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Photograph by Cynthia Sedgwick
Photograph by Cynthia Sedgwick

Mending Nets

Growing up on a North Carolina barrier island, her father taught her the ways of the sea — and how too many people and too much greed would change their lives forever.

My memories and hopes are woven into a fisherman’s net of promises and dreams. Memories as strong as marlin, promises as fragile as sand dollars, dreams as fanciful as seahorses offer hopes as persistent as shrimp nets sweeping the ocean floor. The lines and ropes and the weights and floats of that net anchor my life to the shore that sustains me and the sea that nurtures me.

November, 1955

I take off my icy gloves, dropping them to the boat’s deck. “Honey, your hands will freeze,” my father says, tossing another oyster cluster into a wire basket.

“Gloves too wet,” I say, watching Daddy hammer an oyster from the cluster. He leans over the boat’s side, rinsing the mud off of it in the marsh water.

Reaching for a rag with one hand, he grabs his oyster knife from his tackle box with the other. In a fluid motion, he nestles the oyster in the rag in his left hand, runs the knife along the edge of the shell, then twists the knife at just the right spot, popping the bivalve apart.

Salt water pours into the rag as my father scrapes the oyster free from its shell. He balances it on the tip of the knife with his thumb.

“Open wide,” he says, grinning.

My eyes dance. I am a baby gull awaiting breakfast. He lowers the fat, dripping oyster into my mouth. I slurp, my tongue singing, and bite down on my favorite gift from mother ocean.

“More please!” I clap my hands, forgetting how cold they are.

“Not yet, honey. You could get cut bad. Your hands ain’t strong enough or big enough to handle the knife.”

Daddy laughs, and for a while we eat oysters together in silence, the boat’s bow bumping the winter-browned cordgrass growing at the edge of the creek, where all life begins.

“One for me, two for you,” he says as he opens them. “We have to save enough to take home to Mama. She’s making oyster dressing for Thanksgiving dinner.”

“Get more,” I say, pointing to the vast bed beside the boat.

“Nope. We take what we need, never too many. Just one more for you,” he says, dropping an oyster into my waiting mouth.

Other oystermen perform this ritual of gratitude by placing an oyster on a saltine cracker, sprinkling red hot sauce on top, and swallowing it in one gulp. Daddy says, “Doctorin’ an oyster covers the good salt taste, and uses up time you could be eatin’ another one.” He’s right.

“Let me open my own,” I beg.

“Not yet, honey. You could get cut bad. Your hands ain’t strong enough or big enough to handle the knife.” No amount of pleading sways him.

I’ve just turned 4.

July, 1967

My friends are racing their Sunfishes, surfing and skiing, and I’m stuck at home on this steaming Saturday July afternoon, “putting up” a hundred pounds of shrimp with my parents. I complain about the fun I’m missing.

“Hush your fussin’,” Mama hisses. “Come winter, you’ll be glad we froze them shrimp.”

She’s right. This summer ritual of freezing seafood both feeds us and honors my heritage, but I’m 16, petulant, and on the cusp of the summer of love rebellion.

Besides, I remind my parents, I’ve already done shrimping duty on Daddy’s boat. The boat is small, 24 feet, and equipped with a single trawl — a long net with a wide mouth at the front end that tapers at the closed end. My muscles are firm from helping guide the heavy, weighted net into the boat, then shaking the net to release the haul into wooden crates. Daddy sells most of the shrimp and brings home some of the fish that get trapped. He returns the turtles alive to the sea.

“That’s a lot of work for a little bit of food,” I say, pointing to the basket now filled with empty shells. “That kind of good eatin’ is worth working for,” Daddy says as he lifts the basket.

Today, we have an assembly line going. I stuff the shrimp into cleaned paper milk cartons. Mama adds salted water, and Daddy seals the cartons. What we call the “walking and swimming legs” on the underside of the shrimp are sharp barbs that prick my fingers, causing them to sting and swell.

Daddy seals the last carton, and shelves it in the freezer on the back porch. Mama and I scour the kitchen. I soak my hands in lemon juice, which makes my hands sting worse, but takes away the shrimp smell.

Glancing at the clock, I decide it’s still early enough to hop in my Sunfish and sail to the sandbar in the sound to meet my friends. They’ll be singing along to the Doors’ “Light My Fire” on somebody’s transistor radio.

There’s a knock at the front door. Mr. Jackson, our neighbor, grins, a wooden bushel basket next to him.

“I just emptied my crab pots,” he says. “Got way more’n I can use. Y’all welcome to these.”

I stifle a groan. There goes my afternoon of freedom. I smile and thank him, saying we’ll return the basket. He waves acknowledgement as he turns to leave.

When I tell Mama and Daddy about the crabs, Mama blanches. She knows the crabs in the basket are alive, and she’d faint if one of them escaped onto the kitchen floor. She’s a Cancer, but is strangely terrified of the symbol of her place in the Zodiac.

Mama fills the big canning pot with water, sets it to boiling on the stove, then leaves the kitchen. Daddy and I are on our own.

Daddy brings the basket into the kitchen. The waving crabs are jimmies, mature males with electric blue coloring on their backs and claws. No local crabber would take mature females, called sooks, this time of year, but the time is coming when crabbing regulations will be required all along the coast, as greed and demand increase.

Daddy and I work together while we wait for the water to boil. I spread layers of newspaper on the kitchen table, while he gathers tools we’ll need to pick, clean and package the crabs.

By the time the crabmeat is in the freezer, my fingers are so swollen they won’t bend. I pour peroxide over my hands this time before washing them in lemon juice.

“That’s a lot of work for a little bit of food,” I say, pointing to the basket now filled with empty shells.

“That kind of good eatin’ is worth working for,” Daddy says as he lifts the basket. He will haul it to the end of the dock and toss the shells into the sound, where creatures large and small will feast on them, and the cycle of life will turn again.

The author's father (center), his brother (right) and a friend get ready to dress their catch.
The author's father (center), his brother (right) and a friend get ready to dress their catch.

May, 1964

My kind, devout Presbyterian father paved the way for my pagan leanings. He taught me that there is no hierarchy in life. He showed me that all nature is connected, and that the divine is bigger than any one belief system.

We skip church because trout and drum are biting close in, just beyond the breakers, in Daddy’s favorite slough. The bright May sun beats down on us as we cast our lines into the surf. The water swirling around our legs is chilly, reminding us summer is a month away. I’m daydreaming about getting my Sunfish ready to sail, when my rod nearly jerks out of my hand.

“Got one on!” I holler.

“Set the hook,” Daddy calls.

I do, reeling in the line a little, then locking it. I feel the fish bite harder, hold.

“I think it’s a drum,” I yell.

“Reel in, nice and easy,” Daddy says.

I do, for a while, then begin to tire.

In his big, calloused hands, my reel cranks easily. I’m proud of the drum, even if I didn’t reel it in all the way by myself. We catch a good mess of fish: drum, trout, a flounder or two.

“Hold steady,” Daddy says. Reeling in his own line, he backs out of the water, dropping his rod into its holder above the high tide line. He hurries back into the water to help me.

In his big, calloused hands, my reel cranks easily. I’m proud of the drum, even if I didn’t reel it in all the way by myself. We catch a good mess of fish: drum, trout, a flounder or two.

Mid-afternoon, we’re tired and hungry. We’ve caught all we need, so we pack up.

We plod down the strand, the sun hot on our backs now. We pass the preacher, Mr. Winthrop, walking his dog. Daddy stops to say hello, putting down the bucket of fish. The preacher eyes the bucket. I stand there quiet, gripping my fishing rod.

“Missed seeing y’all in church this morning,” Mr. Winthrop says, his smile not reaching his eyes.

“We were in church,” Daddy says. My brow knits. I’m confused. Why would Daddy lie to the preacher?

“I’m sorry, I don’t remember speaking to you at the end of service,” Mr. Winthrop says, frowning.

“We were in God’s church,” Daddy says. He picks up the bucket, nods, and we head on toward home. I don’t look back at the preacher.

September, 1961

“Wake up, sleepy girl.” My father shakes my shoulder in the darkness, the hallway light behind him casting his shadow over me.

“Are we fishing?” I ask, kicking back covers. Fishing is the only reason I can think of for getting up so early on a Saturday morning.

“Nope. Get dressed. Hurry.”

The salt air smells of low tide as I trudge barefooted over the dune. Darkness is fading to gray, and a faint line of umber marks where the sun will soon rise from the ocean. A September wind, with a tinge of autumn riding it, blows from the northeast.

Four men work around two dories perched on wooden dollies at the edge of the water, bows pointed toward the sea.

Mr. Robinson, huffing on a pipe clenched between stained teeth, ambles away from his crew to greet my father. They speak of the tide, the wind, the devastation of Hurricane Donna the year before. I listen, trying to wake up, wondering why I’m here if we aren’t fishing.

“You’ll never see fishing boats launch from the strand again,” my father answers, his eyes filling with tears. “The Town Council thinks too many people have moved to the island. It ain’t safe to put boats out into the water this way now, they say."

“Hope you get a good haul,” Daddy says.

“Me too, Brooks. It’d be a shame if we didn’t, today of all days,” Mr. Robinson says. He shakes his head, shuffling back to his boats.

Two men maneuver each dolly, wheeling them into the surf. As each boat floats free, one man holds the boat steady in knee-deep surf, bow facing into the waves, while the other man returns the dolly to the dune’s edge. When he gets back to the boat, both men climb aboard. On each boat, the man seated in the stern lowers the motor and cranks it, his hand on the throttle. The motor catches, and he noses the boat’s bow into the oncoming waves, surfing over them.

Daddy and I watch: The boats become dark specks in the distance as the sun rises. We can just make out the movement of the men as they idle the boats, fanning their nets out over the transoms and into the ocean behind them, working in a broad arc, an almost-closed circle of netting.

Daddy, normally chipper in the morning, is silent as we trek home. When we crest the dune, I ask why he woke me. I’d watched this scene a score of times in my 10 years.

“You’ll never see fishing boats launch from the strand again,” my father answers, his eyes filling with tears. “The Town Council thinks too many people have moved to the island. It ain’t safe to put boats out into the water this way now, they say.

“But really, there’re two issues, and one of them nobody’s recognized yet, but they will soon,” Daddy says. “The problem that’s got the Town Council riled up right now is new people and tourists on the island. The Council wants to cater to them. The town makes more money off of them with real estate and hotels, restaurants and shopping, than it does off of the sale of the fish Mr. Robinson and other fishermen catch, or the taxes they pay.

“The other issue that nobody’s ready to talk about is the problem with gill nets. Mr. Robinson and his men set those nets, leave ’em alone for most of the day, then haul them in, unloading them on the strand. Everything trapped and twisted in them is dead. Sometimes dolphin and turtles and baby sharks and octopuses and squid — critters they didn’t mean to catch and can’t use — are caught and die.”

We didn’t have language then for the dire consequences of wanton destruction of sea life, and of the sea itself. The environmental and marine protection movements were in their infancy. However, my father understood, at a deeply spiritual level, what was to come.

“There’s a reason every being on earth is alive,” Daddy says. “It’s not right to sacrifice one for another, and your generation is going to pay the price for what mine’s doing now.”

I didn’t understand then that a way of life, a way of livelihood, could change so quickly. I didn’t comprehend the impact of overfishing and netting. I did, however, realize that a moment in time, an irretrievable treasure of my childhood, was lost on the incoming tide of too many people, and too much greed, on a tiny barrier island.

Late afternoon, when Mr. Robinson and his crew surf his boats back through the waves and onto the strand for the last time, I stand on the shore to meet them. As I watch them remove the fish from the nets, sorting “trash” fish from their intended catch, I cry.

October, 1956

New neighbors “from off,” Mama says, have invited us — Mama, Daddy, and me — to an oyster roast on the Saturday night before my fifth birthday.

“I guess they’re trying to be friendly,” Mama says, not happy about new people moving to our island.

“Bet they don’t know how to roast an oyster,” Daddy says.

I don’t care where these people are from, or what they know about cooking oysters. Just so long as there are oysters. Back then, it was safe to eat them raw.

Local custom calls for guests to bring their own knives and rags to an oyster roast. I hope Daddy will open them fast so I’ll get plenty before the grownups eat them all. It has been almost a year since I began my campaign for my own oyster knife, and Daddy still hasn’t relented.

When we arrive, most of our neighbors are there, including several of my friends. The newcomers — Mr. and Mrs. Seeley — appear to know what they’re doing.

Local custom calls for guests to bring their own knives and rags to an oyster roast. I hope Daddy will open them fast so I’ll get plenty before the grownups eat them all. It has been almost a year since I began my campaign for my own oyster knife, and Daddy still hasn’t relented.

The first batch of oysters is already roasting over the fire in a galvanized tin roasting pan covered by wet burlap bags. The table is plywood set across sawhorses. There are never chairs around the table: You eat oysters standing up. I am surprised to see bottles of ketchup and horseradish, dishes of lemon wedges and butter, paper plates, and a big bowl of slaw on the table. Mr. Seeley may know how to cook oysters, but I don’t think he knows the way locals eat them.

A lower table, with children’s chairs circling it, sits near a charcoal grill, where a man is cooking hot dogs. There’s a bottle of ketchup on this table, too, and a pack of buns.

The fragrance of the marsh rises on the steam as Mr. Seeley and another man lift the burlap bags and shovel oysters from the roaster onto the table.

“Gather round!” Mr. Seeley hollers. Daddy and Mama, knives and rags ready, find spots at the table. I squeeze in between them as Daddy reaches for an oyster with his rag.

“Come here, honey,” Mrs. Seeley waves to me from across the yard. “Come sit here at the children’s table and have a hot dog.”

“No, thank you,” I say. I look up at Mama.

“She prefers oysters,” Mama says.

“The oysters are for adults. Children are welcome to hot dogs,” Mrs. Seeley smiles.

I catch fire fly between my parents’ eyes.

My father inhales sharply, then slowly, deliberately, puts the oyster in his rag back on the table. Mama takes his rag and knife, and Daddy reaches down for my hand. Without a word to anyone or to each other, the three of us cross the yard and walk home.

For my birthday on Monday, Mama bakes a chocolate cake. The layers are lopsided, no matter how she turns them, so she evens them up by wedging banana slices between the layers on one side. After she frosts the cake, you can’t see it’s weird. It will taste good.

Daddy gets home from work and hollers for me as he comes through the front door. I run to him, and he picks me up, swinging me above his head. He sings, “Happy birthday to my best girl!” He kisses my cheek and carries me to the kitchen.

On the table sits a small brown bag.

“Open it,” Daddy says, dropping me gently to the floor.

All these years later, I still have, and use, the oyster knife my father gave me on my fifth birthday.

My ancestors wove the net of my life from the sea, knotting my days with twine strong as passion, weighting my weeks with lead sinkers heavy as grief, and charting my years with brightly colored glass floats as fragile as eternity.

A gift from her father, this is the oyster knife author Deb Bowen has used for more than 60 years. (Photograph by Cynthia Sedgwick)
A gift from her father, this is the oyster knife author Deb Bowen has used for more than 60 years. (Photograph by Cynthia Sedgwick)
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About the author

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Deb Bowen lives and writes on a North Carolina barrier island. She is the co-author of "A Good Friend for Bad Times: Helping Others Through Grief." She has a novel and several other works in progress.

4 thoughts on “Mending Nets”

  1. Deb Bowen,
    Bravo for a first class piece of writing. Wonderful memories as you are fortunate to have lived at the life giving sea. For me it evoked similar memories of summers at Wrightsville Beach near my dads birthplace of Wilmington. I would appreciate your looking for my pieces at Salvation South including an upcoming one around Thanksgiving which I think you will enjoy. Many thanks for a soul stirring piece. Be well. Nelson d. Ross

    1. Thank you so much Nelson. Pieces of this story originated on Wrightsville Beach, and I love that you recognized that. I look forward to reading your work. Best regards, Deb

  2. Gosh, these beautiful scenes from Deb Bowen’s childhood remind me of Pat Conroy’s love of the coast. Anyone raised with a childhood in this kind of bounty is very lucky indeed. I think the oyster knife is amazing, and I love the way the piece centers around that one artifact. Cynthia Sedgwick’s photos are incredible. Thank you for this.

    1. Thank you so much Janisse! I am grateful to you and your work being a guiding light for me, and I appreciate you taking time to read the story and comment. Sometime I’ll tell you the story of how I quoted a passage from one of Pat Conroy’s books to him at a writer’s conference! Blessings, Deb

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