A Haunting Catfish Memory at Fremont Lakes

Today, a memory popped into my head. It was the satisfying memory of a 21-inch catfish I caught years ago at Fremont Lakes near Fremont, Nebraska. Last night, I stopped at this state recreation area for the night on my way to North Dakota from Lincoln. It was dark when I arrived, but this morning everything was illuminated with a soft glow—a crisp fall dawn, with pink mirrored lakes and lacey silhouettes of trees. If you know me, you know it’s unlikely for me to be up that early. But I woke up early thinking about the catfish and I had to get up and take a turn around the 18 sandpit lakes to see if I could remember which shore had yielded that prize.Fremont Lakes pink dawn

I’m not sure I found the right shore, but I found many other treasures: mist along a finger of lake disappearing into a thicket, geese chilling at the edge of an abandoned beach, deep red sumac. Even the silhouette of a spiral slide on the playground provided a nostalgic view for me. I used to bring my young daughter and son here to do their homework. I remember one day in particular when I was coaxing a restless boy-child through math problems by giving him an M&M for every completed problem. That helped him and so did the promise of playing with our dog, Shy, along the shore when the entire worksheet was finished. His sister helped by doling out the candy on my command.

Today I remembered my daughter, Maggie, had caught an even bigger catfish in the same lake, but it broke the line as soon as we saw it. It disappointed her, and she ran off to play, not wanting to risk another disappointment, I suppose. There are too many of those in life. Better to press ahead to exciting things that fill the mind so you won’t think about the bad stuff.

We camped at this park other times as my kids were growing up, and memories flitted through my mind this morning. It was as if a shadow of our tent was pitched in multiple places: in that clearing near the railroad tracks, along this lane, under that canopy of cottonwoods, above that beach. We cooked burgers on a grill here and watched the SkiDo-ers on that lake over there. Remembering a romantic open-air date with my husband at the end of a road was, in my mind today, like watching a video of myself with him.

I remember lazy, hot days on the beach with mom-friends and all of our chickadees. They couldn’t swim well then, so most of our time was spent wading along the shallows to keep an eye on them or kneeling in the sand making grey chunky castles filled with leaves and sticks. All the turning and moving as I chased my children was good for my tan. Much better than if I’d been lying on the sand by myself cooking one side at a time.

After the divorce, I remember driving loops around the lakes, memories bombarding me then too, tears streaming down my face. That day, my drive among the maze of lakes as small as 3 acres and as large as 84 both comforted me and deepened my sorrow. Today, as I drove the same roads, those memories were blunted, with little feeling accompanying the shadows. At last, I thought to myself. I’m beyond it.Fremont Lakes tree silhouette

Curiously, as I work in Fremont today, many of my thoughts are haunted by memories of that silly catfish. I drove by our old house on a flat, wide lane and remembered the way the catfish smelled and sounded in the skillet. It had been years since I had filleted a fish, and I remember not wanting to mess it up. I had kids and a husband to impress back then. And I didn’t want to waste that fish.

I remember not knowing for sure how to cook the catfish. I knew if I didn’t figure it out it would taste very fishy. I called my mom to find out how to do it and what spices I should use, then went to the grocery store just two blocks away to pick them up. I made my kids watch the cutting process, so they would know how to fillet a fish. I doubt if they remember. In spite of our good intentions, life got in the way of fishing, camping and lots of other things. In eight years, we had only camped a handful of times.

That thought reminded me of the garage at the same house where we stored a truckload of camping gear that should have been used more often. And that reminded me of places around Fremont where we went when we didn’t go camping.

We spent a lot of time at the Keene Memorial Library, a beautiful tribute to a community of this size. We loved the children’s section, and the kids often went there after school to wait for us to come home from work. Several times a year, special events still take place on the lawn, most notably John C. Fremont Days, where you can see a real-live chataqua, talk with re-enacting fur trappers and purchase home-brewed root beer, antique beads and tie-dyed T-shirts.

When we lived here, on quieter days, we sometimes walked to the Louis E. May Museum, a beautiful Victorian house that preserves moments in Fremont’s history—and memories of generations. The museum grounds include a heavenly white gazebo that makes you feel as though you are stepping into an early 20th-Century scene. Our little family played, argued, rested and made big plans there. Years before, I had attended an event at the museum as then-Governor Ben Nelson’s aide. That was where I learned about his uncanny ability to remember names of people he hadn’t seen in years. He named about five people as they stepped up to say hello, and I had the feeling they were stepping out of the past onto the lawn beside us.

I won’t have a lot more time to wander in Fremont today, but I’m glad I stopped for the night and worked during the better part of a day here. I guess you could say I’ve made some new memories. Next time I visit Fremont Lakes I’ll remember today as the calm, cool beginning of my latest journey, an upside-down-U-shaped path from Nebraska, through the Dakotas, to Washington State, then down the Oregon and California coasts. I plan to visit some of our nation’s most beautiful national parks on my way.

It’s nice to know memories of Fremont are sweet now, not difficult. It’s the fun stories of our past haunting me now, like catching that fish. The heartbreaking memories that used to keep me away from this place have turned into whisper-light ghosts that seem miles away. The strong, good memories remind me of one of the best things I’ve accomplished in my life—raising two kids here in the wholesome heart of America.Fremont Lakes sumac cu

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