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I was unaware in the 70’s that my father didn’t always go fishing because he enjoyed it, nor that the packages of venison he stored in our freezer after deer hunting season were anything more than products of his favorite pastime. Now I know that my father worked very hard—in both his profession and spare time—to make sure his family remained warm and fed. One spring when I was four, putting food on the table became a group effort: my parents took me and my four older siblings smelting.
We were living in Upper Peninsula Michigan, and though my father and some of the older kids had gone smelt fishing many times before, this was the first time that our entire family went together. After supper was over, the dishes washed and put away, we loaded up the station wagon with our galvanized metal wash tubs, dip nets, a few sets of waders and my father’s seine, then drove down to Chequamegon Bay to join hundreds of other similarly-equipped families under the stars, on the frigid, wave-beaten shore of Lake Michigan.
The campfires up and down the beach and the beams of hand-held flashlights made the water shimmer like lightning; this I remember, as I do the cold air on my face and the smell of wet sand, fresh fish and campfire smoke all mingling together. The lake was alive with millions of tiny silvery smelt, and people were scattered everywhere in the water with nets and fish buckets and all manner of sieve-like contraptions, working singularly and in pairs to scoop up as many smelt as possible before having to wade back to shore to dump their haul into picnic coolers, old metal trash cans, pillow cases, anything that would hold the fish.
My clearest memory of that night is standing knee-deep near the shore in my rain boots and slicker, hanging on to my long-handled dip net with both hands and leaning precariously as far as I could into the rushing waters to scoop up my own smelt. My mother’s cries to be careful and come in closer to the shore mixed together with the thumping of my heart, the constant splashing and the shouts of other smelters. I probably only added a hundred or so to the thousands of smelt already squirming and jumping in my family’s collection containers, but it didn’t matter—I was four years old and had just experienced my first adrenaline rush.
As any smelter knows, you can either smoke ‘em or fry ‘em, whole or gutted, however you prefer. My father had two favorite methods of preparing ours: he would either smoke them whole over apple wood chips in the rickety smoker machine set up in a shed in our backyard, or gut them out before dipping them in batter and frying them to a perfect crisp. If he chose to batter-fry them, that meant that everybody in the family (not including me, thankfully) had to gather around the picnic table in the backyard and, using sewing scissors, relieve our thousands of tiny freshly caught smelt of their heads, their tails, their innards, and their yellow, mucousy eggs.
Sometimes my family did this late at night, after we’d returned home and my father had rigged up spotlights in the back yard. If it was too late an hour and time for bed, he would put the smelt on ice and save gutting for the next day. I don’t know of too many dads who took annual leave to clean fish, but my dad did. When the smelt ran, you ran with them.
Looking back, I wonder if my parents realized how lucky they were to have five liver-loving, smelt-crunching, venison-stir-frying children on their hands. Refusing to eat what was on our plates never crossed our minds. In fact it took years for us to finally recognize, or at least admit, our distaste for certain foods. I clearly remember the day when I was 25, home from graduate school, helping my mother pack a picnic lunch for a weekend outing. She had made tuna melts—baked tuna on a bun with cheese, then chilled and wrapped in foil for the cooler. I asked her if it would be okay if I made myself a peanut butter and jelly. Now remember: I was 25.
“Of course you can make yourself a peanut butter and jelly,” she said. “But why? You love tuna melts.”
“Um, no I don’t,” I said.
She looked at me, incredulous. “You always ate them when you were little.”
“I thought I had to,” I replied, slapping together my alternative sandwich and sprinting out the door before she could question me further. The truth was that I hated tuna melts and had always hated tuna melts, from the soggy bits of cooked onion inside the tuna burger to the way the orange cheese stuck like chewed gum to the tin foil wrap. Ugh. We had chilled tuna melts every time we went on family road trips, and to this day I can’t think of Yellowstone National Park, the Badlands, or the headwaters of the Mississippi River without the smell of tuna melt always on my mind.
This is not my mother’s fault. All she ever wanted was to make us happy and take care of us, no matter how much or how little money my father was making at the time. When we could afford it, we ate out in restaurants, all seven of us. When we were a little short, bring on the spaghetti. We learned to make do with what we had, and nobody ever complained.
There is no question that my parents stretched their early family dollars to the snapping point. Just like my father pulled fishing worms apart in the garden when he himself was a boy of four—“to make more,” he told his mom—he and my mother always found creative ways to make it appear that we had enough of whatever we needed. One particular method of stretching their dollars came to the water bill.
When all of my sisters and my brother were old enough to bathe themselves, I was still young enough to require my mother’s assistance. Every other night she would run a quarter-tub full of water and take a quick bath herself. Then she would dry off, get dressed, and call for me to come in. Since she was interested in saving on the water bill, she would simply add some bubble bath to her own water and wash me up in that. My bath was never too hot or too cold; it was always the perfect temperature. Afterwards, my mother would towel me off with a big JC Penney towel, bigger than me even. She always had my pajamas at the ready, and she always combed my short wet hair into curly-cues with a kiss before sending me out into the family fray.
I still believe that my baths were perfect only because my mother had been in the tub first, warming the water for me. I know for sure that my childhood days were perfect, because I have chosen to remember them so.