I tried a long time ago to write this story into a picture book as a gift
for the boy who stars in it. It seems it has emerged instead as an essay.
It’s long for a blog, but I think some of you will enjoy it
Ian and the Blue Gill
Three women, ranging in age from senior to ancient, are settled in
circle at the end of the dock. The chairs have been dragged down to
pond from the main house, metal lawn chairs with woven seats in white
green, and there are only those three, so Ian and I sit on the wooden
of the dock. A little while ago, there were some bigger boys, young
teenagers in baggy shorts and skinny chests, daring each other to swim in
the murky water, but they’re gone now, leaving this little
The old women wear cotton skirts and sensible shoes and
hats to protect their good complexions. Gnarled fingers fix
fishing lines trail lazily in the water of the small pond. The
air is thick
and still, so hot I find it hard to breathe, and my son’s pale
flushed. We are Colorado natives, and this is the countryside of
between Missouri and Illinois and I’d rather be almost anywhere
this farmland with three old woman fishing.
hate fishing. I hate humidity. I hate the heat. I had been
the family gathering with my husband’s family, but the reality
It’s hard to understand some of their deep south accents, and
understand references to times and people I don’t know. And maybe
not patronizing me, the much-younger, blond wife of an older
African-American man, but all the usual in-law negotiations of time and
fitting in make it feel like they might be. I’m shy, which makes it worse.
I’m not even thirty and bookish and wilting in this heat they all take for
granted and I don’t even know where I fit in the world I came from, much
less this one.
But here we are. My younger boy, never
still, running like a
banshee with his wild hair and wilder grin around the
orchard with his
cousins, and he is a Williams, through and through, the
spitting image of
his grandmother, sitting here on the dock in the dappled
midafternoon. Ian and I share a more pensive nature, and we have
the dock so Ian can fish with his grandmother, Lurelean, who is
one of the
kindest humans I have ever known and will influence my life more
than I can
even begin to imagine that day, on the dock.
then, in all my bristling insecurity, I know for sure that my
loves me, and my boys. She sees through to the truth of
marriage, for all the differences in age and culture, is a
match, and she is overjoyed that her son, who wandered and
settled at last, a kind father, a good husband.
It gives me
comfort to sit with Lurelean on the dock. Still, I’m
feeling slightly ill in
the oppressive, inescapable heat. I can’t return to
the house because,
sitting with the old woman is one small white boy with an
and his own fishing line, baited for him by his
grandmother, who is sitting
with one of her sisters, and their mother,
Grandma Mag, past ninety, and
wearing glasses so thick her eyes look
cartoony. Grandma Mag, it must be
said, has no patience left in her for
small children-she’s raised or helped
raise too many of them, and she’s not
interested in caretaking any more.
Fishing is her passion, and she holds no
truck with conversation. Ian
promises to be quiet, and she grudgingly lets
Honestly, I have no idea where he got the idea that he wanted to
fish in the
first place. I can’t even imagine that he’s ever heard anyone
it. We live in the city and none of my family have ever
fished. We rarely
go to the mountains or even to the reservoir, where he
might have seen
But there he sits with the old women, his
fishing line in the
water. He’s five. Surprisingly pretty, with a plump
mouth and vivid,
changeable eyes and tumbles of blond hair which tends to be
too long because
I’m forgetful and don’t get it cut as often as I should.
He’s so earnest,
sitting there, waiting for a fish. The women comment on
his stillness, both
surprised and proud, but I could tell them his
tenaciousness is already
legendary. His hands, which will one day be long
and graceful and very
beautiful, are still a little plump. He focuses. The
old women murmur to
one another now and then. They’ve caught some blue
gills, which are kept
alive in a cooler.
I sit near the
back of the dock, drinking a soda, trying to stay
out of the sun, though it
doesn’t really matter. In Colorado, just stepping
into the shade will drop
the temperature twenty degrees. Not so here, and I
have discovered it
doesn’t even get cool at night. First thing in the
morning, it’s still
humid and still and thick. Honestly, I’m miserable.
Trying to be brave and
cheerful in such wretched weather-that doesn’t seem
to be bothering anybody
else, even though we will later hear it was 106
degrees with humidity in the
90s-and all I really want to do is dive into
the water where my tears will
be hidden. And yet, even that is not a
possibility. I’ve seen snapping
turtles in the water, the evil triangular
head of a snake glide by, silent
Suddenly, the thick dull silence is punctured by
Exclamations. Ian has hooked a fish! His grandmother leaps to her
help him reel it in, and there it is, thrashing and splashing
line, a slippery, glistening blue gill. It shines in the sun,
and they land
it together, and put it in its own cooler of water. It stares
wildly up at
us, and Ian squats down to admire it, beaming at the praise of
women. Even the ancient one warms the slightest
And that’s that. He declines the offer of another baited
isn’t interested in fishing anymore, though he sits quietly and
his grandmother. His dad comes down to the dock and Ian shows
catch, and everyone fusses once again.
As the day
wanes, the children are cranky, and it’s time to drive
back to St. Louis.
Ian is anxious about his fish. "How will we get him
home?" he asks. "What
will we feed him?"
One of the men now on the dock laughs
heartily. "Son, you’ll eat
him, not the other way around."
"What?" His eyes fill with tears. "I don’t want to eat him!"
Everyone chuckles this away at first, thinking he’s just encountering
reality of eating what you’ve killed. They think he’ll change his mind
he takes a bit of that sweet flesh.
But his grandmother is looking
at him in her careful way. She puts
her hand on his back. "What do you want
to do with him, baby?"
Ian says, "I want to take him
It dawns on me, finally, where he got the idea of fishing.
year at the local State Fair, there is a display by the Fish and
Organization, a giant freshwater aquarium, filled with big river
swimming in splendor for all to see. Ian loves it, the coppery,
fish, their long feathery tails.
There in the
cooler is a shimmery blue fish with ruffling fins.
"You wanted a pet," I
say. "You thought you would get to keep him?"
Arranged around us are the old women, who love to
catch fish and
eat them. And men who’ve fed their families on the fish they
animals they killed. They are not happy with boys who cry, and
reason. In their old world, it served them to make men tough and
But there is Lurelean, who gently shakes her head at the
"He’s as tender-hearted as his daddy," she says, and that daddy
"We can’t take him home, son," he says. "But we can
let him go."
Someone protests. "That’s a good supper
"Leave the boy alone," Lurelean says, enfolding her
around the boy’s. His daddy carries the cooler, and together,
the three of
them tip the fish into the water, where it dives into the
depths and swims
away, traumatized but free to live another
Finally, we are driving back to St. Louis in the
children are exhausted, and I sit in the back seat with them,
one on either
side. Lurelea sat in the front seat with her own boy, who
used to take two
buses on a Saturday afternoon to go to shop for her hearing
aid battery. A
boy maybe a bit too sensitive for his environment who grew
up and became a
man who could help a boy tip a living fish back in the
talking quietly, peacefully, and I am enfolded in the
We’re passing little towns and
bushes and wide fields of grass.
Where, suddenly I see stars. In the grass.
"Stop the car!" I cry "What is
My husband pulls over.
"What is it?"
"Are those fireflies?"
laughs gently. "Isn’t that a wonder. Child, you’ve never
The boys and I stare open mouthed, shaking our heads.
live in Colorado. In astonished wonder, we stand at the edge of
watching light dance in the twilight, humidity enveloping us like
quiet of evening like acceptance, the sparks of belonging dancing