Dateline: July 28, 2011 – Birmingham, Michigan
We all need comfort and reassurance from time to time, but on occasion, it can come from very unexpected sources.
One of the worst parts about losing a parent is what I can only describe as sudden and unwelcome change; a lack of continuity. The way things have been – literally forever – is now changed – forever. And nothing puts the emphasis on how different things are than going back to your hometown, to your childhood home – not for a Mother’s Day, or a birthday, or a Tigers game, but for a funeral.
My Mom passed away on July 9, 2011. My sister and I decided to hold the memorial on July 27th, and the family all started coming in to Birmingham on the 24th. It was high summer in Michigan: hot and humid but pleasant, and this brought back memories of now-distant summers, and endless carefree hours where our only worries were bicycle flats and getting home by the incredibly restrictive 10pm curfew. Now, half a lifetime later, everything was so very different.
Shain Park. Or Shane Park, central Birmingham. We spent so much time having fun here as kids that we never learned for sure how to spell it.
Simply put, life had changed. I had actual responsibilities: a job, a house, and now (with my sister) my mother’s estate. And so much had changed about southeastern Michigan. My elementary school was now a community center. The inept Lions of my childhood were being touted as a playoff contender. My junior high was now a “middle school” with a bunch of awkward-looking additions built on to it. St. Andrews Street, the scene of so many pickup baseball and football games, was torn up in a massive, dusty repaving project that my mother loathed. The cracked and patched concrete of my childhood, where individual repairs had marked bases and first downs, was gone. I recognized no one in the neighborhood. Where had my connection to this place gone?
The night after the service, I wandered the town where I’d grown up, looking for a familiar place or at least one familiar face. The buildings and businesses had all changed. Old Kresge’s, where we consumed untold pounds of French fries and endless Cokes with no ice so we got more Coke – had been gone for years. It seemed like most of the new shops were the same ones found at every mall in America. It was still a charming place, but it no longer felt like the town where I grew up.
There was great comfort in hanging out with Sean Biggs, my hockey teammate and general co-conspirator from junior high. (NOT middle school.) He has certainly aged more gracefully than I have. But was there anything here that had not changed?
Then I thought of the Rouge River. The Rouge is a fairly large tributary of the Detroit River, but out in suburban Birmingham, it is a small country stream, narrow enough to jump across in most places.
A small but favorite section of the Rouge River, Birmingham, Michigan.
It was here that I had spent many hours of my childhood, fishing for the small but cooperative Creek Chub. (See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/11/13/my-old-kentucky-bone/) Sometime in the 1970s, the Creek Chub had become the 6th species of fish I ever caught. Sean and I would get on our bikes and head off, armed with nothing more than Zebco spincast rods and some Cracker Barrel sharp cheddar cheese, which we had liberated from my Mother’s fridge. We would go to our favorite haunts – the Kensington pools or the stone bridge on Manor Road – mold the cheese onto #8 snelled hooks, drop it in under a bobber, and wait.
The Manor Road bridge. The bank is just as muddy as it was in the mid-1970s.
Once we found the good spots, we generally didn’t have to wait long. The Chubs were voracious and seemed to never stop biting. Although I had caught 5 types of fish before the Creek Chub, the Chub was the first fish I caught completely on my own and with no adult supervision. At the time, this seemed like a tremendous accomplishment. It still does. I will never forget how stunned I was when I pulled up the first one.
I wondered to myself if the Chubs were still there, or if they had all died back in the late 1970’s due to chronic cheese constipation. I borrowed my 12 year-old nephew, Charlie, so I would have an excuse to be wandering a muddy creek bank, and I went in search of my lost youth.
The top of the riffle below the Manor Road bridge. I fished off those very same paving stones 35 years ago.
I could never give someone directions to the small stone bridge on Manor Road, but I could find it blindfolded. (Not recommended while driving.) The quaint stone bridge has been there since before I was a boy, with the brook flowing silently underneath it. There are nice riffles above and below it that were full of Chubs. Upon arrival, I had to deal with something I had never considered as a child – parking. There was absolutely no legal parking anywhere near the place. Luckily, the neighbors are tolerant and it was not an issue.
Charlie is a good kid. I don’t get to see him or his sister Elizabeth as often as I would like – just part of living on opposite coasts. His Grandmother’s passing away hit him pretty hard. He’s 12 years old and they were very close. I was 40 when my Grandmother died and it was still a tough time, so I really felt for him. He was quiet on the drive to the bridge, but he perked up when he saw the creek.
I took a couple of rods out of the trunk and rigged them up – small floats with mini-jigs underneath. My source of cheese was gone. We stepped down the bank carefully – it was just as muddy as it always was when I was a kid. I shut my eyes and listened, just me and the creek, and for a moment, I was almost back in my childhood. It felt there somewhere, but just out of reach.
I took a deep breath and cast. 35 years, over a thousand species, and 69 countries had passed since I had fished here. The float righted itself and drifted down the riffle, then down into the pool, untouched. I scowled. Pollution? Global warming? Just then, Charlie said “Uncle Steve!” I looked downstream, and the float was gone.
I scanned the water quickly, hoping as we always do to not see the bobber. Instinctively, I pulled the rod back and felt the unmistakable tugging of a Creek Chub. I treasured the moment, not reeling, just sitting there remembering the thrill of catching a fish on my own. We landed it – small, green, a hint of purple and silver along the flanks. They were here.
Still life with chub and bridge.
I choked up a bit. I told Charlie “I used to catch these here when I was your age.” I still had a connection to this place and my childhood.
Then I got another fish, which held a surprising secret that I did not discover for four years.
Quite unexpectedly, this fish turned out to be a new species – the common shiner – which I had often mistaken for a creek chub. Thanks to 1000fish reader Brandon Li for the ID.
We didn’t have long, but we made the most of it, getting about 10 fish each in an hour. We worked our way above and below the stone bridge, and then walked up a private side road to a smaller wooden bridge. The pool below it was filled with Chubs and a couple of surprise Bluegill, just as it had been years ago.
Charlie and his first Creek Chub.
Charlie and a surprise Bluegill. These fight harder than the Chubs and are always a thrill.
It was a pleasant, hot Michigan summer day, and we got wet and muddy. And for a little while, we forgot about everything except the creek. Charlie caught all his fish completely on his own – he’s turning into a good angler.
Charlie gets wet and muddy. I am certain my sister could name 14 diseases he could catch by doing this. Luckily, as of press time, he hasn’t caught any of them. (Although perhaps the evil parasites that cause Bolivian Drooling Sickness are coursing through his bloodstream at this very moment.)
I pushed it as long as we could before we had to head back for dinner, but I didn’t want to get in trouble with my sister. So we packed it in around 5:30. (I have spent plenty of time in trouble for coming home late from fishing, and I didn’t want my sister to ground me.)
I still didn’t sleep much that night – I don’t imagine anyone does the week they say a final goodbye to a parent. It all felt overwhelming – the sadness, the suddenness, the finality, and the endless to-do list that comes with these events. Then I remembered the afternoon on the creek all those years ago, and one of the first times I really found I could do something important on my own. I remembered thinking that getting a fish without help was impossible, and discovering that with enough work and persistence, I could do that and plenty of other difficult things. And I knew I would get through this.