The picture is of the good old days. It sits on a shelf next to other photos, trinkets and memorabilia that few people have ever seen. The man in the small round frame holds a bass with a mouth big enough to swallow a fist. I know the size because his arm is one third of the way into the belly of the beast.
I don’t recognize the man in the photo. His face is familiar only in emotion, not identification. He is young and energized by his impressive catch. His white V-neck tee shirt is neatly tucked into his pants and his crew cut evokes a Top Gun pilot. Even the color in the picture is faded appropriately. Add a catchy bass-tactics title and the scene could easily accompany a sun-bleached Field and Stream article of the times.
Further down the display shelf is a leather-bound photo album. There are other people in line along the shelf and they start to dam up behind me. I flip through pages until the images start to match the age of the man in the picture. It takes another minute of paging through thirty years of time to see photos of someone I recognize. The man I know as Papa. I can’t remember if I knew him with hair or not, but until one of the patient people in line behind me tells me it’s Papa holding the bass, part of me thinks I’m in the wrong place. At the wrong funeral.
I only ever knew Papa as an old man with a bald head and sun-worn skin. The man in the round frame is full of youth and aspirations. We used to spend time together at his condo in Florida with a porch view of the Atlantic. But I never met the man in the picture frame.
Papa once visited the family in Ohio and after wearing old, worn out clothes for a week of suburban activities, stepped onto the front porch for a day of fishing wearing his Sunday best. His button-down shirt was tucked into a pair of khaki cargo shorts, cinched together with a belt that had fish stitched into the leather. You know the kind. It is the one that most people wear to tell others they fish, but Papa actually wore it fishing.
On my later visits to Florida we cruised around the intercostal estuaries in his brilliant white boat. It was so clean a surgeon could have used it for an operating table. For us, the only operations were performed on the bounty of the sea. Fish blood and fluids were a momentary stain that he quickly rinsed clean. Papa wore long sleeves and pants to ward off the sun and his reliable fish belt always held back his shirt. Each time we went out together I tried to do as much as I could on the boat with my young body. But Papa assured me where I was needed and sat calmly at the helm. We caught ladyfish and sea trout and snapper and on days where we wanted to chase the giant reds and cobia, he reached out to a local fishing guide to help.
I look up from my reminiscing to see that same guide in line behind me, admiring a picture in a small round frame. I imagine he recognizes the face.
Papa’s guide is the last to leave the building. He makes a point to say hi, to laugh about a particularly memorable outing and share a story. We talk of poorly set drags, casting to manta rays and schools of redfish. He joins us in celebration following the service at a local fishing pier.
I learned more about Papa at his funeral than I had known in all my visits to Florida. Good times, dark times, courageous times. I was happy to hear it, to learn about his life, to see others with whom he connected. I wonder how much of this came before the bass, how much came after.
When the service ends, I bid my family farewell and pack away the photos on the shelves. I appear in only a few frames. Many pictures are parts of his life I never knew, pictures with which I never connected. Parts of him I don’t recognize.
With a box full of life’s leftovers, I work my way backward along the table to the small round frame. I recognize the man in the photo, now. He is without the bald head and tanned skin of age, without the harrowing experiences and joys of a life well-lived. He is thrilled in the moment and caught in a picture that has outlasted his lifetime. He is the everlasting youth of the angler inside. I am glad to have known him.
Artwork by David Wilson.