Finding Joy in a Bowl
My ten-year-old stood in the school library cradling a green plastic bowl in her right hand. That morning I’d filled the bowl with cut-up strawberries, but despite being covered, I could tell that strawberries were not what filled it now.
“What’s in there?” I asked.
“A fish, a snail, and duckweed,” she answered, as we weaved through fifth and sixth graders rushing toward the buses that snaked around the school.
About a week or two had passed since I’d been in the kitchen slicing tomatoes, and Dhani had asked if she could bring home a fish or a snail. She was learning about ecosystems in science, and her class had created several of their own in plastic soda bottles. Now they were going to see what happens when you pollute an ecosystem, so her teacher sought caretakers for the class “pets.” When my older daughter had asked that same question two years earlier, I’d said no. This time, I passed the buck and told Dhani to ask her father when he came home from work.
I figured she’d forget.
I have a vague recollection of having a goldfish or two when I was young—I think I won them at local fairs—but I don’t recall them living very long. What I do remember is begging for a “real” pet, a dog. Finally, at thirteen, to cushion the blow of my parents’ divorce, Sammie, a high-spirited West Highland white terrier, moved into our house after my father moved out.
My daughters have never known life without a dog. They spent their early years growing up with Gryffin, a Retriever/Chow mix, who Kevin and I adopted before we married. When Gryffin passed, we adopted Galen, a quirky Lab/Aussie mix, who jumps on the girls’ beds each morning to wake them and who brings us all a joy I assumed could not possibly come from creatures whose living space is limited to a bowl.
“What do they eat?” I asked, slightly annoyed that before heading home I would have to squeeze in a stop at the pet store.
“They don’t need anything,” Dhani said, with a tinge of exasperation at my ignorance of ecosystems. “The fish eats the duckweed, and the snail eats the fish poop.” Once home, we poured Fred (the fish), Martin (the snail) and the duckweed into a glass vase that had previously held flowers my husband gave me for my birthday. Then I placed the vase on the corner of our kitchen island where, for a few hours each day, its new inhabitants would be bathed by the sun.
Over the next few days, Fred and especially Martin mesmerized us. We would peer into the vase to see what they were doing (and if they were still alive). Martin, who resembled a tiny black pebble, was in constant (slow) motion, trudging up and down the side of the vase, under and above the water line, sometimes ascending so high we wondered if he would climb out.
A little more than a week after Fred and Martin joined our family, I came home to find an empty vase sitting on the kitchen counter. Our cleaning lady, thinking the vase contained the detritus of my birthday bouquet, rather than a budding ecosystem, had dumped its contents down the sink.
Dhani took the news better than I expected. What upset her most was the possibility that Fred and Martin might have endured painful deaths. What surprised me most was that we actually felt their loss. It was by no means the same as when Gryffin passed, though that, too, came suddenly and unexpectedly. One day he was playing fetch, the next day a tumor we didn’t know he had burst, filling his belly with blood.
Gryffin’s absence echoed throughout the house; Fred’s and Martin’s echoed throughout the kitchen. It had become routine to walk into the kitchen and before doing anything else, to check on the duo, to marvel at these hearty little creatures, who survived life in a soda bottle, a plastic Tupperware-like bowl and now, a glass vase.
Two days later, our cleaning lady stopped by with gifts for Dhani: a vibrant blue betta fish, a snail with a lemon yellow shell, and a plastic “Pet Keeper” fish tank. I got the sense she saw the tank as a more appropriate aquatic home.
“What will you name them?” I asked Dhani.
“Fred Jr. and Martin Jr.” she answered.
I have to confess that Fred Jr. and Martin Jr. are even more fascinating to observe than their predecessors. For example, Martin Jr. traverses the tank as actively as Martin scaled the vase, but Martin Jr. is larger, and he comes out of his shell more often and more fully, so we can view his extraordinary little body from foot to tentacles. And because we feed Fred Jr. tiny food pellets, we watch him swim to the surface as soon as the pellets fall from our fingers. His tiny mouth surrounds one at a time, and he seems to chew it as tiny air bubbles float from his mouth.
I had been quick to dismiss the idea that a fish or a snail could bring value to our lives, but my ten-year-old daughter knew better. For Dhani, adopting a fish and a snail from school was no different than rescuing Gryffin or Galen from a shelter. To her, all were creatures who needed homes and who would, in their unique ways, bring us joy.
I like to think that as a parent, I am the wise one—and most of the time, I am—except when my children are wiser than me.