The Things My Father Taught Me


The heartbeat of past generations becomes the rhythm of our lives

One of my most cherished memories of my dad took place in a small metal rowboat on a smooth, placid lake in the forests of Wisconsin. Let me tell you a little about the man who had a hand in shaping my life.

My father was dedicated to his wife and children. Holding two jobs, he wouldn’t allow my mother to work, and he often took on additional consulting projects to keep food on the table and school tuition for six children paid.

In hindsight, it seems his work schedule left little opportunity to spend time with him, but those special moments when I did are branded in my memory — precious treasure to visit and re-live at any time.

Every summer, my dad rented a two-bedroom cottage on a pristine lake in northern Wisconsin — an eight-hour drive away. It was our one-week family vacation — a time when we could all be together with few distractions. Instead of the responsibilities of work, he filled the long days and evenings by enjoying his favorite pastime — fishing.

My dad was a master organizer, filling every nook and cranny with exacting precision. Packing the station wagon with six kids, sleeping bags, fishing poles, three coolers, and live bait, he loaded the car from top to bottom with General Patton-like efficiency.

In addition to supplies, provisions, and live cargo, five pieces of luggage filled a rack on top of the car. Secured with thick nylon straps that protected the bags from gusting wind and heavy rains, he would check and double-check their position and stability, then cover everything with a heavy tarp to keep the weather and bugs at bay.

The night before, he’d filled the gas tank and checked the air in the tires. When he was satisfied everything — and everyone — was secure, he was ready to hit the road. After taking a final headcount, he’d wink at my mom, then back out of the driveway, testing the weight balance for the first few blocks.

In spite of the long road trip ahead of him, my dad was able to overlook the anxious excitement of six pent-up kids, lying head-to-feet across the collapsed rear seats. In an effort to keep us calm, he’d always suggest a few car games to occupy our time and short attention spans.

We usually began with counting the number of Fords on the road, then license plates from neighboring states, and finally, cows. Eventually — with my mom’s permission — we broke open the new Archie comic books that she’d hidden better and longer than any Christmas gift.

My mother kept my dad caffeinated with coffee poured from a Thermos, while popping orange slices and licorice into his mouth. She also took control of the radio, occasionally turning it up to override our noise level and keep him focused on the road. Eight hours later — after a single break for lunch at a halfway-point rest stop — we arrived at the dirt road leading to a rustic, wooden cottage tucked into a pine-scented forest.

It was usually dark by then, and as we carried luggage, groceries, and fishing tackle into the small cabin, we took turns using the single bathroom before deciding where each of us would sleep.

In the morning, my dad was the first one up — and my mom wasn’t far behind. We woke to the smell of bacon, eggs, and toast, and a call to go fishing. My father always reserved two boats — one for my mom and us kids so we could row out past the shore to fish for perch and bluegills. The second was the “real” boat that he used to motor out toward deeper waters.

Since we all liked to fish, there was always an animated discussion to determine who would get the coveted seat in my dad’s boat. Only those who were willing to wake up before dawn, bait their own hook, clean their catch, and stay out on the lake until dark made the cut. As a ten-year-old girl, none of those options were a good fit for me.

One day, when everyone else was occupied picking berries or gathering firewood for the night’s bonfire, he asked if I wanted to go fishing with him. It was the middle of the afternoon, and my eyes must’ve lit up because he smiled and said, “I’ll even let you use my lucky fishing rod.”

I couldn’t believe it — I’d finally have the chance to try his trusted blue fishing pole.

I pulled on my sneakers, grabbed a life preserver, and we headed to the pier. My dad loaded fishing gear, bait, and a cooler with drinks into the boat. After securing the buckle on my preserver, he checked the gas can to be sure it was full and untied the bowline.

My dad dropped the 15hp Evinrude engine’s prop into the water and started the motor. We were on our way, headed to one of his favorite fishing spots — just past the reeds where the “big ones” were hiding. Ten minutes later, he cut the engine and I dropped the front anchor. After confirming it took hold, he waited for the boat to shift into position before setting the stern weight.

When he opened his tackle box, I saw rows of perfectly organized plastic boxes filled with colorful lures, rolls of weight-tested line, and of course, his Bullfrog SPF40 sunscreen. After coating our faces and arms, he set up three fishing poles, setting two of them aside on the seat.

Sitting beside me, he told me it was time I learned how to cast for game fish. Then my dad put the blue pole in my hands.

Until now, my fishing expertise was limited to baiting a wriggling, dirt-encrusted worm on a small J-hook and plunking it over the side of the boat. But on that day — with the patience of Job and the skill of a seasoned mariner — my father taught me how to whip a flexible, unwieldy fishing rod through the air, how to hold and release the bale, when to feed the line, and how to drop the lure in exactly the right spot on the water’s surface.

Although there were many false starts, tangled lines, and even a lost lure or two, my dad’s patience never wavered, and I thought about all the fish he could have been catching instead of giving me his undivided attention. Eventually, he decided I was ready to cast on my own. Realizing he was turning me loose brought back the same feelings I had when he removed the training wheels from my first two-wheeled bike — scared, nervous, yet hopeful I would make him proud and stay upright.

The things my father taught me through the years are countless. But in that one vacation — in the tenth year of my youth — it all seemed to boil down to a few simple lessons:

  • If you plan well and stay organized, you’ll always have everything you need.
  • Set your anchor well and you’ll never have to worry about drifting into the weeds.
  • The sun can be harsh. Protect yourself and those around you.
  • If you know what you’re aiming for, and keep trying, eventually you’ll hit your target.
  • Share your knowledge and experience with others. Be patient and watch your seeds grow.
  • Always make sure you have enough gas to make it back home to shore.

My dad passed away twenty-four years ago. It seems like the blink of an eye to me, and every day I’m thankful when I remember all the things I learned from him in the short time he was here.

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