5 December Making Family

The Golden Trout

“How come the fish aren’t biting today?” Matt whined.

Only a few minutes had passed since my husband Howard helped our nine-year-old, special needs twins cast their lines into the murky brown water at the Eldred Preserve. As always, the well-stocked pond swarmed with brown and rainbow trout, along with a few golden. Maddeningly visible, some of the fish swam within an inch of our bait, like dogs sniffing to find the right tree, before moving on.

“It’s harder on hot, sunny days when there are lots of bugs. The fish aren’t as hungry,” Howard explained. It was a sultry Sunday in July.

“It’s hotsy-totsy!” Samantha declared to no one in particular. On the autism spectrum, she sat perfectly still, in contrast to her restless twin brother with ADHD.

More like stifling, I thought. Small clouds of mosquitoes circled just above the pond’s surface while others flew in my face like tiny torpedoes. It had to be at least ninety degrees. I felt like I was breathing through a wet sponge. “But there are hundreds of trout.” I observed. “Surely a few will be tempted by worms?”

Howard smiled. “Ah, that’s the challenge.” His brown eyes twinkled as he glanced at our red-and-white bobbers floating listlessly with those of at least a dozen competitors.

“The golden ones are so beautiful! How come there are so few? And why are they bigger?” Matt pointed to an unusually large one, pale and gleaming, as it darted through a crowd of mostly smaller, darker fish.

“Good questions, Matt. Maybe they’re rarer and more expensive to stock. Or maybe they don’t taste as good, so people don’t want them.”

“I wish I could catch one, just once.” my son sounded wistful.

In all of our fishing trips, we had caught many browns and rainbows but only a few golden trout and Howard had caught those on a day when we came home with a record of thirty-eight fish. I made a point of cooking the golden trout first, curious about how its salmon-colored flesh would taste. Even sautéed almondine, all of us had agreed the golden trout tasted fishier, almost bitter, compared with the sweeter, white-fleshed browns and rainbows.

But then again, I wasn’t a trout lover and only ate the ones we caught. Rules at the Eldred Preserve dictated that we had to keep whatever we caught, so it seemed only right to eat them. That way, according to Matt, “at least they died for a reason” as part of the food chain, which he’d been studying about at school.

While he didn’t mind giving another boy a bloody nose if provoked, Matt was tenderhearted when it came to most animals. He was the first one to bring home all six surviving snails from a science project, or to take off his sweatshirt in the rain to dry off a shivering Chihuahua tied up in front of our building. Still, he and his twin sister Samantha were thrilled every time they managed to reel in a jumping, wriggling fish and wrestle its slippery body into a red plastic bucket.

I wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about fishing as the rest of the family. Located in the Catskills, Eldred Preserve was over a two-hour drive from the city—long for a day trip with young twins, Matt with ADHD and Samantha on the autistic spectrum. It was exhausting and depressing to mediate their endless arguments.

“I WANT Annie!” Samantha shrieked when her brother suggested putting in a Rolling Stones tape.

“Mom, please not Annie AGAIN. We’ve heard it a million times. It’s not fair.” Matt argued.

“How about taking turns?” I proposed.

Annie first! I want Annie! I want Annie!” Samantha repeated in a loud sing-song.

“Why should she go first? She always goes first.”

“Because I can’t listen to her scream while I drive,” Howard admitted. “Both of you be quiet.”

Instead, they decided to play the “butt game.” Invented by Matt, the butt game involved the two of them trying to kick each other’s behinds while still strapped into their car seats. While most parents would have forbidden such a game, we were actually pleased that our twins, who rarely talked or played together, were laughing and kicking without hurting one another. Even better, the butt game tired them out, so they often fell asleep for a while

After we arrived, I couldn’t help feeling irritable. I hated the sandworms, the feel of their gravelly, squirming bodies and the blood and grit they left under my fingernails once I’d threaded them onto a hook. Casting was also a challenge. Half the time my line would get tangled or else I’d hook a tree behind me, sending my husband into peals of laughter at his “city girl.” Then he would become annoyed that he had to stop his own fishing to help me.

“You’re worse than the kids,” he had frowned. So I tried my best to learn to fish independently; or when my line became irreparably tangled, I’d take a break and watch the rest of the family fish, cheering them on when the fish were biting and encouraging them to be patient when they weren’t.

Given my daughter’s conversational and behavioral challenges, fishing was one of the few activities our family could enjoy together. Also, it was Howard’s favorite hobby, one that he had enjoyed with his own father when he was a boy.

Escape from stress was almost impossible for my husband. As a workaholic 48-year-old attorney, his jet black hair was fading to gray and receding, despite his ability to attract clients in the worst of times. There was no “OFF” button, no dialing it down to “RELAX” mode. Even weekends when he didn’t log in extra hours at the office, Howard arranged his life as though it was adult summer camp: mornings at the gym, afternoons coaching Matt’s little league games, or overseeing swim lessons with Samantha, and then movies and dinners with me and our friends. A full life, yes, but sometimes he just needed to unplug and catch his breath. For him, going fishing was the answer.

“Don’t you get bored when we don’t catch anything?” I yawned. I’d never been much of a camper even as a young girl. Unlike Howard, I hated following a rigid, hyperkinetic schedule of activities where I was exposed to insects and unpredictable weather. But fishing with Howard was different. I loved watching my husband morph into a happy little boy the moment a trout nibbled on his bait.

“I don’t mind looking at the lake and the trees. It helps me relax.”

“How can you relax when you’re always helping the kids bait their hooks or cast their lines?”

Henry smiled. “Definitely not my favorite part. But I love it when the kids catch a fish. Don’t you?”

Before I could answer, our daughter squealed. “I got one! I think I got one! Help me, Daddy!”

Samantha—who up until that moment had been silently staring into space, hazel eyes lost in her own mysterious world—was suddenly animated and alive, as if the fish pulling on her line had somehow ignited her brain and brought her back to us. Better still, she was asking her father for help when usually she hated receiving help from anyone except me. She had also realized that I was not the go-to parent when it came to fishing. Miraculously, she was allowing Howard to put his hands on hers. Usually, she pushed away helping hands, as though she was allergic to touch or perhaps the idea that someone was trying to hold her or control her in any way.

“Easy, Samantha. Don’t jerk, or you’ll lose him…” He covered her hand on the reel to slow her down. “That’s right, right. Gently…”

A large rainbow trout the size of my forearm jumped out of the water.

“You can do it!” Max encouraged his sister. “Don’t lose him!”

“Get the net! Hurry, Matt, get the net.” Samantha giggled wildly as she barked the order.

Matt quickly leaned over the slippery rock and tried to scoop up the darting, frantic fish. He swiped at the spot a moment too late.

“Again, again!” I became the cheerleader, silently praying he wouldn’t let his sister’s fish get away.

He tried a few more times, but at the last moment, the trout managed to dive under a rock. The net was coming up empty except for seaweed.

“Here, let me try.” I took the net and managed to scoop up the tiring trout.

“Yay, Mommy!” The three of them cheered.

Howard quickly unhooked the fish and dumped him into our bucket. “Samantha caught a beauty. Hooray for Samantha!”

“Samantha caught a beauty. Samantha caught a beauty. Hooray!” our daughter repeated over and over, referring to herself in the third person as autistic kids often do. Her whole face was pink and radiated joy.

I smiled too, mirroring Samantha’s pleasure, and thrilled that we were able to interact like a normal family, having fun and helping each other. These moments—like the fish we caught—were few and far between, bright bursts of color in the darker fabric of our everyday life.

Almost the moment Samantha’s line was back in the water, her bobber sank. “I’ve got another one.” This happened four or five times until all of us were laughing except Matt.

“When’s it going to be my turn?” he pouted. “Samantha has six and I haven’t caught any.”

“I have six and Matt doesn’t have any!” Samantha repeated, bragging. She was jealous and resentful of her brother because he had more friends and breezed through his schoolwork while she struggled.

“Stop being a douche!”

“What’s a douche? Why is he calling me that? He’s being mean.”

“No, you’re mean. Tell her, Mom.”

I sighed. “It’s not nice to brag.” But Samantha didn’t really understand what it meant to brag, so I needed to explain it several times. “But it’s also not nice to call people names.”

“How about we take a break for lunch?” Howard gave me a meaningful look. Neither one of us wanted to explain what a douche was.

Over tuna sandwiches and crumb cake, we discussed switching our bait.

“Maybe we should try earthworms, or maybe that super bait that they sell in the front office.” my husband suggested.

“I vote for super bait. Really easy to put on the hook.” I argued. Super bait looked like tiny blobs of cheddar cheese and didn’t squirm or leave blood under my fingernails.

“But they fall off easily too.” Howard pointed out.

“And then the fish get a free meal on top of the bugs,” Matt added. “I think we should try earthworms.”

“Slimy and disgusting.” I shuddered. The sandworms were bad enough.

“What do you think, Samantha?” Howard tried to include her in the conversation, but she was back in her own world, absently ripping at her fingernails.

In the end, we decided to buy both earthworms and super bait and see what the fish liked. Matt switched to earthworms, Samantha and I tried the super bait, and Howard stuck with sandworms. Sometimes, out of boredom, I’d smear super bait on part of a worm to create a makeshift hors-d’oeuvre for the fish.

As the afternoon progressed, clouds filtered out some of the sun, allowing partial relief from the heat. As Howard predicted, the fish got hungrier as the bug supply diminished. With our new buffet of bait and family teamwork, all of us were catching fish.

“I’ve got eight.” Samantha knew she’d caught the most. “How many do you have, Matt?” She asked unnecessarily.

“Only two. Stop asking.” His blue eyes squinted in frustration.

“Hey, I’ve only got two, and Daddy only has four. And he’s the expert in the group.” I smoothed the dark cowlick on Matt’s head.

Why was it so important to keep score? I had to remind myself that competition was normal in families, especially between siblings. Except in our case, the siblings were far from equal. Matt was gifted, ahead in almost every area, while Samantha lagged behind. She only won games where luck was involved or when Howard and I deliberately lost. Fishing was part luck, part skill so Samantha was proud of outdoing her brother. Still, I didn’t want Matt to go home sad or for them to fight in the car.

Howard looked at his watch. It was almost 4 p.m. “We have another half hour at least. How about if I help you all cast out there with some fresh bait?”

Since I’d only caught two small rainbows, I was happy to get some help. According to Howard, the most important thing was for the bait to be fresh. So we had to keep reeling in our lines to check. If a trout nibbled on a worm without swallowing the hook, the worm would look chewed and mangled and be rejected by other fish. Also, sometimes we’d reel in an empty hook. Either the bait fell off, or the fish outsmarted us by sucking it off the hooks without our noticing.

Suddenly, Matt’s bobber plunged and his rod bent over double. “Got one!” He pulled up his rod just a little, the way his dad had taught him. “I think it’s a big one.”

“Or else a lot of seaweed,” Howard teased.

Matt squeezed the rod so tightly that his knuckles turned white. He pressed it up against his Giants T-shirt, cradling it protectively, as he tried to reel in the fish. “It’s a golden! I’ve got my first goldie,” he yelled as the pale fish leaped out of the water, glistening in the sunlight for a second before plunging back into the pond.

“Easy,” Howard cautioned. “Not so fast, or you’ll lose him.”

“Help me, Dad,” Matt said.

“You see, Samantha, everyone needs help sometimes. Your brother too.” Every experience was an opportunity for our daughter to learn, and she learned best through repetition.

“Matt needs help too?” Samantha repeated, as if it was an entirely new idea.

At this point, Howard was steadying the rod. “That’s it…slowly. Let Goldie swallow the hook. Now pull up again… There you go.”

“Mommy, the net!” Matt ordered.

“Why can’t I get the net?” Although Samantha was belligerent about doing things herself, she insisted on helping out others whenever she could. It was a simple and direct way to connect without words, and also rewarded her with adult approval.

We both reached for the net. “Together,” I suggested, knowing there was no time to argue. “Matt needs a lot of help. He needs us both.” I knew I’d never hear the end of it if Matt lost this fish.

As father and son pulled the trout closer, it was thrashing hard. Up, down, and in frenzied loops, it swam, trying to break free.

“Hang in there. You’ve almost got him.” Samantha and I stooped down on a rock at the edge of the water, each with a hand on the net. “We’re right here.”

“Yeah, we’re right here,” Samantha repeated, gripping the net tightly.

“Careful not to fall in,” Howard warned, as Matt stumbled into the shallow mud.

“OK, Samantha. Now.” Together we scooped deep into the water, as the golden trout dove between the rocks to escape.

“Please don’t lose my goldie,” Matt pleaded. He could see that his sister’s collaboration with me was doomed. I couldn’t possibly move the net fast enough with Samantha clinging to it like a lifeline.

“Quick, Samantha, be a good girl and get the bucket,” Howard smiled encouragingly, “if you want to help us catch this fish.”

“I want to help.” Slowly, Samantha released the net and ran to retrieve the bucket lying in the grass a few feet away.

I waited till the fish emerged from the rocks and swooshed the net down. “Got him!” I lifted the flailing fish out of the water as she arrived with the bucket. All that was left was for Howard to put on a glove and remove the hook from the fish with a pair of pliers.

“I finally caught my goldie!” Matt was jumping up and down in a celebratory dance.

“It’s a beauty, Matt. At least three pounds.” Howard admired the golden trout as he struggled to get a grip on its plump body, which had flapped out of the net, iridescent in the grass.

Just as my husband closed his hand around its body, tiny white eggs shot out of its body like a cascade of seed pearls scattering on the ground.

“Oh, no!” Matt stopped dancing and fell to his knee in a frenzied effort to gather up the eggs and throw them into the pond. “Goldie was pregnant. She was going to be a mom. And now I’ve killed her and all of her babies too.” He burst into tears. “Can’t we put her back into the water and let her live?”

“If she didn’t swallow the hook, maybe…” Howard gently pushed the pliers into the trout’s mouth as it writhed in his grip.

“Please, Dad, please, please save her,” he sobbed.

I hugged him tight.

“Shh, it’s okay, honey. Daddy will try his best.” I stroked the tears and dirt from his face. He was so sweet and sensitive. I had to fight my own tears. “Meantime, I’ll help you put the eggs back in the water, so the babies can hatch.” I grabbed handfuls of what felt like gooey grains of sand.

“I don’t want to murder a whole generation of fish.”

“Why is Matt crying?” Samantha asked. “He caught a fish. He should be happy. I want him to be happy.” She wrapped her arms around him too. Although they rarely talked or played together, Samantha loved her brother in a visceral, non-verbal way that twins who shared a womb together do. Always affectionate, she wanted everyone to be just like her—always happy in the moment because she couldn’t think about or understand cause and effect, past and future.

“He’s sad because this fish was going to be a mom, just like I’m your mom.”

We all held our breath as Howard struggled to remove the hook as quickly as possible but without causing further injury. The golden trout was no longer flapping and fighting; it had been out of the water awhile and seemed resigned to its fate.

Matt was on his knees praying, tears rolling down his cheeks. “God, please let Goldie live so she can take care of her babies.”

Finally, Howard pulled out the hook and released the fish into the pond. “Don’t be sad, son,” he said, tossing the pliers into the tackle box and draping an arm around Matt. “I performed emergency surgery. She has a bloody lip, but I think she’ll survive.”

“Really?” Matt wiped his nose with the back of his hand and stared at the trout struggling on its side as it tried to swim away. “It looks like she’s dying.”

I held my breath. Barely moving at first, the fish was now wiggling slowly along on the surface, but seemed unable to right itself. “Give her a minute. She’s been through a lot. Bloody lip, no air, not to mention laying hundreds of eggs.”

“Do you think she’ll make it?” Matt sniffled.

“I don’t know,” I admitted, brushing away another tear rolling down his cheek, as together we watched Goldie wobble and swim, rest on her side, and then zigzag away a little faster. “But I can tell you this. Mothers are tough. They have to be. I’m betting on Goldie to gather her strength so she can dive down deep to watch over those eggs.”

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Marguerite Elisofon

Marguerite Elisofon is a New York City writer and the author of My Picture Perfect Family, a memoir about how her family navigated life with a child on the autistic spectrum before the internet and support groups existed. She also blogs about parenting young adults and disability related issues in The Never Empty Nest. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including: Time, NY Metro Parents Magazine, Ability, and Autism Parenting magazine. Her family’s story has been featured by the NY Post, Fox News, and on Jenny McCarthy’s Dirty Sexy Funny radio show. A Vassar graduate, Marguerite was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives with her husband, Howard, in their mostly-empty nest.

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