The wooden rocker legs creaked softly as I gently flexed my knees. Alone on the front porch of our rented fabulous mountainside vacation home, I happily reflected on our busy week. Three generations of our family gathered in the Smoky Mountains outside Asheville North Carolina. All were there…Mimi, as my wife Lauri is called by her grandchildren, and Oompah, as I am called, our five children, their spouses, and eight grandchildren. Ginny happily carried then unborn Jack along for the fun.
We enjoyed a full week of experiences ranging from family photos, mountain hikes, creeking in the cold North Carolina streams, evening trips to craft breweries, drum circle in downtown Ashville, games on the back porch and late night chats. The week was capped off with a Hallmark-like celebration of Christmas in July and s’mores over an open fire on our last evening. Throw in good food together with a few well-timed adult beverages and the foundation for cherished experiences was rock solid.
As I rocked, pleasant thoughts drifted slowly across my mind like the puffs of white North Carolina clouds which appeared to bounce off the tops of the tall mountain pines surrounding the porch. Eyes blinked shut as I drifted towards a nap. Screech… the gentle sound of the front door opening. Nolan, who was four years old at the time, slowly poked his head around the edge of the door as if in the midst of a game of hide and seek. He seemed to be checking on who might be hiding on the front porch? “Oompah, what you doing out here?” “Enjoying this rocker,” I replied. Nolan walked over and reached out his hand for mine and asked, “Can we go back to the pond and try to catch tadpoles again.” I took one long deep energizing breath and took his tiny hand, “Sure.”
The pond was down the pine straw lined hill a piece. We walked hand-in-hand down the steep three twist driveway to the roadway lined by lush magnolias thriving majestically in the red clay of the South. The road led to the pond where earlier in the day, the family enjoyed a bluegill fishing bonanza. All of us caught a mess of bluegills in a dream pond for kids. A long fishing dock extended from the South shore providing a safe space for parents to help their kids use the tried and true method of cane poles to which we tied 8 feet of monofilament line with a split shot crimped on the line below a small bobber designed to float over a thin wire cricket hook baited with a juicy wax worm.
Bites on every attempt generated familiar fishing chatter. “I got one”.. ”If the bobber goes under, pull up”.. “If the bobber slides one way, pull the other”.. “Look mommy, a fish”.. “You got a bite”.. “We been cleaned, peeled like a grape”.. “Want to give the fish a kiss?”.. For me, these are words of fun, excitement and effective indoctrination. Cane poles, bobbers, and bluegills create anglers from children. There is no better way to assure generations of fishing buddies. The bluegill fishing was also an excellent test of attention span, interest level, and the tolerance of both children and adults to a warm, then hot, rising midsummer North Carolina sun which caused the shade cast by the pine trees outlining the pond to shorten as the air temperature rose. Izzy and Hudson soon walked to a small swimming beach and tried to catch quarter sized tadpoles with the Dollar Tree pink net which Mimi had wisely purchased in Columbus and remembered to pack and bring to North Carolina. No Luck. Izzy and Hudson were no match for the speed of a soon to be frog. Walker, Andy and Megan took a few turns on the small playset at the edge of the beach as Ginny and Sean explored the shady areas on the north side of the pond protected by a beautiful group of overhanging willow trees.
Nolan, looking quite dapper in his fishing vest, was suddenly my last fishing companion.
Everyone else had wisely retreated to the shade and air-conditioning of our vacation oasis.
The fishing lagged as the angle of the sun’s’ angle sharpened. Suddenly, Nolan spied the pink net at the end of the dock. Let’s catch some tadpoles, Oompah!” We slowly skirted the edge of the pond, tiptoeing as we approached the gently sloping beach. Very sneaky. The white sand bottom sharply contrasted with the black tadpoles whose slowly moving short black tails poised them to race from neutral to escape swim speed as soon as we poked the pink net in their direction. There was no catching a tadpole. Not Nolan, not Oompah. Hoping for a more successful next adventure, I said, “Nolan, let’s check out the other side of the pond.” As we left the beach, I steered us towards a trio of willow trees.
“Oompah, what’s that,” Nolan asked, as he pointed to a streak of motionless orange in the clear water under the willow branches. “That is a Koi,” I replied.
“Why is he hiding under that tree?” I explained that fish do not have eyelids and often hide in any available shade to keep the sharp biting rays of the sun out of their eyes. Nolan looked at me skeptically as he checked out his own eyelids with a gentle touch. We got closer. With each step we took, the orange carp sank a smidgen, like a submarine slowly diving to the bottom of an ocean. Eventually, the fish vanished. “Oompah, where did he go?” “Somewhere he feels safe,” I replied.
Having explored the pond fully, we returned to the dock. I picked up the fishing gear. Nolan carried the pink tadpole chaser. We were quiet as we enjoyed the more difficult climb up the hill in the shade of the tall pines which moved slowly well overhead in the late morning breeze. As we approached the house, we heard the sounds of a brewing ruckus of grandchildren playing in what they adopted as their hideaway. NO ADULTS ALLOWED! Nolan streaked inside joining the fray. We both returned to other activities as the last day of our trip slid by shrouded in the melancholy of endings.
I next saw Nolan when his late afternoon porch visit jolted me out of my reverie. As I rose from the rocking chair, I took Nolan’s extended hand. He grabbed the pink net and we left the porch to retrace our morning path to the pond. It was quiet. The downhill stroll was easy, pleasant and peaceful. As nature dictates daily, the earth had been moving and now the sun streamed through the pine trees which cast their shadows on the evening side of the pond next to the road where we walked. As anglers always do, I redirected my attention to the water as we approached our morning fishing hole. The mountain slope covered with pine straw was steep from the berm of the road to the pond’s edge. “Nolan, look”, I whispered as I slowed, knelt and pointed over his right shoulder to a motionless orange streak in the shade next to shore. Nolan looked, “What, where?” “There”. We were still hand in hand. The orange Koi had switched sides of the pond during the day and floated motionless at the very top of the pond. As Nolan slowly raised his tiny hand using my pointing arm and hand as a guide, a huge bullfrog cut loose a ferocious frightened croak, leaped from shore, and landed directly on top of the Koi.
The pond surface, frog and Koi simply exploded in a tremendous splash and instantly vanished. “Oompah, what was that?” “That was a big old bullfrog attacking our fish!” He seemed satisfied with the answer and not terribly impressed. “Can we go catch some tadpoles now?” “Sure,” I replied. As we walked on, I was struck by the notion that I had just witnessed an event in nature for the first and probably last time. I smiled as I reflected on how important it is to take the hand of a child every time it is offered. You never know where you will be led.