Tag Archives: Mississippi

Uncle Dennis and the big fish

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.

LSS: Family Reunion guide

To my 15-year-old daughter’s dismay, Dr. Who and his time-traveling police box are figments of the ample imaginations of the British Broadcasting Company.

For the most part, I am OK with the lack of possibility for time travel — and I believe that gift is in large part due to parents, family and a host of others who insisted on my being engaged with whatever it was that going on at the moment.

Including family reunions.

When I was growing up, my family had family reunions more often than my friends’ families went to the movies. Of course, with time, and the distance it creates, we don’t get together nearly as often as we once did. But in a few weeks, the descendents of my great-grandparents will have what my great-aunt declares “very well may be our last reunion.”

“We’re getting old,” she said.

My great-aunt Joanna is one of the youngest of a slew of children. Her only younger sibling, Mary Ellen, had down syndrome and passed away a few years ago. Aunt Jo still has three brothers and a sister living, but I fear she might be right. Even still, we have a long line of family reunions to uphold.

Since my family lived a block away from Family Reunion Center, aka my great-grandmother’s house, getting to the party was easy. I almost always took my trusty bike. My great-grandmother’s tiny two-bedroom house, with a single bath, seemed like the only logical choice for a reunion locale to any of us. We certainly didn’t all have a place to sit. For that matter, we couldn’t all be inside at the same time. Yet, things worked. Or maybe I just thought they did because I was a kid.

While those people and gatherings shaped so much of my life and perspective, my memories of the events a blur — with people, fried chicken, caramel cakes, tubs of ice and plastic cups asunder.

Those jumbled memories have inspired A Guide to Family Reunions — for one and all, but especially for children, teens and pre-teens.

Few children, teens or pre-teens are going to accept this challenge with their whole hearts. Do them a favor and coax them with what works to do it. In the years to come, they will be glad they did.

– Before you go to a family reunion, ask questions.

– Ask as many family members as possible to tell you a significant family story.

– Find out why your family lives where they live. How long have they been there, and where were they before?

– Ask why you eat the food you eat at family reunions. Who created or perfected the recipes?

– Ask how it is you’re related to other relatives. If your closest adult doesn’t know, find one who does. Keep asking until you have a picture of your family tree in your mind — or better yet, create a family tree on paper.

– Take as many pictures as possible at the reunion, but be sure to take at least one picture of each person there. If you’re ambitious, affix the pictures (digitally or otherwise) to your family tree.

– Take pictures of people bringing food, cooking the food, eating the food and the table in general.

– Take at least three group shots. Group shots are not easy to organize and usually work better before the big meal. If a child is driving the photo, for some reason, it works better. So, kids, don’t be afraid to take the initiative.

– During the reunion, take video if possible. Ask relatives to tell you a story on camera.

– Identify in writing the people in the photographs as quickly as possible. Explain how each person is related.

– Various Internet genealogy sites are great aids in creating family trees.

One day you and those around you will be grateful you took the Family Reunion Challenge. I wish I had done it myself. I regret that so many of those moments that seemed inconsequential at the time aren’t more clearly in focus now. Back then, I mainly concentrated on how long we would have to wait to eat or which game we would play next.

I wish I had one more chance to walk through that living room, dodging legs and stepping over piles of people, listening to that bizarre combination of laughter and awkward silences family reunions sometimes inspire. In my mind, I can see flashes of faces clearly, but I’d love to watch and listen for a few minutes more.

However, if Dr. Who showed up and offered me a trip back, I’m pretty sure I’d head straight to the kitchen and sit with my great-grandmother as she made yet another apple pie — and I’d take it in as best I could.

(Jan Risher’s column Long Story Short appears Sundays. Email her at jan@janrisher.com.)

LSS: Rivals offer new outlook on life

I grew up in a small town.

In trying to convey its size, my memory debated all week if there were three or four stop lights. Either way, you get the picture.

As small as our town was, we were the largest town in the county. Another small town, 12 miles down the highway was our rival.

We were Forest.

They were Morton.

Conveying the level of the rivalry is beyond my skills. But I will tell you that for thousands of people in this county, in football and basketball, whether Forest beat Morton (or vice versa) defined much happiness, self-respect and a basic belief in goodness. The rivalry went beyond sports and deep into our psyches.

They were the enemy.

If you lived in one town and had friends in the other, you were regarded with a strange blend of suspicion and respect by most. In extreme cases, there were people who actually dated people from the other town.

Most of us knew people in Morton, but my family very much kept our social circles on our side of the county.

That is until I started lifeguarding at a lake outside of Morton.

And, in the second summer I lifeguarded, I really crossed the line. Everything about my life was up in the air. I was 16. My mother had a baby. My dad left coaching to become principal of another high school in another town. My family loaded up and moved 50 miles down the road.

The combination of pulling up roots so deep, combined with the new baby and the job change for my dad shook everything I knew to be. My world was spinning. My parents were so occupied that I had more time and liberty than I ever had before.

In the course of that summer that was rather full of magic, I became great friends with Kim Cooper and Cindy Parker — two girls from Morton.

And that grand friendship shaped much of the rest of my life. During those few short months, I realized that I had a lot in common with Kim and Cindy — more in fact than most of my lifelong friends in Forest. Discovering those commonalities with people from, of all places, Morton, forever changed the way I thought about making friends.

The deep friendships we made that summer sent me on my way to making strong friendships with new people across the world.

Looking back, the whole rivalry scene blows my mind. But it wasn’t crazy back then. We all believed in our little towns, and they had a great sense of place.

Even though these girls were from less than 15 miles down the road, their friendships led me to the discovery that I could become great friends with people I hadn’t known all my life and with people I perceived to have very different backgrounds than my own.

And to learn that with a little exploring, finding common ground with others really wasn’t all that tricky.

When I count my blessings, those two girls are on my list.

Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, appears in Lafayette, Louisiana’s The Daily Advertiser ever Sunday. Email her at jan@janrisher.com.

LSS: Rolling around again

Even though Piper, my 9-year-old daughter, can’t make it all the way around the rink on her own, her latest fixation of roller skating is another example of the adage, “Everything old is new again.”
Piper loves to roller skate. Based on her newfound love, I’m thinking roller skating may be making a comeback.
Truthfully, what Piper does really couldn’t be considered as skating. Even so, there’s something about putting on those skates and doing her best to go round and round that the child simply adores. It’s completely new to her. In fact, she’s only been twice, but she talks about it nonstop.
By the time I was her age, roller skating was old hat to me. Well, that’s not true—roller skating never became old hat. We went often, always as a large group and usually on a church bus, but it was still a thrill. Anticipating a trip to the roller rink (about 30 miles from the tiny town where I grew up) could keep me awake at night. It was exciting stuff.
When we went to the roller rink, they hosted one big life-altering event every time we went. At some point in the course of the evening, they’d turn the lights down and all the girls would squeal because we knew what would happen next. With the disco ball in the middle sending little stars all over the walls and our clothes (which all the girls had chosen carefully in hopes of the chance to shine in the black light effect during that very moment), we would prepare for The Big Event. (By the way, in an unwritten rule, the girls never wore dark clothes to the roller rink so they could look cool under the black light.)
In the way I remember what happened next, the boys would be lined up on one side of the rink and the girls on the other. What happened next was rather brutal from a 10-year-old girl’s perspective. The skate manager would pick one boy. That kid would have to skate to the girls’ side of the rink and pick one girl. They would then be forced to hold hands and skate round and round—all by themselves, with everyone watching, until the song ended. Then they would drop hands. The boy would go pick another girl, and the girl would go pick another boy. Repeat. For about three songs or so, every girl and boy would stand there, holding their breath, wondering if he or she would be the next chosen.
It was exhilarating and awful all in one.
What happened during those three songs provided enough fodder for gossip for weeks.
My daughter doesn’t have any deep emotional connection to the roller rink. I asked her what it was about it that she liked so much.
“It’s just fun, and it’s sort of challenging,” she said. “Learning a new thing is interesting. The problem with it is that the skates are way too heavy and when you fall, you fall really hard.”
I believe part of her interest in roller skating could be the real consequences it offers. Roller skating is not virtual.
“When you fall, it really hurts,” she said—and that’s an important lesson to learn.
Thus far, she has demonstrated the appropriate response.
When she falls, she gets back up and just keeps going—and it won’t be long until she makes it all the way around unassisted.