It seems that the majority of parents, mothers and fathers alike, succumb to the notion that our children will primarily or exclusively remember the major events in life: the big vacations to Disney Land, some grandiose birthday party or that ‘really amazing gift’ from Santa Claus that one Christmas. And because of this, we tend to focus on these kinds of things and events, putting in so much effort and time and money on the event that we can forget the little people that it was supposed to be for. And we forget how and what they remember.
Sure, I recall one of my birthday parties (my twelfth, where I got my first two CD’s: Nirvana’s Nevermind and Stone Temple Pilot’s Core, as well as my first CD player). And I remember some moments of the various vacations and adventures my parents afforded me and my brother.
But these are not the things that come to mind when I think of my childhood or reach back for those pivotal moments of my life when it came to the influence of my parents. In fact, the moment I remember most about my father was mundane and no words were spoken at all. It is a memory that has stayed with me my entire life, occurring some 33 years ago now when I was around five years old.
I grew up in Camas, Washington–a small town along the banks of the Columbia River, just north and to the east of Portland, Oregon. Back then it was a mill town. If you didn’t know anyone who worked at the Camas paper mill you were a rare bird indeed. Most of my extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents worked or had worked at the mill at some point, if not for the entirety of their careers. The high school football team’s mascot is a ‘paper maker’–not exactly fear-inducing, is it? This was a small, blue-collar town and the streets and woods surrounding it were my home.
It wasn’t only the quaintness of the town that made my childhood magical, but the era. The 1980’s and early 90’s were the twilight of a now distant epoch of American culture–not that there ever was a singular ‘American culture’, but think of Leave It to Beaver and work with me here. Yes, we did in fact ‘stay out until the street lights came on’. We rode bikes and skateboards to the public pool or one of many lakes and rivers. We made forts and spontaneously had dinners at our friend’s homes. We traded baseball cards and played pickup ball at the park. We got dirty. We climbed trees. We caught snakes and picked blackberries. And when we needed to notify our parents about our comings and goings we borrowed phones from the cashier at the movie theater or the arcade, or we picked up a pay phone.
I didn’t just have a backyard; I had a town. A town matched with the perfect era, allowing me to roam wildly and develop as a child without the distractions that much of modernity brings.
And we fished.
I grew up fishing along the Washougal River with my father for Chinook salmon every autumn. We would wake before dawn and he would bring cheap coffee in one of those old-school Thermos’ and I would get chocolate milk–in a paper carton, of course. And we would head out in the dark to a host of places: Hathaway Park, The Flats, Oaks Park and the like.
I recall being down in Oaks Park, one of the various holes and fishing spots along the river, once when I was a kid and my father using an an old flash camera to get a glowing corky lure to shine. He would cusp it in his hands just so, careful to not let rays of light out so as to not annoy the other people fishing and not spook the fish, of course. I remember the sound of the tall grass along the bank, and the smell of cool autumn morning air.
But this isn’t my earliest memory.
I remember catching my first salmon when I was 8 years old at Hathaway Park. The bank was lined with the very best Camas and Washougal had to offer (note sarcasm), standing shoulder to shoulder patiently waiting–-some with their lines out, and others watching and listening for that sound. I can still hear the fish coming around the bend a couple hundred yards down river through rapids only a few inches deep from the ‘Light House’, a hole which I think was so-named because the neighboring house had a tiny wooden or ceramic light house near the banks (fishermen associate fishing spots with various things, which become trends, which in turn become lore). The Chinook traveled into the hole and I hooked into one. I remember my father yelling, ‘get your lines out of the water! this is my boy’s first fish!’. I get emotional even recounting stories like this and I remember it so vividly–always associating it with smell, which is my primary memory-instigator. I remember the strain on the inside upper part of my right arm as I struggled to keep the fish on with my 8 year-old strength. I remember it taking off and reeling it back in until I could feel it giving up. I remember people cheering as I dragged it in and the look of pride on my father’s face. I remember the pounding of my heart having just landed a fish that was a third of my own body weight.
But that isn’t my earliest memory either.
Rather, it was a time when I was so young that I wasn’t fishing at all. It was just me and dad. It was daylight, partly sunny and we were about 8 miles up that river from where it meets the great Columbia. I remember it like it was yesterday and I could drive and walk to the exact spot right now. I was playing in the rocks looking for crawdads and he was fishing some 50 feet or so from me downstream to my right. At one moment I looked up and, with his line in the water, he looked over at me and smiled. I remember his face–youthful, being only 24 or 25 years old at that time. I remember his long-ish hair. I can still smell the air and hear the sound that the large rocks made as I put them back after looking for my prey–an instant combination of thud and water-echo, that the reader either knows or doesn’t.
And that’s it.
It is the earliest clear memory of my father. No roller coasters. No cotton candy. No Mickey Mouse. No noise. No words. Not even a touch. It was an ordinary moment, like thousands of others that a father and son will have with one another. It was just a glance along the banks of the Washougal River.
My small army of six children includes four boys. And I think of this often when I am with them. Like many fathers, I find myself busy tending to their needs and longing for ‘great events’ that I can experience with them. Sometimes such longings take fruition–more often than not, they don’t as time eludes me and quickly becomes the distant past. But that story is always with me, tempering the expectations that I have on myself to ‘do’ and ‘go’ and ‘spend’ and ‘make’. It reminds me that what really matters are the ordinary, loving encounters that we have with our children–encounters that when stitched together make up a great tapestry. Encounters that just might provide the fodder for my own children’s earliest memories.
~ post scriptum ~
I’m typically pensive about… well… everything, and my children have never been an exception (whether that be in joys or in periods where I felt like Cat Stevens was singing about my life in Cats in the Cradle…). But I have been more pensive in the last three years and especially in the last 14 months, as I have gone through a separation and am now entering into a divorce–against my will and against what I feel is my better judgement, not to mention the will of my children who are equal parts our family, yet have no say in the matter. I thought I had a pretty comprehensive understanding of what it meant to be a parent and father. As it should be, my fatherhood was one side of a single coin called ‘parenthood’; the incarnating fruition of a marriage; the advent of family. You couldn’t, in short, separate my fatherhood from their mother’s motherhood–it was a single unit, a ‘one flesh’, regardless of her failures or mine. Whether my children and I like it or not, I am forced to reconsider what it means for me to be, then, a ‘parent’ and a ‘father’ specifically. How does it change? To what degree do I need to now attempt and fail to make up for the lack of their mother being with me as I father? Do I force a fake maternalism while I struggle to try and muster even an impotent version of ‘mama’? Do I have to be softer? Harder? How do I explain to them what is happening to their lives vs. what I once told them they could know with certainty about ‘marriage’ and ‘family’? I am learning and being ‘pensive about everything’, I thirst for more. Like most things worth a damn, questions are asked and the answers yield to all the more questions. I’m ready. I have no choice. I only get one life, and they only get one father. +++