Fish Fry

Today, I miss Wisconsin. It’s Friday and I think every true Wisconsinite knows, that can mean only one thing: Friday Night Fish Fry.

When I was a kid, we’d pile into the cars – my grandma’s huge Buick, Grampa’s station wagon (seats in the way back facing each other), one lucky kid got to ride with my dad on his motorcycle but it was never a girl because we had to wear dresses to make my Grammie happy – and head to the restaurant. The Colonial Inn was a favorite. Google tells me it either doesn’t exist, or hasn’t changed enough to have a website!

Anyway, there was always a huge table full of family. The cousins from California were always visiting. Or maybe it was the other side of the family, in which case Michigan was represented. Either way, it was a magical time; in exchange for best-behavior, we kids got in on the adult conversations. I kept my ears open and my mouth shut, because while I didn’t know what it all meant, I knew it was important.

Until I remembered the fountain. It was set into the wall, chock full of trinkets. I was sure those things had been placed there with intention, not just something someone picked up at the Fair, but something with meaning, some kind of message from the world beyond small-town Wisconsin and all of its claustrophobia.

The bread course arrived with the Brandy Old Fashioneds. My sister, the oldest kid in the tribe, got a Shirley Temple; as usual, I tried to blend into the woodwork; all that attention interfered with my daydreams.

The women fussed over the kids, tucking napkins into laps, trying to get the young ones to stay seated; all in an attempt to impress, maybe appease, the matriarch. Grammie expected us all to be on our best behavior. She’d insisted that we bring cardigans. The air conditioned restaurant might be too cold, we’d get sick and ruin the rest of our summer vacation.

But she didn’t realize that nothing could ruin those long lazy days on the water. We woke up every morning, put on our swim suits and… swam, played tennis, swam, sailed, water skied, swam, sunburned every inch of our bikini-clad bodies, ran barefoot through pine needles, swam some more, hunted for turtles, tipped the canoe on purpose… when we finally stopped for lunch, there was tuna salad and blueberry muffins. To this day, I can’t eat tuna salad without cut-in-half grapes and those little, perfectly baked muffins. The afternoons were slower, and as we grew up, nap-time turned into playing cards turned into waiting for the boys to drive by in the ski boat.

The Fish Frys held steady. But the restaurant changed. My grandparents joined the country club and it got serious – ties and sport coats for the men, nylons (in that heat?) for the women. As teens, my sister and I got really good at checking our watches without anyone noticing. Friday night. Where was the party? Who was driving? Come on, hurry up and finish those potato pancakes.

And then we moved away, my grandparents passed, the California cousins didn’t go back and Friday nights are just Friday nights.

Today, I miss Wisconsin.

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