(Our tournament participants. My father is kneeling on the left)
Fish. That’s my family’s Thanksgiving tradition. Not as the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal, although I’m sure the thought crossed my father’s mind. A monster blue fish, head and tail intact, stretching from one end of the table to the other, would have been his ideal meal and one worthy of offering as our family’s thanks-giving.
Yet as the 20-plus family members and friends gathered in my parent’s modest home on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, for Thanksgiving dinner, the conversation was strictly fish. Our Thanksgiving tradition was a family fishing tournament and as soon as the table was cleared and dishes put away, everyone would busy themselves preparing for the next day’s tournament.
Did I say friendly family fishing tournament?
It’s my fault, a fact one of my sisters has never quite forgiven me for. I wrote an anonymous newsletter laying out sleeping arrangements, menus, and chores for the Thanksgiving weekend in which my parent’s vacation home would swell with each new arrival until, like The Mitten, it threatened to burst at the seams. The main point of the newsletter was to talk delicately about how we should all behave given our propensity to fight like cats and dogs. To keep us busy and out of the house, I suggested activities, including surf fishing, a family favorite. I signed the newsletter the Thanksgiving Weekend Activities Director, TWAD, for short, a moniker that I was to unhappily carry for years. I even made up a song, sung to the tune of the Candy Man.
I sent copies to everyone in the family, parents included.
Thus our annual Thanksgiving fishing tournament was born.
It was fun the first couple of years. Or maybe just the first year.
My sister says I should have known what would happen given our family dynamics, which is true.
The fishing tournament took on a life of its own. Soon there was a committee deciding rules about equipment, bait, measuring/weighing fish, where we would fish, and how we would get to the fishing spot if it required a four-wheel drive. Only people who don’t know the definition of a family-friendly, just-for-fun fishing tournament would pick a place to fish which required the ferrying of children, pregnant women, and the elderly over sand dunes and down long stretches of deserted beach. Did I mention that people who fish like to get up before the sun rises? Did I also mention that the weather on the Outer Banks in late November is either delightful or horribly cold and windy?
(Uncle Steve in the back of a four wheel drive jeep along with many of the supplies for the tournament.)
Soon word spread. It seemed everyone on the Outer Banks wanted in on the fun.
But for some in the family it was work, work we didn’t want.
The tournament meant more people at the Thanksgiving dinner table since all preparations were made after the big meal. More people, more to cook. We had an elaborate system of partnering an expert with a novice. Experts were responsible for the team’s fishing gear, the novice made the turkey sandwich lunch.
The tournament also meant cooking another big meal on Friday for the awards ceremony. It meant endless messes, cleaning, and cooking.
What of the fish we caught? And did I say “awards” ceremony?
My father thought it great fun. The bigger the tournament got, the happier he was. Strangers started showing up for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s not an exaggeration to say my father would invite someone he met filling the tank at the gas station. He was the friendly sort.
Did I mention he was also highly competitive?
Soon we had a flag and tee shirts. There wasn’t a starting gun, thank goodness, but I did wave a red flag to begin and end the tournament.
Each year it seemed preparations for Thanksgiving and the annual TWAD fishing tournament became more complicated and elaborate. And at least for some of us, our ability to control our tempers under the stress of preparing and running this event diminished in direct proportion to its growth and popularity.
At some point we put an end to the fishing tournament. At the same time our Thanksgivings together stopped as well. I can’t say how it all came to an end. I do remember my father balking, saying he didn’t see what all the fuss was about. How could it be that much work, he said, just cooking and going fishing?
I decided my husband and I needed to spend Thanksgiving with his side of the family. His family’s idea of a good holiday was to order the entire meal from a grocery store or restaurant and spend the day doing arts and crafts, taking walks, and just enjoying being together. I had never experienced anything like it before and was eager to give it a try. Other siblings decided to spend the holiday with in-laws. I moved. Others moved, too. There were divorces. Life, it seemed, became more complicated.
My mother never made a photo album of me as a baby but she made three of the TWAD fishing tournament years. It was that important. And looking back at the photographs now, it was fun. My family – and all the extras that seemed to come along with us wherever we went – never did anything in a small way. With my father at its center, we were a life force all our own. We knew it and, for the most part, we liked it.
But I know that it’s best to quit while you’re ahead and that’s the story I tell about how it all came to an end.
(The awards ceremony with me, my husband and parents. Our tee shirts had TWAD on the front and "I'd Rather Be Fishing" on the back.)
(My mother after a hard morning fishing.)