Frances Hodgson Burnett, Part 2: the Grown-up Books

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I just purchased this gorgeous volume of Hodgson Burnett’s auto-bio of her childhood

 

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Returning to last week’s post (find it here) on the author Hodgson Burnett, largely known for her children’s fiction, I have been exploring her adult work which pre-dates as well as running concurrently with her now more famous work for children. I have been reading them via Project Gutenberg, a resource for free, online publications, generally those obscure or early works that have fallen out of copyright. I am enjoying supplying you all with the sumptuous covers of these books since I have not seen them myself before.

Burnett was born in Manchester, England, but moved to Tennessee when she was about 15. Like many of her novels and short stories, she moved between these two worlds, annual trips when funds allowed later in life, although she appears to have lived the larger portion of her life here in the United States – dying in Nassau County, New York and buried there. Her personal fortune also bounced between extremes, although ultimately her writing secured her and her family’s financial security.

Without knowing a lot of the details, the dramatic episodes of her life must have made up some of the color and storylines of her writing. She lost an adult son to consumption which plunged her into a prolonged depression which had already been a feature of her adult life. Her other son also fell quite ill but she was able to nurse him back to health. While her writing is not obsessed with this sort of Victorian illness, people are consumptive or die of other wasting illnesses – however, in all fairness, that was the real world she lived in.

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Eventually she divorces her husband, marries another man, but that marriage only lasts two years. (The details of this are a tad torrid and somewhat like one of her stories – he’s an actor who may have been blackmailing her, she ends up in a sanatorium with a nervous breakdown after fleeing to England.) Somewhere in there, in the 1880’s she also finds religion – a theme which does permeate her writing but only occasionally a key element. Her interest in Christian Science, Theosophy and Spiritualism do color her later works. In particular The Dawn of a To-morrow, a short novel or even really a novella, is one of the few that goes deeply down a rabbit hole of religious subject (with a heavy dose of Spiritualism), but in a way no less entertaining than her other stories. (I was riveted reading it on the subway a few weeks ago.)

 

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Frances Hodgson Burnett referred to herself as a writing machine (a sentiment shared by Louisa May Alcott who also wrote for her family’s security) and she was wildly prolific. She wrote for the magazines of the day including Godley’s Lady’s Book, Scribner’s Monthly, Peterson’s and Harper’s Bazaar among them. Once she started writing for children, those stories resided in magazines and compilations in addition to novels. Stories such as A Little Princess and Little Lord Fontleroy appeared first as short stories under similar but different titles, and then once their popularity was clear, grew into their longer novel formats. 

Both the juvenile and adult works were turned into plays and then films. A clutch of her early novels were adapted to movies in the mid-teens but sadly now appear to be lost – there are a few I would be very curious to see. The ones that are known to exist are going onto my must-see list to dig up including The Dawn of Tomorrow (1915 and a real weepy), The Flame of Life (1916, based on A Lady of Quality) and The Fair Barbarian (1917, one I just finished reading). Films based on her books are still being made today, in several languages.

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Like Edna Ferber (who I raved about in my post Fervor for Ferber which can be read here) Frances Hodgson Burnett revels in character development. Also like Ferber she zips between the various classes, detailing both with equal capacity. It is, in a sense, the divide between classes and their interaction that moves most of her stories. In Britain, social mobility, even with money, is notwithstanding. You are either born of a class or you are not and money (or to some degree lack thereof) does not really change that. People of the working class who come into money are still of a different class. Titled people, even if impoverished, still hold their social standing at least in a sense.

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However, Burnett was documenting a world that was rapidly changing, an evolving society which allowed for more financial mobility. A number of her stories concern the invasion of waves of hugely wealthy Americans in Great Britain. Two of my favorite books take on this theme, The Shuttle and T. Tembarom. (Please note that, in my experience, somehow the books of hers with the least appealing titles turn out to be the best. As it is hard to get descriptions of the more obscure books I think this is helpful to know.)

 

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Americans of all classes invading England once a thriving liner industry was established and the cost of that trip diminished as frequency and demand increased. Even the American working class was saving up and able to make the trip to Europe and England. Suddenly there they were, everywhere – riding bikes, touring and taking in the historic sights, marrying impoverished gentry and renovating their lands and historic homes. I had not been aware that this kind of travel expansion was happening in 1907 and that the American working class was taking full advantage of it – nor that it was a boon financially to Europe and England, although shook their tree socially as well, so to speak. Evidently the large influx of newly minted American money was without question sought after, while the brash personalities barely withstood. Newly minted millionaires were evidently mad for titles and married their progeny off to titled Europeans and Brits for this sole purpose.

A Fair Barbarian takes on a young girl visiting a relative, her father’s sister, in a small town in England. The father has made millions in silver mining in Montana. The elderly aunt almost faints when she hears that the girl spent part of her youth in a silver camp called Bloody Gulch. As a young woman of the upper class England wouldn’t even say the word bloody the aunt pleads with the young woman never to say it again. The young woman, understandably, looks confused and explains that it was the name of the place; it was not she who named it.

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One of my favorite characters was teased out in The Shuttle (1907). Not a main character, but a very well defined one, of an ambitious, fast talking, young typewriter salesman who had been orphaned and fought his way to modest success selling typewriters, allowing his bicycle trip through England. He is critical to the plot in one book and is referred to in another and is completely delightful. At first English gentry don’t know what to make of brash Americans like these (the typewriter salesman speaks with the most amazing American slang of the day), but they turn out to be such very likable people that most warm to them over time as the stories unfold. The theoretical social mobility and unconsciousness of the modern American at the turn of the century was standing England on its ear.

Even Hodgson Burnett and her gilded rags to riches stories did not believe that total social mobility was possible in her time, in either country. Nor did she ignore the impoverished who would not find an economic foothold to hoist them up the ranks. It is clear that it was only a few who fortune would favor.

I plan to round off my enthusiastic commentary on Frances Hodgson Burnett in a subsequent post, with a nod to her female characters who, even when they are not the main ones, control the action and storyline of every one of her books. Stay tuned.

 

Brighton Mickey

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: Ah! Brighton in the early in the 20th century. This is the setting of many of my beloved photos of happy seaside visitors posing with a giant Felix doll. (See any number of posts, such as here and here.) My imagination turns to another universe where I am happy ensconced as an itinerant photographer, set up at the shore, busily snapping photos of happy tourists. Another fantasy I indulge in is that I travel to Brighton and find one of the intact Felix dolls in a dusty closet there – and take it home for my very own! (The seller identified this photo as Brighton; the photo is entirely unmarked.)

 

There is a history of Mickey Mouse dolls for posing with as well. Perhaps because the copyright was held a bit closer, most of those Mickey’s are off-model indeed, at least among the ones I own. (Some of those post are here and here.) I offer an especially unidentifiable example from a prior post, taken at the Chicago World’s Fair, from my collection below.

 

 

Today’s photo is a very proper looking Mickey Mouse – he doesn’t even have that sort of fang-y look I like that many of the British Mickey’s I have, influenced by the design of Dean’s Rag Company. I share one of those below. Someone paid up for this Mickey stand-in and purchased the real thing I think.

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Today’s photo is quite tiny, just a very few inches across, about 2.5″x 1.75″ including the border. It has a reddish cast to it (I have enhanced it slightly, increasing the contrast) which Kim tells me looks like sun contact prints he used to make as a kid. It is printed on a thickish paper, somewhat brittle paper, unlike what one expects from more contemporary photo paper or even and early photo postcard. While I cannot really pinpoint the precise process, I believe it was some sort of a simple early contact print, made in a camera. Obviously it was fixed and not entirely fugitive, as it is with us almost a century later.

This photo is a rather homemade affair overall, and the fellow seems to have been persuaded to stop, well-dressed (short trousers, cap and tie), briefcase and all and perch on this primitive seat with Mickey. He’s thrown an arm around Mickey’s shoulders. There appears to be another camera on a tripod behind him to one side, and the shadows on this beach are long. To me it feels like early morning rather than evening.

I like the woman behind him most of all. There’s something about the casual way she is captures that especially appeals. A bath house of some sort is shown in the distance, just beyond her, a wooden beach chair too if you look very carefully. Unlike the Felix photos there is no evidence of a numbering system to return the photo to the person posing so I can’t imagine how that might work. I wonder a bit if this wasn’t either just someone sort of stealing a photo in passing, or someone the photographer knew. A summer long past, for me it tugs at a certain yearning for the early mornings and quiet evenings at the beach where I grew up, enjoyed before or after busy, tourist and family jammed days.

 

Frances Hodgson Burnett, an Excellent Read

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Kim drew Little Saint Elizabeth into this illustration in his Alias the Cat!

 

Pam’s Pictorama Post: In some ways it is crazy to think I can tackle this subject in a blog post so I will start by saying, this is a warning shot over the bow – I am just skimming the top of very deep water indeed today with an expectation of subsequent entries.

As the author of childhood favorites such as A Little Princess, The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy we all know Frances Hodgson Burnett and the classic films (and many remakes) made from her stories. I read them as an adult and especially loved The Secret Garden. As much as I liked the film, the book had much more flavor and depth.

I had not however given these stories or her much thought in years however when Kim stumbled on and purchased Little Saint Elizabeth a beautifully illustrated volume of stories, ostensibly for children although the title story is a bit gruesome and had a similar, appalling ending to Anderson’s Little Match Girl. We found it at the now mostly eradicated flea market on 24th Street here in Manhattan. He purchased it for very little and we considered it quite the score.

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From the story Little Saint Elizabeth

 

Somehow it did not inspire further digging at the time and it wasn’t until a few months ago, while whining one night in bed about a delay in receiving my next volume of the Judy Bolton series to arrive (future post about that series pending there), that Kim suggested I poke around Burnett’s adult fiction. (May I just take a moment out to say, you really do want to marry someone who is going to make helpful, smart suggestions like this. I do think it is the very best part of being married and no one thinks to tell you that. Choose wisely I say!)

Thanks to Project Gutenberg this could be accomplished with great alacrity, at the speed of a download. For those of you who have yet to be introduced to it, this is a magnificent site it is free downloadable books and stories, generally focused on early works which are out of copyright. This leads to access to many of the more obscure and hard to find works of early authors which would be prohibitively expense to purchase to read, even if you could find them. I read many of Edna Ferber’s short stories from these downloads.

While in general I might say I prefer to read with a book in my hand, about half my reading is done with these downloads these days. (To be fair, another swath is audio books I listen to at the gym – much contemporary fiction is consumed that way.) A great advantage is that I can pull out my phone and read a bit while on line somewhere or on the subway – it is always with me. My Frances Hodgson Burnett mania has been hell on my reading of the New York Times lately, but the news isn’t all that great these days anyways. And as a result I have had a more contented summer commute than most during horrendous subway delays and waits.

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Photo portrait of Burnett from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery collection

 

Born in England in 1850, she evidently always wrote, even as a child. Her own financial fortunes seemed to wax and wane dramatically from childhood through adulthood much like the story lines of her fiction. Born into affluence her father dies when she is young and the family slowly spirals into poverty which ultimately forces a move to Tennessee to live with an uncle, who in turn becomes impoverished. Burnett begins publishing magazine stories to some success when she is 18, in order to help support her family and she quickly becomes a writing and publishing machine. She eventually marries and has two sons. She is living in Washington with her family when in 1879, on a visit to Boston, she meets Louisa May Alcott and Mary Mapes Dodge, editor of St. Nicholas magazine, and that is when she starts to write children’s fiction. This is of course where her fame will live on.

Meanwhile, an interesting aspect of Burnett’s adult fiction for me is she is another entrant in a long line of women who write about the then modern woman of the day. Pictorama readers may remember my posts about the serial books Grace Harlowe and The Automobile Girls and The Moving Picture Girls (which can be read here) as well as my more recent one, mentioned above, about Edna Ferber, Fervent for Ferber (you can find it here).

In my mind there is a fascinating timeline that can be drawn from, let’s say, Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) and her world of women which by necessity revolved mostly around caring for men and their families, to Burnett – women’s fortunes were still largely dependent on men and marriage, but there is an increasing sense of independence and control of their own destiny. The more independent American woman is frequently brought into contrast with her European (generally British) counterparts, causing all sorts of consternation. After Burnett the truly modern woman slowly emerges – driving cars, working for a living, controlling her own financial destiny – ultimately Edna Ferber’s women sit firmly astride both worlds, working, running businesses and finding their own success. I do hope Burnett and Ferber had a chance to meet, and I am glad Hodgson Burnett lives long enough to have a peek at that world for women. In another universe I believe I am writing a PhD thesis on this.

Even when Hodgson Burnett is writing about men, she is writing about women. I will expand on this theory when I return to this topic and write a bit more about some of the books. For though now I think I have chattered on enough for one Sunday!

 

 

Who Is Pam Butler

This is a re-post in celebration of receiving the advance copies of Kim’s new book, Reincarnation Stories. If you haven’t read it already, this is my first ever contribution to one of his books – but evidently not the last!

via Who Is Pam Butler

Howdy Doody

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: I think I would have wanted to grab up this photo wherever I might have run across it. However, this image is actually of my uncle and was among the cache of photos I discovered in New Jersey last week, referred to in yesterday’s post. I knew the familial tale of my uncle entering the Howdy Doody look alike contest, but if I had seen the photo I did not remember. It evidently hung in my grandmother’s house, so I must have seen it as a child and just can’t recall.

Nor do I remember Howdy Doody since it went off the air in 1960, before I was born. There was an early 1970’s resurgence of interest in it that I vaguely recollect from being a small child, but why anyone would be interested frankly mystified me from what I could see. My own childhood was not without television puppets – Kukla Fran and Ollie made appearances and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was deeply beloved. (Full disclosure, watching the recent documentary on Mr. Rogers on an airplane recently I wept openly the entire time. There was a Danish couple next to me who were clearly concerned about the state of my well-being. Strangely however, many people have reported the same reaction.)

Puppets eventually morphed into muppets and the world got Sesame Street. Although my younger brother watched Sesame Street and therefore I know it well, I was a bit long in the tooth for it myself. However, I recently went to a performance at Dizzy’s where Wynton and Elmo had a conversation and played together. I had forgotten all the music was jazz – turns out I remembered all the music! The Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra will have an anniversary tribute concert to the show in the fall.

For Kim’s generation though Howdy Doody was the real deal. Kim has frequently opined that, despite his father Gene’s involvement in television, he was never able to leverage a spot in the Peanut Gallery on the show. Kim did make numerous childhood and teenage appearances on a variety of kids shows – The Magic Cottage, Allen Swift was a family friend and there was his show Captain Allen among them. In addition, Gene utilized a flipbook Kim made to illustrate the persistence of vision which Gene showed on national television – so it was natural that he would aspire to a spot in the audience of the Howdy Doody show. (Meanwhile, Kim has just told me that the flipbook was on display at the Museum of Modern Art for an exhibit on UPA – however, sadly it seems to have been subsequently lost.) Kim has touched on early television and cartoons in numerous stories he has written and drawn. (Most obvious of course, The Search for Smilin’ Ed and Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Those can be found here and here.)

I gather there were multiple cartoon jockey entertainment tv shows in his youth and Kim credits Howdy Doody with introducing him to silent films. I remember Bob McAllister and Wonderama best – also Bozo the Clown – showing cartoons, but the idea of silent films on those types of shows seems exotic and wonderful. And I do remember the prizes on Wonderama (if I remember it was just sort of a lottery thing and a kid in the audience just won them, but I could be wrong, maybe they did something to win them) and therefore I can only imagine the sort of longing that must have been created by the haul proffered for the winner of the Howdy Doody look alike contest!

I looked for a full list online and that was unfortunately not available despite references to it. Kim remembers that there was a film projector among the loot – clearly this would have been at the top of the list for a young Kim Deitch with his budding interest in animation and film. I imagine the list was drool worthy indeed and clearly my mother’s younger brother, John Wheeling, was not immune. It wasn’t a time when a lot of photos were casually taken in their family so a certain amount of planning (wheedling) must have gone into even getting this 5″x7″ photo I imagine.

Hake’s auctions, eBay and sites now make it possible to have a good look at some of the merchandising and premiums from our childhoods and much earlier periods. Some hold up quite well – the Little Orphan Annie and Buster Brown rings – Captain Midnight’s Mystic Sun God ring brings a premium still. There’s something thrilling and deeply satisfying about actually seeing photos of all those things. I enjoy those sections of the Hake’s catalogues very much. (For a stroll through my enjoyment of these catalogues see an earlier post, Ode to a Toy Catalogue, here.)

 

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Captain Midnight Mystic Sun God ring

 

Sadly, Howdy Doody merchandise and premiums do not hold up to 21st century light of day! They are plastic, cheap paper and of a lower order. I offer a brochure of their premiums and some of the higher end examples below.

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However, being the beneficiary of the toy laden munificence of exotica proffered for this contest was not the fate of a young John Wheeling. Despite his very credible photo, needless to say he didn’t win the contest. Little Billy Oltman, shown below in Life magazine, won the 1950 contest, besting more than 17,000 rivals. He is younger than my uncle and it is said his mother enhanced his freckles to increase the likeness to the (rather dubiously homely) famous puppet. One can’t help but wonder if perhaps some sort of a fix was in. Of course it is a bit late for sour grapes almost seventy years later.

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To L.R.L.

 

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Today’s blog post is about a bit of a mystery item. Last week I visited mom in NJ and was pawing through some recently unpacked items. With the move they made a little over a year ago, followed rapidly by my dad’s illness and ultimate death, there has been little time or energy for dealing with the boxes, furniture and whatnot stored in the garage and basement of the tiny house. A burst water pipe and a mouse colony setting up shop in both demanded that we shift our attention and energy to this project however. My immediate concern was the family photos (some which may show up in future posts) but this odd object also found its way to me and I brought it home for further consideration.

My mother doesn’t remember it and her inclination was to think that it wasn’t a family item and that my father picked it up randomly somewhere. My father loved silver, especially early American silver, and so it is very possible indeed that he purchased it at one of his beloved garage sales. Dad would go off happily on weekend mornings, sometimes driving somewhat far afield, and hit a series of predetermined sales, marked in a local paper, at various locations throughout the county, an excellent, much worn local AAA map book residing on the floor of the car, always at the ready. Yep, no denying that I am his daughter – no news to Pictorama readers that I inherited his love of digging through the detritus of others to discover gems.

His route completed and appetite enhanced, he would treat himself to a breakfast of bacon at a little luncheonette called Edie’s. (Edie’s probably deserves its own post as a tiny little eatery which somehow has survived with virtually no parking on a hugely busy road in an entirely residential area. My father adored it.)

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The purchase of silver abounded from these forays and I (yes, in my studio apartment where these days I rarely do more than open a box of pizza for friends) own a full set of sterling flatware as a result. Having said all of that, this is an unusual item even for him although perhaps it came along with another item and he kept it. This appears to be a single napkin ring, silver but unmarked, leading me to believe it is perhaps coin silver. (For those of you who didn’t grow up around the antique obsessed, that is an early, lower than sterling silver alloy which reflect the same proportion of silver as is in coins.) The fact that it is unmarked also confirms some age as at some point labeling silver with its content became law.

While an early silver napkin ring is not at all unusual (although as noted, a bit odd for dad to have purchased on its own) the interesting thing is the engraving. It is hard to see, but the engraving reads DTA to LRL. (I apologize for the lousy photos, but anyone who has tried to photograph silver without distracting reflections will appreciate the problem.) While monogrammed silver napkin rings abound (because of course why wouldn’t you want your initials on a napkin ring?) the idea of a dedication on one is truly odd. I searched the internet numerous ways and didn’t find another example of this sort of dedication on a napkin ring, nor on anything except jewelry.

I did find another item very similar, identified as an Edwardian napkin ring, with the name Lucy written in script. It was on a site that was no longer accessible which appeared to have sold silver. Full names as monograms are less common than initials, but you do see some when searching such things online. Did DTA give LRL a full set of rings, now lost or at least separated for all time? I assume so, but it seems a mystery I am unlikely to solve, even as I try to imagine being seated at that long-ago table with heavy napkins in their engraved holders. Meanwhile, this single ring has come to reside among the toy cats and other curios here at Deitch Studio.

A Trip to the Pet Store

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Kim and I are largely the stay-cation types and enjoy the quietude of Manhattan on holidays as a rule. This week we took a walk together in the late morning of July 4. One of the cat dishes had broken earlier in the week and, as our beloved family owned store on York Avenue, Calling All Pets, was closed for the holiday, we wandered into Petco on Lexington and 86 Street to see if we could procure a replacement. We did, almost immediately, scoring the exact small white dish with pawprints in a design around the outside.

While at the check-out counter with our purchase we noticed a single bright blue Fighting Fish, a Betta, in a container at the register. He was in the sort of one serving size container you get for take-out soup and seemed a tad forlorn. Never having gone further into the store than the catfood display at the front, I had not realized that they sold fish. We decided to wander back and have a look after a brief discussion about whether or not we should add this single fish to our lives – we decided that only Cookie and Blackie would win as a result of that decision. (Our only foray into fish ownership, such as it is, was the subject of an early popular blog post Ode to a Shrimp which can be read here.)

Let me begin by stating that there is an official broad Butler family prohibition on pet stores. Betty, my mom, has actively protested them and has especially been involved with the elimination of puppy mills, at the source and in stores. My mother’s animal rights involvement is indeed another future post as she is an amazing person, but suffice it to say, I have never purchased an animal from a pet store. However, Petco did host the adoption day where we ultimately acquired Cookie and Blackie so it is in a sense their ancestral home. We discovered a small ongoing adoption center for dogs at the back of the store and, although they sell birds, there was a sign encouraging the adoption of those as well and notification that they had a parrot available. The bird display was a bit  low-key and sad. Although they seem to have a nice community here.

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However, fish tanks fascinate me and remind me of my childhood, so after a quick look at the birds we went over to examine the tanks. I never did find the friends of the Betta and perhaps he was up front because he was the last to be sold. Siamese Fighting Fish, are in the gourami fish family and, although they are gorgeous, colored in deep jewel tones with extravagant long fins, they are called fighting fish because the males are so aggressive that they cannot be in a tank together or they will fight to the death. I always believed they could not be in a tank with any other fish, but my reading online for this blog states otherwise.

The fish tank of my childhood was a tribute to the tanks of my mother’s own childhood, informed by her experience and also eventual pre-med studies of zoology and biology in college. (Douglas College, the all-women’s division of Rutgers at the time did not have a proper pre-med program and she tells me that one took a dual major to achieve the closest possible coursework.) In retrospect it wasn’t glorious by some of today’s standards (I have been in homes and offices where amazing tanks take up whole walls, maintained frequently by visiting professionals), but ours had a variety of fish with live plants which fascinated us kids and our then cats alike. (Zipper was very fond of it and liked to “pat” the fish on the glass but never reaching in; Snoopy, a very dignified cat paid it less attention. If kitten Pumpkin had an opinion I do not remember.) Like most children, we’d started with goldfish won at fairs and the like, which had sadly abbreviated lives and I guess mom figured if we were going to do it we would do it right.

Even such a fish tank at the level of ours takes a considerable amount of care and in hindsight I am a bit amazed that my mother took it on knowing what it required. Periodically the fish had to be removed and the tank and any objects (I believe there was a sea chest with treasure in it) carefully cleaned in a way and with substances that would not harm them. Then fresh water had to be prepared, the tank and plants re-installed before the fish could be returned. All of this under the watchful eyes of three small children, as many cats and a German Shepard – most likely while my father was off at work or doing something else. I remember her explaining to me that saltwater tanks were even more complicated and that she had one when she was a little girl.

Nonetheless, mom ran a pretty tight ship on the fish tank and it is a glowing memory of my childhood. Neon tetras (which can be seen in my phone video below made at Petco the other day) made up the rank and file citizens of our tank and their winking color brings me right back to being about eight years old and staring at our tank, sometimes with Zipper in my lap, so he could have his polite look.

 

 

I’m not sure I remember all of the denizens of our tank but I know we also had a few Zebra fish, some guppies and some tiny shark variety of critter. (Internet swipes stolen below.) There were also snails and a catfish sort of guy to help keep it all clean. (I liked his “whiskers” and he was a favorite to watch, often attached to the side of the tank so I could see his tummy.) Lastly, something we called an Angel fish, but I cannot really find its likes online. Our track record with keeping them all alive wasn’t entirely unblemished – I do remember a few fish funerals held at the toilet of the coincidently well located, nearby bathroom. However, in retrospect and reading even a little about it online today I realize that ours was generally a well kept and happily balanced fish tank and that even as a small child I had a sense of how fragile that ecosystem was.

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This lesson was dramatically brought home to us by the acquisition of a Kissing Gourami. Now, to mom’s credit, even online right now you will be told that this is a non-aggressive division of the species compatible with smaller fish in a tank – much like the tale of the fighting fish outlined above. Sadly, we were not to find this to be the case. This little fellow, bully that he was, began systematically eating his way through all the other fish! It wasn’t so dramatic that we realized it right away, but nevertheless it quickly became apparent – and what to do?

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As hateful as this was none of us quite had the stomach to kill him outright, but of course we could not allow him to slaughter every other fish. Luckily someone my father worked with had a much larger tank (where our Gourami would not be the biggest guy on the block) and he was packed off to live with Jack Gray’s fish, leaving us to wonder how he fared matriculating in that larger milieu. (The Buddhists have a saying, big fish eat little fish and I reflect on that often. A favorite illustration of that -from the Met of course! – below.)

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Big Fish Eat Little Fish, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Metropolitan Museum of Art collection

 

I do not remember the ultimate demise of our fish tank. I know it did not make the move to our next house when I was about 12. I assume it petered out – for which my mother was likely grateful.

After our adventure looking at fish, we had a quick tour of lizards before leaving. Generally speaking I have an okay relationship with lizards. It is a step up from rodents, for whom I wish a happy existence however I generally like to keep at arm’s length, but below furry critters who I pretty much universally want to get to know. Gecko’s proved endearing when traveling through Nepal where they ate the mammoth cockroaches in the hotels, “barking” all the while. I have a vague memory of my brother asking for a lizard and my mother saying she just couldn’t do it because all she could see was the day that she found one of our cats with a lizard tail hanging out its mouth.

I’ve always been particularly interested in chameleons. This little fellow, shown at the top of this post and below, took a real liking to me yesterday and he stood and waved at me for what seemed to be an extraordinary length of time. For all the world he did seem to be appealing to me to please take him home and I was tempted to heed his call. With Betty’s long ago words about cats and chameleon’s sadly I could not however really consider it.

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