Louise Finney| Fort Smith Times Record
Eating a 3-inch perch is about like looking for lice in a head of long, thick hair. Ive done both. My childrens father, Papa Gary, missed crappie season in Keota this spring because of excessive rain. He resorted to pond fishing, driving 60 miles to Sister Patsys pond in Parks. She keeps a swath of meadow bush hogged to the pond from Keener Road to accommodate family fishers there are many. During the 1950s and '60s, during my years at home in Parks, everyone fished. Today, acquaintances talk about football; then we talked about fishing.
Uncle A.B. often reminiscenced, Nowgirls, fish we catch today in Fourche River are nothing compared to those Jim, Sethand I caught years ago. Why, we pulled carp and buffalo out of the river this long. I cant vouch for exactly how long those fish were, but they looked mighty big to my little eyes. Do bear in mind that Mamas three brothers were big-time fishermen and big storytellers. If they couldnt pull fish out on a hook, they knew alternate methods of taking home fish for supper. I will not describe these methods. We all understand that times have changed. I recognize that everyday accepted practices during my childhood in rural Arkansas are now considered to be insensitive andinhumane even downright barbaric.
Shortly before Son Clayton and Daughter Lee Annas last visit, Papa Gary caught a nice string of fish from Patsys pond. As always, he froze the fish to cook during their visit. Papas pond catches weremostly perch that most would have been thrown back,or in todays jargon would have been "caught and released. On the other hand, in our family every fish at least 6 inches long is a keeper. I learned to eat 3-inch perch (length after the head is removed) at Uncle A.B.s table. Uncle A.B. scraped the fish, contending that the skin sealed in natural oils, improving its taste and nutritional value. Even on the rare occasion that he caught a fish large enough to filet, he would never think of wasting that sweetest meat around the bones. Eating fish demanded the art of picking out the bones, either before or after taking a bite before swallowing.
I do not remember an adult ever picking fish off the bone for me. Uncle A.B. demonstrated his technique while explaining, Now watch carefully, girls. Hold the fishs tail with your left hand like this. With your right thumb and index finger, carefully pinch the meat next to the tail. Gently pull the meat away from the tail. With practice, you will be able to remove the meat from the bones in one solid slab. See? It is now safe to eat the fish without worrying about bones. Here, you turn the fish over and practice removing the meat like I showed you.
Eating small perch takes time and patience, thusyoung children were taught how to eat safely without assistance. After all, adults were hungry too. Wisely, Uncle A.B. told us what to do just in case a bone escapesdetection and becomes stuck in your throat. His cornbread was made with homegrown yellow corn, stone-ground in Waldron, providing a coarse-textured meal. A big bite of cornbread swallowed deliberately never failed to clear my throat, eliminating the need for further intervention, for which I am grateful. I shudder to imagine the intervention Mamas four siblings may have used. Perish the thought!
Sitting at Papa Garys table eating 3-inch perch, I began a continuing contemplation of life. For the first time in 20 years, my nuclear family sat alone together, carefully picking meat from the bones of miniscule fish; quietly, painstakingly, peacefully in the process of transferring the crisp brown fish from the platter to the plate to the bone pile bowl in the tables center. I found the intentional act bound us in reverie of a time and place embedded deep within, feelings ever present, even if not perceived. Such feelings of family unity, complacency, contentmentand peace seem rare in todays fast paced, electronic world. Screens and activities distract us from knowing ourselves and those around us. We move robotically through a maze of sights, soundsand business, determined to move to the next game level or next step up the corporate ladder, oblivious to the authenticity of ourselves and others.
As I continue to contemplate life, I dream of family from the days of simple mundane tasks performed together, laughing and talking about nothing, yet everything. Last night I dreamed about Mothers paternal uncle, O.K. Gilbreath, whose daughter Joy was my age. Sitting around their kitchen table in Mena, long after finishing a meal, Uncle O.K.s soft, gentle voice teased and shared stories of his boyhood in Parks with his feisty, widowed mother, three brothersand two sisters. As an aside, one evening he smiled as he drank sweet iced tea and asked, Have you ever considered that we boil water to make tea and then add ice to make it cold?We add sugar to make it sweet and then lemon to make it sour? Wouldnt it be fun to sit around a family table long enough to think of such useless yet invaluable trivia?
I compared eating 3-inch perch to looking for lice in a head of long, thick hair. I do speak from experience. The morning of Lee Annas kindergarten Halloween party at Woods Elementary School, Mrs. Furlow called from the school office. Mrs. Finney, the nurse informed me that Lee Anna has head lice. You will need to come pick her up immediately. Horrified, I called Dr. Watts before getting Lee Annafor instructions to rida childs head of lice, which involved a bottle of clear, vile liquid. Lee Anna was undoubtedly the only little witch at a school party whose black hat concealed a pile of long, blonde hair saturated in lice killer. Unfortunately, my precious daughter was forced to endure the scourge twice more during kindergarten. I mastered the art of spotting and removing head lice, which requires the same careful attention as eating a 3-inch perch.
Im glad Papa Gary missed crappie fishing. Just think, had I not eaten those 3-inch perch, I would not have connected with the time and place that established my core values, my authentic self. I would not have begun the continuing contemplation of life that is restoring my balance and bringing me peace.