There was a little aluminum rowboat in the rear, northwest corner of the backyard at my childhood home. I suppose the year was somewhere around 1976 or 77. I was very young and of course, I was a little boy in need of attention. However, there was this small dream of mine. I would play with this dream play pretend for hours, outside in my backyard, during the cold New York winter months. To put a picture to this, my home was somewhat typical for the neighborhood. My town was like any other suburban town in Long Island. I was the youngest in my house with a brother who was six years my senior, which meant he seldom had time to play with me.
Our generation was different from the youth of today. Perhaps we were more durable. Maybe we had an easier time adapting to our settings without the use of technology or machines. Either way, we had to use this thing we called “Our imagination” back then.
I can see the yard as it was. There was a regular chain linked fence that separated us from our neighbors. The grass in my yard was short and faded from the cold. The summer green to the grass had changed to a mixture of patchy tan, like wheat, after the autumn’s passing. The homes in my town lined along the street, which was a main road, so there was no venturing outside of my little corner of the world. I was limited to where I could go or play but to me, this was all that I needed. The trees in my yard were empty of leaves. The limbs and twigs were bare to the world, almost colorless and faded in the wintery midst of a day with gray clouds.
I would sit in the little rowboat for hours with a twig, pretending this was a fishing rod and the winterized grass was the ocean. There was a tree in the same corner. The yard was mainly empty of everything else. The boat was a family thing that I was too young to know about or remember. I suppose this was the remnant of an old lobster boat that was owned by my family before I was born.
I only have one memory of the aluminum boat in the water, which is unclear. I know I was somewhere on this little boat. I know there was a fishing rod in my hands, which was little enough for me to hold. Perhaps, I was around 3 years old at the time. The memory I have is something in my mind’s eye, which I can see now. I was fishing and somehow snagged a little starfish. I have this memory of me and there was a celebration around me. My family was together; however, I’m not sure who was with me at the time. I know The Old Man was with me, of course he was. I’m not sure who else was on the boat. It could have been no one else but like I said, the memory is one of my earliest.
Maybe this is what drew me to the little rowboat. Maybe this was my early cognizance, aware of a time when I was participating in a time between father and son. Maybe I was trying to recreate a memory or a feeling of connection, or of validation, of attention or a feeling that I was aware of a love between father and son.
I would sit in my backyard, bundled up in a big puffy down jacket. I pulled a knitted hat over my ears that was made for me by my Grandmother. I wore my mittens. I wore my winter clothes and my winter boots. And I sat there as a little boy, quietly holding a twig as if it were a fishing rod and fishing as if the grass was the sea. I was so small. So young. So hopeful to dream and feel. This is my most purest memory. There was no fear nor were there any discomforts. The Old Man and my Mother would call out from the back door of our home. They would ask if I was okay. The Old Man would ask if I caught anything. And I would say, “Not today. But yesterday was better.”
I probably sat in that little boat for hours on end, without complaints, without any noise or sound or anyone to interrupt with conversation. I suppose this was me trying to either create or recreate something that was so influential to me. I suppose this was me trying to recreate a moment that took place on a cold day in November at a place called Shinecock Canal.
It was too cold for the other fisherman. There was no one else around, except for The Old Man and me. There was no one on the docks but us. We sat quietly at the docks, fishing for what could have been hours. I was sitting on a bucket turned upside down. I was bundled up and dressed as warmly as possible. The Old Man was never cold. The cold weather never bothered him. Not at all. I had no idea what I was doing. To be clear, I was fine to sit there and hold this little fishing rod while pretending to fish for flounder.
The Old Man didn’t say much. In fact, I can’t say I remember us talking at all. More to the point I can’t remember anything else about this day. All I remember was the cold, frosty air. I remember the quietness of the surroundings and the moving water in the canal. I remember the sound of seagulls crying out to each other. I remember there were Canadian geese nearby in the water. The sky was thick with gray clouds and the wind was cold. There were patches of snow on the ground and the docks, the canal and the moving water couldn’t have looked this beautiful if the best artist in the world would have painted this scenery.
I remember The Old Man remarked, “Wait a second.”
He tugged on the end of my line. He shouted, “You got a fish!”
His cheer erupted louder and louder.
“Reel it in,” he told me. “Reel, reel, reel!”
I remember how hard it was. The fish was fighting back and me, I did as The Old Man said. I just kept reeling. I suppose this was the first time I ever saw my Father so pleased with me.
I can remember how his loud cheering scared the Canadian geese. I can remember the sound of their wings flapping as they took off in flight. I can hardly remember the fish I caught. I can remember that it was not very big, and yet, I can remember the contrast of the fish’s brown skin and white underbelly inside the bottom of a dirty white bucket.
Maybe this is what I was trying to recreate. Maybe this is why I spent so much time in the rowboat in the northwest corner of my yard. Maybe I was looking for that feeling again. Maybe I was trying to recreate a celebration that went on between father and son.
Fast forward and I am grown now. I see people with their family. I have friends with sons and friends who have grown similarly to me, who never had the benefit of having their father see who they grew to become.
Come to think of it, I had the honor of working with a father and son whose opportunity brought them closer together.
Years back, there was a summer intern who worked on our crew with us. He was in college and learning the trade. His father was the chief engineer and certainly proud. I can remember the son reporting back to his father after completing a job. I remember encouraging the son to show his father what he had done. I remember the son asking for something harder next time, something more challenging. I can’t say that I remember the words he used, at least not exactly, but the son remarked something similar to, “That was easy! You didn’t think I could do that?”
From this, I heard the best answer possible. His father looked at him with all the confidence in the world and said, “I think you can do anything.”
There were no geese around and no fish on a hook. There was no loud celebration or loud cheering but there was a connection. There was an acknowledgment. There was validation and more than anything, there was an unforgettable moment between father and son.
I have a series of journals called Notes From The Road. This project is a compilation of undeliverable notes and letters to my parents who passed away. Some of the notes are taken from something I call the Daddy Diaries. These are notes of my trials and trips through parenthood.
One day, there will be nothing but memory. I understand this, which is why I do my best to take notes along the way. I do this to fill my journals, to fill my heart, to create that connection, to find validation and most of all, to bring attention to the moments between myself and my loved ones.
Be advised: There will be no apologies for the sentiment in this book.
Oh, and PS:
Wherever you are, just know that this one’s for you
and you too, Mom.
I want you to know that your baby boy is down here and doing well.
It would be nice to see that little old boat again.
It would be nice to see you both again.
But I understand if you can’t make it.
I’ll just leave the invitation here.
Just in case . . .