There are those who would deem a riverbank, with its lack of tutors, coaches, interactive computer modulations or cutting edge technological advances, an odd place to learn major life lessons. My father knew otherwise. The hours I spent with him on riverbanks across the Northwest instilled lessons vital in shaping what I believe and who I have become. Of course, the intelligence gained and lessons learned were far too numerous to articulate or even remember. Often memories I thought long forgotten vividly play in my mind and provide clarity and direction for decisions I currently face. This week I share three of the myriad insights I gathered in those quiet, life-altering moments with my father and my fishing pole.
Lesson 1: Independence is an acquired skill. My father embraced the adage “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” He taught me to fish. If I was going to fish with my dad, I was going to be responsible for everything associated with that endeavor. We would rise early, head back to the compost pile and dig for worms. I was taught to bait my own hook, cast, and on more occasions than I’d like to admit, rescue my tangled line from the mucky debris where I’d securely lodged my hook. It also included navigating down cliffs, across slimy log bridges above sheer death-defying drops and along churning rivers in search of the “perfect fishing hole”. Along with the resultant scars, I gradually developed my father’s conviction I was capable of keeping up with anyone. Looking at my own girls, I realize the kind of parental confidence, trust and restraint it took. My father achieved the tenuous balance between teaching enough to allow me to succeed on my own and giving me enough room to fail and try again. I don’t recall at any point in my life subsequent to those fishing endeavors wondering if I was capable of “doing something” or tackling anything placed before me. My father taught me independence and understanding that perseverance, diligent effort and practice will always result in a measure of success.
Lesson 2: Once you find a good egg, don’t lose it. Family vacations were almost always peppered with “stops” at a good-looking river for a cast. One early summer day we stopped on the banks of the Wenatchee River in our “war wagon”, our families’ fond term for our yellow canoe-toting, wood-paneled Pontiac station wagon (When loaded with a dog, three kids and motorcycle, it provided entertainment for passing motorists). After promising only a couple of casts, my father spent a good hour on the bank, to no avail. The tackle box slowly emptied of options as flies, lures, marshmallows, worms and eggs were tried one by one. We could see the fish, but they didn’t appear to enjoy any of the options. Finally, with a promise of “last cast”, dad loaded his pole with a new red egg and set the jar at his feet. As the egg hit the water, a huge rainbow trout immediately bit. Landing the fish, the container of “winner” eggs was accidentally kicked into the river. It beckoned from the clear, cold river bottom, six feet below. With promise of a candy bar, I was entreated to “go swimming” in the ice cold river, to retrieve the eggs. An hour later we loaded into the car with a cooler full of fish and a life lesson tucked away safely in my wet and cold head. I learned there are things in life that are worth going after, even if it means getting a little uncomfortable. In an era of disposable relationships and disintegrating families, this is a lesson that is particularly meaningful to me. Sometimes to save a good egg… or friendship, or marriage, we have to expend some effort. The water may look icy, and we may be really comfortable where we are, but when we taste the wonderful results of our efforts, it is all worth it.
Lesson 3: That which does not kill you, but merely causes you pain, will make you stronger (or at least smarter). An interesting thing about river water is it still runs when temperatures feel below freezing. In the winter, the water is frigid and often wild. Real fishermen (the ones you see when you cross your local bridges) stand in the water hours on end, perfectly still in their hip boots, projecting to the world the “water is fine.” My dad was not of the “frozen river stander” ilk. He employed the “trudge through the water at lightning speed until you find a good-looking fishing hole” technique. For a school girl in her mother’s adult hip boots, the first brand of fisherman would have been the easier guide. I was in no way equipped to follow my father down the icy river at his pace. This was made abundantly clear the fateful day I lost focus and slipped into the icy river. It was fairly shallow, and other than filling my hip boots with the ice water, I was uninjured. Frozen, I internalized the lesson — looking too far down the path you are traveling risks losing focus on where you are currently standing. Continuing down the river, I noticed a fisherman busting his gut at my misfortune. Full of indignation and irritation, I rapidly learned lesson number two. Stepping into a deep crevice, I repeated my hip boot-filling endeavor. Becoming angry or concerned about someone else’s reaction to your mistakes invariably makes them worse.
My dad has been gone 10 years, but each time I pass a riverbank he, and the life lessons he taught, are right with me.
Julie Reece-DeMarco is an award-winning, multi-published author, speaker and attorney. She enjoys spending time outside in the beautiful Northwest with her husband and four daughters.