Southwords

What’s in a Name?

Sometimes it’s everything

By Kate Smith

My first nickname was Catfish. Dad pronounced it at my birth because I arrived “slippery and wide-eyed as one.”

When I was old enough to comprehend the likeness between me and the bottom-feeder I was not amused, and tried renaming myself. Buck was my first choice, after the wolf pack leader of Jack London’s Call of the Wild. It’s how I signed my name on presents and on a stocking one Christmas. Typical Leo. When that didn’t stick, I tried imitating my best friend’s nickname, Bobcat Brandi, with the closest wild feline alliteration, Cougar Kate. I didn’t understand why the adults thought this was hilarious.

And that gallant trail name I imagined I’d be given when I hiked the Appalachian Trail? Last fall, during a short 20-mile stretch, I was declared Peein’-on-the-trail-Kate. In hindsight, Catfish wasn’t so bad. Good thing, too, because it’s what Dad still calls me.

Dad picked up catfishing in his 20s when he moved to North Carolina to work at Cameron Boys Camp. Still, 35 years later, on summer weekends, he leaves home in the late afternoon with a camp chair, pole and box of chicken guts to meet a friend with a boat, and fish all night. When I told my Georgia crew leader about this while we built a trail together in Alaska, his eyes got big: “Awe, man, your Dad goes noodlin’?”

While Dad uses bait on a line rather than bare hands and a forearm thickened by scars from catfish teeth, I still think it’s pretty cool. Catfishing means Dad is out on the moonlit water when the fish bite best. He’ll come home at 5 a.m. with 80 pounds of wild game and solicit us five kids, most of us out of the house, back to the family kitchen. Although growing up we bought most of our food from the grocery store and Dad worked a normal day job, it’s these times that define him most to me. Awake in the middle of the quiet night, providing.

I grew up thinking that good dads are always awake: chasing away nightmares, driving the family halfway across the country for Christmas at Pop’s house, watching the fire smolder out safely during camping trips, up every hour to check the temperature of meat in the smoker the night before summer barbecues. Even now, if I have car trouble when driving late at night, I call Dad, and he always answers.

I’ve inherited a lot of traits from Dad. I’ve got his eyes, his tawny skin tone, his all-or-nothing impulses. We both headbang to AC/DC and cry during praise and worship at church. And somewhere in there, I’ve got Dad’s love of the night. Something about the quiet and stillness prompts my deepest thinking, feeling, and creating. There’s a thrill and a sacredness about it, when no one else is awake except the 18-wheelers, people on their way to the airport, the crickets and cicadas and bullfrogs, and always, when I need him, my dad.

August is my birthday month. Mom buys a card with an inspiring quote, and Dad signs it. I guarantee he’ll address his note to Catfish. And when I call to say I’m coming over, he’ll ask me what I want for my birthday lunch. At dawn the next morning, he’ll pull in the driveway from a night on the lake, ready to celebrate with a cooler full. PS

Kate Smith is the herbalist and holistic health coach of Made Whole Herbs in Southern Pines.

Her favorite book is whatever she is reading, though it’s doubtful any would top The Lord of the Rings.

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