One afternoon last summer, I was languishing at the beach with my daughters Lila and Stella. It was a gorgeous day on Cape Cod. The sky was cloudless; the water was the kind of aquamarine you associate with Bermuda, not Massachusetts. We were lazily wading about near the rocks when the girls happened upon a little hermit crab conference. Tiny, blue, and sweet, the crabs’ little bodies firmly retreated into their shells as the girls gently scooped them into their sand buckets.
“Please, can we take some home with us?” they begged in unison.
“No,” I said. “These little guys want to stay here in their home. But …” I blame the serene mood of the day, the soft tide lapping at the shore, the temporary insanity that comes with summer. “When we get home, we can maybe buy some hermit crabs.”
The girls shrieked in delight. Oy, I thought inwardly. What have I done?
It’s not that I don’t love pets in general. I love dogs and cats, and we’ve had both. In fact, our cat was probably clawing up our couch at that very moment. But I have a firm distaste for caged animals — and not just at the zoo, but anywhere, including (especially) my home. Gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs — I see their sad little faces walled up behind metal and glass, and my heart sinks. They look so … well, trapped. And frankly, I have enough trouble keeping our own home clean. To have to stay on top of a rodent’s house, too? No thanks.
My daughters ran up against this prejudice of mine early on. “I want a hamster!” Lila announced after playing with one at a friend’s house.
“We have a cat already,” I reasoned.
The girls love our cat, of course, but he doesn’t need them the same way the crabs do, and there’s something magical that comes with being needed.
“But I want a pet of my own,” Lila insisted. “A pet that’s just mine, that I get to take care of.”
As luck would have it, our car ride home from school goes right past the pet store, so the subject got raised often. Loudly. “There’s the pet store! Can we just go in to look? Just to look?”
“No,” I’d say flatly, turning up the volume on the radio. I can be hard-core. No comes easily to me.
But for some reason, on that dreamy day at the ocean, my resolve melted away. For some reason, on that day, I said yes.
A couple weeks later, against my better judgment, we were at the pet store, with its gamey scent of cedar chips and urine, and the noisy, ceaseless bird calls. The crabs were tucked away in a hard-to-find spot; to get there, we had to pass the bunnies, parakeets, and mice, a gauntlet of cute. At each squeal of joy, I was forced to remind the girls that I had agreed to hermit crabs and hermit crabs alone. Once we found them, there was good news and bad news. The good news: hermit crabs are remarkably inexpensive. The bad news: the gear that goes with them is surprisingly pricey.
“They need lots of space,” the heavily pierced and tattooed salesgirl told us earnestly. “They like to move, get some exercise. And they need the environment to be a steady 80 degrees. And they need two bowls of water — one salt, one fresh — and a third bowl for food. And …”
I gulped. I had expected the tab to equal a few lattes, maybe — not a week’s worth of groceries.
Sensing that I was wavering, Lila piped up: “I’ll take care of everything, Mommy. I promise.” I sighed and ponied up the cash while the girls picked out their crabs. They were much larger than what we’d seen at the beach, which oddly made them seem more grotesque — but this didn’t seem to bother anyone besides me. Since all they could see of them were their shells — hermit crabs aren’t called hermits for nothing — the girls were basing their decisions solely on the colors and shapes of those shells. “But you’ll also need to buy extra shells,” the salesgirl added helpfully. “So they can shed their old shells and move into bigger ones when they’re ready.”
“Coooool,” the girls breathed.
“Say what?” I said.
We ended up getting three crabs, since that was how many would comfortably fit the habitat (and they were actually the cheapest part of the whole shebang). By the time we’d gotten them home, the girls had already named them: Precious, Darling, and Hermy. “Hermy” I could understand, but as far as I could tell, Precious and Darling had done nothing to earn such lovable names. But this didn’t deter the girls one bit. They spoke in low tones as they carefully set up the crab habitat and transferred the crabs into it.
“Here you go,” Stella cooed sweetly at the faceless shell.
“Don’t worry, I’m right here,” Lila whispered through the plastic at the substrate. I raised an eyebrow.
“Precious and Darling like to bury themselves,” she explained authoritatively. “They can still hear me, though, I think.”
Looking at the crabs, I was skeptical. I know it’s possible to have real friendships with dogs and cats, and I’m willing to be convinced that one can relate to a hamster or a gerbil, even if they’re behind bars. But hermit crabs? Not so much. There’s nothing cuddly about them. Most of them time you can’t even see their faces. How does one relate to a shell?
But that’s my stuff, as a therapist might say — not my kids’. Watching Lila and Stella happily fretting over their crustacean charges, however, I began to see past the shells at what my girls were doing. As little hermit crab mamas, they were treating these tiny beings with the same kind of tenderness — and love, even — that my husband and I heap upon them. The girls love our cat, of course, but he doesn’t need them the same way the crabs do, and there’s something magical that comes with being needed. Watching my daughters refill the food, change the water, and murmur lovingly through the grated lid of the cage, I recognized the same propriety pleasure I take in kissing my daughters’ boo-boos and tucking them into bed at night. It was a reminder: caretaking is not always just a responsibility; it can also be a genuine joy.
Sadly, a few months later, one of the hermit crabs came to a bad end. Early one morning, there was a piercing scream, followed by Stella storming our bedroom, her wail floating through the house. I leapt out of bed, adrenaline coursing through me. “What? What?!” I exclaimed.
“It’s HERMY!” she keened. “He’s DEAD.”
How can you tell? I thought to myself but wisely did not say. “Are you sure?” I asked.
Yes, she was sure. Turns out hermit crabs exit their shells when they die. In this case, Hermy lay in one corner, and one of his limbs lay in another. I considered Precious and Darling to be persons of interest in this grisly case, but first we had to deal with Hermy’s remains. We found an empty box that once held a bar of soap, created a nice cushion inside out of paper towels, and — using kitchen tongs — carefully arranged Hermy’s corpse inside.
Stella and Lila headed to school, where Stella tearfully shared the morning’s events with her second-grade class. She came home with a sympathy card written by her classmates that was filled with kind thoughts (“Dear Hermy, I’m very sorry you dide. Rest in peases”). The girls and I briefly tried to think of 10 nice things about Hermy (à la the brilliant Judith Viorst book, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, but this activity was short-lived. Soon our attention turned to homework and flute practice and dinner and bed.
In other words, life went on, as life does, for hermit crabs and second-graders alike. Precious and Darling continue to plug along without their third crabby musketeer* (and I continue to suspect them of murder, but I keep these thoughts to myself). Lila and Stella are less interested in them than they were when we first brought them home — the novelty has definitely worn off — but true to their word, the girls still take care of the crabs, mostly with little complaint. Lila feeds and waters them, Stella peers in at them and gives them some attention, I clean out their cage (very occasionally). When we left town for a long weekend, Lila worried until I arranged for someone to look in on the crabs during our absence.
As it turns out, I don’t regret my weak moment at the beach all that much. The lessons the girls are getting in caretaking — not to mention the life cycle — have been meaningful enough to balance out the inconvenience of cage cleaning. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say I’m kind of glad I said yes.
I am still the hard-core mama I’ve always been. But I try more often these days to resist the easy no. After all, no doesn’t often lead to new experiences, to revelations. Sometimes it’s good to give in, even when it’s a stretch, and see where the yes takes you.
*Unfortunately, upon publication of this article, Precious and Darling have since passed on to the hermit crab terrarium in the sky.
Naomi Shulman has written for The New York Times, Whole Living, FamilyFun, and Ladies’ Home Journal (forthcoming). She lives in Northampton, MA, with her husband and two daughters. (And a cat.)
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