Rachel tried to manage her expectations regarding how this day was going to turn out. She had never once gone fishing in her entire life, but it was something her daughter and her late husband used to do together.
He passed away the previous autumn, very suddenly. Nothing had seemed normal since then for either Rachel or Sara, her daughter.
Grief had become a barrier between the two of them, and this morning's little excursion was a part of Rachel's plan, both to build a bridge across the growing chasm between herself and Sara, and to honor her husband by sitting in his place and fishing with his daughter.
It was his kind of morning, Rachel thought as she mindlessly gazed at the screen of her phone, watching a Youtube video showing tips for beginning fishers how to tie hooks to their lines and then bait them. There had been a light rain the night before, faint fog lingering in its wake.
She could almost hear him tease their little girl as they headed out the door, “C’mon, punk. Them fishies are gonna be bitin’ today!” Her eyes closed and a tortured smile crawled up her cheeks. Then, she heard her daughter stirring awake, the characteristic thump of her feet on her bedroom floor. Wiping tears from her face with the heel of her palm, she closed out of the video playing on her phone and went to the kitchen sink to wash her hands for the fourth time in the past hour.
It was still dark enough outside that she could see both the cars in her driveway, still wet from last night’s rain, and her own reflection superimposed by the amber glow of the kitchen light. She blinked, tried on a smile, and steeled herself to do something she promised herself she would do. It wasn’t so much the fishing that had her so worked up, but the fact that they would be out on her husband’s boat. The only time she had ever been out on it was when he first got it, when she was only a few months pregnant with Sara. She never let on to him at the time, but she found the experience rather terrifying. His presence, and the comfort of knowing he was in control, offset her fear of the water enough for it to be a very pleasant memory… bittersweet now that he was gone, of course.
Sara had grown quite distant from her over the past month. Being forced to stay home with her because of the pandemic didn’t help matters, but when her father passed away she began to retreat into herself. She was always so outgoing, before. Even with COVID lockdowns and all the changes over the course of the previous year, she kept on being her own, cheerful, lovely self, to spite the world and all life’s newfound challenges.
She was very close with her dad, Sara, and he made the most of the isolation, sheltering her from all the bad news and keeping her focus on brighter days ahead. Rachel tried to pick up where her husband left off in that regard, and she had a modicum of success, but still… things had not been the same between them.
Sara helped her mother unpack the back of their SUV, noticing the empty gallon jugs still sitting where her father had left them in a white mesh bag with a bright yellow drawstring. She could have brought them to her mom’s attention, since they were about to go out onto her dad’s boat, but instead she turned the volume up on her iPhone, drowning out the peace of the morning, numbing herself with rhythm and noise.
Her mother nudged her to help carry the cooler while she handled the poles and her dad’s old lure and tackle kit he made out of a fire-engine red Craftsman toolbox before Sara was born.
As they loaded the boat, she noticed how uncomfortable her mom was with the whole process. She was trying, though. Sara had been very reluctant to accept her mom’s offer to go fishing with her like dad used to. It was ‘their’ thing, even though almost every time they went out, Sara wished her mom could come along with them sometime. A part of her felt like there was something forced, phony, and off-putting about the idea at first, but even if she didn’t show it exactly she did warm to the idea since her mother brought it up at dinner the previous week.
“Do you even know how to fish,” Sara recalled asking. Her mom shrugged and gave one of her funny, lopsided smiles.
“First time for everything,” she replied, “So? What do you think?”
Sara answered with a stiff shrug and traced figure-eights into her mashed potatoes with the prongs of her dinner fork.
Apparently, in a post-dad world, that counted as a ‘yes.’
Rachel was unsure of herself the entire time. She did not want to overthink things, but she also didn’t want to be underprepared. Sara wasn’t exactly in her own little world, but she was doing the bare minimum to help her figure things out. This was the first nice morning of the new year, an unseasonably warm day in late February, and exactly the moment her husband would have chosen to scoop Sara up and take her out fishing on the pond. Rachel was determined. This would work.
It had to work.
Pushing off from the shore was a bigger hassle than she thought it would be, and Sara did help her with that part at least. Getting inside was another matter, and for a few moments Rachel thought for sure she was going into the pond head-first. The boat wobbled a lot more than she thought it would, or rather, exactly as much as she was afraid it would.
When she was finally inside, she asked in a brief escape of her inner panic, “are you okay?”
“Yeah, mom, I’m fine,” Sara laughed, a bit mockingly. “Are you?”
“Yes… yes… I’m in, at least, right? Baby steps,” Rachel said through labored breaths, wiping her forehead on the back of her jacket sleeve. She took up the oars and began to row the boat out into the pond, asking Sara where she thought they might have a good chance at catching something.
“Dad always knew where to go,” Sara answered, sighing and looking out over the glow of the rising sun as it danced across the ripples the oars made in the otherwise still, quiet pond. “Over closer to the little island, I guess.”
As Rachel dutifully rowed them in the direction of the island in the center of the pond, Sara placed the earbuds back in her ears and started listening to her music again.
As her heart sank, thinking the day had gotten off to a bad start, Rachel also began to get a little concerned at how far the boat was leaning to her right. No matter what she did with the oars, she couldn’t level the boat out. In fact, everything she did seemed to make it all get worse. Sara was looking at her every once in a while, even if she didn’t want her to notice, and she could tell she was doing this all wrong.
'This was a bad idea,' she thought.
'I’m not any good at this kind of thing,' she thought.
“I wish he was here,” she said.
Sara had her earbuds in, and the volume up, but somehow she happened to be looking in her mother’s face just as she said what she said.
The volume went down.
The earbuds came out.
The daughter emerged.
“Ballast,” Sara said, earning a confused series of blinks from her mother that sent a trace of tears down her cheeks.
“Yeah,” Sara continued, sliding herself forward to take a hold of the tackle box and positioning it behind her and toward the center of the boat. “Grab the cooler and push it in the center, as close to the bow of the boat as you can. It will make it easier to keep her level.”
Reluctant to remove the oars from the water, Rachel was breathtaken when her young daughter placed a comforting hand upon hers.
“That’s not helping,” her daughter said, encouraging her to lay the oars inside for the moment. “Trust me, mom. Ballast is what we need.”
As Rachel did as her daughter advised, she noticed how much more stable the boat became. She gasped with a dizzying combination of surprise and relief, asking Sara, “how did you know?”
“You know those empty milk jugs dad keeps in the back of the SUV," Sara began to explain as she set her phone into her jacket pocket, earbuds and all, to begin setting up the fishing poles. "He used to bring them along with us and fill them with water from the pond to use as ballast. He could just move the jugs around, dump some water out, or whatever, to make little adjustments and get us level, again.”
Rachel smiled, biting the inside of her cheek as she thought of the man she loved, and took a deep, cleansing breath. She then looked over as the first misty rays of dawn sunlight pierced through the canopy of trees across the eastern side of the pond, painting her daughter within a pastel aura. A wave of sensation overtook her, spreading from her heart outward. Her college biology courses would call it a release of oxytocin, but her mother's soul knew it as her daughter's love reaching within her and rekindling the faded spark between them.
“Sometimes,” Sara added, her tone more 'Sara' than it had been in months, “Dad said that when everything seems to be going sideways and you feel like you might fall over, all you have to do is try to stay calm and make whatever little adjustments you need to get yourself upright again.”
Rachel beamed as Sara returned her smile for the first time since a few weeks after the funeral. Both mother and child held that moment between them. An adjustment had been made that morning. Sara found the ballast to keep her and her mother afloat and upright, together.
“Want me to help you bait your line, mom,” Sara asked.
“Sure thing, sweetie,” Rachel replied, sudden excitement for the day ahead gushing forth with each word.
"Great!" Sara said as she popped open the container of bait and began searching for a worm certain to get them their first bite of what would hopefully be a long and relaxing morning on the pond. “C’mon, mom. Them fishies are gonna be bitin’ today.”