When You Teach a Boy to Fish

How my uncle’s generosity — and love of the sea — inspired me for a lifetime

Carl Safina
Human Parts
Published in
6 min readAug 1, 2019

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Uncle Tony. Photos courtesy of the author.

SSometimes, early planted seeds that will germinate decades later into a writer’s life are planted by sources neither formal nor literary. Indeed mine were neither. I had Uncle Tony. What Uncle Tony had: An untrained eye for the beautiful and a willingness to share a little time near water.

But now he’s in a two-person room on the far side of the curtain. Our visit is mostly a surprise. As we file past the partition Tony takes in his visitors. It’s my mother, me…

“Here’s a person I haven’t met,” he says as we fully materialize.

“My wife,” I say, and before I can add, “Patricia,” he points to a photo of her on the wall, on a boat, holding up a halibut.

Tony had always been drawn to the sea, to boats, and to fish. That drew me to him. But today is only the third time I’ve seen my uncle in 10 years. He’s not much of a talker so I seldom call. At age 87 he’s got diabetes, recently pneumonia, everything hurts. He refuses to complain and his energy is limited. So the calls, which he always ends with, “I love you,” are short.

We all know he will not go home. I feel ashamed that this is only our second visit here, and that he’s not previously met my wife of five years, considering how much a few brief experiences I’d had with him when I was in my teens have meant to me.

Recently he’d suffered several days of hallucinations. His stepdaughter, Emily, advised we come soon. Thus this hastily arranged trek to Staten Island. I’ve been bracing for how we’d find him. But, though physically diminished, he is mentally very much himself.

Tony’s roommate has his TV tuned to a game show that he’s not watching, like everyone on this floor. Except for my uncle, whose TV is never on. He’s got the window, a view of distant Raritan Bay, and he’s got his wall of photos.

A crowd is gathered in front of a Brooklyn tenement on the day the government declared the end of World War II. “That’s me, that kid on the right, half-hidden by the flag.” The next photos of him are in military clothes in Korea. There’s Josephine on the boat, fishing rod in hand, the late-arriving love of…

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Carl Safina
Human Parts

Ecologist, author. Inaugural holder of Endowed Chair for Nature and Humanity, Stony Brook University. SafinaCenter.org, CarlSafina.org