As it is for many little girls, Dad was my first hero. For me, he exemplified commitment, responsibility, and stability. He was the straight and narrow arrow that accepted nothing less than the center of the bull's eye.
Growing up with Dad was a wonderful experience; he taught by example and he lived life, not on the edge, but fully.
Summer weekends were meant for fun on Lake Superior. Mom was always ready when the boat launched at 3:35 p.m. on Friday - on the dot - regardless of what "to-do's" remained on her list.
Together with Uncle Carl, Aunt Lois, and cousin Lisa, we played. Our adventures took us around every inch of Grand Island's shoreline, into all the open and oft visited coves, and to the northern shore where cliffs rose from the water's edge like the walls of a fortress and as mighty. Simple sandstone rock petrified by the years formed walls of steel protecting the island and Munising's harbor. On the south shore, life was softer, yet more the mystery. Open coves invited us to visit, and we accepted the invitation often to rest for just a bit under the cool rocks covered in moss with the echoes of water dripping into the shallows. And we ventured into the underwater coves where Dad and Uncle Carl encouraged the rest of us to dive under the bridge that nature formed between us and the caverns hidden under tons of rock. We had picnics on the lake with our boats tied together and on the rock-strewn beaches in the hidden enclaves of the island's eastern shore. Our weekly visit to Murray's Bay always included a bit of deep-sea snorkeling by Dad and Uncle Carl. In those days, the ship that lay at the bottom of the bay looked within a fingertip's reach, but the shoreline seemed miles away. Excursions to Grand Marais seemed par, but Stannard Rock was a journey. Even so, Grand Marais brought us to Devil's slide, and I recall at least a few times when we climbed to the sand dunes and laid exhausted at the top welcoming the plunge back into the cool Superior waters like kids at a park. Even rain didn't keep us from enjoying the lake for it was sure to pass like Superior's temper tantrums.
Today, Dad is 88 years old. His boats are docked or long ago adopted by other water lovers. His well-spent fishing poles hang from rafters awaiting his summons for another adventure on the great lake. Their lines, like Dad's hair, grayed with age, and their lures as an aged Luger are kept in tackle boxes that now serve only as treasure boxes of memories.
For as long as I can remember, Dad has always called me "Sunshine", a name he and my brother, Butchie, bestowed upon me, but lately, he has begun to call me the "the chosen one". I'll never pretend to understand why, and chosen for what, I'm not sure, but the title I'll proudly serve whenever called upon to do so.
Such a call came recently. A few weeks ago while I was visiting him at his new and my sister's old home, kneeling aside his chair as I always do, we listened to oldie songs that I had given him the Christmas past.
"Where do you catch fish?" Dad asked out of the blue.
Caught somewhat off-guard, but with all the confidence of a trophy fisherman from one of those Sunday afternoon catch and release shows that I often nap during, I responded confidently.
"At about 150 feet of Lake Superior water, Dad, where else would one catch Lake Trout?"
I saw his deep smile rise his cheeks up to fold the laugh lines around his eyes that glistened with the twinkling that I recall having always desired to see when a child - the twinkling of pride - and his face begged the next question.
"Dad, would you like to go fishing with me on Superior?"
Nearly overwrought with emotion, choking the words to his lips, his voice barely audible, he said first, with eyes wide open, "Yes", then with eyes closed in thought, "Yes."
The following week, Dad asked my brother-in-law to take him to buy his fishing license. The next time I called, he told me he was ready. We waited upon Mother Nature to provide the opportune time of warm weather, sunshine, and calm seas, but she had other plans. Dad simply said, "it is time." I hoped that he only meant it was time to fish.
At 4:00 AM, I left home for a 5 hour journey to my Dad. Along the way, I worked with eased direction, timely focus, and a witnessed excitement for the day that lay ahead. I had breakfast with an old family friend, Nino Green, and shared with him the exciting story of what lay ahead in our day. At noon, Dad and my husband joined me at my doctor's office where I would receive confirmation that my surgery was inevitable. My husband held my hand in what I'm quite sure was an expectant manner for my reaction, but there was none. The news couldn't shatter the vision before me... at least not until Dad placed his hand on my shoulder and whispered,
"Priorities in order, kid. Priorities in order."
I resolved a bit of a sigh, and smiled.
An assessment of Superior's waterfront readily revealed a distant fog bank heading in from Canada. I took in a deep breath of UP air and looked at Dad, watching him do likewise. He titled his head, his look asking me "whatchya gonna do kid?" When my glance responded with a "you tell me" look, he raised his eyebrows so as to ask the question once more, only with more emphasis on the 'me' part. I looked to my husband and our eyes met. Surely the thought of a forlorn puppy left out in the rain awaiting rescue must have come to his mind. He smiled, winked, and simply said,
"I've got your back, babe. Your Dad will have a good day. Take the first drive after old M-28." And with that, my white knight was gone.
The 30 minute jog on down to old M-28 was filled with talk of the days that Dad spent building the credit union, selling K-C employees on the concept of saving for a rainy day, loading trains, and all that other logistics stuff he did day in and day out with a loyalty that put him in place on the docks every day. We talked of Edgu and Elsie Wapienik, Walter and Alice, Judgga and Cleo, of the days they snowmobiled and that he missed those who were now gone.
He spoke of Bobbie, Bertie, and Donnie, each with pride that swelled from his very soul.
He said that there were things that he had left unsaid to them, that life never seemed long enough to say all the things that you wanted to and then the time passes and they go unsaid. I wanted so much to offer to be his messenger, but I knew that was not possible. Some things must be delivered personally. These things seemed as much. For many, many years, I've knelt at my father's side to listen to him talk of the past, the present, and guide me for the future. Perhaps the most memorable day was last Thanksgiving when I was staying with my parents so that my sister could leave to visit her new grandchild in Wisconsin. It was evening, and the rituals of placing Dad's oxygen on his face, tucking Mom in bed, and gathering our hands in prayer had just finished. As I tucked Dad's blanket under his bed, he reached for my hand. "Jodi, I am so very proud of you. I love you." I thought of that night while Dad talked about unsaid things. I wondered if he had wanted to deliver that message to each of my siblings, but it was not mine to do.
Then he simply added, "Butchie would be here with us."
I replied, "I think he is."
Dad went silent for moments in his own thoughts - a silence I had learned to respect, a silence whose thoughts I can sometimes hear.
My brother, Lee, more commonly known as "Butch", was killed in a tornado in 1973 at twenty-six years of age, but his spirit lives on for me in every paddle of my kayak, in every wave I overcome, in every target I hit at a distance not accomplished before, and in every fishing adventure, this one being no exception. He lived "in the moment", fearless, and always on the edge. Things I never dreamed I would do in my more pristine "chic" teenage years, I do in his honor and to me these things bring many of my most treasured memories. Dad has mentioned on a few occasions that he notices 'the edge' in me.
We crested the hill over Shelter Bay, the still inland lake to our right lay as smooth as glass, the greatest lake to our left peaked through trees, but showed no white caps. Our excitement grew.
"About 100 feet, Dad, and we'll be there."
"It'll be a good day." he responded.
True to form and perhaps expectedly, the boat for our adventure was named the "Jodi Lee". Its decks were clean and swabbed, its railing shining from the layers of poly, just like my brother, Butchie's. Down riggers manned the sides like soldiers ready for battle and tackle lined the cab's wall readied as ammunition.
Our path was there before us, the fog folded back, the water bluer than I ever remembered it, the huge ropes that bound us to a dock now lay scattered there as though discarded in the excitement to be out there on the waves. And we were launched. While Dad stood atop the well cover to gain the height that years had taken from him, his legs weak, I stood behind him, my arms wrapping his left side, my body ready to catch his fall, and I remembered the times he had held me in protection while we braved an angry Superior, while we walked the rocks of ever rising cliffs on the north side of the island, and while we huddled down to let a bear pass our path. I was honored to be able to return a sense of security. I watched him peer out at the land to the east of us, pointing to the home he had built atop the hill, where all his children had grown. He focused on the west, naming the point "Laughing Whitefish Point", named after an Indian maiden, Princess Whitefish.
The heavy fog wrapped and unwrapped us as though a thick black velvet cloak, but we held our path electronically - up the bank's edge, around its flat end, down the rescinding edge, and along the drop-off at its top. Pass for pass, we marked no fish. But it mattered not; the camaraderie was grand and filled us all, and the stories were endless of times and people who had left, but were not forgotten, the great fishing trips of times long ago, and of course, Superior.
Dad underwent his fourth cancer surgery just a few months ago. The day after Dad returned home from the hospital, he lost his brother to cancer. At the funeral, along side my Aunt Lois who had just been released from the hospital, Dad joined Aunt Lois to thank people for their prayers and sharing this last farewell. At the cemetery, Dad was far too weak and frail to walk to the burial place. As the "missing man formation" roared overhead and the guns sounded, Dad listened to the prayers from inside the warmth of my truck.
Uncle Carl was a man whom touched everyone's life in some of the most remarkable ways possible - it was as though he knew a person's deepest more treasured needs and he sought to meet them through love and sharing. My last boat trip with Uncle Carl was just months before he passed away. My son and I were painting the outside of my parent's house in the scorching unbearable (single) 'summer day', when Uncle Carl called, and said, "Auntie Lois and I want you to come with us. We're going for a boat ride." Jan and Sue, Uncle Carl and Aunt Lois and me floated into Murray's Bay, and while Uncle Carl cooked brats on shore, we talked about the days when Uncle Carl and Dad would dive the Smithmore off the side of Uncle Carl's Boston Whaler or Dad's Runabout. They'd get their piece of iron ore from the Smithmore and quickly surface, air emiting from their nostrils, and dive again.
In Uncle Carl's eulogy, his cousin and an Orthodox Priest spoke highly of Uncle Carl as everyone did every day. Grandchildren shared stories resembling the ones that Dad was telling now.
The one sentence in the eulogy that gave meaning for Dad conveyed the very life that Uncle Carl and Dad have lived, "We fished all day, but caught nothing, neither here nor there, the splashing midst upon Uncle Carl's face put a smile there that we knew meant he was thankful just to have shared the day with us." In Dad's silence, I heard these thoughts.
Our Captain, Native by blood and a man of few words, and my husband had long ago formed a bond from their journeys; their footprints had shared the same paths. Their silences, glances and conversation confirmed to me that they were in brotherhood.
Captain Mitch's strong jaw line and smart cocky grin reminded me of Butchie, but it was that still calm within him that I found deep admiration for that day - he knew - he knew why this day and who this day was for and his pride to honor an elder consumed him.
Captain Mitch worked feverishly putting down and pulling up the outriggers, tightening and loosening the lines, checking the depth finder, scouring the depths, looking for a mark. He was obviously unsatisfied with a 'no catch' day, despite our repeated proclamations of enjoyment and thanks, to which he only responded with, "Prepare to stay until we've met our limit."
Dad nodded as though that was an obvious conclusion. I sat erect, looking at each of them thinking that dinner would be a novel idea come sunset. But as Dad rested back into his deck chair and continued watching the lines, and the other two guys looked out over the water as though they could see the fish, I knew my concerns were not shared and nobody else seemed to care about dinner or darkness on Superior. Dad caught my look and winked. Twenty years ago, that wink would have meant he would take care of things... perhaps, it still did.
Then it hit. The pole bent. Vibrated. Straightened a tad. And bent again. It was a live line!
I squealed at Dad that he had one - which some, and surely my brother Bob, would have seen as an overstatement of the obvious - nonetheless a joyful clatter that brought that twinkle to Dad's eyes and that shitty ass grin to his face.
Captain Mitch quickly hit the line control and the boom bounced - the line was released - he grabbed the rod from the holder and handed it off to my Dad whose hands grasped it as though he had never missed a day on the lake.
The line counter put it out at 212 feet, dragging behind us at an angle, its projection just under the high line and over the backside down riggers. The path was clear. Captain Mitch moved quickly to the wheel and cut the engines down to their slowest troll.
Round and round, over and under, round again, Dad reeled the fish to the boat and I cheered him on, "Keep it coming, Dad, don't stop, don't loose it, you got it, keep him coming." He laughed, he smiled, he laughed again and again.
And there it was - surfing across the top of the water in a furry to catch up with our boat and be landed! Well, maybe not by the fish's choice, but it sure could appear so.
Captain Mitch scooped it up and swung the net around, slowing just in front of Dad, "That's a nice one." And with that, Dad pierced his gills and held him up for his photo.
Then number two hit.
Again, the pole bent, its tip quivering under the tension. Dad moved to the edge of his deck chair - readying himself for the big landing once more and I scurried to his side, proclaiming another arrival.
A sharp winding shrill echoed as the line cleared the tip.
"This is a big one!" Dad announced in a voice louder than it had been for years.
He reeled and reeled. This one was out 298 feet behind us. As I watched his hands move slower, I knew the invitation was coming.
"Here kid, you reel it in."
With the end of the pole facing me, his face holding a tad bit of tiredness, I placed my hand on the reel and Dad placed his hand over mine. Just as he had done when I was a child fishing with him, so now I was helping him land the catch.
Knowing whose glory this was, I wound for a bit, then turned the control back to its rightful owner. Indeed it was bigger than the last.
His grin fills my memory and heart, full faced, eyes twinkling once more. Tears clouded my viewfinder as I took aim at the two he showcased.
"Nice fish, Dad, dang nice fish."
Then the third hit a down rigger! The boom bounced and hands were called to alert.
In all the excitement, the posed prizes were quickly thrown back into the cooler splashing the water everywhere. It covered my husband, Dad's coat, and Dad's face. He grinned ear-to-ear as he wiped his face and we laughed. The water on his face... oh the meaning within... life... living. That was the water he recalled from his brother's eulogy.
As he wiped away the last of the splash, he turned to Frank, grinning still, and jokingly stated, "You won't miss me when I'm gone". Frank made direct eye contact, "Oh yes, Dad, we will all miss you when you are gone." Nodding in acknowledgment, Dad's smile was precious with a 'figure so' look. I leaned close to Dad, winked, and added, "But we will keep your spirit alive every day, every way, just like today."
As the third fish came aboard, Dad began to laugh. With two fingers pointing at the starboard riggers, his half laugh and full smile continued, with his head shaking back and forth, "What I wouldn't give to see you if we were hitting on two down riggers on each side one after another. You would surely be excited," he said to me, "What I wouldn't give to see you then."
"You will, Daddy, you will, but another day."
Captain Mitch began the ritual of the hunt's end. Lines released from their booms, the retrievers brought them home and each was wound tightly and bedded in its reserved spot on the top of the cabin ceiling.
Dad asked me, "Remember?"
On occasion, Dad travels through time, picking up a favorite memory in this year, adding it to a favorite from another year. But it matters not. His reminiscing way means only that these memories are the heart of his soul, regardless of their time and place. Even so, I wasn't quite sure of the topic of his reference. My inquisitive face told him I needed more of a hint. He pointed to the setting sun that had tried so hard to burn off the fog and shine upon us all day. "Remember?"
Oh, and I did. When I was about seven and half (which for any girl of that age is 'going on 10'), Dad and I were fishing at the mouth of the Anna River. We sat in silence - probably the only time I did at that age - when I couldn't hold back my question any longer. "Dad, what is the meaning of life?"
When Dad looked at me somewhat amiss at such a question, I explained, "Well, as I see it, you can't win this game. You are born, but no matter what, you die. Just like the fish, we get taken out of here and we're dead."
Expecting that parents had all the answers and responded immediately, I was sure they were clueless when the answers didn't come quickly. The silence continued for what seemed like hours, which was probably only 15 minutes or so, but I was sure he didn't know. As the sun filled the horizon with a fiery red, Dad pointed to it and said, "That's the meaning."
Today, I looked at Dad and smiled, tears filled my eyes. "Yes, Daddy, I remember."
Then Dad patted my hand and proclaimed it to have been a good day.
This was a great day! What meaning!