of gummy-worms and caterpillar tales

I have two very strong images in my head from when Precious Daughter was a wild young thing of maybe two-ish. Actually, there are more images of course, but these two have been haunting me lately. They remain vivid without photographic reminders of these little moments.

Scene One, which is the earlier Kodak moment of the two, took place around the corner at the produce market. You know the kind: the one with the bins and the little shovel to scoop out real live unpackaged foods. I had Precious Daughter in the stroller, having run down the hill with her, just for fun, on a jaunt that was just something fun to do together. We were at the bins. Guess I was taking way too long trying to decide between bulk orzo and bulk bulghur (the kids loving each of them equally), when I looked down at my too quiet daughter.

The little monster had one hand holding a lower bin open, and the other hand was shoveling fists full of gummy-worms into her gaping maw as fast as it could. Gummy-worms were hanging out at all angles — she was right out of a classic horror movie playing both sides of the equation: Faye Raye and King Kong both squeezing in to possess the same little daughter at once.

Scene Two, Asilomar. Not long after the above. Not quite monarch butterfly season. The caterpillars were crawling over everything in sight in the little wooded garden between the lodge, the dining hall, and the trail to the sea. Precious Daughter is free to run, with no vehicles to worry about running her down. She picks up some crunchy leaves and squeezes them into bits, watching with wonder as they take off on the wind. She reaches down for another handful, and squeezes — but this handful squishes… A handful of caterpillars, oozing out between her fingers. Their life extinguished before she knew they were alive. Her mother running in horror to intervene before they reach her mouth. But it’s too late to save a life.

Is this how we learn about life and death? Note my lack of horror for the leaves!

Was there any difference for her between the life and death of gummy-worms, caterpillars and crunchy leaves? Is the intervention that tells us cease and desist with caterpillars qualitatively different enough from cease and desist with gummy-worms to get the point across? As I recall, it took some fancy footwork to explain the difference between the two. To a two year old, are gummy-worms less alive than caterpillars? Is the taking of life something we do or don’t outgrow? Or just the natural order?

“From the war of nature,” Darwin wrote in his conclusion to The Origin of Species, “from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of higher animals, directly follows.”

And just how clear is it that a mouth full of gummy-worms is not good for you, while a mouth full of caterpillars is not good for them? Especially when your taste buds do not concur.

Okay, you may be thinking, isn’t two a little late for the oral phase, anyway? This would be a distraction, for to tell the truth, these events may well have been a full year earlier. I don’t keep track of time that well. The point remains:

How do we learn that life is precious?

How do we learn that gummy-worms can kill you? Or that caterpillars are a whole lot more healthy for us, in point of fact.

It’s not just the choking thing with shoveling gummy-worms down so fast. Not just the high-fructose corn syrup that’s out to get us. No, in addition to all that, it’s that gummy-worms were linked to BSE and Mad Cow Disease at the time of my daughter’s adventures in oral pleasures. Though, all this is a sidebar to the larger issue.

I’ve always felt I had some unfinished business with the gummy-worms and caterpillars. And I think I finally know what it is.

As E has written a kaddish to all the creatures she has eaten, I offer that as well, and raise you five: A kaddish for the things my kids in glee might well have gobbled; or crushed between curious fingers, toes or mouth; or tread upon with crunching sounds; or put inside a baggie filled with salt, or thrown over a fence to give the neighbors … all this and more — bad mothering — or things we take for granted. Not really an apology, but an honoring of all things gone as a result of actions or inaction. Take on the world of pain and inequality — no, I will not go that far.

I do not here take on all misadventure, nor claim it as my own. But whether thinking or not thinking, they cannot be undone.

About mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.
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