i was about six years old if i am recalling it correctly.
floating on lake bomoseen in vermont, i sat between my two grandpas in an old scratched metal rowboat. on the floor all around me, their catches flipped and flopped away their last moments of life as i held my knees up to my chest, trying to avoid their slimey touch. i was not fishing, but my grandpa's were.
my swedish grandfather, algot oscarson, sat at the front of the boat, facing out, a long, green fishing pole held in his wrinkled strong hands. at the back of the boat, facing out, a long, blue fishing pole grasped in his frail, yet firm, weathered old hands, sat my finnish grandfather, juho arvid kivistonmaki.
with each catch, the other would turn to examine the other's fish as it was removed from the hook. algot always said "ohhh, that is a keeper!" to each fish of juho's, but juho, still holding onto the finnish grudge against the swedes, merely scoffed at algot's catch, calling it a waste of space in the boat. juho often mumbled acerbic finnish phrases under his breath, things that algot could not understand. every finn knows swedish though, so, if algot had been so inclined (he never was), he could not speak in a "code" that juho wouldn't understand.
we did this every week. the two old men would show up to my house (in separate cars) in springfield, vermont, on saturday morning to take me fishing. the old aluminum rowboat, the stripe of blue paint down either side scratched from countless years of use, would sit in trailer behind one of their cars - the car towing it alternated every saturday. i would hop into the car that was not towing the trailer and we would head to lake bomoseen. the clear blue lake was surrounded by the rolling green mountains of vermont, and the heavy summer humidity was chased away by the fresh breezes blowing down from the tree-covered hills.
we would row out to a certain spot - who rowed the boat alternated each week - and then the old men would take their positions at the front and back, bait their hooks, and cast their lines. in the following silence, my senses heightened by the lack of other stimulus, i could smell worms, and dirt, and fish, and the crispness of the lake, and the aftershave of my grandfathers, and the wet wood of the oars, and the sharpness of the pine trees in the hills, and the fire of the sun.
algot would occassionally turn and smile at me as he re-baited his hook or reached for his can of root beer, his 80 year old face masked by the skin of a 35 year old. he immigrated to america on a boat from sweden when he was in his 20s.
juho would turn to re-bait or grab a drink of orange juice, but he never smiled. he had immigrated to america on a boat from finland when he was in his 20s. he looked 80. he was 80.
i sat in the middle, on a plank of deeply gouged wood, avoiding fish and staring out across the lake, often wondering what was on the other side of those green, round mountain peaks. the wondering and daydreaming were not from boredom though; this was saturday, this was what i did, and this was satisfying.
a ritual of those saturday afternoons was the lunch-time chat. i looked forward to this the most because that's when both grandpa's would reel in their lines, turn to the middle, and face me. they would reach into their coolers and pull out sandwiches their wives had prepared, one of them handing a sandwich to me (which cooler had my sandwich alternated every week.) the fish grease on the ham, or turkey, or chicken sandwich bothered me at first, but over time it had become an expected and enjoyed sort of sauce.
each grandpa would take turns speaking to me between chews, telling me some story of his native land, or recalling some incident with my parents, or offering me advice. algot, my swedish grandfather, often started this, and he would then prod my finnish grandfather, juho, to offer some of his own.
"it's the least we can do," he would say. "we have seen many things that this young man will encounter someday himself. we should help him prepare."
juho, who i know loved me but just had a hard time showing it, would grunt and then his face would go blank, as if he crawled into the library in his head and roamed the aisles looking for a book of advice. when he would drift off like that, my swedish grandfather would lean close to me, fix his soft blue eyes to mine and tell me a story.
on this saturday, algot said, as he smiled warmly, "mikey, life is just like fishing. you can row your boat out to the same spot everyday at the same time and you will know exactly what kind of fish you will catch and how often. but, if you explore the lake each time, you will discover different fish in different places. you can always go back to that familiar spot, and it is comforting and fun, but remember that the lake is big and there are always new fish to be found. also, fishing requires patience; if you explore the lake, and have patience while doing so, you will catch that perfect fish, the ultimate keeper, the one you will never throw back."
i didn't understand all of what he meant as a six year old child, but i remembered what he said, and over the years discovered the lesson in his speech. i thanked him for that advice, and then he kissed me on the cheek, his face showing his 80 years of wrinkles when he smiled broadly. he then turned me around, and we both faced juho whose face had returned home from the library - hopefully with a book in hand.
"well, juho?" questioned my swedish grandfather. juho took a dismissive bite of his sandwich and began his speech with a mouthful of chicken.
"sisu, a finnish word, so you wouldn't know it," he said more to algot than to me, "is the most important trait you can have. it means courage, it means guts, it means you will knock down a brick wall with your face if what you want is on the other side."
juho said this to me every saturday, so i nodded politely, having already learned this valuable lesson. algot scoffed at juho, "come on, juho, how about something original for the boy? it is important advice but the boy already has throughly learned the lesson. what else do you have in that strong finnish brain of yours?"
"there's more, algot. have some patience," said juho with a scowl. he swallowed down the piece of sandwich he had been eating and then reached for his drink. he took a long, careful swallow of orange juice and then looked over at me. "see as many women as you can before you get married," he continued, "only drink socially, with other people, as a celebration, not as an escape from your problems, because that is a myth...."
"juho, that is great advice, i am really...." interrupted algot.
"wait," juho said, interrupting him back, "there's more." he leaned in close to me, his tired gray eyes focused completely on mine. i could smell the brut cologne he wore and the chicken/fish oil sandwich on his breath. he held me tightly in his boney hands and said, "if you are ever on a trip around-the-world, don't ever, ever, EVER, let a condiment end it." with that, he sat back, turned around, baited his hook and cast his line. he sniffed heavily. i turned to algot, who looked down at me, shrugged his shoulders, rubbed my head and whispered "we both love you very much." he then turned, baited his hook, and cast his line. i sat on my plank of wood, absorbed those words, and stared out over the green mountains, wondering if i would explore the world on the otherside of those peaks one day.....and if i would remember my grandfather's wise old words....
keep on keepin' on,
michael (arvid) kivisto(nmaki)