It's possible all the writing I've done over the years has been in some way a response, a pushing back against the isolation and loneliness I felt at sixteen, driving an endless loop between home and school and work, speeding through the rolling country 'burbs of southeastern Wisconsin. There, a farm. There, a subdivision. There, a snowy field. Lots of trees. Another farm. Another subdivision. Endless fields. Growing up in this landscape my edges were smoothed; I was shaped. For me, this landscape was so cold, isolating, lonely. Constantly, I seek warmth, body, connection; I seek community, conversation.
Growing Up Fish
One coworker particularly liked to refer to me as the “farm girl” from Wisconsin. At the time I hadn’t seen my home as any more agricultural than any other of the neighboring states. The whole Midwest had its share of cornfields and barns as far as I was concerned, even if the city of Chicago didn’t have any. Most people I knew hadn’t grown up on or ever visited a farm, much less seen a cow close up. The last farms in my family were the ones my parents had grown up on.
If she had wanted to use a stereotype of Wisconsin that was closer to home, she should have said something about being a hunter or fisher. My family had always eaten from the land. I hadn’t hunted anything myself, but my dad and most of my six older brothers did. On a good year ours was the house with the deer carcasses hanging from the basketball hoop waiting to be butchered.
As for fishing, it was in my blood. Salmon was so plentiful in Lake Michigan at the time I grew up on its shores it is almost a part of me. I ate it more than anything else in my childhood and I imagine flaky flesh hides beneath my skin.
In the late 1960s, just before I was born, salmon were introduced into Lake Michigan to hunt alewife. The salmon prospered thanks to the care of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The DNR collected salmon eggs and made sure they matured and then deposited them in streams leading back to the lake, so the salmon would return. My town grew as did others on Lake Michigan, thanks to the unlikely fish, becoming a hotbed for salmon fishing, yachts, and charters, many we noticed from our state to the south.
Along with the deer and salmon, we ate loads of tiny smelt once a year and perch, sunfish, and bluegill from smaller lakes throughout the state. Yet, it was only by leaving my home and having someone point out who they thought I was that I could appreciate just what made me a Wisconsinite.
From Port Washington, WI, Catherine Lanser writes essays and narrative nonfiction about growing up as the baby of a family of nine. Catherine is looking for a home for her first full-length memoir about how she found her place in her family, told through the lens of her brain tumor and her father’s stroke. She has published numerous essays including one in Belt Publishing’s The Milwaukee anthology. Learn more at www.catherinelanser.com