Featured Stories

Fish

A river of memories

Christiana White
Mar 4, 2018 · 6 min read
Photo by Lance Anderson on Unsplash

I’ve misplaced my favorite picture of me and my dad. We’re on a fishing boat. A salmon-fishing boat, to be exact. I’m in my early to mid-twenties. My dad is about 57. He’s wearing a navy blue zip-up jacket that rumples over his capacious belly. We’re both wearing baseball caps beneath sweatshirt hoods pulled up over our heads. We’re bundled up against the cold, wind, and sea spray. Our hands are in our pockets. Our shoulders are touching and curving toward one another. My father beams. His face is square, his cheeks round, his smile proud and slightly mischievous. I’m smiling, too. I’m proud, too. I can feel how much this excursion means to my father. It embarrasses me a little. The depth of his love, his enjoyment of me, and his vulnerability. They always embarrassed me a little, keeping me from receiving his full embrace. I put him off a lot. It was hard to look into the face of his love.

Our excursion was important because it only happened once, though it should have happened more. Why did I only go fishing once with my father?

I remember the sudden whirring of my rod… and then a bright silver salmon landing with a thud and twisting vigorously on the deck.

Still, it happened, and it was sweet. We did catch a salmon. I remember the sudden whirring of my rod, a burly man stepping in front of me to secure it, the brandishing of nets, an arm sweeping bystanders out of the way, and then a bright silver salmon landing with a thud and twisting vigorously on the deck. I don’t remember if they killed it or what, but somehow it was securely tucked away for safekeeping and presented to us at the end of the journey.

This was on the San Francisco Bay, an expanse of water my father had traversed hundreds (maybe thousands) of times while guiding cargo ships of all stripes in and out of the golden gate as a merchant mariner for most of my life.

My mom used to say my dad was a terrible fisherman. According to her, he was terrible at most things. She used to do things like give him a mug with “World’s Best Handyman” emblazoned on the side for Christmas, to mock him. She was known for saying, “You know your father. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer.”

Fish. In my mid-twenties, I lived with my best and oldest friend Erin on Woolsey Street in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood. We threw a dinner party one night. We invited 10 or so friends and bought a whole salmon from the local fishmonger on College Avenue. We brought that fish home and baked it in rock salt.

When we took our first bites, we immediately knew it was something special. Everyone did. The taste of this fish was like nothing else. It was like stars exploding over my tongue. It was so fresh, fresh like the sea, fresh like the sea spray. Everyone was quiet at first, just tasting. Then tasting again. And then the comments poured out of our mouths: This fish is extraordinary, everyone agreed.

It wasn’t the preparation, the rock salt, or our skill as chefs. Not at all. Our only credit was that we didn’t ruin this celestial being. We didn’t pinch off its beauty with callous treatment. We didn’t overcook it. But I’ve had many a perfectly cooked salmon that didn’t taste like this one. It was the fish itself. It must have been exceedingly fresh, for one thing. Maybe it came from a very special body of water — I don’t know. I didn’t go back and ask at the fish shop, though perhaps I should have.

It was the fish itself. It was something about this particular specimen.

The taste of this fish was like nothing else. It was like stars exploding over my tongue.

I’d had that experience once before with a trout. I was 19, camping with my boyfriend near Tioga Pass in Yosemite. We set up camp beside Tioga Lake and cast in our rods. I caught a medium-sized trout and clonked its head with a rock the way my cousins had taught me to do. We cooked it right then and there on our little camp stove. We shook some flour, salt, and pepper onto it and fried it in butter, took a bite, and — the same feeling: stars. Like stars on my tongue.

That freshness. That feeling. That taste of life — pure, unadulterated, pulsing. It tingles.

Fish. We had an aquarium growing up. When the aquarium was clean, a rare thing indeed, we could see the fish flitting about. Most of the time, though, I couldn’t see the fish at all. Once in a while, one would go belly up. Then we’d see it, pale and bloated, floating at the top.

The aquarium sat on a counter between a daisy yellow cabinet full of coffee cups and cereal boxes and the chugging refrigerator, a tired, overworked, filled-to-bursting entity housing all manner of delights and horrors — mostly horrors, I must say. Noxious, rotting leftovers from what had been delights.

No one cleaned the aquarium.

My father cleaned the refrigerator maybe once a year. Maybe.

My brother hated fish when we were little.

I always liked fish.

On my 12th birthday, my parents took me to Trader Vic’s, where I ordered salmon with a sauce made of salmon eggs. I still remember how delightful and extraordinary this dish was, how the glistening round salmon eggs popped when I pressed them against the roof of my mouth with my tongue. How they released their pungent salt flows. Sticky, shocking, and delightful.

How the glistening round salmon eggs popped when I pressed them against the roof of my mouth with my tongue. How they released their pungent salt flows. Sticky, shocking, and delightful.

My father used to pop raw oysters in my mouth when I was just a tyke — six or five years old, maybe. I was wearing my clock pajamas, printed with numbers and clock faces. They had footies and snaps that attached the top to the bottom. Mine was red, and my brother’s was blue. Our sisters were too little to join us. We’d sneak down the stairs while our parents were having late dinner. They’d already fed and shuffled us off to bed.

My mother would make a big deal out of our misbehavior, but Dad was a softy. He’d chuckle and feed me raw oysters, slipping them from the shell into my gullet. My brother would have none of it. I don’t know where he’d go, what he was doing, while I was stationed at my father’s knee. I knew I delighted him.

Fish. Fishing with my cousins. We were invited a precious few times to their family cabin on the American River. I’d follow my older cousins around endlessly, ceaselessly, tirelessly until they’d give us the slip. We were younger and pests. They were teenagers and didn’t want us tagging along.

I worshipped my cousins. They taught me how to jump from rock to rock in the river carrying a tackle box, fishing rod dangling insouciantly from their fingers. They made it look easy. Their casualness about just about everything was astonishing. They taught me to cut earthworms in thirds and thread the tubular bodies over the hook at the end of my line. I did it unflinchingly and I was proud of it.

They taught me to bash the head of my trout with a rock to kill it, thread it on a piece of rope, and keep it — and the others I’d catch — in a cold pool beside the rock from which I fished.

The rock was white and grey, sparkling granite, hot from the sun.

Fish. In the 1970s, we lived in Saudi Arabia for a couple of years. We’d take our lumbering van (my parents nicknamed it “Lurching Matilda”) to the sharm — the beach on the Red Sea near our home in Yanbu. My dad scuba dived with a spear gun and shot a spectacular, 20-pound grouper — blue with red polka dots — that my mom cooked up that night for dinner.

We’d snorkel in the dazzling coral reefs. Coral exploded with color, and swarms of fish swam like confetti through the warm waters.

Once, I picked up a piece of red coral from the sea floor. My mask began filling with water. I put the coral between my legs at the surface of the water so I could lift my mask and spill the water out, but suddenly, my inner thighs were ablaze with pain. I gasped, dropped the coral, and began hyperventilating.

Somehow, I was able to calm myself enough to get to shore, where I collapsed. I had been stung by fire coral, which had branded me with its branching arms like a map.

Writer, copywriter, editor, and word lover. Subscribe to my newsletter at christywhite.substack.com

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