“Dad! Hey Dad, look at this!”
I was lugging an ice chest down to the pier. Lillie was beside me in her bikini, her hair tied back, taking each of the fifty-three steps one at a time.
“I’m looking Collie. What are you doing?”
“I’m casting off! See, watch.”
I stood and watched as he swung his pole and stopped with a jerk, sending the line sailing across the water.
“Nice form, son!”
“He’s been practicing to show you,” Dad called from the shade of the docked pontoon boat, where he was slathering Jason in sunscreen. Granny sat nearby, putting lotion on her face and hands, the only exposed parts of her body.
My children have only ever fished from this pier, and only under my Dad’s guidance. He now had Collie practicing with weights tied to his line, killing time until we took the boat out to the marina to buy gas and bait.
The afternoon’s main festivities would begin later with the arrival of Lynn, my fifteen-year-old niece.
With everyone lotioned and situated on the boat, I tied off and Dad backed the boat away of the dock. I hopped aboard.
Lillie sat next to Dad, holding the wheel. Once we cleared the slip, he picked up speed and reached down to flip on the satellite radio.
Basstrackers, bayliners and a party barge
Strung together like a floating trailer park . . .
“Party on!” he grinned.
“Let the party continue!” Lillie giggled, completing Dad’s familiar slogan.
At the marina, the kids ran inside to choose candy—Dad’s bonus on every trip was that everyone had a choice of candy—while Dad gassed the boat and chatted with the woman who ran the place.
“Howdy, howdy! Good morning!”
“Well, good morning to you, sir. Looks like a warm one.”
“We don’t care nothing about that, because we are too cool.”
She laughed. “I can see that.”
“Help me remember, before we go we need to get some bait so the kids can go after some catfish.”
“Catfish? Well, I got bait, but you know how catfish love them Catawba worms?”
“Sure I do.”
“Well, I got a bush that is eat up with those things. Why don’t you just take a bag full?”
“Now bless your heart, that’s just what we’ll do.”
With the boat full and the kids eating candy, we made our barefooted way across the gravel loading dock.
“This bush was full of leaves just last week,” she said. “Now look at it.”
The bush was little more than a thick cluster of sticks covered in juicy fat worms.
“This is going to make some catfish very happy,” Dad said, plucking the worms one by one and dropping each into a paper bag.
“Do the catfish really like them, Papa?” Collie asked.
“This here is catfish candy,” he smiled.
Back at the pier, Dad hooked bits of Catawba worm for each of the kids.
Jason studied his line carefully, bobbing his pole to create the illusion of his worm swimming in the current.
Collie tossed his line again and again, checking frequently to be sure his bait was intact.
Lillie grew bored and rested her pole on a chair.
Yet even with these different approaches, they each did well.
Collie led the pack. He caught a catfish, two blue gills and one turtle—never mind the branch he brought up form the lake bottom. After much admiration, each was cut loose and set back.
“Just not big enough,” Dad would say as he pried the hook from the catch. “Let’s let it grow some more and catch it again next summer.”
The kids would watch as each fish swam away.
All were quiet when Collie yelped.
“I got one, Papa, I got one.”
“Take your time,” Dad said, hurrying to his side. “Bring it in and let’s see what you got.”
Collie reeled the line while Dad held it steady. Together, they pulled up a very big catfish.
“Whoa!” Jason admired.
Collie laughed, excited.
“That’s pretty big, fella!” I cheered.
“Can I keep him, Papa?” Collie asked my Dad.
Dad lowered the fish to the pier, holding it carefully in place under his sandle. He studied it for a moment.
“Tell you what,” he admitted. “That there is a keeper.”
“Yeah!” Collie shouted.
“You aren’t going to let him go?” Lillie worried.
“No ma’am. We are going to put him in his own tank.” Dad looked at me and pointed to the cooler I had brought down. “Fill that with lake water, okay, TJ?”
I jumped up and quickly transferred its contents of beer, Kool-Aid and juice boxes to a larger chest. I dropped it into the lake and hauled up about five gallons of water. Meanwhile, Dad cut out the hook.
“Yes, now I tell you,” he said as he worked. “That is the biggest catfish I have ever seen come out of this lake.”
“You done good, Collie!” my grandmother added.
Dad transferred the fish to the cooler.
“Y’all get a look before I close it up,” he said, calling he kids over.
The fish, cramped in its new quarters, splashed us as it flopped.
“Can we name it?” Lillie asked.
“No, Lillie, we are going to eat it,” Jason said.
“Is that true?” she asked me.
“Well, it’s Collie’s catch,” I said. “We’ll see. But no, we can’t keep it as a pet. It’s wild, honey.”
“Okay, y’all stand back,” Dad said. He closed the cooler and placed another cooler on top.
Later that afternoon, he would sneak up to the kitchen to gut and clean the fish.
The catfish was still in the cooler awaiting its fate when Lynn arrived.
Collie eagerly showed off his catch.
“You did not catch that!” she exclaimed. “It’s just too big.”
“Yes, I did,” Collie testified. “Papa helped.” He pointed to Dad as if calling a witness.
Collie was particularly proud to have impressed Lynn, for she belongs to the most elite group he knows.
The arbiters of cool.
Collie’s intimate knowledge of teenage culture is actually rather limited. Besides his cousin Lynn, and her brother Tracy, he is closest to his half sister, my daughter Rachel. All of them live far from his home in New York, but he refers to them all frequently.
He is keenly aware that his brother Jason is only a couple of years away from entering his teens as well.
In his book, that ends childhood and begins the stage of “cool” before you become a grown up.
In this regard, Lynn’s credentials are impeccable.
She looks out for her younger cousins, talking with them and offering each a turn with her on the Sea-Doo, pushing it through bucking bronco stunts, as opposed to the feeble pony rides offered by the grown ups.
She also outstrips the grown ups physically.
For the past year, Lynn has been taller than me, inhabiting a grown woman’s body since age thirteen. Her stepmother bemoans, “I can’t even loan her a swimsuit. You know what it’s like, living with a Playboy centerfold?”
Both of my brother Jesse’s teenagers are sweet, cool and drop-dead gorgeous blondes.
Their beauty makes us all nervous.
There are so many moths drawn to their flames.
With Lynn’s arrival, we decided to take out the boat for the rest of the day. We loaded up snacks, drinks and beer. Lynn, acting as captain, steered to the most open waters.
Mom, as usual, stayed home. She mostly watches television these days.
On the boat, Jason and I staked out long benches, taking in the sun and wind and the quiet floating above the engine’s roar.
I sipped cold Miller Lite from a can.
Collie told Dad how he caught the fish, once more, as Granny listened, smiling.
Behind the wheel, Lynn flipped on the radio. She stood to dance as she sang along.
Few times I've been around that track
So it's not just gonna happen like that
Because I ain't no hollaback girl
I ain't no hollaback girl
Ooooh ooh, this my shit, this my shit . . .
Lillie jumped into the seat next to Lynn.
“What’s a ‘hollow back girrrrrrrrrl?’” she asked her cousin. “Am I one?”
That night, I fried Collie’s catfish, serving it with grouper and shrimp—store bought, of course—buttered corn and Granny’s green beans.
As we ate, Lynn’s brother Tracy arrived with his best friend, Will.
I got up to hug their necks. Had to. Tracy’s my boy.
Tracy and I have been particularly close for the past several years, mostly keeping in touch via instant message and emails.
He and Will have a band for which Tracy supplies the lyrics. He sends me poetry fueled with teenage angst. I comment and do what I can to steer him to better reading material—“Have you ever read Frank O’Hara, Tracy?”—curtailing my prejudice against “emo” as I listen for his writer’s voice.
Last year, he and Will came up to New York to visit and see bands. We banged heads at CBGBs and concurred that The Used just suck in the worst way.
I sent them home with a New York Dolls CD.
That night, with the grown ups in bed and my kids asleep, I poured a bourbon and joined the teens on the pier.
I noticed red embers glowing in the dark.
“Oh shit,” Tracy jumped. “Uncle TJ, you scared me to death.”
Lynn hid a cigarette behind her back. Will took out a pack.
“You want a smoke?”
“No, I don’t smoke, thanks. Nasty habit.” I sat and sipped my bourbon.
“We were just talking about our last rehearsal,” Tracy began, flicking an ash. “We’re playing with this new bass player now, and she is awesome, man.”
“Hell yeah she is,” Will concurred. “We’re gonna get a CD on this one.”
Tracy jammed his cigarette in his mouth and took up an air bass. “Blam, buh be buh BLAM bluh BLAM. Fuck she rocks.”
“Well, great! You still working on that song about, what was it, the trash talk song?”
Lynn was quiet as the boys went on about their as-yet-unnamed band.
She had been on the phone since her shower after the boat excursion. In an extended conversation, she and her boyfriend had broken up.
“You okay?” I asked her.
“Um? Yeah, I’m okay. Whatever.”
My relationships with my niece and nephew, like my long-distance relationship with my daughter Rachel, are something of a rehearsal for raising the three future teenagers I have at home.
I am a responsible adult in the lives of these teens. Like other adults, I inevitably offer a role model.
On the other hand, I am not like their parents. I don’t set down rules or dispense consequences.
The challenge is that I am not interested in being the “cool uncle,” in the sense of bring an adult reliving his own adolescence through theirs.
I want to be there to offer an alternative to the adults they need to deal with. I try to be there as an adult they want to deal with.
Tracy and I found an easy connection in music and poetry. He sees me as someone who got out and made a life about art. No one else he knows seems to have done that.
Like Rachel, he knows that I won’t freak out about the real-life stuff. Like her, he told me when he lost his virginity. He told me when he smoked pot. He told me about sneaking drinks with Will.
He also tells me what it was like to grow up with divorced parents. Divorce is so rare in my family. I benefit from his insights.
I listen to these stories. And while I offer proper advice—“seriously, use condoms, even with birth control pills”—I also share their excitement about these rites of passage.
I have to earn their trust, even as I have to trust them to make the right choices.
I am also aware that there are limits to my influence. I am influential only to the extent that they share with me. If I bust them to their folks, they would clam up and that would be that.
I have to accept my role as an adult who listens while listening for anything of serious concern.
I try to appreciate what is unique about this, wondering how it will translate to the next decade of parenting, as my kids go through their teens.
I know the divorce will have long-lasting effects.
Lucy and I are each great parents. We will do fine.
But I am dismayed by her stubbornness and reticence. We will not have the parenting relationship I anticipated. We will not lay in bed each night discussing Jason’s mood that day, worrying about Collie’s new friend, or wondering about Lillie’s PSAT.
Unless Lucy changes in some dramatic way, she will continue to formulate edicts to be followed by myself and the children. These edicts will continue to be delivered to me as curt orders, with no desire for my input or respect for my opinions.
If I contest or adapt these edicts, or establish my own, she will be furious and refuse to speak with me.
Which is a sad thing. Sad for her, primarily, because that just doesn’t fly.
I am not the cool uncle of my children. I am their father. I am a great collaborator, but the bottom line is, I don’t work for their mother.
We work for them.
After a while, I stood and stretched. “Well, thanks for talking with me,” I said. “I better turn in. I’m beat, and anyway, I know y’all will be up all night. I have to look chipper at breakfast.”
“All right Uncle TJ,” Tracy gripped my hand and pulled me into a hug. “See you in the morning.”
“Or as close as you manage. Good night, Will.” He rapped his knuckles to mine. I leaned over to hug Lynn.
“Night sweet. Thanks for being such a cool cuz to the kids.”
“I had fun,” she said. “Night. I love you.”
“Love you too, sugar.”
“Yeah, love you Uncle TJ.”
“I love you Tracy.”
“Well, shit, I love you, too,” Will added. Tracy and Lynn laughed.
“Baby, your shit is bananas,” I said, knocking his head.
I walked up the steps, leaving them to do what they do.
You catch them, and they are yours for a short time.
Eventually, you have to cut them loose.