Here at WVFC, we often find ourselves looking at—and fondly  embracing—the relationship of mothers and daughters. But the bond between daughter and father is also worth celebrating. On this Father’s Day, we’re pleased to share Maryann Helferty’s recollection of her father and an outing they enjoyed years ago, at a stream just outside Philadelphia. — Ed.

Restlessness crept into my life as I moved in fits and starts through my 40s.  Every June after the first stretch of ninety-degree Philly weather, the next cool mornings taunted me to play hooky, evade my air-conditioned office tower and roam the cool ravine near my home. Often, walking the carriage roads along Wissahickon Creek, I saw men in waders standing midstream, fishing for sunnies and brook trout. They reminded me of Saturday mornings spent long ago with my father, whom we lost to leukemia when he was only 57.

In the mid-1960s, on hazy summer days before air conditioning became a staple of family life, my dad took his four older children out with him to Chester Creek.  The morning ritual began in the basement as my sister Karen and I watched and quizzed my father as he sorted his rusty, red tackle box. Out would spill licorice- scented purple neons and the forbidden sharp hooks.

It was rare to have time alone with our dad, so we peppered him with questions. Why are the worms fake and smell like licorice? Why is metal chain called a jigger—does it dance? Won’t the boys dig real worms, like they did on opening day of trout season?

Patiently, he kept opening the packages of lead weights, hooks and barbs while explaining that summer fishing was harder than early spring when the stream was stocked. The tackle was dressed up to look like the food fishies ate in the stream. 

Heading up the stairs, he would grab his brimmed cap with the license pinned on the side and give my mom a peck on the cheek. She always said “Go have fun and get those rammy kids some fresh air.”

Piling the gear and four of his eight kids into the gray Buick station wagon, he’d set off with us for Ridley Creek State Park. In minutes, the steamy heat set our sibling rivalries boiling. Well practiced at teasing, my oldest brother hissed, “Baitbreath” in my ear.  My other brother lectured us about a TV show that he saw after our bedtime, on leeches that loved to suck the blood out of little girls who fell in rivers. My sister and I deployed our usual defense: putting our fingers in our ears and chirping “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” in tandem.

When we pulled off Painter Road into the gravel parking lot, everyone peeled themselves from the sticky vinyl seats, happy that the real fun was about to begin. Quick to get their poles in the water, my brothers raced ahead while my sister and I dawdled with my father, slowly moving toward a cool shady spot down a stream bank.
Dad put on his waders and strode out to the middle of the creek, slowly waving his pole, sending the long green filament in an arc over the sparkling water. My sister and I played along the stream bank, picked buttercups, held them to our chins, giggled, and watched the dragonflies dance.

After a while we huddled quietly, watching this unusual sight of our relaxed and smiling father. For a rare moment he was quiet and peaceful, picking up the line from the water and flinging it over and over again. To us, it was funny to see a grown-up just playing, with a lost-in-time look spread over his face.

One of the first times Karen and I were old enough to join these all-male Saturday excursions, I was bursting with curiosity. I shouted, “What are you doing, Dad?”

A twinkle flashed in his sailor-blue eyes as he said, “I am waiting for the fish.”

Ever helpful, craving attention, I jumped into the wet sand and called, “Here, should we splash them to you?”

With a soft smile my father pointed to a low slab of limestone about 30 feet upstream and said, “Yes, how about if you go to the rocks over there and splash them down here to me. Together, we will wait for the fish.”

With very few words, my father taught us a lot of life lessons on those Saturday fishing expeditions. A quietly Catholic man, he knew we were not in charge of such things as when the big palomino trout would leap and take his hook. A good fisherman, he did not take getting skunked personally. A stoic man, he showed us how not to sweat the small stuff by going to the river when the going got hot. Despite the pressures of young fatherhood, he kept play in his life, a hobby that rewarded him often through the years.

Longing to reclaim some “fishing time” for myself this summer, I cut back my work week to four days. Rising early, I take my journal, walk to a mill stream and sit on a low ledge. Surrounding me are the familiar sounds of rushing water and the cool mist of spray on my face. In the stillness, I cast my pen into the turbulent waters of midlife memory, writing poetry and waiting for the fish.

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  • Kerry July 1, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    What a wonderful story, as others it brought back smiles in memories of me and my dad. Thank you!

  • Marci June 23, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    This essay is such a gem!! I fished with my dad in salt water, not fresh—and always caught more than him or my brother! I thoroughly enjoyed seeing each draft of this piece and then its final form. Kudos also to a fine editor who helped hone it.

  • cshipley June 22, 2010 at 8:50 am

    Wonderful piece, brought to mind unexpected and rare quiet moments with my own father, a very typical dad from the 1950’s. Made me want to take a quick ride to the Frosty Freeze. Thanks for bringing my dad back for a moment.

  • J.J. Van Name June 21, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Lovely essay Maryann…brought back my own solitary visits to the woods near my house as a child…where I sat by the stream for hours (and even ran away to once)eagerly lifting stones…waiting for the salamanders…to escape, and change color! : )