If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck,
we have at least to consider the possibility
that we have a small aquatic bird
of the family anatidae on our hands.
– Douglas Adams
One of my stepmother’s favorite “me time” thing to do is walk to the park and count the duck and geese eggs. I laugh when I tell my friends this. So innocent in her love of animals that, though in her late forties, she can’t stand to watch “Amores Perros” or that commercial with all the shots of purple-eyed dogs and one-eyed cats set to the annoyingly frail voice of Sarah McLachlan, or even a short clip of a man stumbling over his obese cat. Marla’s alternative is the park five blocks from the house to counts the eggs. Later in spring she counts the baby birds, taking subsequent trips to get updates on their survival.
The park itself has special meaning. My father used to pack snacks and drive my sister and me over to look for fish and have a mini-picnic. The land is no more than fourteen acres, but around the circumference of the lake, plotted like a bazaar, the area holds everything: a bike/walking trail, two basketball half courts, and an enormous willow tree that sways above warped wooden tables. By the east end parking lot, there’s a playground right next to two outhouses. Most spectacularly, on two divergent sections of the trail lie opposing bridges to gaze at the lake and the deciduous woods that border the park. In the lake you can see dead fish floating, a grate for bird droppings, and, of course, tagged geese alongside their equally scientifically accounted for friends the wood, Pekin, and blue-winged teal duck.
Occasionally, my father brought stale bread for those pesky honkers and quackers, but mainly he’d caution my sister and me not to edge into their territory near the dirt, lake “shoreline.” He didn’t have to warn us though. We’d seen how a lot of kids acted like apes around the other animals. They threw buttons of bread at the geese’s head, yelled something like “funny ducky,” and then chased them around with some sort of trash or their own grubby little hands. Right beside the dead fish, you could always see trash glimmer in the sun.
Marla frets feverously over the state of the land, pointing and pointing at the tiny bags of chips and cups strewn about. When we walk the trail that surrounds the park, her anger makes me smile. We often see kids chase after a goose or throw trash at the ducks.
“I know it’s cruel to say this, but what butt-munchers,” she says.
“Well, they aren’t exactly with great guardians,” I say.
“I know it is a shame those parents aren’t teaching their kids to be respectful of nature. It’s like, fuck, what do these look like—personal pets?”
One spring Marla explained that geese make better mothers than ducks. Those nasty but effective guardians charge at toddlers that spy too closely, joggers in their path, and other dangers. Predators may snatch up one egg out of six, but usually no more. The geese are fighters— the mother and father sound off alarms like trumpets. But in contrast ducks leave my stepmother with little hope: out of eight little ducklings, one or two may grow to paddle beside their parents instead of behind them, as they did in the duckling stage. They are distractible mothers. Too busy collecting shiny things for the nest to pay attention to prey. Ducks, beautiful and silken as they may be, dream too heavily.
Marla seldom worries about cosmetic issues. But I see little glimpses sometimes. I remember she told me five years ago that she refused to dye her hair.
“I’m afraid once I color it, the grays will march in like an army of ants.”
But the grays came in anyway. Aging is, after all, inevitable. It is how time tells you what to prioritize.
In my family, at least on my mother’s side, the women fight aging wholeheartedly. My mother, for instance, waxed her upper lip once every three weeks. I remember watching her in the bathroom.
“Mom, why do you wax,” I asked. “Why not just shave it or not worry about it.” I was twelve.
“Because I’ve always waxed my lip. Once you start waxing, you never go back. The hairs grow back darker if you don’t keep doing it,” she said. I didn’t know then what she said was a myth. But my mother, a pagan, has always been into mythology, has always subscribed to rituals that from the outside look foolish.
When she finished waxing, she began to outline her eyebrows—mostly to cover up the cosmetic surgery she had gotten in Venezuela the year my parents divorced (she needed a couple months to find herself). My mother had gotten her eyebrows tattooed to define them and color them in, but as the years passed, the coloring turned practically purple and she had to make them less cartoonish with a Lancôme pencil.
“I have been using it since I was 17. My skin is in impeccable condition. Had I used cheaper brands, I don’t think my skin would be so soft and practically wrinkle-free,” she said. “When you’re older, only use good makeup. It’s worth the money in the long run.”
This was a time when she was on welfare and food stamps. But, of course, if my mother wasn’t dressed up, it was because she was going through a depressive state, and therefore wouldn’t shower for days on end, swinging between extravagant and disheveled so easily.
Since I was little (when my mother didn’t know how to raise a rock), I found myself hurrying forward so I could be the grown-up person I felt inside. Then, I thought I’d finally get the acknowledgement I desired, acknowledgement that I was, indeed, responsible and wise. Look at me! Pay attention: I can swim beside you, past you, around you. I don’t need anyone to lead me but me. Back when I was twelve years old, I realize I had always swam beside my mother. I was her best friend, her counselor, her guardian. I watched R-rated movies, could talk to her about her custody battle with my father, about her complicated friendships. When she threw elaborate dinner parties, I would entertain the guests while she finished each course after one was served. The guests would arrive at 7 or 8 p.m., but we wouldn’t eat the main course—paella or some other Spanish dish—until 10:30 p.m. As we ate and thanked her, she would go back into the kitchen to finish up the dessert, usually tiramisu, unable to fully enjoy the meal.
One dinner party in particular, I used the utensils on the coffee table to stage an elaborate story for my fake aunts and uncles—her friends were instantaneously lost sisters and brothers.
“Mr. Fork is married to Mrs. Spoon, but she has been in love with Mr. Knife since they were nine. It was an arranged marriage, so Mrs. Spoon ran away with Mr. Knife as soon as her husband left town on a business trip to the Bahamas. The two ran to off into the Magical forest, but Mr. Fork got word of it! He went after the lovers on his flying coaster,” I said.
“Oh, how exhilarating,” my fake aunt Vickie gasped. “You have such an imagination!”
I smiled at the men and women gathered around my show, but there was a twinge of loneliness and exhaustion in having to take on so many roles at once: daughter, entertainer, best friend, counselor, and co-partner. My mother always had her eyes on the wrong things, whizzing from fancy dinner to new business venture to solve-all-our-problems boyfriend/husband. Getting my sister and I to school on time, making sure we showered and had our homework done, cleaning the kitchen—these were all things that were too small and petty to keep on her radar.
My stepmother and I are quite different, most likely because I take after my mother in a lot of ways—I have her cackling laugh, her disregard for people around her when she wants something, her cluttered, peacocking habit of taking up physical space with my stuff, even when I’m not at home. Marla, on the other hand, has what I call green-tea anxiety. She is a bit hyper vigilant. When her dog, Lambchop, was alive, she used to caution me against playing rough.
“Be careful with her neck! Liz, she’s an old dog. Don’t rough house with her. Watch the neck and back, especially.”
I’d wave her off. “Marla, it’s okay. I wouldn’t hurt poor Lambchop. Look she loves me.”
“I know you like to act like a puppy around her, but just be careful.”
I’d joke with my best friend about it later. She’d say, “It’s not that easy to break a dog’s neck. “Oh, well, that’s Marla for you. Always worrying,” I’d say, but inside I felt a little hurt, betrayed. How could Marla think I’d hurt a dog as much family as anyone else? On the other hand, I knew Marla did the same for me.
Usually Marla frets over something like using coasters when I set a drink down or my student loan debt. Most of the time I just pat her. Tell a joke. Do a little impression here and there. She laughs louder than anyone at my skits, even when she knows I do it to pacify her. Once to paint a picture for her of how varied we really are, I pointed at the airplane wings. We were with all 18 family members on our way to Disney World for a spring trip. I was 21.
“You and I have such different mindsets. Look at the airplane wings. See, if the wings of this airplane were on fire, you’d be all ‘Fire! Fire! Fire! Get me out of here. Save the children!’ But if looked out the window, might very first thought would be ‘OOOOOooooooooo…shiny!’”
She laughed so hard she snorted.
Later, on that trip, Marla found out I was smoking. She started to mention things about it, carefully.
“I used to smoke, you know.”
“Yes. I was young and working as a server at that German restaurant that used to be on the plaza. I used to roll my own cigarettes between shifts in the manager’s office. I even carried a pack around for customers. I’d get crazy tips if I gave a drunk a light and a smoke. But after I got out of serving, I quit. I just started to hate it.” We were sitting on the living room couch, where we like to have tea and chat.
When I looked into her oval face and gray eyes, I saw worry, “Okay, Marla, I get it. You want me to quit.”
“Duh,” she said, “You’re on birth control and you’re a diabetic. Smoking is going to clog your arteries. You’re the last person who should be smoking, Liz.”
I thanked her, but waved it off. A month later I found an article she had printed out about the consequences of smoking. Message well received, I thought. But I knew it was a kindness from her heart and that she was trying to be delicate while still nurturing.
My own mother had quit smoking later that fall. Instead, she compulsively played a Facebook game called Farmville where you build a fake life constructing land and stock. I was watching her on the computer in her dimmed apartment. Every window had black sheets or curtains to keep the light out. Only lamps and the screen illuminated the place. The white walls were covered in dragon posters, artifacts, paintings, and pictures, made the place feel heavy.
My mother let me smoke in the house that Thanksgiving eve.
“It’s okay, Lee-lee. I want you to be comfortable here.”
“It’s not going to trigger any cravings?”
“No,” she said from her computer chair. Her desk was in the living room to the left of her TV. “I’m perfectly fine. Here, I’ll get you an ashtray.” She set down a metal ashtray with a dragon’s head shape coming out of the base—a strange but effective place to rest your smoke.
After I smoked a moment, we sat and talked while I ate the dinner she had prepared for me: peas and pearl onions, butter-basted turkey, homemade mashed potatoes and turkey gravy, and a shot glass of Grand Marnier next to a glass of Diet Coke. She was a gourmet cook and it was all delicious.
“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked.
“No, sorry, sweetie. I ate a little already.” My mother had gotten overweight over the years. I suspected she waited until night to eat, but later found out she would go to bed and wake up in the middle of the night to engorge herself, eating cream puffs and Bavarian cake and leftovers from her smaller dinner. The insomnia was one cause for it. Shame most likely the second leading factor.
“You know, honey. I want you to know something. I’d been smoking for years on and off, but when the time comes, you’ll quit. I know it. You’ll know when you are ready. You’ll feel it inside.”
“Uh huh,” I said.
“Besides, it’s not good for your skin. I still have a baby face because of our impeccable genes, but smoking gives you wrinkles. I wonder if I’d have these crow’s feet if I hadn’t ever smoked,” she said.
My mother was always talking about our genes like they were “goddess-sent” or, worse, proved our “royal lineage.” For me, nature does tell a story. A great one. But when it comes to people, I want to look beyond genes for humans. I want to start at the biology and work my way out to the other factors for why we act the way we do.
This Halloween I went with a friend to a corn maze and pumpkin patch. Small children and their adult handlers roamed freely about the hay-strewn grounds. My best friend, her German Shepard, and her sister wanted to go into the corn maze first. But they promised we could go feed the goats once we were done. I was actually hoping we’d see some chicken or geese or ducks or turkeys, but all they had were baby goats. Oh, well, I thought. At least I get to look at some kind of baby animal.
When he finished in the maze, each of us collecting some good looking corn to place on our mantel or pick apart for fun, we found a jar, some plastic one ounce cups, and bowl of feed. It said 50 cents on the lid of the jar with a slot for the coins to go in.
“Do you have any quarters,” I asked my best friend.
“No, I don’t” she said. “I’m going to take Cali over to the corner and wait for you both. I don’t want her to scare the goats, even though I know she’d love to make friends with her.”
I laughed, but knew that having her sister, Katherine, with me was the best company I could have. Katherine loves animals as much as I do—at one point she thought about being a vet. All 18 year olds amuse various occupations at one time or another.
“I have a dollar,” Katherine said.
I thanked her and each grabbed a cup to feed the goats.
At first, Katherine and I couldn’t gain access to the back were the goats were all standing, we circled around until we found a sort of ill-made back entrance with a tiny dirt path lined by tall, yellow grass. Two boys were already there. They weren’t more than maybe 8 or so years old, but I saw the older one throw his empty cup at a goat’s head.
Adrenaline pumped in me. My chest pounded. I thought I was going to have a heart attack, but I knew what to do.
“Hey, little boy. Don’t do that.” I started to walk toward the two boys slowly. They had frozen in the corner, close to a spot in the back entrance we hadn’t found. They said nothing.
“Listen, you have to be gentle with animals. It’s not okay to throw things at them.” I looked around for their parents. No one had their eyes on the boys. No one was making sure they weren’t being “butt-munchers.”
“Sorry,” the older boy said.
“Here,” I picked up his cups or ones that were nearest were he threw it. “Take these and go find a trash can to put them in. Animals shouldn’t be surrounded by trash.”
His brother and he took the cups and left.
Katherine didn’t say anything at first, but I pointed to the trash.
“Look at all these cups. We should probably pick them up.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Good idea.”
We went about the rim piling half full cups in convenient areas for the goats and collecting empty ones to stash in our jacket.
“I hope I wasn’t rude to those boys, but I just think they need to hear someone say that it’s not okay to throw things at animals.”
“No, you were pretty tame about it. I’m glad you said something.”
When we went to finally feed the goats, they didn’t seem interested as much in the feed as they were of the cuffs on our sweaters.
“Ah, shoot. They aren’t hungry,” Katherine said.
“Yay. People have probably been feeding them all day. Let’s leave them the food and take care of these cups.”
As we walked toward my bored best friend, she asked what took us so long.
“Some punks were throwing cups at the goats,” I said.
“Weird. Well, let’s go get a pumpkin,” she said. “I want to find the perfect one to carve tonight.” I knew she didn’t care much, but my best friend is a duck. She was focused on her task to get the right pumpkin for her doorstep.
As we walked west towards the picked-though, muddy patch, I kept looking back at the caged goats. I tried to think of a time my mother had defended something. A time when she taught me something about nature. I couldn’t think of many instances. All I could remember was the way my mother “blessed” road kill or a dinner. She’d say, “Return to the circle of life.” I remembered, too, the time when I was about seven, and we had venison for dinner. The core of the body sat on a square wooden kitchen island. I think a friend of hers had hunted it and given the deer to her. Though it was cooked meat in front of us, I kept seeing the dead deer like a hologram imposed over the dinner.
“This is deer, sweetie. Okay? Now, let’s thank this soul for giving his life to us for nourishment,” she said. “May you find your way, Soul, to the circle of life.”
I ate the meat just fine and am not now afraid to eat meat. It’s not the consumption of deer, but how lavish she was about it.
Later that year we went to my mother’s friend’s family farm. Manija, my mother’s friend, and her parents lived in a large, decorative home in the middle of Missouri. When we got there, my mother collected peacock feathers from inside the coup and on the packed ground surrounding the area. My mother’s dyed red hair and freckles looked so brilliant in that rural sunlight.
“Are the peacocks going to be mad we took their feathers,” I asked. I imagined nests made solely from their plumage and wondered if they’d see our harvest as a threat of some kind.
“I’m not hurting the peacocks. I’m just taking the molted ones. See that one, Elizabeth, that peacock is albino so his feathers are white. It’s it cool. I think Manija collected a bunch of those already. Now let’s go inside. Manija’s mother made us Afghan rice. You are going to love it. It’s this marvelous rice with lamb and raisins and carrots.” We went inside and she spent the evening fawning over Manija’s parents and showing my sister and me off. But I didn’t mind much. I did love that rice. I ate and ate until I was stuffed.
When we got home, my mother arranged the peacock feathers in a gold vase that she set on the fireplace. For years we had the vase. She took it with us whenever we moved to a new apartment after my parent’s divorce by tucking it into a seat belt, the feathers still inside.
In my early twenties, my mother gave me the vase with the feathers. She knew how much I liked them. I had them for maybe a year or so, but I eventually threw them away. I just kept thinking about the bodies they had been a part of and grew paranoid bacteria was growing inside the stems. It had been almost two decades since we collected them. Looking back that didn’t matter. The peacocks and peahens (females) are likely alive today, as they live to be 40 or 50 in captivity (I also found out that white peacocks aren’t albino; they have a genetic called leucism that makes the plumage white). Still, at the time I thought the birds were dead. And it felt wrong keeping the feathers around as mere decoration.
Recently, Marla finally buckled and got an iPad—despite concerns for the Fox Con factory issues and the waste produced by consumerism. But who could blame her? She has a bird addiction. When she first got the iPad, she spent hours marveling at an amateur ornithology app showing it to her sister, her mother, and me.
“I just love it! Hear this sound. Which bird do you think it is?” she said. She immediately her own question, “It’s a starling!”
I told her about the English’s obsession with starlings. How their debut in Shakespearian plays inspired voyagers to take them across the Atlantic to their new foreign countryside. She smiled at me, and turned to show her mother other functions on the bird-cyclopedia/humming ventriloquist.
My sister thinks she’s a bit too flighty. But I see her differently: dedicated, passionate, and a stickler for detail. My striking stepmother hardly knows how to use make-up and sits awkwardly holding a box of hair dye. But she can tell you how the body works, which fruits to buy organic to avoid harmful pesticides, and which birds are sings in the trees.
Sometimes I wonder what bird Marla would label me: duck or goose? I suspect I am duck-ish. Careless. Colorful. Cocky. I try to not to let it show: my duck-mode. I love make-up and nice clothing and trendy furniture, but I wish I had no attraction to these things. Maybe it isn’t so bad to be duck-ish. My stepmother, a bit unsure of the hipper trends, often struts into a room with a new outfit and asks my opinion.
“So I have on this dress for the family dinner, but I’m not sure which shoes to wear. I want to be comfortable but I should make sure I’m kind of matching.”
“The dress looks nice,” I say. “But, hmmm, I think the black boots look better than the Mary Jane type on the left foot.”
“You girls always know best,” she says.
Sure, sometimes she wants to know which earrings or which top she should return, but I am a part of it if I am there. I am seen. I am her confidante but not her counselor.
After her first declaration five years ago that she’d never dye her hair, she asked if she’d snatched the right natural coloring.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, “That’s the best part of temporary dye.”
“Right,” she said and stared at the box with contempt.
I found it interesting that she choose springtime to soak her hair in carotenoid pigments. It is the season of the birds, and Marla has started to look more and more bird-like. Not because she has a beautifully croaked, long beak, but because I hear her words like honks. When she slips me news articles about new diabetic pumps I should check out, I hear a honk. When she leaves “10 reasons why smoking is bad” on my bed—another honk. When I tell her I bought a new smart phone. Honk. When I tell her about a fight with a boyfriend, a softer honk comes forth. Once Marla points something out, I can’t even try not to see what she sees. But one thing is for sure, I see her more clearly than anyone else I know.
Sometimes I wish I could spend everyday circling the Southlake Park with her, tracking the progress of little birds. But I don’t have to be there to see her, to feel taken care of. In my mind, I always see her—arms outstretched—flapping away predatory elements, working to keep me safe. She wants only my survival. She wants only for the survival of all living things she loves, and she sets her eyes on other concerns only when she can afford to. Marla, my steadfast goose mother, knows how to nurture—efficiently, diligently.
I see and hear her always. Honk-honk, Marla, I think. Honk, honk.
Liz Jacquinot’s essays, articles, and stories have been published in the Sosland Journal, Number One Magazine, UMKC’s UNews, and East Coast Literary Review. She commonly writes about the intricacies of multiculturalism and family dynamics, labor relations, women’s issues, poverty, and the natural world’s parallels to human identity. Liz has travelled up and down the east coast, west coast, Midwest, Mexico, The Virgin Islands, Nicaragua, France, and Spain; however, most of her writing is set in Madrid or Kansas City, as those are the places she calls home. Currently, she works part-time as an adjunct instructor at UMKC teaching Discourse and full-time as an Operation Breakthrough preschool teacher.