I need to shorten this from 8 pages to 1 or 2...*sigh*
When my mother told me several years back about the day with the hermit crabs, it was the first time I viewed her as a person with a life that was distinctly separate from mine. As we become adults, we all realize at some point or another that our parents’ lives have not always been about us, their children. However, my mom was a single mom who raised my sister and I on her own, so I was always convinced that, in a way, we were her reason for living.
My parents divorced when I was five and my sister was three. My mom was just starting college at the time, and she was 28 years old. My older sister, my half-sister, was to live with my father, and so, my younger sister, my mom and I became a team, in it toghether. My sister and I learned quickly how to help run the household. My mom went to nursing school full time, worked full time, and was a full-time mom; I have no idea when she slept. As I got older, I became aware, albeit somewhat subconsciously, that most everything my mom did was to make sure that my sister and I were ok, and that we became good adults. That is why, when she told me over coffee about the day with the hermit crabs, I suddenly saw her in a completely new light.
The day with the hermit crabs began quite innocently. I was eight, and my six-year old sister was a source of constant turmoil in my life. She was always in my business, trying to hang out with me and my severely cool third grade friends, and, from my perspective, spent almost all of her time being a big, huge baby. It was a Saturday, and I was in the middle of writing a very important report for school, the subject of which was my pet hermit crabs. I would be bringing the little guys into school with me on Monday, and so I told my sister that she could help me by filling the sink with water and letting them swim around while I cleaned out their cage and got it ready for the big debut. She was more than happy to oblige, ecstatic anytime I went out of my way to include her.
I took the small plastic terrarium out on the porch to dump it out and hose it down while my sister gingerly placed the three crabs into the makeshift basket she had created with her t-shirt and carried them into the kitchen. She put the stopper in the sink, and began filling it with water. My mother, in the meantime, was sitting in the next room on the couch staring into space; she had been like that for almost an hour and had told us she was studying. Within five minutes, I heard my little sister shrieking with delight. “Wow, Cara!” she called to me “they are getting really frisky today! They’re coming all the way out of their shells. All the way!!”
This didn’t seem quite right to me because in my vast experience as a hermit crab owner over the prior two years, I had never seen one of them come all the way out of its shell. They were called hermit crabs for the very reason that they carried their little homes on their backs, never to vacate, and so I knew that something must be off. I set down the plastic box, haphazardly sprinkling blue and pink rocks on the ground, and went inside where I found my little sister perched on the kitchen stepstool with her pigtails askew. The stepstool was a purchase made by my mother to allow us to reach high enough to put dishes away, a dreaded chore, however, this day my sister was using it to maintain a bird’s eye view of the goings on in the sink. She was peering down into the water, her face alight with excitement and wonder; she beckoned me over with both hands, not moving her eyes from the sight below.
I ran over, and sure enough, there were my pet hermit crabs in all of their naked glory, shells left behind; soft, curled underbellies exposed. My sister and I chattered loudly back and forth standing shoulder to shoulder on the stool, enraptured by the Discovery Channel-worthy vision in front of us. We called our mom. “Mom! Come here, you’ve got to see this”
“Mom! Come check this out. The crabs are going crazy”
“MOM!! The crabs are ALL THE WAY out of their shells”
“Huh?” My mom walked into the kitchen, not looking quite like herself. “Are you guys ok? What’s going on with the hermit crabs?”
“They came all the way out of their shells!!” my sister said, and then pointed to the sink, basking in the I-told-you-so-ness of the moment.
My mom strode over to us in a half-run and looked into the sink. Her eyes got as big as ours were for a second, and then her adult logic and wisdom kicked in and she placed her hand in the water, quickly drawing it back, and then plunging it in again, scooping up our frisky pets and laying them on a dishtowel on the counter.
“You guys, this water is boiling hot! You’re cooking the crabs!”
I was instantly angry with my sister and began yelling at her, telling her how stupid she was. My mother was examining the crabs, while my sister started to cry. Seeing her tears, I started to cry, too, sure that my precious little pets were going to die. Then my mom started to cry, and she grabbed us both in a bear hug off of the stepstool, our feet dangling. We all stood there in the kitchen crying for several minutes. My sister and I exchanged glances through my mom’s arms, wondering if she was angry or sad, or maybe just a little bit crazy and if it was all because of us and the crab mess we had created. My sister patted my mother’s elbow as if patting a good dog on the head and murmured, “It’s ok, Mommy, it’s ok”
After we all calmed down, and following a brief family discussion of hermit crab etiquette, my mom helped us clean out the rest of the terrarium. We put our little friends back in their home and hoped they would make it. Miraculously, they did, one of them living for an additional four years, which I assume is unprecedented in the hermit crab world. I finished writing my report in perfect cursive, sitting next to my mom at the kitchen table while she wrote a paper of her own, clacking away on an electric typewriter, a huge cup of coffee in front of her, and her “study-music”, the flute stylings of Jean-Pierre Rampal floating softly out of the second-hand stereo. I gave my big hermit crab presentation that Monday, bringing down the house if I recall correctly. My mother turned in her paper, too.
Life went on, and I barely ever thought about the day with the hermit crabs again, until, at the age of 23, I decided to drop out of college and take a job opportunity I had been given with a financial company in Denver. I was disenchanted with school and figured this was my ticket out of Colorado Springs, my big chance to start being a real adult. My mother, upon hearing of this decision, invited me for coffee to discuss my impending life changes. I went, dreading the lecture that was sure to ensue.
My mom and I talked and laughed the way we always did and then she got serious. “Do you remember the day with the hermit crabs?” she asked, looking straight into my eyes, which, for both of us, was the same as looking into a mirror.
“Which one?” I asked nonchalantly, recalling with a smile several incidents involving the now infamous crabs. The time we lost one in the house for several days, only to find it clamped on to the cat’s tail. The multiple times my sister and I would place the crabs in each other’s beds in order to invoke a scream. PETA would probably frown on all of these hermit crab misadventures, but we were children tasked with the duty of helping to raise ourselves, and those crabs, along with the cat and the dog were a vital part of our upbringing and the teaching of responsibility.
“The day Courtney tried to boil the crabs in the sink,” my mom said, waking me from my childhood daydreams.
I laughed. “Of course I remember.”
I laughed some more, but my mom looked slightly somber.
“That was the day I was going to give up”
She told me the story of the day with the hermit crabs from her point of view. She had a paper to write, a big paper on the subject of something very intricate in the genre of biochemistry. It was due Monday, and she hadn’t even started. She was so, so tired. She couldn’t take it anymore; it was just too much. The little kids, the horribly difficult classes, the full-time job working nights in the X-ray lab. She was just going to quit. Maybe she could become a waitress, or get a permanent position in the lab, but there was just no way she could go on like this, exhausted and drained.
But then we snapped her out of it. Screaming about the hermit crabs in all of our childish drama, my sister and I brought my mom back down from her emotional ledge. It was her job to come in and rescue us from our six- and eight-year-old mistakes, and she did it. She saved the day, and saved the crabs, and saved my little sister from what would have surely been a lifetime racked with the guilt that comes with being a crab-murderess. My mom took care of it, and suddenly, for reasons she still did not understand, she could imagine going on, which she did. The next year, my mother graduated with honors from a top nursing school and went on to have a career that anyone would be proud of. At her nursing school it was tradition that each graduate walk down the aisle with a significant other, or a parent who helped them through. My mother walked down the aisle in her nursing cap, eyes gleaming, flanked by two little girls. We assumed that it was all for us.
My mother paused in her story of the day with the hermit crabs to sip her coffee, eyeing me over the rim of her cup to see if any of this was registering. Then she told me that, while most of what she did in her life was for my sister and I, when she did this one thing, persevering and finishing school, it was all for her. It belonged to her and no one else. She wanted me to have that, too.
I teared up at my mother’s story, and then did the only thing that I could think of, completely ignored her advice, dropped out of college, and started a career like I had already decided to do. In all of her infinite wisdom, she had also raised both of us to be steadfast in our decisions. So I left Colorado Springs and moved to Denver to become a career woman. I have been quite successful, too, but there has always that one thing missing, and this is where you find me now, eight years later, with no children or other excuses to stop me.
I am already getting paid to do something that I love which is to write. I am successful in my work as a financial copywriter, and while I, like many nine-to-five writers, harbor pipe dreams of escaping to the mountains one day to write the great American novel, I find my work fulfilling. It may seem odd to completely change my life when it is all in order and I am happy, but there is something missing. I crave that feeling that my mother described having on her graduation day. I want it more than anything right now, more even than that elusive great American novel.
My mother died in car accident last September. She was only 53. While I know she wasn’t perfect, she was seemingly almost always right. In this case there is no exception. It seems that it took the jolt in my life of losing her to put the wheels in motion, to wake me up to what I’ve been missing. The wheels are finally moving, and I am finally awake. I want to finish my degree. While her memory may be a driving force in my return to school, the degree that I earn will not be for her. It will be bittersweet to achieve my dream of graduating without my mother cheering me on, but this time it will be for me. I won’t quit until I am finished, even if I have to scare a few hermit crabs to get there.