Parker Pond in Mt. Vernon, Maine lies nestled in the pine forests 20 miles northwest of Augusta. Though called a pond, it would qualify as a midsized lake just about any place else. …
Parker Pond in Mt. Vernon, Maine lies nestled in the pine forests 20 miles northwest of Augusta. Though called a pond, it would qualify as a midsized lake just about any place else. Irregularly shaped, with a shoreline measuring 13 miles and a band of islands bejeweling its western reach, Parker Pond stretches about five miles between its most distant points. For those unfamiliar with its many secrets, the lake holds an abundance of hidden dangers: while more than 70 feet at its deepest, reefs and ledges seem to rise out of nowhere.
On August 25, 1999, I wrote a column in this paper about Parker Pond called “Lake of Memories,” focusing on the many ways that fishing its waters tightened the bonds among my father Benson, my brother Bill, and me. However, in that particular piece, I neglected to write about the important role our guide, Bill Nurse, long played in our family dynamic.
Until the mid-’80s, when fishing on Parker Pond, we were almost always accompanied by Bill Nurse, a Registered Maine Guide, whose clients were fishermen in summer and hunters in autumn. Bill knew the dangers and the glories of the lake. He kept us supplied with live bait, small frogs, which he caught by hand as he waded in hip boots through buggy and often snake-infested bogs. At times, especially at dusk, we might switch to artificial lures often called “plugs,” which remain on the water’s surface after being cast.
Bill’s world was lake and forest; he was a man of the outdoors, who would leave us notes written on birch bark: I was still a teenager, but I remember Bill beginning one of his birch bark notes with “Friend Ben and all…” By the time we met him in the summer of 1957, he had set up a large platform tent on one of the many islands in the northwestern area of the lake– known to the locals as “Bill’s Island,” even though it was technically the property of the State of Maine. In addition to the tent, Bill had constructed a sturdy picnic table, with a built-in bench along each side, as well as a rough but serviceable fireplace on which we grilled hotdogs, hamburgers, and even an occasional steak for lunch or for dinner.
Though Bill was not a religious man in a parochial sense, he felt a profound identity with the natural world. As we sat in our boat one evening towards sunset following a spell of rain, a large double rainbow arched over the water. Knowing that I had become a rabbi, Bill stretched out his arms as if to embrace the beauty that surrounded us and said, “Jim, this is my church;” and the many loons on the lake seemed to form his church choir with their haunting, other-worldly songs. Some years after that rainbow evening, Bill, a master wood-carver, presented me with his soulful, interpretive carving of Albrecht Dürer’s Praying Hands.
My father’s relationship with Bill Nurse, spanning decades, was not limited to the summer season. Though rich in spirit, Bill was poor in resources; I still remember the small house in which he and his wife Renee lived and raised a daughter and two sons. He had built it himself along with the outhouse; inside he had running water, but no toilet. On several occasions my father found winter work for Bill, and at times for Renee as well, down in New Jersey; theirs was a relationship of mutual admiration and respect.
Sandy I and were married in December of 1967. The summer before our wedding, I had brought her up to Parker Pond to meet Bill Nurse. When the three of us were not engaging in conversation, I fished, Bill motored us to different spots on the lake, while Sandy read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. At the end of the day, Bill presented us with an engagement present: a meat-eating pitcher plant, which he had found in a local swamp. Bill’s instructions were simple: “Make sure you give it enough water, and give it a little bit of chopped meat a couple of times a week.”
Bill died on October 4, 1985, age 72, after 41 years of marriage to his British war-bride. On a sultry, sticky August day in 1999, not quite 14 years since Bill’s death, I met his daughter Wanetta, quite by accident, for the first time. We were both standing beside the only small stretch of Parker Pond with access to a public road. Random conversation brought us to the realization that I had known her father for almost thirty years.
After sharing stories about Bill and his friendship with my father, Wanetta began to sob: “I’ve been having a bad day. I’ve come here to be with my father. He is on the island. He is in the water around the island.” We hugged tightly for a brief moment. “I can’t tell you how much it means to me to see you today, of all days.”
Though Bill Nurse died 36 years ago and my father died five weeks after 9/11, their memories live on in me and my brother Bill. Whenever my brother and I are fishing for bass on Parker Pond, their presence is far more real to us than their physical absence. Bill Nurse happened to be a Registered Maine Guide, but for my father, my brother, and for me, he was a decades-long friend, a model for the road not taken, treader on a path that none of us Rosenbergs would have, could have chosen. Nevertheless, my father, my brother, and I became better people for having come to know Bill Nurse, who had managed to learn the secret of bringing out the best in each one of us.
Author’s note: This column is adopted from a section of a much longer essay, “Fishing for My Father,” which appeared in the November, 2020 issue of “Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.”