Mama stands over the stove, one hand resting on the shelf of her wide hip, the other holding a metal spatula. Corn oil bubbles in the cast iron skillet she tends. She is frying the fish we caught earlier in the afternoon. Maybe I shouldn’t say we. Mama and her mother, my Mamaw, did most of the catching. In this memory, I’m elementary school age. It’s not one specific day, but many fishing days that run together.
The ponds and lakes where we fish are quiet places, with no one else around. They belong to folks who have given us permission to be there. Maybe a client of Daddy’s he had tried to sell life insurance to or an old friend of Mama’s she had run into at the grocery store. Jackson wasn’t a big city back then, so it didn’t take long to get out into the country. Maybe going fishing felt like going home to Mama and Mamaw. They both grew up on farms in the hill country of Mississippi two hours north. Maybe it felt that way for Daddy, too. He grew up on a farm in Ohio.
Our cane fishing poles ride along the outside of our plump Plymouth. Whoever sits by the window is implored to “Hold on to the poles!” for fear that Daddy’s barely-good-enough-rope-tie will come loose. As soon as Daddy turns the engine off, I scramble over the top of Mamaw and toddler sister Melinda, who sits on her lap, to get out the door. I’m too impatient to wait for Mamaw to twist her heavy load around to get herself out. I want to be the first one to get a pole.
My younger brother Bubba is right behind me, jumping two-footed onto the ground. We run around to the other side of the car, grabbing at the cane poles Daddy has freed.
My older sister, Cass, takes her time getting out, then stands there waiting. Mama passes baby sister Kathleen to her from the center of the front seat, then pulls herself out, straightening her dress as she stands up, so the buttons face front.
Charging to the water, my brother and I drop our poles on the shore and start throwing rocks as far as we can send them flying. He tries to make the stones skip, and I see how high and far I can make them go.
Mama lumbers across the bare, parched grass that surrounds the water and yells, “Stop that! You’re gonna scare all the fish away.”
Bubba and I laugh because we know, like she does, that those fish will swim right back up soon as the water goes still, or we toss them a bread ball.
Before we can get our poles set up, Mamaw is already tossing her line in the water and getting down to it, a serious look on her face as she squints into the sun bouncing off the water. Like Mama, she always wears a dress. Mamaw keeps a pretty little handkerchief tucked in her bosom, handy for wiping off the sweat that gathers on her forehead and runs down her cheeks in the heat.
“Find you a bobber in the bag and get a hook,” Mama tells me, drawing me away from the rock-throwing and into what we are there for, fish for supper. She shows me how to press the button on top of the round red and white float to expose the clip that keeps it secured about two feet up the line. Then, as I thread the stiff, clear line through the eye of the hook, she watches, reminding me, “Honey, make a good knot in it, or you’ll lose the hook and the fish, too.”
Mama is a little squeamish about worms and lots of other things, so Mamaw is the one who teaches me how to thread the long earthworms onto the hook without ending up with the sharp barb in my thumb. She digs the worms from our backyard and carries them in a tin can with a bit of soil. Worms have no face to stare down, so it is easy to sacrifice them. Even when they are securely on the hook, their flopping and squirming don’t stop.
“That’s part of the trick,” Mamaw says. “The fish bite when the worms are wiggling.”
Daddy isn’t interested in hunting and fishing, not like the Southern fathers I know who genuinely love it. He never takes a pole for himself but helps Bubba, his only son, who enjoys fishing more than he does. When my brother is all set up, Daddy lays back on a blanket next to baby sister, who he is in charge of, and opens the newspaper he has brought along. His only hobby is reading, but he won’t risk getting one of his precious Book-of-the-Month books dirty.
Mama and Mamaw fish with eyes always on the prize — something for supper. They watch their bobbers for any sign of tugging, ready to make the quick jerk of the line necessary to hook the fish nibbling on the worm.
“These fish are going to be so good when we get home and fry them up,” Mamaw calls out to Mama.
On the banks of the peaceful water, with no one else in sight, we stand in a line that starts with Mamaw. We try to keep our fishing lines from getting tangled. “Honey, move down a little,” Mama says as we each relax and sink into our solitary rhythms.
Holding my pole loosely, I daydream in the steamy heat. I want to take a swim, but it’s not that kind of pond. There are cows in the distance that might be cooling off here later. The water is muddy, and reeds are growing along the shore. I think of the Sunday school story about Moses floating in a basket that his mother hid in the reeds of the Nile River. I wish I had brought my dolly, her blanket, and a little basket so I could float her next to me as I fish.
Mama watches my bobber as well as her own. “You got one. You got one!” she calls to me, as excited for my catch as she is for her own.
We mainly catch brim. You need a boat for bass, which we don’t have. Brim are about the size of an adult’s hand, with delicate white flesh and thin skin that crisps up quickly. They have a lot of fine bones, so you have to be very careful eating them, or you end up with a bone in your throat.
Mama wouldn’t think of putting smelly fish in her nice picnic cooler, so we keep them dangling in the cool water on a fish stringer staked at the bank. It’s Mamaw’s job to thread the fish onto the long cord. She puts the metal tip of the stringer through the fish’s mouth and out the gills. In the water, they flop and swim, staying fresh until we carry them home in an old, galvanized bucket that rides on the floorboard between Mamaw’s feet.
Back at home, Mamaw cleans the fish while standing at the picnic table in the backyard. I watch as she puts her thumb in the fish’s open mouth to get a good grip and scrapes off the scales with a spoon. She then runs a sharp knife down its belly, raking the guts onto the table. She cuts the gooey-eyed heads off last. When they are all done, she rinses each fish with the hose.
I run the fish inside to Mama while Mamaw cleans up. Mama is all set up to fry. She has a big bowl of Martha White self-rising cornmeal on the counter next to the stove. Mama salts each fish and buries it in the cornmeal one by one. Then, shaking each one, she eases it into the hot oil.
I sit down at the little two-seat breakfast table a few feet away from the stove. I like to sit in the chair closest to the back door, so when Mama yells, “Let the cat out!” I can swing the door open without getting up.
Everyone else is swirling in and out of the kitchen, like at a train station terminal. No matter where they are heading, they pass through and take a look over Mama’s shoulder to check on the supper schedule. She shoos the littlest ones away from her serious business, telling them, “Go in the living room and watch TV with your Daddy.”
Mamaw joins us in the kitchen and stands at the counter, grating an onion to make hushpuppies. Tears roll down her cheeks. She comes to our house most weekends if we aren’t at her house eating with Mama’s two brothers, their wives, and my cousins, all boys, who visit from across town and North Mississippi.
Mamaw lives alone just a few blocks away, in the little house we all lived in not long ago. It’s close enough for me to ride my bicycle over to see her anytime I need some peace and quiet or a big glass of iced tea. I’m named Lucretia after Mamaw, even though neither of us is called by that name. Instead, they call me Cressie, a nickname officially inserted on my birth certificate in quotation marks. Mamaw is called by her middle name, Evelyn, pronounced like the nighttime — Eve-Lynn.
Mama, standing there over the stove, is wearing an old dress because she is frying. Her shirtwaist dresses are all alike, purchased from the JC Penney catalog three at a time in bright colors like turquoise and pink. The newest ones, dressed up with matching earbobs and necklaces, are for church or going to the grocery store. The not-so-new but still okay are worn around the house in case someone drops by to visit. People always do. The oldest dresses, stained and tattered, are for messy cooking like canning or frying. I see new grease stains splattered down Mama’s front as the fish pops and sizzles.
Mama tells me a story as she pokes at the fish, lifting a corner to make sure it is not getting too brown, a dreamy tone in her voice. I’ve heard the story before, but I listen anyway, my chin resting on my fist.
“When I was a kid, there was a creek that ran right through our land. In summertime, Brother and I would set hooks on our trotline in the creek as the sun was going down.”
When Mama says Brother, I know she is talking about my Uncle Hal. I know, too, that setting hooks means putting the bait on each one.
“We’d have the line stretched out between us with those hooks dangling off of it, then ease it into the water. Then, the next morning, we would get up early and run barefoot across the field to see what we had caught.
“Was that at the old home place?” I ask, doing my part by showing I am listening.
Mama nods and goes on. “Those mornings, Brother and I would pull in ten or twelve fish, still flapping. We’d dig the hooks out of their mouths and run back to the house just as fast as our little legs could carry us. Your Mamaw would meet us at the back door with her sharp knife, and quick as you could say Jack Robinson, she’d have those fish gutted, seasoned, dredged, and in the pan. ‘Bout the time your granddaddy and his men got to the house for breakfast, the fish would be coming out of the frying pan. Mmm, Mmm, Mmm. Oh, they were so good.”
“They sho’ was, Sister,” Mamaw chimes in, agreeing with Mama without stopping her work or turning around.
Some weekends, we drive down the dirt roads of Mama’s childhood and stand on the side of the road, peering over a barbed-wire fence at the thousand acres of land her family lost years ago when her Daddy got sick with leukemia. He took a loan on their land to pay for the hospital. When he died, Mamaw couldn’t pay it back. Mama was twelve.
In those quiet moments beside the road, I imagine Mama running down the hill towards the creek and coming back to her house with the fish. I feel the coolness of the red loam of the fertile land where Mama grew up.
I watch as Mamaw beats the grated onion into cornmeal mixed with egg and milk. Finally, she hands the batter to Mama, who is ready to fry the hushpuppies.
Mama tells me, “Go wash your hands and get up here and help me.”
Mama demonstrates the size she wants and then keeps a close eye on me to make sure I have done it right. The batter is thick, so it’s easy to roll rough little balls and rest them on a plate ready for Mama to drop into the skillet.
“Why do they call them hushpuppies?” I ask. I know the answer, but I want to hear the story.
Mamaw repeats the two-line story as Mama stays focused on moving the balls around in the pan to keep them from burning. “’Cause in the country, we fried up the leftover cornbread batter to feed the dogs. We’d throw the little balls out the back door and say, ‘Hush puppies!’”
I love that story and imagine Mamaw on the back steps of their country house, surrounded by my granddaddy’s hunting dogs that I’ve seen in pictures.
“Arf, arf, arf,” I bark, pretending to be a little dog at Mamaw’s feet.”
“Hush puppy,” Mamaw calls back, tossing the first hush puppy out of the pan from hand to hand to cool it before passing it to me.
I bark again, calling for another.
The last of the frying done, a bowl of homemade coleslaw and some tartar sauce made earlier in the day come out of the refrigerator. We all sit down at the dining room table and Mama delivers a large, chipped platter piled high with fried brim and hushpuppies.
Daddy folds his hands and bows his head, signaling all of us to do the same. On Sundays, he says the blessing, shaping a long prayer from the events of the week. The other days, he calls on one of us kids to recite the quick version of the blessing we use for everyday meals. “God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for our food. Amen.”
Mama and Mamaw sit next to each other, close to the kitchen door so they can jump up and get anything we need.
“We did good today, Sister, didn’t we?”
“We sho did!” Mama says to Mamaw as they both dig into fish, hushpuppies, and coleslaw. They eat with the same concentration they had while we stood on the side of the pond.
“Mmm, Mmm, Mmm,” is all they both say until they finish eating.
I dig in my raised-bed tomato garden. A shiny brown earthworm does flips to avoid my trowel. I pick it up and let it slither through my fingers. Mama and Mamaw, both long gone, appear in my mind, fishing lines tossed in a murky pond, wind blowing the tall grass that surrounds it.
That afternoon, I stand in front of the fish counter at Whole Foods, admiring the glistening silver branzino. After eating it for many years in restaurants, I realized I like it because it tastes like brim.
Later, olive oil sizzles in an old iron skillet as I gently pat corn meal onto both sides of the fish. I confidently ease my “catch” into the hot pan like Mama taught me. Dining alone, I moan with delight at the fish’s delicate flavor and cooked-to-perfection crispy skin. “Mmm, Mmm, Mmm.”
Licking my greasy fingers, I smile, knowing my Mama and Mamaw would be proud of me.
Ryan Odinak writes personal essays, poems, and flash nonfiction about family, coming of age, and the historically momentous events of her childhood. She is working on a book-length memoir about her experiences as a seventeen-year-old white girl integrating an all-Black high school in Jackson, Mississippi, where she grew up. In her career as an arts administrator, she penned piles of promotional articles and wrote reams of grants. Ryan lives in Connecticut and enjoys anything that gets her into the water and seeing new things, whether on daily hikes or in her travels.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing/Flickr Creative Commons