This article is from the summer edition of Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in 2023. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.
by Josh Tolbert
My grandfather was a fisherman who came from a long line of fishermen. He was one of seven brothers (and three sisters) whose father was also one of seven brothers (and three sisters). My grandmother found some photos of my great-grandfather with his father’s boat which he’d named Seven Brothers after the 1954 musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
In truth, he named the boat after his own seven brothers, but I do wonder if he ever made jokes about the coincidence. Although I have no memory of my great-grandfather, nor any memory of the Seven Brothers, I wonder what they were like and the life they must’ve lived. I know it couldn’t have been easy, but in all honesty, I began to grow envious of his life after seeing the photos. Or the life I think they lived. They had adventure as part of their everyday life. I’m sure it had its boring parts, but at its worst, it couldn’t have been more boring than sitting in an office cubicle. I hear other family members tell stories of life on the water and the good and bad times they had, and I wish that I had known the water like that. It seems they knew it better than most people alive today.
I don’t want to sound like I don’t have memories of my grandfather or of family because I do have those memories. I even have some early memories of fishing with my grandfather and being out in his skiff. I remember asking lots of questions (a habit I never grew out of).
“What are these fish called?”
“Why is it called a croaker?”
“Are we gonna kill these fish?”
“Are we gonna eat these fish?”
“What happens if we flip over?”
I can’t remember if my inquisitive young mind was met with a patient or perturbed response. I do remember he had very rough hands. They were the type of hands that lots of people admire, but few people want. I remember how he shucked oysters, cleaned fish, and mended nets with those hands after he got off the water. I think of my own hands and how I get a blister every time I go kayaking.
I remember stories that scared me about being out on the water. I’m sure that was probably their intention when telling me these stories and it worked. My grandfather’s brother fell off his shrimp boat and drowned in his own nets. My grandfather had a heart attack while alone in his skiff which scared him from going back on the water, or at least going out by himself.
I think the life of a fisherman is fraught with contradictions. I think anyone who has relied on the water for their livelihood, be they a fisherman or the family of a fisherman, has complicated and contradictory feelings about that life. It can be exciting and boring, joyous and heartbreaking. It can bring feast or famine.
I really like the name Seven Brothers. I like its emphasis on family. Although I don’t have the same connection to the water as my forebears, I have the same closeness with my family. I’m sure they were just as crazy and loud as my family still claims to be. I’m sure they wondered about those before them and what kind of people they were.
I am not discontented with the life I have lived. I’ve had plenty of experiences they never got the chance to have. However, I do feel sad that I do not have a stronger connection to the water and the way of life that brought my family and myself to the present day. Maybe one day I’ll learn to sail or fish. Maybe I’ll buy a boat and name it the Seven Brides. No matter what, I’ll keep my family and that history with me with every plate of seafood I eat and every boat I see.
Top photo: The Seven Brothers. Shipwrecked after Hurricane George in 1998. Courtesy Josh Tolbert and family.
Bottom photo: The writer’s great uncle (Marshall), his grandfather (Gerald), and another great uncle (Wendell)