My first fly vest carried a lot of weight. It cost nearly $100—a small fortune to a 17-year-old popcorn-store clerk—but I was betting heavy on flyfishing. My parents were getting divorced, and I didn’t have many high school friends at the time. Flyfishing, I hoped, would become a new passion, or at least a distraction. At the Orvis store, I inspected every vest with no specific style in mind other than I wanted one with a bunch of pockets. To be taken seriously as a fly angler, I assumed, meant you had to wear a loaded vest.
I spent hours organizing my gear and tackle into the pockets. The vest weighed a ton when I finished, but I kept searching for more things to carry—even if they had nothing to do with catching trout. On my desk was a hand-drawn birthday card my little brother, Mike, had recently made for me. It gave me an idea to fill one of the last remaining pockets.
I gathered something given to me by each member of my family. I already had Mike’s card. From Mom, I picked a letter she had written to me in eighth grade. I chose a souvenir token Dad and I had made together at a McDonald’s on which I’d misspelled my teenage nickname, as well as a coin that had been something of a good-luck charm for him. I added another letter and coin from my oldest brother, Brian. Finally, from my other brother Patrick, I chose a pewter figurine he’d bought for me at Diamond’s truck stop, ages ago, on a family trip to chop down a Christmas tree. I placed all the charms in a zip-seal bag that I dropped into my vest’s inside left pocket.
Flyfishing did become a passion, and the longer I’ve kept at it the more weight the bag has gained: a medallion from a high school retreat; funeral prayer cards for Gram, Pop, and PawPaw; a letter from Nonny in her exquisite handwriting; an antique tin of split shot from my wife’s grandpa; a tattered American flag sticker; and a dull pair of nippers, another gift from Brian, that I just can’t bring myself to pitch. There is always room for more.
Over the years, trout water has leaked into the bag. The words on my mother’s letter have bled through the paper so heavily that it’s hard to tell the front side from the back. Mold has collected on the coins and figurine. The stick-man anglers Mike colored on the birthday card look as if they’ve melted. To be safe, I now keep the charms in a more protective vacuum-sealed bag. The collective weight of their messages still brings me hope and company every time I step into the water.
Happy birthday Colin I hope you are happy with your fishing rod… All of you have new beginnings… The next few years are going to be ones of great challenge… He would have been so proud of his grandchildren… I love you and hope you keep this coin with you always… Until we meet again… Big Dogg… There is work still waiting for you… Our family has its share of problems, but there is a lot of love and support… These are the things that are most important.
Illustration by Spiros Halaris