My paternal grandparents had a cottage in the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan, which has been passed on to my dad and his siblings. When we were younger, my grandparents would take my two older brothers and me up there with them all the time. Going up for a weekend trip with grandma and grandpa was always a treat, especially when we stopped at West Branch for McDonald’s.
There was one weekend in particular where I went up alone with Grandma and Grandpa during the summer (or everyone else was on their way and I just can’t recall at the time). I was young, maybe 6 or 7, but it is one of the most vivid memories from those years up there with them.
The cottage is on Otsego Lake, which is rather shallow, and as we jokingly say now, devoid of fish. Way back then we had better luck fishing and often caught big keepers off the end of the dock. On this particular trip, Grandpa and I decided to go fishing off the end of the dock.
Somehow I had managed to catch three fish to his two, when I snagged another fish and reeled him in. In the dim twilight I remember watching my grandpa trying to get the hook out of the fish, but the fish had swallowed it. Grandpa decided to go around to the garage to get a pair of pliers and left me in charge of watching the fish and his line.
While Grandpa was gone, I lowered my fish back in the water and watched him swimming a few inches from the surface of the lake. As I was watching my fish and neglecting my grandfather’s line, I saw a dark shadow approach my fish and linger. Squinting even closer, I realized it was another fish that had come to visit my victim. Instead of swimming away, the fish stayed right by my own fish, keeping him company.
Realizing that I could catch yet another fish, I lowered my grandfather’s line into the water slowly and wriggled the worm in front of the new fish. He grabbed on and by the time my grandpa came back from the garage with the pliers, I had two fish on the line.
After that night, I always teased Grandpa about being a better fisherman because I had caught 5 fish compared to his 2.
Now, you are lucky to catch one fish in that lake and usually it’s too small to keep.
I say all this knowing that I am diving into Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. It is a famous fishing story, perhaps not as epically huge as Moby Dick, but still about a man chasing a dream to catch the monster of all fish.
And as I read about the old fisherman and his battle with the marlin, I’m also going to think about my own grandfather, the fisherman and all those lessons her taught me before he passed away. I have many memories of him, and each memory is as strong as the one I have from that night, but not as touching.
He got down on the dock right beside me to look at the two fish I had caught—the one with a hook in its stomach, and the one who came to keep him company—and said,
“You cheated. You stole my line when my back was turned!”
The next time I went fishing with him, he made sure not to leave his pole untended and told me that even though I out-fished him that night, I would never have the chance to do it again.
And I never did.