Family Belongings

Harry Bishop was a shooter.

At his funeral, his grandsons stepped to the podium to tell of the times they shared. “Grandpa was with me when I shot my first duck,” my cousin Matt recalled. “Grandpa told me to shoot a snipe,” said Wade, another cousin, “because it was sitting still and would be pretty hard to miss.” One by one, they told how he thought of hunting and fishing as art forms. Whether he was bagging a deer or a drake, they said he was a man with a sharp eye and a steady finger. I listened to each one and was surrounded with the quiet isolation that I usually feel when I am with this side of my family. Their childhood remembrances were so remote from my own. I wish I had known the same Harry Bishop that they did.

My cousins finished speaking. I stepped to the podium for my contribution. I was asked to sing a song since I am considered the “artsy’ one of the family. I am not a hunter. I haven’t fished since I was twelve. I always felt like the outcast, so their invitation made me feel like a guest artist rather than a family member.

“Because he called the forest brother.’

Because he called the earth his mother.’”

My legs quaked like aspens as friends and family sat still. When I finished I took my place next to Aunt Ruth. She hugged and thanked me—I guess I did okay. Later, I learned that some were moved by the words, others were shocked that I could sing, and the others just wondered who I was.

Later that evening we went to Grandpa’s house. He had moved from his house on Bishop Place a year or so before, but there were things to attend to. The rickety gate from the picket fence would mean more to Mom than to the next homeowner. My brother had spoken for the china cabinet. Ruth grabbed and old flashlight and Frank, my stepfather, retrieved some rusty garden tools from the shed. Everyone was looking for a last belonging to remember him by. Ruth and Elaine led me to the tiny bedroom they shared with Mom and Sandi. A handmade wooden trunk coated with generations of paint (forest green being the most recent) sat beneath the dusty sill of the lone window. “Here’s what you want,” said Ruth.

My Grandpa was a shooter. His sharp eye and steady finger captured Utah through a camera—an image of a bait-laden hook as it plunged into Smith & Morehouse Reservoir, turning its glassy surface into a sea of ripples. I can still hear the hollow kerplunk. He shot portraits of Salt Lake’s prominent and colorful, as well as humdrum product photography for Utah’s early advertising execs. Nearly 50 years of his life were spent peering through a camera and the countless trays of developer had stained his fingertips gold.

A good part of his life was in that trunk—a good part of my life was in there, too. I saw the young faces of women I knew only as little old ladies and uncles I had only known by a name.

We sifted through the damp yellow envelopes. Some of the prints had been hand-tinted by my grandma in the early part of their marriage. Some negatives had melted—probably from the heat of the glove box in their 1950 Ford, others were fused together by water from years of leaky roofs. Most of the images were of my mom and her sisters (Sandi, the youngest and cutest received the most exposure). I came across a print of my grandma, Dorothy, sitting on the front porch of their cabin in Oakley. She and Grandpa had been best friends since they were twelve years old. As a kid, I spent many summer afternoons at the cabin. Chewing on caramels and Fig Newtons, Grandma and I watched the birds from that porch as they’d nibble seed from the feeders in the quakies. My favorite memory is when Matt and I lazily floated on inner tubes down the canal that ran along side the Weber River. Sun-burned and water-logged we sauntered back to the cabin where we spent the rest of the day reading old issues of Mad magazine. That’s when I unleashed a sense of humor and twisted view of the world that would become my most recognizable trait. I slept overnight that Saturday—my first sleepover—and discovered that I had a family beyond that of my own four walls.

The cabin is also where my brother Dave, my cousin Wade, and I hiked along the bridle trail, looking for watercress and chasing squirrels with bows and arrows. At the end of our adventure, we’d return to the cabin, heading straight for the water pump. Lifting the baked enamel mug from the nail on the post, we’d fill it with a gush of ice cold water. We always underestimated the pressure of that pump and would get soaked with a splash that took our breaths away. In the pasture across the road, Pam, the Koester’s horse seemed to be laughing at us as she whinnied into the breeze.

In another envelope, I found a series of negatives. They were our annual family portraits taken at the Lakefront Gun Club. I held each negative to the filtered light of the window, I watched our family grow and disappear at the same time.

The gun club and cabin were like night and day. The shade of the aspens gave way to salty sagebrush and a scorching sun. Our family had gathered in that one-room clubhouse every Easter since the beginning of time. At least my time. From our benches of planks and overturned buckets, we’d gaze down the long dirt road. One by one, each family arrived in a cloud of swirling dust and gravel, just in tome for our traditional Easter dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken, potato salad and Oreos. Once in a while a grown-up would even sneak us a swig of Coors. We’d paddle in beat-up fishing boats, usually getting stuck in the shallow spots, and scream for an uncle or older cousin to rescue us. Our Easter egg hunts seemed more authentic than those of my friends. The jackrabbits we watched run through the brush were really the Easter Bunny (so we were told) hiding bags of eggs and Hershey’s Kisses. But softball games were the highlight. With about thirty players per team, we used cowpies and mud puddles for bases. The late night ka-thumps of our sneakers in the dryer, clean for school the next morning, comes back to me still, as I drift off to a lullaby of tumbling dress shirts and dish towels.
The family spent countless chilly mornings sitting in duck blinds at the club, shotguns in hand, just waiting to bad a honker or a pintail.

Here is where Wade bagged his snipe. I had a snipe experience, too—my only hunt with Grandpa. He wanted nothing more than to have me succeed my first time out. He pointed to a sitting snip and nudged me. It was a sure-fire trophy. I aimed, I winced and I pulled the trigger. The morning sky shattered with the spray of a billion BB’s. All I knew was that my shoulder hurt like hell. “Hey! That’s keen!” Grandpa hooted, “Get out there and pick him up.” The memory of sloshing through the marsh to fetch that innocent bird, dead by my hand, was a far cry from running through our muddy softball field the spring before.

And thus was born the family outcast.

I may not have been cut out for “the hunt,” but shuffling through these photos helped me realize that the family hadn’t shunned me. I had shunned them. Like Grandpa wandering silently to shoot a lone buck or perfect sunset, I set out alone aiming for my own forms of peace and beauty. Looking at his photo of a kid fishing at a lake, I hear the whistle of the wind through the rushes. I smell the damp, squeaky straw of a fishing creel. These were the images he captured.

That’s the Grandpa I remember.

Looking at the world as an outsider, whether through a camera lens or the distance of self-imposed exile, you can make the time to really see. Grandpa and I had something in common after all.
These are the thoughts that filled my head as we slipped the gate and trunk of photos into the minivan and left Bishop Place for the last time. It was quiet except for Ruth clicking her flashlight on and off and the clatter of shovels behind the back seat. I had lost a grandpa—but discovered a new sense of belonging.

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