the face of aphasia, which after a major stroke five or so years ago, left him bereft of much of his ability to put his thoughts into words, robbed him of his ability to read. Grandma made up for it with the ability to lead him where he was trying to go with his words, and she read to him often from the Bible.
It’s beyond a privilege to be able to spend time with him, to read Psalms with him or from a little booklet named “Words of Encouragement” my aunt (his oldest daughter) put together, to share memories – last week we talked about his and his brother Howard’s experiences in World War II; he never was stationed stateside and never saw combat, while his older brother flew in a number of combat missions. We talked about his childhood, growing up one of the youngest in a family of 11. His father was a newspaper writer, the only other writer I know of in my direct bloodline. Often, Grandpa will start to say something, to tell a story, but finally blurt out, “I can’t get the words. I have so many memories; I can’t find the words.” He always asks about my brothers Tim and Mike, and each time, before I leave, he asks me to pray with him, and I can’t but wonder if I am part of the reason he hasn’t been called home yet, to be reunited with his Lorraine. What a bittersweet juxtaposition of longing for his lifelong partner with the understanding that his race isn’t finished yet; what love I witness each time I visit.
It also occurs to me that this Mother’s Day will be more difficult than most for my mom. It will be her first without her mom and her tenth without her son, my little brother Jon. She inherited much good from her mother both in genes and personality, a solid, godly upbringing, and a good, busy childhood growing up on a dairy farm. As the second oldest – and as the first three were girls – she spent her share of time in the barn, milking cows. Sometimes I wonder if I was born in one, since she at times couldn’t seem to remember if I was and would ask me, “Were you born in a barn?” Or maybe that was my dad. But my birth certificate says I was born in the mountains of West Virginia.
Again, I digress. Starting the morning milking cows before breakfast and school is probably where she learned her sun-up-tosundown work ethic. Mom is tireless, and she was even when she was outnumbered 5-to-1 by stubborn men in the house; that was the ratio for a dozen years from the time Mike was born until I graduated. As the oldest, my arrival interrupted her fledgling nursing career, and she never went back to it, but she never stopped working to provide her husband and sons a clean and comfortable home with three squares a day. That was in between all the helping and ministering she did outside the home, running her boys to practice, daily reading and praying with them, instilling a work ethic – we did our fair share of chores to earn an allowance – homeschooling my two youngest brothers, and often several times a week having guests at the dinner table or bringing a meal to someone else.
She was strict, and she disciplined, especially when you accidentally bashed your brotherovertheheadwithaDbatteryor years later when a little brother took a tennis racket to the head of that same brother during an endless electronic hockey tournament on one of Mom’s best Christmas gifts ever. We had a never-ending supply of switches from the massive willow in the backyard and even got to pick our own. But beware of returning with a wimpy switch. Then it would be her turn. You didn’t want that. Word to the wise: pick a bigger one; they don’t have as much whiplash. Each spanking was well-earned and delivered with love – I don’t recall ever being punished when she or my dad was angry. There was always an explanation – this is why you are being punished – and when it was done, a big hug and “I love you very much.” I probably could have used a few more of those. Spankings that is – I wasn’t lacking in hugs.
She had a sixth “mom” sense when I was going to try to be sneaky about something. I once executed an escape plan, jumping from the second-story bathroom window onto the garage roof and from there to the ground. Fifteen minutes later, I ducked for cover and circled back home when I saw her car coming down the street I was on, six blocks from home, as she looked for me after discovering my empty bed. There was another night or two I snuck out to go to a friend’s house. I remember watching “A Fish Called Wanda” one night before heading back across town to sneak in the sliding glass door in the dining room and then tiptoe up the stairs, every step of which I knew the creaky spots by heart. Sorry, Mom if you’re just finding out about that now. Come to think of it, I wonder if Fishy had a sister named Wanda?
I remember that nursery rhyme – my grandma’s memory – from when I was a vähän poika (little boy). It might in fact be my earliest memory. My mom must have regaled me with it many times, along with “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and a host of others. My mom read to me so often when I was young that I could recognize many words when I was 3 and could read before I entered kindergarten. She never stopped reading to me or my brothers when I was growing up, and I was in at least junior high when I finally outgrew that.
We lived on a little farm in Palo when I was young, and I can remember this elaborate city she and I and probably Tim built with streets and roads and buildings and model cars on the dirt floor of our aluminum sided two-stall garage. I can remember the day Tim and I were out playing in our mini city, when we discovered the used oil pan in the corner and proceeded to all but bathe in it. The picture is hilarious; I can recall great fun was had by all but, I’m sure, my mom.
She sewed me many outfits, especially when we were trying to make ends meet when my dad was laid off from Eveleth Taconite; Tim and I were twinsies often as youngsters. I was pretty happy with them until they weren’t cool enough in junior high. Wednesdays she required us to wear corduroy pants to school. By junior high, I wasn’t too thrilled with the prospect of wearing them, so I used to wear jeans or sweatpants under them and take them off under the park pavilion with the picnic tables on the way to school in the middle of winter. Recently, I nearly bought myself a pair of corduroys. I guess things come full circle.
Before my basketball games, she’d usually cook my favorite meal – spaghetti and garlic bread; carbs for energy, you know. She was my nurse when I got sick, when I played too hard in the hot sun several times and gave myself heat exhaustion and awful migraines, when I ran into the chin-up bar on my bike in the park, when I gashed my head open on the bench at the sliding hill, when I broke my finger on Christmas in eighth grade, when I missed a month of school with awful rash of allergies in ninth, when I gashed my finger open on broken porcelain on a summer job and the multiple times I slammed one or several in a truck door, when I crashed my bike while distracted riding – I was reading a book; when I came home from working all day in my uncle’s strawberry fields a deep shade of lobster with insanity-inducing itching, and she helped nurse me back to health at age 30, too, when I shattered my hip and nearly perished in a car accident. When I was sick when I was on my own, no one could comfort me like my mom.
And I guess I want to be a comfort for my mom this Mother’s Day. Mom, I couldn’t have asked for a better, more caring and loving mother, who has always wanted what is best for all her sons. You taught me to read, taught me to pray, taught me who God is and introduced me to his Son through John 3:16. You taught me what unconditional love is and to love and respect others and no matter who they are to treat them equally, and that it is more blessed to give than receive. Your example of grace and faith in the face of adversity and loss is something else, and I thank God every day for you.
And with my history of concussions (that extended into adulthood), I guess it’s time to reluctantly say thanks for not letting me play football. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Thanks for not selling us boys to the circus, though I’m sure there were many days on which we must have made it a temptation. Happy Mother’s Day to each and every mother out there, especially to those who have known the loss of a child – and to those who are missing their dear mother on Mother’s Day, especially for the first time.
It’s probably sacrilege to say this in this little corner of the paradise – paradise at least from an angler’s standpoint – but I don’t have a single coherent memory of actually fishing on the Minnesota fishing opener. Sure, I have some vague memories of openers past, but while my dad enjoys fishing, Dad’s never been big on fishing busy lakes which they always are on this weekend, and I’m pretty sure during his years at the Post Office, he deferred to his co-workers so they could enjoy the opener. So, it never became a family tradition to go out for the opener when I was growing up; also, my dad’s four sons were usually too restless to stay in a boat for too long. When we were young, my brothers and I would sometimes talk him into dropping us off on some island to explore. Usually, I’d pay more attention to the book(s) I brought with than the fishing. When it was ice fishing, the four of us would play two-on-two football while Dad watched the holes. We were pretty poor fishing apprentices, I’m sure.
As an adult, though I did enjoy the few times I’ve fished the Great Lakes of Superior and Michigan, I don’t fish too often. I like to take a more active role in my failures. That’s why I took up golf. [EDITOR: Sorry. There are no rim shots here.]
I covered my share of fishing openers as a young adult, including when Governor Tim Pawlenty came to Tower back in 2005, but that always consisted of boating around Lake Vermilion with a photographer, ruining other people’s mornings with pictures and questions; we never had the time to drop a line. Though I likely won’t be one of them – I’ve yet to break in the Ugly Stick I bought myself a couple of years ago; maybe if the Fishy, Fishy rhyme comes into play for me at some point, I’ll be more apt – about one in 11 Minnesotans will fish the opener Saturday. That’s around a half-million angers out on the 4,500 or so fishing lakes in the state or on the more the 18,000 miles of rives and streams. Be safe out there, and if you can’t bring in the big one, at least come home with a good story about “the one that got away.” Those things are huge! And don’t forget to hug your mom on Mother’s Day. If you can’t hug her, at least call and tell her how much you appreciate her.
For the record, yes, I was quite a chubby baby – my mom always tells me how fat my cheeks were – but I carried it well. Mom also ixnayed my uncles calling me by the nickname “Moose,” and though there’s nothing alike a good nickname, I’m glad I missed out on that one. Thanks, Mom.
Until next time…
Brian Miller is a longtime local writer who lives with his wife Bethany and puppy Case in Eveleth, MN. He welcomes glowing accolades and scathing reviews at firstname.lastname@example.org