As we grow older we spend more time reflecting upon the life we have lived. We linger on regrets and remorse’s, brood over words we shouldn’t have spoken and actions we shouldn’t have taken, reconsider words we should have spoken and actions we should have taken. Remembering is a poignant exercise that humans indulge in for as long as we live.
I am an old man in my mid-90s now, and I have a lengthy landscape to revisit. I was born in 1923 into the family of a Greek Orthodox priest living with his wife (called in Greek a ‘presbytera’) and four older children on Chicago’s South Side. A younger sister, the last of the children, would be born a year after me. Through my childhood and into my adolescence, I remember our family occupying a series of dingy, desolate, city apartments which seemed to me built to prevent any light or warmth from entering the cold, shadowed rooms.
From the back stairs suspended above the alleys, through kitchens with ancient appliances, into a dining room where on a long beaten-up table we ate our meals, did our homework, and, with the cloth removed, played Ping Pong. The remainder of the apartment held a long hallway opening onto several cramped bedrooms and a solitary bathroom which served the entire family, through a parlor with chipped, sagging couch and armchair to another small sun parlor room overlooking the street on which cars passed and where children played. From those apartments we descended into the city to attend school and to work.
What distinguished our family from most renters was that we owned a small cottage in the Chain O’Lakes region of Northern, Illinois. The building was frame, a single large enclosure braced on sturdy wooden posts and divided by plasterboard partitions into a screened porch, a walk-through kitchen and two small bedrooms.
The cottage had no electricity but used kerosene lamps. There was no indoor plumbing, our water drawn from an old well pump in the back yard. Our toilet facility was a small malodorous outhouse. This cottage, in the care of a dear lady we called Naka who had lived with my family for years, was where my sister and I and Naka spent our summers.
My father loved the cottage. Since he was busy with church on the weekends, my father was only able to come out for a day or two in mid-week. He loved to fish and in preparation for his visit I was assigned the onerous task of digging up the worms.
My father feared entering a colony of bass and sunfish and running out of worms, so his instructions to me were to dig up “a hundred or more.” I always gave up after excavating 10 to 15, reassured knowing he rarely used more than that number.
My father traveled to Fox Lake by train from Chicago, weary and in need of rest. The prospect of fishing for the weekend buoyed his spirit and as soon as he entered the cottage, his mood lightened.
My father would rouse me at daybreak. Half asleep, I’d dress sluggishly, eat a bowl of oatmeal and then, I’d carry a pair of bamboo fishing poles and our lunch while my father carried a pair of oars and the can of worms. We’d walk the gravel road for a half mile to the lake. Moored alongside several sleek motor craft was our sturdy wooden rowboat we had named “Pericles.”
We’d settle into our boat and my father would use an oar to push us away from the dock, He would begin rowing to the middle of the lake, his oars clumping through beds of water lilies. His mood was buoyant, while mine was glum.
We anchored our boat at some place in the lake my father divined was the best spot for catching fish. We’d bait our hooks with the worms and then cast our lines into the water, the little corks bobbing on the water’s surface.
The hours would pass for me with agonizing slowness. Despite rarely catching any fish, my father seemed content to sit and watch the placid cork barely stirring on the water.
I’d use the milk bottle to void, eat the sandwich listlessly and drink the soda, squirm restlessly on my seat, the hours dragging.
My father buoyed by some infinite reserve of patience, sat staring peacefully at the barely moving cork. Although he rarely caught any fish, he seemed content to be sitting in the boat on the lake, a slight breeze brushing our cheeks, water lilies rustling around us, birds whirling in the skies above us. Around the shores of the lake, the beach side cottages glittered like jewels in the sunlight.
One August day, in my 11th or 12th year, bored and unhappy, reaching the end of my patience, I blurted out. “Papa, what are you thinking of sitting here hour after hour, watching a cork that never moves?”
He stared at me in surprise. Perhaps by the tone of my voice he understood my distress and impatience, He looked at me sadly and said quietly, “I am thinking how quickly the time is passing and how soon I will have to leave.” Even young as I was I understood then the immensity of my transgression. While I suffered with impatience, my father measured the precious minutes, before he’d have to return to the pressures and responsibilities of his parish.
After that day my father never woke me for the morning fishing again. Sometimes, the night before, I resolved to get up and join him, but the mornings passed, and I never fished with my father again.
More than 80 years have passed since those summers we spent in the cottage. My father, mother and all my siblings are long dead. The cottage has long since been torn down to provide space for a grander house.
I have lived enough years and attained an age where I understand more about the refuge and serenity the cottage and the lake provided my father. And even after all these years, I still regret that impatient, unfeeling question I asked him then.
If I now had it in my power to relive that time again, I would gladly have given several years of my life for one more hour in the boat with my father.
Find more information on novelist Harry Mark Petrakis at harrymarkpetrakis.com.
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