A Fish Tale

Yesterday, I was standing in front of the building on Old 41 where I grew up. What used to be our family’s Hardware store on the first floor is now a bakery. The second story, where we lived for many years, is now abandoned. The building has been remodeled several times over the years and doesn’t look much like it did, but somewhere on the face of the building, beneath the layers of paint, is a beautiful 10′ tall painting of a fish jumping from the water.

In 1960, my father had an artist paint what was essentially the “Heddon” fishing lure logo above the bright red “Nelson’s Hardware” sign and for decades the bass, with fishing lure hanging from its wide open mouth, remained there high in the air between mine and my sister’s bedroom window, watching the world slowly go by on the Tamiami Trail. It watched as drunken cowboys threw each other out of the windows of the Dome; As long lines of traffic sat waiting for the matinee at the dog track; As hurricane Donna rolled a house past our front door; As my father fearlessly ran off a drunken man who was threatening his employees with a shotgun.

And between these more interesting times, it patiently observed our normal everyday activities as my sister and brother and I grew up. Every morning before school, we went down stairs into the hardware store to “take the stuff out”… which was what we called pushing, pulling and riding all the lawn mowers, bicycles and anything else with wheels that had been crammed into the store overnight, out the door onto the concrete patio out front. Day after day, year after year, we took them outside and then nine hours later we took them back in through the front door beneath the fish. It watched. It watched as we became teenagers and then adults, as one by one we left home and the safety of its wide-eyed gaze. Then, as if to signal that its work was complete, my father painted over it… and it was gone. I didn’t think much about it at the time. Life was happening… jobs, marriage, and kids. My sister moved to New Jersey, my parents built a new house off of Terry Street and my brother and I built homes of our own, as keeping the ground floor of the old building rented became my Dad’s favorite project. But upstairs, our old home remained vacant.

About eight years ago, I tried to talk my dad into selling the old building so my parents could be secure in retirement. The timing and the prices were right, so at a meeting, after he had informed a group of potential buyers to name an as yet higher number for the fourth time, I took him aside. “What are you doing Dad?” I asked sternly at low breath. My dad smiled a mischievous grin and whispered. “I don’t want to sell it… I just want to see how high they’ll go!” I got flush with anger. I didn’t understand. “Cut them loose Dad… This isn’t right!” And I walked away.

Later that day I was still stewing (it’s a Nelson art form), but I had promised to take him to get his truck, so I drove quietly, him sitting next to me. Finally he broke the silence. “I can’t sell it. It’s my legacy. I want it to live on for my children.” I looked over at him. He was looking out the window… avoiding eye contact. “Dad… WE are your legacy. You created us, watched after us and built us as surely as you built that old building.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “Sell it and you and mom spend it having fun. Julie, Tim and I are going to be fine because of what you taught us.” It was a touching moment… But he still didn’t sell it.

Now, three years after dads passing, I’m standing here trying to help manage some of my dad’s legacy… this old store, and my tendency to become irritated. That’s when I suddenly realized that somewhere unseen, under the paint, the fish was still there watching over me. I sighed, put both hands on top of my head and started to contemplate where to start the repairs… I looked up at the sky and chuckled. For somewhere unseen, under that painted sky, I was sure that my dad was still watching over his legacy as well.

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