I was young, maybe seven or eight, when I learned how to kick minnows out of the bay. The previous summer my parents had rented a house out in Mattituck, New York. At the beach we went to every day – weather permitting – there was a small natural pool that formed in the rocks when the tide receded. In that pool, I would crack muscles open, place the raw meat in my palm and patiently wait for the minnows to nibble. When they did, slowly – very slowly, so they would not get spooked – I closed my hand into a fist, trapping the minnows which I then slipped into a pail filled with water. Countless hours I spend catching minnows, one of the few sedentary activities I really enjoyed. Of course, at the end of the day, when the sun slinked towards the horizon and it was time to go home and think about a bath and dinner, I returned all the minnows, still alive, to their home in the bay.
The following summer my parents rented a different house, this time out in Cutchogue, New York, which meant a different beach. Without the tide pool that trapped the minnows in a compact space, catching the small fish was far more challenging, teetering on impossible Then one afternoon, as I sat eating my lunch on the sand, I noticed an older boy – maybe three or four years older than me – kicking the minnows out of the water. Quietly, moving so slowly he hardly appeared to be walking at all, he stalked the fish. When he spotted a school of them hanging out near the edge of the water he transformed his body into a burst of speed. Lightening quick and in one fluid motion he took one step, brought his right foot back and before the fish could even register his presence he kicked the water. Seconds later, as the water droplets seeped into the sand, he scanned the shore for the tell tale sign, the flapping motion of a desperate fish, that indicated his success. I was enthralled, completely captivated by this new method of catching fish and I could not wait to attempt it myself. The motion and the timing took practice. The first few times I tried it, I kicked up nothing but water, rocks, seaweed and sand. But I persisted, determined to learn this new skill. By the end of the summer, I had mastered it. My mother and younger brother would occupy their time building an aquarium with sand and buckets and I would fill it with minnows, crabs and snails. Kicking minnows out of the water proved to be a fun way to pass the time on the beach. Perhaps it was a skill that had no worldly value but, as a small child, the fun factor was far more important than anything else.
But alas, I grew up and kicking minnows out of the water was a sport relegated to my childhood. For two decades, though I visited beaches often, I left the minnows alone. Then my son was born and the summer he was eighteen months old, I thought the tiny fish might captive him as they once captivated me. I stepped tentatively into the bay wondering if twenty years had left my skill completely rusted and wasted. But the cool thing about muscle memory is that it is ingrained in your body. It took only two or three tries until I had landed a fish on the sand. My son, still really young, didn’t care about the fish at all. Digging in the sand and feeling the course material on his fingers was far more interesting. And so, slightly disappointed, I returned my catch to the sea.
This past summer, my son was five. Instead of renting a house, my parents now own one in Mattituck. It is my son’s favorite place to be, especially in the summer. His grandparents adore him and spoil him by granting his every wish. And so when school is out for July and August, we spend as much time as we can with them at the beach. My son loves the water, splashing around with his family, and swimming across the channel. But when he starts to feel cold – his lips lightly tinted blue and his skin chilled – he wraps himself in his pirate towel and sits in his tiny Ninja Turtle chair with his face turned towards the sun, his smile wide and his eyes almost meditative.
He sits only until he is warm. Then he stands up, walks over to me and puts his hand in mine. “Let’s go fishing,” he says, his eyes twinkling and he reaches for his bucket. I know exactly what he wants. Our fishing doesn’t require a pole. With his bucket swinging at his side, he sprints over the sand, heading towards the small cove where the minnows gather on the other side of the beach. Slowly, I step into the water and as I move into position, I become a child again. I step, kick and as the water splashes the sand my son rushes over to me. “Did you get one?” His voice is brimming with anticipation. We scan the shoreline together and I spot one flapping around, frantically trying to find its way back to the bay. I scoop up the fish. My son cups his two hands together. I hand him the fish so that he can put it in his bucket which he has already filled with water. I turn back to the bay, knowing one fish won’t satisfy my son – neither will two or three. He won’t let me stop until his bucket is teeming with minnows.
When my son gets tired of watching, he joins me. Loudly, he enters the water, spooking the minnows. Awkwardly, he kicks – sand, seaweed and rocks spraying the ground. With his forehead creased in concentration, he searches for movement. When he sees none, his shoulders slump in disappointment. Dejectedly, but filled with determination, he tries again. He does not succeed, but in time, I know he will.
When the sun shifts in the sky and my dad starts taking down the umbrellas. I know it is time to go. I point to the bucket and ask my son, “Will you put them back in the water?”
He picks up the bucket but pauses as the edge of the bay, “Will you kick some more for me tomorrow?”
“Of course,” I promise.
He bows his head, tips the bucket and the water pores back into the sea, returning the minnows to their home.
“Some day I want to catch more than you,” my son says, once again slipping his hand into mine as we make our way back to my parents.
“And you will,” I say, though a part of me hopes it won’t be too soon.
Photo by Stanley Zimly