Friday, March 27, 2009

Burning Down the House With Spiders

Last night, as I was putting on my pjs, the theme from Hells' Kitchen (Fire) still stuck in my head, I heard Natalie scream in her room. I opened my door, poked my head out and shouted, "What?" only to hear her shriek "Fire!"

Paralyzed for a split second, all I could think was, "How the hell can there be a fire in her room?" My first thought was, oddly enough, a Molotov Cocktail, but, I reasoned, I would have heard the smashing glass. I took a mental inventory of all the incendiary devices in the house: we have two large lighters for the fireplace and I knew that there was a random pack of matches somewhere, but no, she couldn't be playing with matches. Could she? No. Then it hit me- an electrical fire!

As this all was racing through my head, I was tearing through the kitchen and leaping up the stairs. For a brief second I thought that I should grab the fire extinguisher from underneath the kitchen sink, but by the time I'd processed that thought I was already in the upstairs hallway.

I burst into Natalie's room, shouting "What?! What-what-what?" At the same time, I heard her saying, "It came down from the ceiling! It's on the carpet!"

Bewildered, I thought, St. Elmo's Fire? WTF?


Meet Frieda.

Frieda is a Black and Yellow Garden Spider, Argiope aurantia commonly found outdoors throughout the United States.

She may be big and scary-looking, but according to all the sources I found, these spiders are harmless to humans, preferring to stay outside. They often like to anchor their web under eaves of a building, like the north-facing windows of my studio as seen in this photo.

We first saw Frieda when we were pulling into the driveway. Natalie's voice gravid with awed terror, quavered, "OMG look at that huge spider!" I had to sigh and roll my eyes. The kid has this thing about spiders. The tiniest black speck on the far reaches of her ceiling will bring out a blood-curdling shriek and she'll stand on her bed, sobbing, and beg me to kill it. So, I was skeptical. I asked her where this huge spider was. When she told me it was on the front of the house, the skepticism grew. I marched them both to the front of the house to show them there was no giant spider hanging out by our house like some disaffected James Dean smoking a cigarette and scowling when I saw her.

"Holy shit," I thought, "That's a damned big spider."

I expected screams. Instead, the girls crowded around her and said, "Cool!" "Wow, it's a girl-spider, see? There's an egg-sac!"

I ushered them inside and they immediately took off for my studio where they could watch her up close and personal... with a barrier of double-glazing between them and her. We had our own nature program broadcast live from the comfy depths of my swivel chair. They named her Freida.

I looked her up on the internet and we discovered that Black and Yellow Garden Spiders prefer to stay outdoors (good), eat small flying insects (better) and are not venomous (best of all.) So, I decreed that Frieda could stay, just as long as she does not break the cardinal rule: Do NOT come into this house. If she breaks that rule, I warned the girls, she will die. If I ever saw that monstrous thing crawling around the floors of my house, it's her or me. If I had to use the microwave to beat her to death I would do it.

That said, they sat in my studio for a good hour and watched her and reported her every move. They looked on in knowing dread as some hapless mosquito got stuck on the web. Until that point, Frieda had remained pretty much motionless. I heard Natalie saying, "Is she even alive? I think maybe she's dead."

Oh no. In a flurry of motion that had my daughters screaming, Frieda dispatched that mosquito. The girls thought that was the coolest thing of all. Frieda has since gone on to die, and her egg sac got destroyed one very windy afternoon, so, there have been no little Friedas outside my studio window, and although the girls still hope for a Frieda II, Natalie's gut-wrenching fear of teeny-tiny house spiders persists.

So last night when I burst into her room, screaming, and she babbled something about things coming down from the ceiling, instead of St. Elmo's Fire or arcs of an electrical fire raining down from the light fixture, I saw a tiny black, many-legged dot wriggling on her carpet.

"A spider?" I shrieked in disbelief.

In A Christmas Story, Ralphie described his father's cursing as "speaking in tongues." Well, when under duress, I stand guilty of this as well. I am not even aware of it as I do it, it's like an exhalation of curses. So, seeing that there was no fire, but a baby spider's itty-bitty baby, I sighed, stalked to the bathroom for a tissue, and came back to first squish and then flush the spider. The whole time, I exhaled a stream of colorful words.

I caught a glimpse of Natalie's stricken face, teary-eyed, and grabbed her in a hug. "Honey, I'm not mad at you. I was worried. I swear I heard you scream 'Fire!' instead of 'Spider!" She sobbed a bit, so I continued, "And then I got to thinking, what the heck is that kid doing, smoking cigars up there?!"

She giggled, so I knew we were ok.

Then I started to shake and see spots in front of my eyes. For a second I thought I was having a heart attack. Nope, just stress. Stress... and relief.

Ok, perhaps it was an overreaction on my part, but I have discovered that to be a parent is to live in fear some of the time.

The great fear that enters parents' lives once they have kids is that something will happen to their kids. For most parents, this fear is remote, something that happens to Other People, not them. I can tell you though that once it does happen to you, this feeling changes. It happened once, why not again? I have already buried one child, what's to keep the fates from smacking me down again?

People who say that lightning never strikes the same spot twice are woefully misinformed. Lightning is more likely to hit some spots than others because of topography, and makeup. As far as this fear of something happening to another one of my kids, I can only describe it as feeling like a lightning rod for tragedy. Part of me actually expects to bury another child in my lifetime, and I live with this soul-numbing dread every day.

I try not to let this fear rule me to the point that I smother my kids. I don't wrap them in bubble-wrap and make them wear helmets. I don't hover. I give them autonomy. Hey, I even let my older daughter walk home from school by herself on occasion, but when asked, without even thinking about it, I can rattle off a long list of possible ways for them to come to serious harm right here in our safe home: a broken neck from falling down stairs; traumatic brain injury from rough-housing with each other; choking to death on a pretzel; a back-breaking back-flip while jumping on the trampoline bed; a penetrating abdominal wound from running with scissors or a pencil and falling on it; even, perhaps some scenario involving a long-overdue retribution from the long-suffering cat. The list goes on and on.

I never expect fire, however, and thankfully, there was none. Last night's amusing story of miscommunication came about thanks to our rooms being at polar extremes of the house and a flannel pajama top muffling my 40 year-old ears as I pulled it over my head just as she screamed "SPIDER!" Well, that and my overactive imagination.