A Fish Story

When I was growing up, there was no one braver than mom. I was not the only one who felt this way. All of the neighborhood kids, my brother, my sister, cousins and relatives,  students in her class.

There was her. Then there was a big gap. Then there was the rest of the world. It wasn’t until much later that I realized she was also an amazing actress. I might have been confused about the bravery. 

Mom grew up in a small city in New York. Not New York City, but it was still a city to her country-raised kids. We lived on an acre of land and if you “cut down the back,” trespassing through a neighbor’s yard, you’d arrive at Sparkle Lake. It wasn’t the sparkliest of lakes, but was still a pretty great place to spend a childhood.

You could swim to the float. You could jump off the dock. You could fish for hours. You could catch boats full of turtles. And, if you were with my brother, you could go frogging.

My brother knew the best frogging spots around the lake. He knew that the biggest, most beautiful frogs were never actually in the lake; they were in the swamps in the lake woods. We spent hours filling buckets with frogs. Sometimes letting them go. Sometimes bringing them home, eager to see if they would learn how to cut down the back.

Mom’s city friends often sent their kids up to our house in the summer. There was always plenty of room in our three bedroom ranch house and kids would sleep where they dropped. The basement, the backyard, the huge shed that dad built near the pool. She’d feed us french fries, carrot sticks, and popcorn. And occasionally pancakes. Kid heaven.

Her very close city-friend, Mary,  had two daughters who visited us in the summer. They were perfect little city girls, with perfect little city outfits and perfect little city haircuts. Their nails were always clean and their knees were never bandaged.  They were afraid of everything wonderful to us: dogs, spiders, bats, bees, the dark. The girls had never seen a frog. Except maybe in a book.

Mom convinced my brother and me to drag the girls along on a frogging expedition. No sooner had we cut down the back, than the girls ran for safety. I am sure my brother flicked a spider at one or threatened them with tales of a neighbor’s rabid dog. These were the days before my brother discovered that girls with perfect hair and outfits, girls with clean fingernails and knees, those girls were pretty cute. We watched them leave, happy to be done with the city kids and eager to begin another frogging-filled day.

As we set ourselves up at one of the prime swamps, we saw mom, dragging those girls behind her, determined that they would experience the country, frogs and all. One of the girls wrapped her entire body around mom’s leg. The other sobbed, big weepy, sad sobs, with her arms around mom’s waist. Somehow, mom bent down to the edge of the swamp and instructed  my brother to hold his latest catch out close to her. She showed the girls how to gently touch the frog. How to turn it over. How to look at its fine jumping legs and piercing yellow eyes. The girls settled a bit. The sobs changed to hiccups.

So mom moved on to the frog catching demonstration.

She had each girl crouch on the sides of her. Watch me girls, she said. And with that, she dipped her hand into the swamp and grabbed. A catfish. She grabbed this gigantic catfish, with long sharp whiskers and a fin on the top like a shark. It was perfect timing, I guess. Or maybe terrible timing. We could see it through the water as it slithered in her hands. It was probably more of a touch than a grab, but in my mind, she clenched that fish, instinctively, unable to let go.

And then she screamed. A long, primal scream. And the fish was gone.

Four mouths dropped open. Four sets of eyes popped out of four heads. Several long seconds transpired as we digested what had just happened. Not the fish. The scream.

That is when my brother and I realized, ever so briefly,  that even bravery takes a break sometimes. Even the bravest woman in the world is startled when she expects a frog and gets a fish.

That’s my new motto for motherhood: When Frogging, Expect the Occasional Fish.

And when it happens — the star player gets cut from the team, the strong student brings home a C, the best friend becomes the worst enemy, the kid you could always trust becomes the teenager you rarely can, think of the bravest woman in the world. Release your grip. Let go. Scream if you have to. The fish will slip away.

And without the unexpected fish, you take those beautiful frogs for granted.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top