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January 7, 2022

A fish of woe!

When I was a young girl, we ate fresh cod three or four times a week in the summer and smoked herring every Friday, which Mom cooked in the oven of the woodstove, causing the entire kitchen to reek. There were so many bones that you had to keep your mouth full of breadcrumbs to avoid getting stuck. Mom loved herring, and we kids happily chewed our food just to please her, pretending not to hear the little “yucks” coming from the youngest. Often on Fridays, when the pain in her hands subsided, mom would make poor man’s pudding for dessert. The kitchen became a festive scene. While water and brown sugar simmered on the stove in the Pyrex, Mom mixed milk, flour, baking powder, an egg or two and three drops of vanilla in a bowl. Then using the big sauce spoon, she put the dough in the scalding hot liquid, where it started to swell. The dessert was so delicious that we licked our plates when we were done. A Friday supper with poor man’s pudding was, according to Dad, the best meal ever.

During the summer, there were always a hundred small capelin (small 3” to 4” long fish) drying outside in the sun. It would take a few days for them to properly dry and then we would gobble them down whole. Grandpa Frédéric supervised the small animals as they stiffened, calculating on his calendar the exact day we could hold a feast. Even the youngest would suck greedily on the tiny animals sacrificed to the human species.  

When I was 8, Uncle Gaston took me out on his fishing boat. He placed my hands on either end of a short stick threaded with a roll of heavy fishing line. Three large pikes were arranged in a triangle on the end, which I was instructed to throw into the sea. Used to catching small trout from the stream with a simple glass of earth at the end of my line, the barbarity of these old fishermen left me mute and terrified.

“Okay” shouted my uncle, “now pull in the line if you feel a tug. You’ve gotta catch the fish by the belly,” he added. And at that point, all the water in the sea swelled in my eyes and I started to ball. That prompted Uncle Gaston to declare that women weren’t good for much.

This morning I’m going tell you about the big fish I drew a few months after handing over my title and duties as CEO to my young son. I was glad to give him the opportunity to become a great president, but my heart was heavy at relinquishing so much responsibility. At the time, my work was my life. Little did I know that a new vocation awaited me, that a pandemic would arrive and that I would slowly return to writing, happy to rediscover the passion I had as a young girl.

My paper fish was some 60 inches high and as wide as my kitchen table. It had an enormous belly with some 20 large bones drawn on it. On each bone, I wrote in red one thing I had lost when I gave up my title.  

Just like in Uncle Gaston’s boat, tears fell and blurred the losses written in red: popularity, interest, opportunity, challenge, a reason to live, enthusiasm, self-confidence and work friends. Gone were my skills, since now I had nothing to do; my judgment, with no challenges to keep it sharp; and my imagination, with nothing to create. Plus all the precious time spent telling you about my life with this miserable fish, which I finally succeeded in entrapping between the living room wall and the back of a huge bookcase filled with priceless business books that I am keeping for my grandkids.

Maybe I should have burned this fish of woe or smoked it like a herring until it died. But I kept it, and every time I walk through the living room, my heart quivers with joy. Knowing that it is there, close by, reminds me that I have come through this; that I have managed to hold on to life; to write and find happiness living peacefully in the countryside. I’ll end here by reassuring you that I am fine. Do not worry. My writing notebook and I are perfectly content. And you, dear reader, are always in my heart.

❤️ ❤️