Parenting and Home Life

A dirge averted

We come home from church a few weeks ago to find that Atlas had died.

Or so it seemed.

There was, outside of his shell, a limp, still Atlas.  Katherine looked in the aquarium and screamed.

We knew that hermit crabs molted, shedding their exoskeletons occasionally, but this was not a skeleton but a whole hermit crab, intact: antennae, claws, eyes on a stick.

It appeared that Atlas had succumbed to terminal depression. Or that the Pacific seawater that we buy in a box was contaminated.

We should have been ecstatic. We were free, free, FREE from hermit-crab bondage! We no longer had to worry about whether he was eating, whether he was lonely, whether he was suffocating because we hadn’t changed the water frequently enough, whether the cats would notice there was free food for the taking in that strange glass box on the kitchen counter, whether Atlas was still angry and plotting revenge.

Oddly enough, we were crushed. It seemed a personal failing that we couldn’t keep a shrimp of a crab alive for even a year with the finest accouterments that PetCo had to offer. We’d kidnapped him, and then we’d killed him. It was a sad end to a sad life.

Only it wasn’t.

Katherine believed.

Doubting Thomas that I am, I departed the death scene after a few minutes, but like Mary at Lazarus’ tomb, she weepily remained there, looking for any small sign of life. And after about 20 minutes, she shrieked again.

Damned if there wasn’t a hermit crab in that empty shell.


He had molted. It was the most astonishing thing. Unlike a snake that sheds a skin that is clearly an abandoned outer layer, Atlas shrugged off a second self that was an exact replica of himself. It was as if there were twin Atlases, and one killed the other. They were indistinguishable except that one was dead and one was alive.


The now joyful Katherine went to Google and learned that, gross as it seems, hermits eat their exoskeletons, so we left the body in the tank for a week. Atlas would have none of it, so one day, I reverently lifted the remains out of the tank with a spatula and buried them in the planter on the deck. Old Atlas will fertilize spring flowers.

New Atlas seemed tired for a few days; miracles take energy when you do them yourself.

But soon he was back to clunking his way around the tank, and like marathoner Ryan Hall, he seems a little beefier these days, a little more capable of withstanding his miserable captivity until we can return him to the waters off Sullivan’s Island.

As we learned from his death and resurrection, that eventual parting won’t be without tears.



The crabnapper next door

Google “accidentally took crab home from the beach,” and you’ll see we’re not the only ones facing the crabnapper’s dilemma: what to do when the beautiful, empty shell you bring home from the beach is actually occupied and taking the creature back to his home is not an option.

Unfortunately, there are also people who are taking hermit crabs home on purpose. An employee at the local pet store said she’d had two other customers buying stuff for hermit crabs recently, only they’d kidnapped theirs from Cape Cod.  One has already died, she said.

As for our temporary crab, Atlas, he’s still hanging in there, and recently moved to a bigger tank we found on the side of the road. He has sand from the Caribbean, water from the Pacific, and all the mail-order algae he can eat. I have played the Hallelujah Chorus for him. He’s listened to Shakespeare. He’s flown on a plane. It’s like he won the crab lottery. He’s the Ken Bone of crabdom.

He’s still mad as hell about it, waving his tiny claws at us like Achmed the Terrorist.

I contacted the New England Aquarium in hopes that they’d let him join one of their tanks, but the “curator of fishes” (job of the week) said they only have local species because of the possibility that critters from other regions might carry parasites or disease to which New England animals aren’t immune.

A biologist at the South Carolina Aquarium, who clearly has never waded into the ocean in New England, suggested gradually acclimating him to colder water and releasing him locally. This seemed doable, until I read this story about a lobster that was rescued and released, found dead a week later – the likely victim of temperature change.

I’ve been trying to acclimate to New England ocean water for nearly a decade. Ice baths are warmer.

We’ve asked the legendary Kelly’s Roast Beef if Atlas could join one of their saltwater fish tanks. They politely declined. We’ve posted a “lonely crab looking for friend” ad on Craigslist. Nothing.


So, we’re still looking for a solution that doesn’t result in death or damnation – you know, in case we’ve been wrong about this whole “God made man in His image” thing, and it turns out God’s actually a striped-leg hermit crab, in which case we’re doomed.

Here is Atlas, in his natural shell. crab-020

What do you think? Is he a cool summer or a deep winter? The online color tests aren’t helping much:

Body type: Cockroach

Skin tone: Mottled

Eyes:  Brown, on a stick.

Natural hair color: I keel you for asking.

Take-your-chicken-to-work day

So, I’m heading down the road to feed the donkeys. (Yes, I live on an 8-acre farm, but the donkeys live 10 minutes away, on another farm, in one of the many perplexities of my current life.)

From the backseat, I hear a rustling.

I keep driving.

On any given day, my vehicle is a stunt-double for the pickup Lamont drove on “Sanford and Son,” so there’s always trash congealing , grass growing through the carpet, or year-old French fries mutating into another life form. This can get noisy sometimes.

In another half mile, I hear movement again

All right. One of the kids decided to come along, and slipped into the backseat without me knowing. I turn around to let them know I’m in on the joke.

There, perched on the back seat, is a chicken.

She sits calmly, expectantly, and looks me boldly in the eye, like Jessica Tandy with feathers.

Hoke, I need to be at the beauty parlor in half an hour!

Hoke, could you please drive a little slower?

Hoke, eat more cattle!

It was take-your-chicken-to-work day, and I didn’t know it. chickpic

I slowed down, and started looking for a place that I could turn around,  drive home and deposit Miss Maizey in the driveway where she belonged.  Then I realized, with great alarm, that a large man in a small car had pulled over next to me.

I rolled down my window.  He smiled benevolently.

“Yes?” I said. “Can I help you?”

“You looked like you were lost and needed directions.”

“No,” I said. “I’m not lost. There’s just a chicken in my back seat.”

And with that, I turned around and took the hen home, more interested in keeping the back seat free of chicken manure than in seeing this kind man’s response.

I realized immediately, of course, what had happened.   Earlier, I had loaded a bale of hay in the back of the Jeep, and left the hatch open for a few minutes.  My passenger, showing extraordinary chutzpah for a chicken, had climbed in.  The back seat of my car is a good place for a chicken. Warm. Plenty of crumbs.

So  Meals on Wheels, the Donkey Edition, hit the road again.  Just another day in the life. No harm, no fowl.

The preciousness of the mundane

Wednesday was the kind of day I dread for days in advance.  The kind of day when I growl, “For this I went to college?” and wonder if I am violating some sort of Massachusetts law by not having a chauffer’s license.

Drive one kid to school, another to work. (His car’s in the shop.) A music book that absolutely, positively had to be acquired by tomorrow only exists in a store 30 minutes away.  A kid home from work, then ferry to college.  Another pick-up at school.  Soccer at 4:30.  Traffic backed up on Main Street, the faint scream of sirens. Home finally, out of hay. The feed store closes in 30 minutes.  Soccer ends at 6.  College class out, 20 minutes away. Return kid home. Change clothes, unload hay,  back to middle school. Curriculum night.  Grumpy. Tired. Late.

Later than I think. The parking lot’s almost empty.

Hurrying in, pass a teacher.  “It’s been canceled; didn’t you hear?”  Relief.

But then, ominously, “I’m not at liberty to tell you why.”

Back home, check the news, looking for a bomb threat, fire, gas leak.

There. Oh dear God. Car-bike collision.  After school.

A ghost bike in Berlin. (Image via Wikipedia.)

A ghost bike in Berlin. (Image via Wikipedia.)

Hands fly to face.   The sirens, the traffic, my trifling annoyance.

Oh no, oh no, oh no.

The phone starts to ring.

Oh no, oh no, oh no.

Hopkinton is a small town hiding in the skirts of a big city. We talk a big game on Marathon Day, but when the last runner crosses over into Ashland, we pick up the trash, and go back to being a small town again.

On days when school lets out early, children roam the town like strays. They go to the library, the town square, the pizza shop. They sit on stone walls.  Ride their bikes on sidewalks and streets.  We maneuver around them, smiling and waving.  Even kids we don’t know are familiar. That one, we saw in the school play. This one came trick-or-treating. I wasn’t around in the ‘50s, but I have this idea that the way the town is now is much like it was then.

“Hopkinton is a small town,” one resident tells a newspaper reporter. “Everyone’s kids are everyone’s kids.”

Which is why we’re all in mourning for a child who wasn’t ours, but is.

Sometimes I talk jocularly about “Scary Bike News,” and it’s a wonder my kids even have bikes, given the amount of preaching I do on the topic.  I can discuss, with alarming detail, car-bike fatalities that occurred a thousand miles away. (Have I told you about the one on the James Island Connector?) And the hits, they just keep coming, like this one a few years ago, or this one, earlier today. Each time, I grouse that I’m not sure which should be outlawed, cars or bikes.

This is a serious problem for someone who believes in the greatest amount of liberty for the greatest number of people.  And for someone who loves bicycles.  And cars.

Have you ever seen a ghost bike?  They’re bikes painted white, silver or gray, locked to a street sign or post near a fatal crash. They are, according to a website that tracks them all over the world, “reminders of the tragedy that took place on an otherwise anonymous street corner, and as quiet statements in support of cyclists’ right to safe travel.”

Safe travel, yes:  we need bike lanes and paths. But do cyclists have the right to travel on busy two-lane roads with negligible shoulders?

I think not, every time I pass one, and my throat seizes up in fear.  No matter how slow I go, no matter how careful she’s being, I know a bump or hole could throw her into my path. And that a blink of inattention could propel me into hers.

Many years ago, when we lived in Charleston, I passed the aftermath of a car-bike accident on Harbor View Road. I didn’t see the cyclist, who was already loaded into the ambulance, but I saw the driver of the car, sitting on the side of the road, hands covering his face, grief-stricken.  I won’t soon forget it.

Nor the “terrible” day I had Wednesday, which turned out not to be a terrible day at all, at least not for me, because every single one of my kids came home — what a miracle, that —  and I got to hug them, and touch their faces and smooth their hair, even as they squirmed and protested.  They live to hear me preach another day, about the preciousness of the mundane.

And, when enough time has passed, again about Scary Bike News.

The family has requested that contributions in honor of Shayne go to “The Sky’s the Limit,” a courtyard project at Hopkinton Middle School. Checks may be payable to the school, 88 Hayden Rowe St., Hopkinton, MA 01748.

It’s 3:00. Do you know where your donkey is?

         That’s what a local radio station is playing, followed by a bray, as the introduction to the song “Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey.”

       The first time we heard it, my 9-year-old daughter and I howled with laughter, particularly in light of this:

                                                                                                                                                                                For the record,  I would like to point out an error.  Contrary to implication, said officers did not assist in the re-homing of the donkeys.  Never even saw ’em.   Aided by a neighbor with a bag of apples, we apprehended them ourselves.

     The last time Jo-Jo and Foggy had an excellent adventure,  we took blueberry pies to the neighbors whose lawns they desecrated.  I am beginning to think that people are letting them out while we’re not looking in hopes of getting a pie.

    Incidentally, I’d never heard that “Dominick the Donkey” song before we moved to New England.  Must be an Italian thing.  Or maybe it’s new, and I’ve just been out of the South too long.   Question for you Southerners:  Are your Christmas stations playing this song?    Here’s a YouTube version of it: