THE THINGS WE DREAM
My father taught school and coached high school sports for a long time, almost four decades. It was a consuming part of his life; he committed to the students he taught or coached, and that meant a lot of long work days, and working on weekends. He and my mom also had five children, and he was committed to us, too.
So it left my dad very little free time to enjoy activities many of us engage in regularly. For my dad, it was a special day — an escape, a holiday even — when he simply got a few hours to go fishing, to go sledding with us kids on the snow hills around our small town in southwestern Minnesota, to play a good game of cards with fellow teachers. Regular activities as common as rain for most of us. But, for my dad, it was a luxury when there was time to do anything like that.
He banked a lot on having more time for those kinds of activities when he retired. He and my mom bought a trailer home and put it on a lake west of Alexandria. And my dad fished there some times, but, before he could really even say he was retired — let alone enjoy retirement — his long-time battle with diabetes overwhelmed him. He became extremely ill while in his late 60s, and died at the age of 70.
So my poem, “Pontoon Dream,” which I drew from a photo of my dad that used to hang in my mom’s porch, is not exactly a portrait of my father in a commonly-seen mode. Rather, the poem, like the photo and like my father’s life, is, as the title suggests, almost a portrait of a dream: it’s a moment in life I think my father wished he’d have been able to live more often.
He’s really happy, really proud of his catch. In the poem, I make an allusion to him being “almost a proud boy again.” A couple of readers have asked me exactly what that means. Largely it comes from this: When he was a boy, he loved to fish — often just hauling in muddy green bullheads from small Iowa lakes. One of his brothers shares that love, and on occasion they were able to fish together. Sometimes at the lake where my dad’s trailer was, sometimes on bigger lakes. But I think fishing was a way not necessarily for my dad to relax — it was so squeezed in between everything else that it couldn’t have been too relaxing — but perhaps more a way to remember his childhood. Huck Finn moments, kids in the years of the Great Depression hiking off to a creek or lake with a rod and pocketful of bait.
There’s another activity from my childhood that strikes me similar to the way the fishing photo does. My father finding momentary happiness in the most simple of things, yet one he seldom had time to do. My brothers and sisters and I would go sledding on a fairly large hill north of town, using those red plastic toboggans to glide down until a stand of cattails and prairie grasses would catch us. My father would drive us out to the hills. Sometimes, he would sled with us — not on a toboggan, because we sometimes didn’t have enough to go around — but on a scoop shovel! A snow shovel or grain shovel. Dad would sit in the shovel, holding the handle up and out in front of him, as if it were a big steering stick on an old airplane. He’d shove off, his butt thumping along on the snow clumps and rocks of the hill. Sometimes he’d fall off the small seat the shovel provided, sometimes he’d deliberately start to spin it around, sometimes he’d make it down to the cattails. He would laugh, unchecked. A freedom, a happiness that was without weight or without demand.
We all want that, of course, for ourselves and for those we love: true happiness, and for more than just an occasional Saturday afternoon in the snow or summer weekday at a lake. Life doesn’t make it possible that often, though, and sometimes it makes it purely impossible. But it doesn’t mean we should give up wanting it or striving for it.
So in my poem, I try in pretty simple declarative lines and straightforward description to show a moment of happiness in my father’s life, but hopefully one that speaks to any of us who seeks a simpler, happier life. Personally, I don’t smoke and I’m pretty sure I can’t manage a rod-and-reel with the same skill as my father. But there are other things I can do, things that make me happy. I like to do them with the same mastery and grace that my father used to flick the fishing line into the water.
In the end, don’t we all?