Fish This!

The Perfect Gift

Story and Photo by Andrew Cremata

As a child, there is nothing better in the whole world than summer vacation. Both of my parents worked full-time jobs, so much of my summer vacation time was spent with my grandmother Adelpha. Adelpha had a love for the outdoors, for animals, and for fishing.
By the time I arrived at her place early in the morning, breakfast was being served and other dishes were being prepared for lunch and supper. A variety of smells were already emanating from the kitchen - from homemade chicken stock to onions being sautéed for some dish that you were already looking forward to. Oftentimes another ingredient would be needed, and plans for the day would focus on obtaining that ingredient. Usually it came from the water.
While I ate Adelpha would feed her bird, a tall white egret that would come to the back sliding door and peer inside. She said the neighbors didn’t like her feeding the bird, so she tried to be sneaky by shooing the bird away and then leaving it some food by the door when she took out the garbage.
We would spend our mornings walking the beach or patrolling the seawall for blue crab. Adelpha had come to Florida from Cuba, and knew a variety of mouth-watering ways to prepare seafood. Along those beaches the heat would just be rising. A throng of blood hued fiddler crabs would clear a path amongst their ranks as you walked through. Starfish would appear in the trailing sands of a receding wave. Sometimes we would pick them up and look at them. She would tell me how the water had changed over the years, how there had at one time been many more tidewater animals.
Adelpha would tell me stories from her days of youth. She was an accomplished dancer, and this was evident at our frequent family gatherings. On days when the weather was bad she would teach me the steps to the waltz, the Charleston, the polka. She would tell me of her difficulties working in a new country, the hardships within the cigar factories that thrived in Tampa during that time.
On certain days she would take me to the fishing pier, one of the older ones in Tampa where the nailed planks creaked in the blazing heat of the sun and pelicans perched along the light posts waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to pass beneath, surprising them with an unpleasant and unwanted shower.
She would buy a dozen live shrimp from the bait shop and carry them out to her spot, one which she had fished from for many years. I had a small Zebco outfit, and she would help me get a shrimp on the hook and my line into the water.
I would watch her use her hand line, a circular ring with line wrapped around its perimeter. Her wrinkled hands danced in unison as one held the apparatus while the other fed or retrieved line. Adelpha was quiet when she fished. Focused. You could see the concentration in her face – her features changing as she felt a fish’s bite – waiting for the right time to strike. She was slight of frame, not even five feet tall, and I would help her retrieve the bait bucket from the water whenever her bait got stolen, or she caught a fish.
And she caught fish often. Many were intrigued by her hand line and how it often proved more advantageous than the finest of the mass produced gear. No rod, no reel, just tradition born of necessity – from a place and a time when buying a fishing pole could not even be considered as there was no money to validate such a consideration.
Adelpha would keep her fish in a little bucket (and every now and then I would catch something) that we would take home. She would sit on the back porch and clean the fish while singing a song in Spanish. She would smile as we sat there in the shade and the breeze, the egret taking another peek around the corner of the house with hopes of obtaining another meal for the day. She would smile and laugh; traits she was known for – a big smile of joy, a laugh of contentment with a taste for mischief.
With the words, “Don’t tell your mother,” Adelpha would pull out her deck of cards and teach me all the hands of poker. Using her penny collection or a box of toothpicks we would sit at the dinner table and she would teach me the finer points of gambling at cards.
All the while she chuckled and displayed that mischievous grin, her long grey hair in a bun, traditional music playing in the background. In the mid-afternoon she would admonish my silence as her “stories” were coming on television.
For an hour she would watch the tube, intermittently laughing and crying at the overly dramatic passion play set forth on the screen. I could not understand the language but I could understand the emotion. She always ended up drying her eyes as she turned off the television and focused on finishing supper.
I caught my first fish with my grandmother. A little angelfish maybe four inches long. I had a habit for reeling in and casting frequently in the manner of most children, although then there was no classification for ADHD, every child had an attention disorder, it was called childhood.
I still don’t know if she put the angelfish on the hook when I wasn’t looking, but it didn’t matter. Something happened on that day as a little boy sat sweating on the pier. Something was inherited. Call it a passion passed on through ritual, or even some elemental need born of the blood we shared, but it has been there since – a part of her that remains even in this cold and distant place so far removed from the world she filled.
I still see my grandmother in my dreams. She will come to visit where we sit and talk about the present, the past, and about the fishing. My grandmother’s wisdom was always her greatest gift, and her power as a matriarch extends to the present where guidance is often needed and footing is always shaky.
It’s good to know the past is with you. It’s good to remember it. And it’s good knowing how to fish.
I still don’t know if she put the angelfish on the hook when I wasn’t looking, but it didn’t matter. Something happened on that day as a little boy sat sweating on the pier. Something was inherited. Call it a passion passed on through ritual, or even some elemental need born of the blood we shared, but it has been there since – a part of her that remains even in this cold and distant place so far removed from the world she filled.
I still see my grandmother in my dreams. She will come to visit where we sit and talk about the present, the past, and about the fishing. My grandmother’s wisdom was always her greatest gift, and her power as a matriarch extends to the present where guidance is often needed and footing is always shaky.
It’s good to know the past is with you. It’s good to remember it. And it’s good knowing how to fish.