Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Big Fish, Small Pond

In January, I wrote this essay for a contest themed "Community: Long Ago." Initially, what started out as a humorous account of my move to "the end of the earth," became a deeper look at, and an appreciation for, my relationship with my father. Today is his first birthday since his passing. In honor of my dad, I am posting this essay.


                Big Fish, Small Pond, by Kim Hruba

                I took solace in the fact that we weren’t actually moving to the end of the earth – Manitoba was just over the border.
                As a kid I would watch reruns of the Andy Griffith Show with my dad. I didn’t particularly like the show and our lives were nothing like Mayberry. My mom traveled frequently for work and didn’t sew her own clothes or bake pies for church picnics. My dad either worked a rotating shift or was under the hood up to his elbows in engine. Andy was a widow; my parents were divorced. But I endured Andy, because it was a way my father, who resembled James Dean in body and spirit and whose favorite music was a reel-to-reel labeled in his blocky print, “American Graffiti,” spent time with me, his little girl. Somehow watching Andy seemed to be a way for my dad to share who he was, while I harbored the hope that dutifully watching his favorite programs would create a special bond between us.           
                In one episode, Andy had been offered a job in the “big city” of Raleigh. Helen peered faithfully up at Andy, while Andy looked lovingly down at Helen and explained that he was the kind of guy who was meant to be a big fish in a small pond; not a small fish in a big pond. I thought Andy was crazy. I would have jumped into that big pond with or without Helen.
                I intrinsically knew the meaning of “wanderlust” long before I could speak German.  I would see the world – not like in M*A*S*H, but more like Hogan’s Heroes because it was funnier and took place in Europe. In simple child terms, I felt called to a greater “greatness” to do great things in the world.  I would be a big fish in a big pond.
My dad, Jerry Koster
                My father had been a Vietnam vet. He wasn’t a member of the American Legion or VFW and no uniform hung in his closet; he avoided Memorial Day programs and begrudgingly watched an occasional war movie. As I fingered the few foreign trinkets I’d found in a small, plain black box tucked in the back of the closet, I envied him that he had seen the world, war or no war. When I would press him with questions about the world, more often than not, he would answer by flicking ash from his ubiquitous cigarette and exhaling his cloud of smoke like a heavy burden. His brilliant blue-hazel eyes would dim and all he’d say on the subject before turning back to his latest motor or parts magazine was, “Kimberly, the world is not as nice a place as you think it is.” We’d lock horns over opposing ideals as I preached kumbaya and he lectured survival. I spouted youthful optimism, he’d mutter, “Good luck paying the bills with that.” Regardless, I felt the pull of the road and no obligation to any notion of Mayberry. I would move beyond a hometown; I would become a global citizen.
                Looking down at the patchwork of green fields and terra cotta-colored roofs, the first time I flew over Europe I thought, it exists.  I was an exchange student in Belgium, wrote my undergraduate thesis in the Netherlands and taught English in the Czech Republic. With its open markets, extensive public transportation, and architecture older than my own country, I thrilled in the exoticness of Europe’s version of Mayberry.
                To my father’s relief I had managed to keep myself alive, safe, and the bills paid while living abroad. I married a Czech, who my dad liked a lot. After our Czech wedding, he conceded that Czech Republic was a nice place and even though plenty of Vietnamese lived there, it wasn’t anything like Vietnam. In return, the Czechs ate up my father’s James Dean-ness and rock-n-roll.
                By my late twenties, I had achieved half of my dream: I was living in a big pond, but hadn’t become that big fish. I rationalized that teaching English was sort of saving of the world because I helped people create connections through a common language. When our first child was born, I reasoned that raising children was a hugely significant contribution to the collective good in the world.
                Then, in a twisted, cosmic quirk of karmic humor, my husband accepted a very good position with a window company and we ended up back in Minnesota – in the town of Warroad. Population: Don’t ask.
                Being a big pond kind of girl, my geographic knowledge of my home state, did not extend much farther north than Duluth or farther west than the North Shore of Lake Superior. I’d heard of Ely, but only in a romanticized sense – connecting it with the pristine nature of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and the home of arctic explorer Will Steger.
                Our first drive north was a quick 300-mile “jaunt” on a Saturday before Christmas.  Upon first inspection, the town reminded me of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."  Maybe it was the intoxication of the impromptu adventure.  A Romanian rang up our purchases at the gas station. We took it as a good sign.
                Because my Czech mother-in-law had shared her love of Zane Grey with us, the second time we drove to Warroad we enjoyed the flat, vastness of northwestern Minnesota. It was during this drive I truly understood the word “homesteading” as I imagined pioneers planting a stake, claiming empty acreage as far as the eye could see. From this visit we figured out that Warroad was a place where most families owned a truck, a snowmobile, an ATV, a boat, and a fish house.  We had two tents, four bicycles, and a Subaru.
                The third trip was a whirlwind tour to find housing. Having grown up by water (not surprising in the Land of 10,000 Lakes), I thought if we were going to be living at the end of the earth we might as well do it on Lake of the Woods. My husband wanted to rent an apartment in town.  One weekend of house hunting cleared up any naivety on both our parts.
                I knew that it was a good decision for our family, but at eight months pregnant with our third child, moving in general, let alone to the middle of nowhere, did not jive with my idea of nesting. I experienced rage-y moments when I felt jealous and resentful of my husband’s career advancement. How would I ever become a big fish living there?  I had wasted all my years of city-living being a little fish. I hadn’t become a Jane Goodall, a Madeleine Albright, or a Mother Teresa. My dreams mocked me. At least there’s a really big lake, my husband offered.
                The final passage to Warroad happened in two stages. My husband left first to start the new job and oversee the carpet cleaning in the new house we’d seen only once, while I stayed back with our toddlers and oversaw the farewells to civilization.
                On my first day of ECFE parent group in Warroad, I met three other pregnant women and three more with babies – all of them transplants who welcomed me warmly and assured me that I, too, would survive. When I went into labor two weeks later, we handed our toddlers faithfully over to our new neighbors and after the birth, the church ladies came bearing gifts for the newborn. We met locals who had travelled so extensively, it made our adventures look like day trips to an amusement park.
                To my amazement, the smallness of this town provided a blessing of boundaries and focus as I went on to create a girls’ leadership program, wrote grants to bring art venues to our town, started my own business, completed my first triathlon, wrote my first novel, and had our fourth child. My new normal became volunteering at church and baking for fundraisers; Women of Today every second Tuesday and book club every third Tuesday of the month. I made time to attend the Veteran’s Day program at the school.
                I no longer think in terms of being a big or small fish, in a big or little pond; just a happy one in a place that became the final convergence of ideological paths. By travelling the world, then settling in this town, I’d come to understand why my dad liked the Andy Griffith Show. Doing “small things with great love,” as Mother Teresa counseled, was possibly the greatest worldly contribution of all.        
                My father passed away unexpectedly last summer and as I watched nearly three hundred people pay their respects at his funeral, I was comforted by the thought that we were much more alike than different.  And the next time I got wanderlust there would always be Canada just a few miles up the road.


(Note to Canadians: All kidding aside, I really do love Canada.)

 I love you, Dad.