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Desert Companion

Personal History: Keeping it Reel


Keeping it Reel
Illustration by Delphine Lee

Through life’s many changes, fishing in local parks keeps this mother and son connected

We are not fishing people, my son and I. Yet fishing is what we’ve done to connect as mother and son, though we have never caught a fish or even talked as we do it. It started when he was 4 years old. I left his father and our home in Los Angeles. We moved in the dead of winter to New York City. I found work that kept us on the edge of poverty. The toilsome commute and long hours meant my son was in daycare for close to 60 hours a week. His only friend was the neighbor’s daughter, who had no compunction about teasing him for not having a father or wearing the purple and pink, unicorn-print pajama pants I found in a laundromat. I needed something we could do together that was cheap and cheerful while giving me a break from the nitpicking judgment of my family.

Fishing in Manhattan was as close to free as I could find. Central Park loaned rods and gave you free bait. Somehow, sitting on the concrete banks of the Harlem Meer with a line in the water delighted my otherwise morose son. The high-rises surrounded us like giants, and he earnestly believed he was on the hunt for a leviathan. I knew very little about fishing. A library book showed us illustrations on the basics of casting and setting up a line. My son was impatient in the way children are when they believe their mother is keeping them from certain joy. The tree branches welcomed his hook as he flicked his line above his head. He laughed when it happened. I laughed, too, happy to see him shake off the weight of our fractured family. 

Support comes from

It’s a brisk Saturday morning after the new year. My son is 11 now. We drive in silence past the red-tiled roofs of the Las Vegas suburbs to Floyd Lamb Park. The city din doesn’t reach this far into the park, although the crisscross contrails from planes leaving McCarran remind you of its closeness. We head past the pavilion where people are setting up a repast. 

My son and I stand in silence at the pond’s edge as we tie our clinch knot on the hook. He sticks his tongue out and licks the five kinks in the line, producing more spit than necessary to lubricate the knot. He turns to smile and nod at men with lines in the water — a sign of comradeship to fellow anglers. He motions for us to move to a knoll away from the trees. He intuits the trout are lingering there, ready for our cheese bait. Our lines fly behind our shoulders and with the split-shot sinker anchoring the hook, they land in the middle of the pond. We’ll squat there. Our eyes will stay on the water, on our rods, on the men across the way, but never on the face so akin to the other. The silence stays, and we stay steeped in it, already knowing we won’t speak. 

And yet, these are emotionally expansive moments. In the quiet, something passes between us. I want to understand my son, and I want him to understand me. There is a great deal of condemnation for mothers raising sons on our own. And it’s mostly aimed at black mothers. When five dollars went missing at a family gathering, my son was the immediate suspect. And while he could have done it — he says he did not — it was the relative’s earnest warning of how easily fatherless boys end up in the penitentiary that immediately shamed me. Fishing gives us a measure of relief from whatever future is out there for us. It is the one thing that has remained ours, even in this place not known for it, even as puberty sets in and he begins texting girls “what’s up?” Every throw of the line into the water is me saying to my son that I will always be a constant in his life.

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