My uncle Dennis was a fisherman.
Though he kept his feet planted firmly in the red dirt along the banks of small ponds, creeks and oxbow lakes near and along the meandering Mississippi, he was a fisherman of grand proportion.
He always prided himself on a good catch.
No one who knew my uncle Dennis back when his kids and I were growing up needed keen powers of observation to recognize that he was a man who loved to fish. Though he has mellowed in the last few decades and allergies prevent him from fishing as much as he used to, even at 80, he can pull out a good fish tale for almost any occasion.
When Mark, his first grandson was born, my uncle easily stepped into the role of Pa. He and his grandson spent hours together romping round their farm, digging worms and, of course, fishing. One afternoon when the little boy was four or five, I was sitting in my aunt and uncle’s living room with a caboodle of cousins.
Mark and Uncle Dennis were out at the small pond behind the garden behind the windmill. My cousins and I were sitting in the living room. It was one of those days that was the stock of mid-1970s Southern childhood. I have no exact memory of what we were doing, but lots of laughter was involved — and maybe a tear or two, as well, but we were no worse for the wear.
For those of you too young to remember the mid-1970s, my generation spent many afternoons back then doing very little. You might consider that time unstructured and unproductive, but it was glorious. Those lazy mornings that stretched into afternoons and evenings went a long way in building the bonds I continue to share with my cousins.
At some point that particular afternoon, the side door opened and in walked my uncle and Mark.
“Where are the fish?” Aunt Hazel exclaimed, in a voice that traveled the range of two octaves over the course of a sentence.
“Well,” my uncle said, with a funny look on his face, “We caught a big one.”
“Where is it?” we all said in unison.
Through the years, I’ve never forgotten how Mark was standing there beside his grandfather, with his head hanging a little low. They both were acting sheepish and strange. I didn’t know what had happened, but their odd demeanors piqued my interest. Clearly, something strange had occurred that made the day not-just-another-fishing-trip.
Uncle Dennis seemed hesitant to speak. In retrospect, I think he may have been a little ill at ease with what he had done.
The pair, grandfather and grandson, just kept standing there, and again, we all asked, “Where are the fish?”
“We only caught one,” Uncle Dennis said, “but it was a nice one. We caught it early on, and through the course of the afternoon (long pause), Mark became attached to it.”
This was not speak that typically came from my uncle.
I was amazed and couldn’t hold back any longer.
“He became attached to it?” I asked.
“That’s what he said,” Uncle Dennis responded.
“Wait,” I said. “Mark said he became attached to the fish?”
“Well, yes, Jan, he did. Those were his exact words — he became attached to the fish.”
As amazed as I was that a child would use such language, I was even more stunned that my uncle had succumbed to the sentiment of a little boy who — over the course of an afternoon, decided he loved a fish.
Uncle Dennis went on to explain that, together, they had released the fish and walked home quietly — and fishless.
My uncle, who enjoyed walking through the door with a string of fish more than anyone I knew, had let that one go.
I was dumbfounded.
Now, it all makes sense to me. I finally understand why Uncle Dennis released that fish all those years ago — and also why I didn’t understand it back then.
That was before I understood the power of loving of a child.