Sailing and Tarantulas: An Unauthorized Tribute to My Mother

Mom, Dad, me, and younger brother Bradley.

I’m unhappy in this picture.

I think it’s Easter morning when I was around five years old.

What would a little girl like me have to be unhappy about that morning? I was off to Easter church with my brother, parents and probably my grandparents, seeing as someone else was there that morning, taking the photo. I had long, gorgeous blond hair, a handful of daffodils, and I had probably just opened an Easter basket of epic proportions.

But I hated my dress.

A “sailor dress”, the grown-ups called it. I liked riding with my family in my grandfather’s sailboat.

Good times, even though we were forced to wear life jackets that looked almost as bad as the dress.

But I did not want to dress like a sailor. Large, flat navy-blue panels over my shoulders, the shapeless cascade of white fabric! I couldn’t stand it from the minute Mom pulled it off the rack. Everyone else insisted that it was adorable.

Now that I am almost thirty, I can admit that everyone else was right.

I am not typically so slow to admit that my mother is right about a lot of things.

“Well, I would like to be asked before someone blogs about me,” she said recently, after I blogged about an unusually exciting trip to Applebee’s with her father.

She’s probably right.

But don’t moms like surprises on Mother’s Day?

There are many aspects of my upbringing that probably excelled other kids’, but I will always be especially fond of one of my mother’s qualities.

It was pretty well summed up on one of our family trips to the Jersey shore. I was a young teenager and my brother and I had just made our annual pilgrimage to the tackiest store on the North Atlantic coast, Surf Sundries. For reasons unknown I think we actually referred to it as Surf-n-Sundries. We had no idea what “sundries” meant. But that store, crammed with Styrofoam boogie boards, cheap plastic sandals, beach shovels and every lewd and tacky plastic figurine imaginable super-glued to seashells, was a summertime Mecca to us and our cousins.

One day, the cage of hermit crabs for sale caught my eye. My parents urged me to get a job at a young age, so I had my own spending money. I bought several crabs and all the necessary accoutrements.

On the way home, I felt a surge of affection for my mother – perhaps a first for teenage girls the world over. You might think that I hadn’t asked permission to buy the hairy, pinching crustaceans because my mother wouldn’t have let me do it if I had told her. But I didn’t ask because I knew she’d like them as much as I did.

That’s something I always appreciated about my mother – she loves the natural world and was never squeamish about any kind of creature.

Besides a series of much-loved family dogs and one slightly less-amiable cat, the house was full of animals.

When my brother and I were little, my parents went to some kind of party that featured mouse-races. The losing mice were destined to be fed to a pet python, but my parents decided to bring a pair of them home as a present for us.

Lucky and Pokey lived long mouse lives in a cage on our bureau. As I recall, we later acquired an obese white mouse named Earthquake, for his tendency to burrow messily in the bedding, heaving the cage floor into chaos.

I don’t know what the impetus was, but one day my parents brought my brother and me to a pet store, where we picked out a baby guinea pig. Perhaps influenced by Beatrix Potter, we named him Peter, but always called him Piggy.

The truth is that Dad didn’t realize how long a guinea pig could live. Piggy lived for about eight years, during which he made an art of banging his water bottle against the side of his tank and squealing like a smoke alarm. Of course, Mom was the one to clean his tank every week for all those years.

We had a cockatiel named Tyler for awhile, but ended up giving him to a friend, because he greeted every car in the driveway with earsplitting shrieks which always set off a round of frenzied barking by the dogs.

Another of my teenage pets included a ball python (ironic and not a little disturbing, considering my childhood love of mice), and one year, for my brother’s birthday, I bought him a bearded dragon lizard. Mom thought that was just as great as the hermit crabs years before.

My mother’s interest in animals extended to the wild creatures too. Every spring, we patiently endured weeks of furiously tweeting dive-bombs from the barn swallow warrior-parents who felt they owned our shed. She also volunteered at a local wild animal rehabilitation center.

When a nest of infant starlings was orphaned in our front yard, she took them in, setting them up in a cage we’d used years before for a pair of parakeets named Alex and Mallory. We fed them tenderly for weeks, and even after they’d taken wing and joined the wild birds gorging themselves on the mulberry tree at the end of the driveway, they’d return to her hands when she leaned out an upstairs window and called, “babies!”

One of her most memorable adoptions didn’t end well for the adoptee. She once trapped a highly poisonous Black Widow spider in a jar and kept it in the kitchen. We watched the spider spin a new web, spellbound by our proximity to nature’s danger. But when Mom realized later that week that our new pet had laid hundreds of Black Widow eggs, she bore the jar outside and rapidly put an end to the whole episode.

I suppose the risk of hundreds of Black Widows escaped in the household was the line between appreciating nature and getting out the bug spray. It’s a pretty good indicator of where Mom was on the bug-appreciation spectrum.

Our second-most interesting pet was also a spider.

My parents happened to see an apparently drowned tarantula floating in the pool during a tropical family vacation when my brother and I were young. They asked the man cleaning the pool to scoop it out, and when it surprised us by un-crumpling its long, brown, hairy legs, we trapped it in a large cheez-puff container, stuffed it deep into our luggage, and brought the spider home.

Years later I read that tarantulas carry no major diseases. This assuaged my guilt about lying to the customs officer on whether any animals were in our bags.

We fixed a beautiful terrarium for the spider and fed it a steady stream of fat black crickets. Perhaps it thought it had drowned and gone to heaven – until the cat discovered it one night and pushed its terrarium to the floor.

We grieved the spider.

As a kid, I appreciated the license I had to learn about the natural world, from spending entire afternoons peering under rocks in the backyard, to getting my own puppy at nine years old, to hatching a clutch of skink eggs I found in the mulch-pile.

Recently Mom proved her mettle yet again by adopting a pair of her great-grand goldfish, adding them to a tank of goldfish that were the centerpieces at my wedding and have survived from that day to this.

Now, I also think that growing up with a Mom who never said, “Yuck! Don’t bring that in here!!” carries a much bigger importance than the freedom every kid dreams about to bring creepy-crawlies home. It’s a large-minded example of enduring respect for the world, and an abiding curiosity about life that includes all creatures, which I still try to live by every day.

So, Mom, the bottom line is that I forgive you for the sailor dress.  Happy Mother’s Day!

Mom and my mother-in-law, on my wedding day.
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4 Comments

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  1. Thought of you fondly last night when a great big centipede scurried across the livingroom floor – one of the only creatures I couldn’t get you to appreciate. Love YOU!

  2. For me, one of the more memorable animal moments was when we found the little dead shark on the beach at the shore on a class trip many years ago, and she helped the little baby sharks (also dead, unfortunately) to be “born.” Because if there is one thing she loves more than the world of nature, it’s being able to share it with kids! Happy Mother’s Day, Kathy! 🙂

  3. Cool Mom. Well that is to be expected. I too remember a fancy dress my mom bought me that I hated.

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