EDITORS NOTE: The following is an occasional column contributed by Ogdensburg native Marguerite (Peg) Cordwell Brown about her memories of growing up in St. Lawrence County. Peg, daughter of Vivian and Benjamin Cordwell, worked as a reporter for The Journal while she was a college student in the 1960s, and currently lives in Rhode Island where she is the director of development for Button Hole Golf Course and Learning Center, Providence. She hopes her column will serve as a reminder of a kinder, gentler time in the north country.
America has many holidays that would fall under the category of commercial. While some of the holidays we celebrate are rooted in Judeo-Christian values (and, according to critics, have also fallen into the category of commercial), there are holidays observed that largely benefit the card, flower, restaurant and candy industries. Administrative Assistants Day (formerly known as secretarys day before we got sensitive about titles), Bosses Day, Valentines Day (okay, there was a St. Valentine), Grandparents Day and, of course, the holy grail of commercial holidaysMothers Day (well probably third on the list behind Christmas and Halloween).
Oops! How did I overlook Fathers Day? It probably surprises none of us that Fathers Day was an afterthought, rooted in the early 20th century successful promotion of Mothers Day. As with many things in our culture Mothers Work Days observance is reported to have begun in the South during the Civil War when an activist from West Virginia decided to bring together the mothers of both Union and Confederate soldiers in a unified celebration of their status.
Let me begin the discussion of Fathers Day with full disclosure. We were not an openly demonstrative familyvery few public (or private) displays of affection. We had all the unspoken love and support we needed, but there were few hugs, kisses, pats on the back, whispered I love yous, orsmooches at each hello and good-bye.Those displays of affection, minimal though they continued to be, became more frequent as we grew older and the family shrunk.
I dont remember any special Fathers Day events or celebrations. I am sure we bought the fathers and grandfathers in our life the obligatory cardand probably a tie (they were still worn in my youth), some socks, coffee mug, or more likely, some sort of tool. These were wrapped in the appropriate male or neutral themed paper (no gift bags) and usually presented at breakfast. We never went out to breakfast that I rememberever. Besides, on Sundays Dad was always up, completed his diary entry for the day, had his usual shredded wheat (large biscuit), orange juice and coffee long before our feet hit the floor (Be assured, Mom always fixed the coffee before she went to bed so Dad just had to hit the on button).
We might have had a cookout, and maybe even a cake. I honestly dont remember. Occasionally my birthday (June 16) fell on Fathers Day, so that made the decision about the form of celebration much easier.
I do have memories of favorite Fathers Days, however. They just didnt happen to fall on a particular day in June. As a coach and teacher, Dad didnt have much free time. Even in the summer he worked as a painter, carpenter and all around handyman for the school district. However, one of his passionsbesides baseballwas fishing. There was a whole preparation process around fishing. On very rainy nights I would don a raincoat, grab a flashlight, and accompany Dad around the yard, picking night crawlers to be used as bait. You had to be quick. Once the light hit the worm, it made a very hasty retreat into the soil. Quick reflexes allowed you to pinch the target, give it a gentle but consistent tug so as not to leave half of the prize in the ground, and with all of that slime on your fingers, drop it into an empty pound coffee can. Gloves were never usednot even the surgical type. Dad would take the night crawlers and put them in a specially built box under the porch, feed them with coffee grounds (no Keurig pods in those days), and cultivate a worm farm for our fishing expeditions. We didnt talk much on these excursions into the wild, but it was one of the few moments I spent alone with Dad during my childhood.
But the real Fathers Day was not a day at all. It was all of those evenings I got to accompany Dad on fishing trips at our camp just above Morristown. In the very early days we had a wooden boat and a 5-horse motor. That boat needed to be painted every year and, until the boards swelled to capacity, bailing was always the first order of the night. Clothed in our fishing gear that was part of the camp relics and included real oil skin coats and frayed straw hats, we loaded our night crawlers, minnows caught in our seining net (Dad always made me take the deep end), rusty tackle boxes with lures that had been in the family for years, rather antiquated poles and reelsand set off to troll for Walleyes, Pickerel and of course, the elusive Muskie. Oddly, I dont remember any trolling lights on the boat as we motored first toward American Island, and later toward what was then the old Boy Scout Camp, now Jacques Cartier Park.
Again, not much talkingbut a lot of instruction. I learned the finer points of how to thread those worms on the hook, where to place the sinker on the line, how to secure a minnow or small perch through its lips, how to row when the motor conked out, and even how to change a sheared pin on the water if we came too close to the ever present shoals. Dad never caught that Muskie. However, we had some great fights with eelsyou could always tell when you had an eel because it headed right for bottom. Black bass always swam toward the surface, requiring another technique all together.
My time with Dad and fishing didnt end there. We had to clean those fishmostly bass and perch. Again, instruction time. Cut the head off just behind the front gills, split the belly down the center starting at the poop hole, bend the head toward the stomach, and pull backremoving all of the innards in one motion. We always skinned and filleted perch which required a good pair of pliers and a very sharp knife, and always scaled the black bassensuring that we were completely covered with those fish scales(Again, no gloves). We werent done for the evening until we washed the fish in the river, making sure we got all of the blood out of the backbone, took the bucket with the rejected products of our cleaning, and motored out to the middle of the river and fed what we hoped would be the next days catch.
These were my real Fathers Days. I will always be secretly grateful that Mom and my sister did not like to fish.
Let me end by quoting one of my favorite poetsEmily Dickinson. Hold dear to your parents for it is a scary and confusing world without them. Give your dad, if youre lucky enough to still have him, a hug and a kiss and an I love you.Its a gesture I havent been able to make for the last 15 years.
■St. Valentine was a third-century Roman saint about whom little is knownexcept that he died on February 14.
■The West Virginia Civil War activist, Ann Reeves Jarvis, reputed founder of Mothers Day, was supported by other women of historic note including Julia Ward Howe, author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
■Both Mothers Day and Fathers Day are celebrated around the world on days different from those on the US calendar and with a variety of traditions.
■In 2013, Americans planned to spend about $120 for Fathers Day41 percent less than on Mothers Day. That resulted in just under a $13 BILLION boost to the economy(Real Time Economics, 06/15/2013).
■Top Fathers Day gifts suggested by askmen.com: the latest in cutting edge tablets, True Detective on Blu-ray, MeUndies (reportedly super soft and ecological), a Casio watch or perhaps a Panasonic beard/hair trimmer.
■If still undecided, reread the last paragraph of the column.