I’m not talking about a dance. You’re thinking of the jig – that popular Irish dance where you skip, leap, and kick. Well, it turns out you might look like you’re doing the jig during that time of the year when chiggers are here. You see, April showers don’t just bring May flowers in Texas. Every spring, even though we’ve now lived where chiggers live for many years, we somehow forget. The chigger is the larval stage of a mite that bites from late spring to fall in humid areas with thick vegetation. And, it’s easy to forget about them. They’re not visible to the naked eye. In fact, they’re smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Chiggers infest your skin when you come in contact with them waiting for you in grassy fields. The creepiest thing about them is that they crawl under your garments in search of the best place to do what chiggers do. You can’t feel them so you don’t know they’re exploring your body. You are left with intensely itchy red blister-like sores that take up to two weeks to heal. One evening a few years ago, I gasped, “Chiggers!” when I was helping my youngest daughter, who was four years old at the time, change into her pajamas. There were red bumps all along her underwear line! I’ll never forget my daughter’s response, especially because of her age at the time, “Those bugs like my private parts, mommy! It’s very inappropriate of them!” There’s actually a reason – chiggers have delicate feeding structures so they like areas of thinner skin and will seek them out once on you. So, you often find bites in unmentionable places around the crotch and groin area. Even though that makes sense, it certainly doesn’t make it okay. Early in our years in Texas, when we didn’t know we needed to be on the lookout for things we couldn’t see, my husband went on a wilderness medicine overnight exercise and decided to sleep out under a stunning starry sky. The next day, his heads, shoulders, knees and toes, and more, were covered in chigger bites. For weeks later, people stared, refusing to shake his extended hand, questioning, “Is that contagious?” Somehow, even the memory of that fades, and for two weeks in early spring of every year, our family looks like we’re practicing the jig as we itch and try not to itch. We tally our sores and compare the score to see who will have the most sleepless nights. For some reason, chigger sores seem itchiest at night. And so, from that day on, we spray our muck boots and overalls with bug repellent whenever we head out to the garden or pastures. Even though they’re out of sight, chiggers are again on our mind…for a time.
It’s unlikely you have a spider the size of a penny prisoner in a Tupperware container on your kitchen counter. Why do I? We are holding the arachnid hostage until we know my daughter doesn’t have any reactions to its’ bite. So far, there isn’t any inflammation around the two little pinpricks on the back of our youngest daughter’s leg. Why the extra caution? We live in Texas, which is home to the black widow and brown recluse. Everybody who lives in the southern states knows the image of these poisonous spiders and thankfully this spider doesn’t fit their description. There’s neither a red hourglass marking on its belly nor a dark violin-shaped marking on its head. But, knowing deadly spiders lurk in the dark corners of Texas makes you suspicious of every spider you come across. Some of you are so fearful of spiders that you won’t even the write the word spider on a piece of paper let alone capture and release or even kill one. Even me writing “spider, spider, spider” irritates you and makes your skin crawl like there are hundreds of ‘em all over you. I was once like you. I could not have handled all of my spider experiences in Texas without having spent a summer with fellow undergraduate biology majors at a research station in the Rocky Mountains. Willing to do anything to keep my 4.0 grade point average that summer, I volunteered when a professor needed help researching the mating behavior of Sierra Dome spiders in nature. It turns out that the Sierra Dome lady spider is very smart, only choosing a mate that has proven himself to be a strong and vigorous fighter before her. Boy spiders actually progress through a series of fighting stages with the final one being a full-on brawl, sometimes to the death of the weaker contestant. I didn’t believe it at first myself. But, I spent that summer alone in the forest with male spiders in petri dishes as my hiking companions searching for the dome-shaped webs built by the lady spiders. Creating a rivalrous love triangle, I’d carefully position two Romeos on opposite sides of the web, pitting them against the other to battle for the chance at procreation. If you think that the Mayweather vs Pacquiao was the “fight of the century” (before it actually happened, of course), then witnessing the incredibly entertaining fighting behavior of two Sierra Dome male spiders would be the “fight of at least two centuries.” And, this one’s free – well, other than a plane ticket to Montana and some hiking books. Having handled so many spiders in the lab and in the field so many summers ago, I can still now find the courage to capture and release and sometimes kill the spiders that trespass on the franch. Most of the time, I let the spiders live as we all know the benefits of a spider’s life, even if we don’t want to admit it. But, I’ve come face to face with creepy tarantulas and although I know they’re harmless, I still kill ‘em because I don’t want them making a home in our kids’ muck boots left outside the back door. I wish I could say I never came across the dreaded black widow spider on the franch. But, one evening late at night, I went out to the barn to check on all the animals with a flashlight. Opening the gate to the cow pen, I decided to straighten their feeder, and as I approached it, the beam of my flashlight illuminated a black spider hanging upside down with a shiny red belly, on a thick, erratically built web between the feeder and the side of the pen. I froze, staring at that hourglass like it was going to tell time. Oh my goodness, it’s the black widow. “Don’t think, don’t think…” I repeated in my mind, as I knew what I had to do. I grabbed a dusty bottle of insecticide from the barn shelf and turned on the outside barn lights. Inches from the plump spider, I held my breath and started squirting it like crazy. It fell to the ground. And then, I anticlimactically finished it off with the heel of my cowboy boot. One last squirt to its lifeless body and I started to breathe again. Then, I screamed. So, with that, you now understand why it’s no big deal for me to have a spider trying to crawl up the slippery sides of the Tupperware next to me as I prepare lunch. Hours later, the pinpricks have disappeared on my daughter’s leg. She asks me to let the spider go, outside. It’s been forgiven. The itsy bitsy spider is now free to go up the spout again.
When you welcome a new puppy in your home, it isn’t a matter of if your puppy will chew up something, it’s when and what. It isn’t a segment on the evening news when a new puppy owner comes home to find a half-chewed sandal, or a shredded pillow, or a gnawed wooden chair leg. You know this, so you do your best to protect your belongings by supervising your puppy as much as possible until it knows better. Our puppy Sassy was still learning what’s hers and what’s ours when we all went to bed one night, each thinking someone else had made sure she was secure in her crate. When Sassy greeted my husband at the bottom of the stairs in the early morning hours the next day, it was one of those “oh-no” moments. She had chosen to chew the edge of the Bible left on the coffee table. How can you discipline any creature wanting to spend time with God’s Word? Time has now past since that day and as time with a puppy increases on the x-axis, the number of chewed items you don’t want chewed up decreases on the y-axis. So, Sassy is often left out of her crate unattended on our gated property. Well, the other day we arrived home to find chewed plastic all over the driveway. “What…is…that?” we all said in unison. It turns out Sassy had found an open donated box of medical supplies my husband left in the garage to bring to his next medical clinic. He’s the medical director of a clinic that provides free medical care to refugees in the city of San Antonio so we often have extra medical supplies scattered around. Well, if you gathered up the chewed pieces and fit ’em together like it’s a jigsaw puzzle, you probably still wouldn’t have guessed what it was. Sassy had actually spent an afternoon chewing up a foley catheter and drainage bag. And, just like Humpty Dumpty, it couldn’t be put back together again. I’m sure she’s the only puppy in the history of the world that has chewed up a thin, sterile tube that’s inserted into your bladder to drain urine and the bag that collects it. Or maybe your puppy also prefers catheters to bones?
I don’t always write because being a mom comes first.