My mom grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It’s located in the Laurel Highlands of western PA, 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, and was a bustling city in the mid-20th century when the Bethlehem Steel mill provided lots of jobs and kept the local economy humming.
My mom lived in Johnstown her whole life, graduating from Ferndale High School and then Conemaugh Valley Memorial Hospital’s School of Nursing. She worked for a short time in town, and then decided, as young women tend to do, that she needed a new adventure. So she moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
It would be hard to overstate the differences between Johnstown, PA and Fort Lauderdale, FL in 1959. One was a mountainous steel town, grey with pollution, frigid in winter and with a history of catastrophic, deadly floods. The other was a sunny beach town. More importantly, one held all the people she loved and everything familiar to her; the other held only possibilities. She secured a job working the 3 to 11 pm shift at a local hospital (Tiny Tim was her patient once) and walked home after each shift. She spent her days off enjoying the beach or gazing at yachts on the intercoastal waterway. She made a life for herself.
Mom lived in Florida until she married my dad and moved first to New England, then to Central Pennsylvania. Years later, as a mother of three, she’d share stories of her years in Florida. I listened and remembered many of them, but never really appreciated what she had done. As kids tend to do, I assumed every mom was like mine: smart and adventurous. I thought all young women had the courage to forge their own paths. I’m pretty sure that at least once, I asked a new friend I was getting to know, “So, where did your mom move after college?”
Of all Mom’s Florida stories, the most vivid was about palmetto bugs. As a child, I was terrified of bugs and spiders. (To this day, I’d rather face a large, angry dog than anything creepycrawly.) So when Mom would talk about putting on a shoe, feeling something inside, then pulling the shoe back off only to dodge a giant palmetto bug making its escape, I could not imagine anything more horrifying.
The day she let it slip that these bugs were actually a type of cockroach was probably the closest I’ve ever come to fainting.
Listening to the palmetto bug stories in our Pennsylvania home, though, I felt relatively safe from their terror. Mom reassured me that they could not survive our cold winters. (That still did not stop me from checking all my shoes each time she mentioned them.) Although I was still very scared of bugs, the ones that found their way into our northern home were tiny in comparison.
My son, Richie, has inherited my fear of spiders. Although he often tells us that he knows he “should be brave of them,” he still comes to get me when he finds one in the house. This was the case last night. After a long evening of homework that didn’t end until 10 PM, I kissed both kids goodnight and had just snuggled under the blankets when I heard Richie open my bedroom door and say, “Mom, there’s a spider in my room. I saw it coming down from the ceiling.”
As a mom, you may have a fear of spiders, but your child’s fear trumps your own.
I reluctantly left my warm bed and led Richie back to his room. But once there, we couldn’t find the intruder. Richie stood just inside the doorway, telling me it had been “right over there” and pointing towards the foot of his bed. I examined the bedspread to see if I could spot anything crawling. I wasn’t sure if I was looking for something nickel-sized and brown, or teensy and pale. I saw no sign of movement so I bent over to look at the floor. I stood very still but couldn’t spot any movement. Next I got down on all fours, put the side of my head to the carpet, and peered under his bed. Nothing was moving, and again I was struck by the thought that I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for.
“Richie,” I said calmly, “how big was the spider you saw?”
“Umm…” He paused for a minute as I continued to scan the carpet’s Berber terrain for the slightest sign of legs on the move. I briefly considered pretending to squash something in my handful of Kleenex, but thought better of it when I realized he would ask to see the carnage as proof.
“Oh, okay…” Richie said, remembering what the spider looked like as it descended from his ceiling. “It’s smaller than a tarantula.”