I am the mother of girls, girls who like nature and the outdoors. One daughter is a scientist. One daughter works in outdoor education. All three can be described as self-sufficient and not squeamish about the Great Outdoors. From the very beginning, my husband set out to make sure his daughters had an outdoors education. We camped. We hiked. We observed nature. We did the things he always thought he would do with a son. My daughters fished with their dad using their own gear, baiting their own hooks. My daughters kept rodents as pets, not just cute hamsters but also rats and mice. Yet I have observed that boys and girls view the world around them differently.
I make this rather provocative statement based on years of observations. All my daughters had at least one close male friend in their preschool and elementary years. Oldest daughter hosted a group that played a computer video game several days a week after school during sixth and seventh grade. All the other players were boys. Middle daughter, the most girly of the three, preferred playing with trucks in the sandbox during preschool and later would be a Mario Brothers master. Youngest daughter and her preschool friend, Alex, once played “My Little Pet Shop,” staging the plastic animals in her doll house. Although youngest daughter may have thought of using her sister’s baby mice, Alex had to have been the one to remove them. While my daughters loved observing the squirming hairless pinkies, they knew not to touch them. Alex, who always wanted to feed his brother’s snake, had no such qualms. At lunch when I found Barbie babysitting a plastic playpen of mice, Alex was more than happy to help carry them back. Hours later, after my oldest daughter insisted that one was missing and the cat must have eaten it, youngest daughter complained her bed felt funny. And when I pulled the bed apart for my little princess, the pea was the missing pinkie (still alive but hungry). “EEww,” she grimaced. All of the pinkies grew up and lived to a ripe old age (over a year). Not one ever left the house because they were pets, not snake food. Girls see the world differently.
So when my nephews descended on my house Father’s Day weekend, I thought I was ready. Basketballs, check. Mason jars, check. Batteries for the Xbox controller, check. Worms for fishing, check. (The worms are still in the refrigerator. How long do worms keep anyway?)
The boys arrived shortly before the fireflies. We knew they had never seen a firefly before. Suddenly the ferns on the edge of our yard looked like the swamp at Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Tiny green spots glowed. The jars came out. The hunt was on. No fireflies were captured. Just a toad. Into the jar went the toad and some grass and a little water. Small holes were punched into the lid; a pair of hapless moths were added. Mr. Toad sat on a table during dinner.
He was still in the jar in the morning. One moth was gone. No one said anything about Mr. Toad. The boys, their parents, my daughter and husband headed for New York City for a day of sightseeing. My parents, my grandson, the dogs and I relaxed in the tranquility. Around noon, Mom moved the toad out of the sun: “I’m worried about him in the glass.” Later we sat on the deck, drinking gin and tonics, eating crackers and cheese. “You should let the toad out,” she told me. I should, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. Both moths were now gone. The sun was going down. The jar was not so hot. I wasn’t sure if I would be interfering in someone else’s life lesson. Neither my brother nor his wife had mentioned letting the toad go. Did they forget? Or was this a lesson in life and death? Sooner or later, the toad had to be released. He couldn’t travel with them. I texted my husband: “Ask the boys if I can let the toad out so he can eat.”
Of course, once he was out, he’d be gone. No answer from the man who had been texting me repeatedly. Daughter’s boyfriend came back from work. “Can we let this toad out now?” I told him I was waiting. He shrugged. “I want to let him out.” But we waited.
The text came. I took the toad to the edge of the ferns and opened the jar while daughter’s boyfriend kept the dogs in. At first he headed back toward the house but a little dance set him in the right direction.
When the boys returned, the empty jar sat on the table. No one asked about the toad. Two tired young men went to bed. The next morning was a late breakfast, basketball, running around the yard with the dogs and in the afternoon, a trip to the submarine museum. The girls would not have chosen the sub museum. Their choice would have been the aquarium in Mystic where they could see the beluga whales. We would have sung the Raffi song on the way there. We would have stood on the boardwalk of the wetlands exhibit observing the turtles so they would know what to watch for. We would have pressed our noses to the beluga exhibit window. We would have giggled at the penguins. The girls would not have been interested in the periscopes, the torpedoes, the decommissioned nuclear sub that went around the world completely submerged in 83 days. They would have stopped to observe the bird on the rope to the Nautilus. The boys saw the museum three times in the time it took me to see it once. I don’t know how their mother keeps up. Like sharks, they had a need to keep moving constantly. I watched and wondered: “Am I going to be able to keep up with my grandson?”
The next morning after some Xbox time, some basketball, a romp with the dogs, the boys and their parents left for Rhode Island. I was more than exhausted. I had the flu. In the afternoon, I stumbled downstairs for a glass of ice water, looked out the kitchen window and saw the young buck, peacefully eating on the edge of the woods. I thought of my daughters.