Twice a year, my dad took my brothers and me to Passo do Lontra—Otter Pass. The fishing lodge was his escape from a busy and sometimes stressful job. Most of my favorite memories of my dad come back to Otter Pass.
We were Americans living in Brazil. My parents had pretty traditional roles: my dad went to work every day and my mom managed the house. They both worked hard, but in those early years, they never—at least as far as I knew—questioned those roles. My dad loved to chat with my mom while she cooked, but I have no memories of him doing the dishes or putting us to bed. Everything related to us kids fell under my mom’s column: bath time and bedtime and snack time. My dad loved us deeply, but my memories are of him being serious and somewhat formal.
Except at Otter Pass. That was the place we really connected. Something happened to my dad in the long winding drive from the city where we lived to Otter Pass. I could almost see it, the weight that was lifted from his shoulders.
My younger brothers and I lived for those trips. We went fishing for piranhas and dourados and pintados—big fish that flashed in the sun when they sprang out of the water. My dad taught us how to thread the line into the hook, how to flick our wrists, how to sit quietly in the hot sun for hours. He carried his capanga, a little leather bag that held all the essentials we needed for the day.
I can still remember the leather smell of that bag.
We talked more at Otter Pass, sitting on the porch while we listened to the frogs belt out their nightly serenade. My dad told us the stories he didn’t always have time for during the rest of the year: growing up in an oilfield in Colorado, winning a science award in college, seeing my mom’s red hair for the first time.
The fish we caught at Otter Pass were large ones and we always took them back with us in a white Styrofoam cooler in the back of our blue station wagon. Because of my dad’s job, he knew several families in town who didn’t always have enough food.
One time, when my dad pulled the cooler full of fish out of the back of the car at the house of a family he knew, the mom started crying. She wasn’t sure how she was going to be able to feed her family that week. The fish provided meat; the bones became soup. They would eat for a long time on our haul from Otter Pass.
I saw more about my dad in that moment—about what he valued and what he loved—than in almost any other time in my life. My dad was generous and gracious. Everything in his life, even his fishing trips with his boys, provided him with an opportunity to give to others.
When I was seventeen, my dad was killed by a drunk driver. My world exploded in an instant; over the next several years, snatches of memories would float down and I pieced together who I was and who my dad was after that profound loss.
Now that I’m a dad, almost the age my dad was when he died, I have very different views of him than I did when he died. I see what constrained him—his past and his upbringing and his views of the world. I like to think he would have changed his mind on several things. My dad’s dad—still living on his own at 95—has shifted significantly over the decades. Watching my grandfather be open to new ideas makes me think my dad would have mellowed and softened with age. I can only imagine how much my dad would have loved being a grandfather, how he would have tickled and chased his many granddaughters and his one fat grandson.
I don’t want to do some things the way my dad did. I’m much more hands on than he was. My wife and I both work and we share almost every household chore equally. She cooks and I do the dishes. She plans meals and I take our girls with me to the grocery store. We still sometimes fight about who puts the laundry away, but almost every other job we do seamlessly together. When our daughters wake up in the middle of the night, they come to my side of the bed (no one in their right mind wakes my wife up unless they have to). I’m the one who packs band-aids and hair clips. I always write down the cute things they say. I work hard in my job but I want my work to stay at work so that when I’m home, I’m very present for my kids.
But there are some things I want to do exactly like my dad did. I want my girls to grow up being generous the way my dad was. I want them to see everyone in the world as a potential friend, no matter what they look like or how much money they make. My dad loved deeply and I strive to be like that every day.
And I want my girls to know the same contentment I felt when I was fishing with my dad at Otter Pass. I want them to know that I love them and that I’m with them every day, all the time, in special moments but mostly in the day-to-day ones.
We started Otter Pass because I know I’m not the only dad who wants to figure out both how to be like my own father and different too. I know I’m not the only one who wants to spend as much or more time thinking about being a good dad as I do about being good at my job. Or who wants my girls to catch a whiff of leather years from now and immediately flash back to a time we spent together—fishing, going on a hike, or just walking to school—and know they had a dad who loved them more than anything in the world.