One of the rites of spring in a culture such as mine is the grasping of a varnished length of cane. Knotted onto its wispy end is a strand of thin monofilament line of approximately the same length as the cane itself. Threaded onto the line is the smallest of natural corks, the kind with a thread through its middle to which the monofilament is first tied and then pulled through the center of that cork. Using one’s front teeth, a tiny piece of slotted lead is bitten onto the line below the cork. The last accoutrement is a wire hook tied with a blood knot to the line’s end. So armed and following a trip to the cricket, worm and minnow store, a man in my culture is ready to enjoy the bounty of post-winter waters.
Thankfully, I have friends in North Fayetteville who have allowed their primary water feature to overpopulate with fish. While they built the pond to be home to black crappie, arguably the finest meat fish in our region – and certainly so in a culture such as mine – the better known largemouth bass had overtaken their pond, as bass are prone to do when left unregulated by those who own fillet knives.
On this late April morning, one of cloudy skies with brisk, but not cold, temperature, I spent several hours floating around in a very small craft. Impaled on the aforementioned hook were very small sacrificial shiner minnows whose dying act it was to entice those crappie to a last supper. Well, to the last supper where they would not actually be the supper. Over several hours, I did harvest four pretty good ones that ended up in my fryer that night. The chief impediment to more, however, were those prolific and heretofore unmolested bass. I had to go through 25 of them, none more than 10 inches long, to finally make a two–person meal out of the crappie.
The chief gamekeeper of the pond instructed me before my arrival that I would encounter such an unbalanced population. He made it my responsibility to begin reversing the overpopulation. Knowing that I am an owner of a very expensive and well-used fillet knife, he said that it would be my job to harvest any bass less than 14 inches in length. He did not care what I did with them, as long as I resisted any inclination to release them back into the waters.
About 1 p.m., I reloaded my little boat into the bed of the truck along with my cane pole and tiny tackle box and cooler full of fish. It was only then that I began to think of the toil in the cleaning almost 30 fish. You see, while the gamekeeper cared not if the fish were food or fertilizer, I am the former fishing padawan of one Reginald M Barton, Sr. He taught me how to pick a wispy but strong cane pole. He taught me discrimination toward anything but that tiny cork; how to bite a lead split shot onto the line; when to use a wire hook; and how to tie a blood knot. He also taught me to eat what I killed. Mercy, how many fish did we eat in our 55 years together? So of all options for those fish in the cooler, fertilizer was not one of them. If they were to die, then they would fry.
One acceptable Uncle-Reg-approved loophole was exploring the option of someone else helping to eat the fish.
As I turned off Beard Road in Eastover, several miles and two turns from the house, I began to look for potential helpers. Not long after completing the turn, I saw a fellow about my age or so weeding the cracks of his driveway with a spade. A country boy doing his own yard work on a Saturday afternoon was a likely candidate. I stopped and hollered out the window – “Hey bud, I have caught more fish today than I can eat. They are little, but they sho’ be sweet. Won’t you take some?”
I knew immediately that this fellow had fished in his life. His gaze was toward me, but his eyes saw what was in his mind. He was thinking back to fishing with his granddaddy as a boy, but not so much to the fishing as to the obligatory cleaning of the fish. I knew he could taste my offering in his mind, but I knew he was weighing the reward against the work that would have to precede any benefit. Finally, almost reluctantly, he said, “I’ll take five.”
He went inside for a pan and I slipped six into it while we made neighborly exchanges about nothing either one of us remember today. Again, I was off. Nineteen more bass in the cooler needed a home. Or at least a kitchen.
Just before making the next turn, I saw a tiny woman in a bonnet, a facemask, sunglasses and work gloves trimming her shrubs. She was no Edward Scissorhands at it. As I came up upon her, I saw her snip one little frond, lift it from the remaining limbs and gently place it in her wheelbarrow. I again brought the truck to a halt. Geriatric African–American lady, doing her own hedge trimming, country clothes, modest home. Absolutely, she had eaten fish such as mine in her life.
I put the truck in park right in the middle of the street and walked to the front bumper. Making an attempt at being modest, as opposed to frightening, I said in a reduced tone, “Ma’am, would you enjoy some fresh fish that I caught this morning?” I used a bit too much reduction. “What’s that?” she answered pleasantly. So a little louder, I repeated myself exactly. And she said, “Oh, I sure would like some fish.” Hot dog! Another customer. “If you will go inside and get a pan or a bag, I will give you as many as you want.” She smiled and turned away.
I watched her move toward the front porch. This lady was deliberate, and peacefully so, with an air of energy conservation. Something about her made me want to go inside and get the pan for her, so as to save her the steps. This time loudly enough, I hollered, “Ma’am, do you clean fish?” She stopped and turned and wistfully said almost to the shrubbery, “Hmmm, I don’t know when I have cleaned any fish.” Tom Sawyer did no better at getting his fence whitewashed. “Ma’am, you go get a pan, and I will pull into your driveway and clean you some fish on my tailgate.”
When she returned, I had scaled, gutted, and decapitated two fish. I had two more to go. As she walked back to me at her own gingerly pace, I attempted to alleviate any suspicions she might have had. “My name is Bill McFadyen. I am your neighbor. I live a mile or so down the road to the right.”
“My name is Lizzie.” Then she spelled it – “L-I-Z-Z-I-E Oliver.” What she said next arrested my tailgate fish cleaning. “And I am 103 years old.”
Surely my mouth hung open as I just peered down at her smiling face. “One hundred and three?” repeated I. “Yes,” answered she, “and still in my right mind.”
Miss Lizzie set about proving to me that she was in her right mind. I was fascinated, talking to this breathing American history book. She was born in 1917, during World War I. She went to Armstrong School, where all the black kids went from the east side of town. She was a child during the Great Depression. She was a young adult when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Segregation to integration to whatever state of togetherness we have today.
“Who looks after you?” I asked with concern. “I do mostly,” she said. “My daughter lives around the corner, but she has some health problems.” Think of it – her daughter is nearly 80! We went on for a pretty long time. I felt like I needed to leave her, but unwillingly.
“Miss Lizzie, I hate this coronavirus way more all of a sudden. I just want to hug you. I want to bring my son up here to meet you. I want to sit on your porch and listen to you tell stories. But I can’t right now. You need to stay well.”
Thirty minutes of a life that had spanned 103 years. So far. It is a marvel. Of all my questions, this is the one that I remember most. “Miss Lizzie, do you think we will get along with each other? We all have the same God, you know.”
Of all the answers, this one – “We all have God. But if we don’t have love, God don’t mean that much.”
My friend built a pond in North Fayetteville. He put in bass and brim and crappie. His dad let me come fishing one Saturday. I caught a mess of fish. They led me to Lizzie Oliver, age 103. Thankfully, she is a woman now a part of my culture.