Ruth Z. Deming
My granddaughter is learning what they call “cursive writing.” The first time I saw her write her name – Grace Deming – I remembered my own handwriting when I was growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Why oh why did I have such trouble writing legibly?
Case in point is a high school biology project I worked on. A bug collection. Even though I found the project unconscionable – killing insects – I went at it with the gusto and fascination of an Einstein.
My dad was in the apparel business, the manager of a huge warehouse of women’s clothes. When I told him about my project, he suggested he bring home different size boxes that sweaters were packed in. These I would use to hold my insect collection, which I assembled in our moldy-smelling basement.
Mr. Alfred Lindshield was our biology teacher. A tiny old man with ears as big as Dumbo’s, he explained our final assignment. “You will make an insect collection,” he said in a creaky hoarse voice I can still hear beyond the grave. He told us the supplies we needed, all available at the Woolworth: a butterfly net, Red Cross cotton swabs, chloroform to kill the bugs, and a glass jar to asphyxiate the beetles, the ladybugs, the swallowtail butterflies and the monarchs.
I looked at Terry Greenstein sitting next to me. “My God! Do you believe it?” I whispered to her.
“Pay attention!” snapped Mr. Lindshield.
Terry and I had the misfortune of sitting in the front row.
As eleventh graders, we were all concerned about getting good grades so we could get into the college of our choice. I had no interest in going to college. I just wanted to stay home, ride my bike, play tennis, compose little tunes on the piano (Hey Ho, The Witch is Dead) and moon about my neighbor, Dickie Rose.
Every class has its rebels. I was not one of them. Like a fiend, I went outside day and night with glass jars containing chloroform-soaked cotton balls. The smell was mildly pleasant. I always liked the smell of gasoline and the sulphur smell of blown-out matches. Crickets were easy to catch. Katydids were harder. A praying mantis, perched on our mailbox, was a snap. He passed away slowly in a former Vita creamed herring jar.
The crown jewel of my butterfly and moth collection was a green lunar moth who pressed itself against our brightly-lit kitchen window. Outside I went with my butterfly net and scooped up the unsuspecting beauty queen.
I’m crying now as I write this.
Back then I believed in God and asked him to forgive me. But I have never forgiven myself. Can you see me now? A 70-year-old woman inside a jar with the lid tightly screwed on? No escape. A pickle jar. Vlasic. On the bottom is a Red Cross wad of cotton soaked with chloroform. It’s a pleasant smell and I am getting woozy. Wearing shorts and a black-and-white striped shirt I bought at the thrift store, I take me a lay-down on the bottom of the jar. For eternity. Will I be stuck with a pin in one of my dad’s orange sweater boxes?
My project was now completed. On thick yellow cards I lettered the names of the dead insects – both in English and in Latin. I used my best writing, a fancy curlicue script I had perfected over the years, practicing during all of my classes, whether algebra or English or history with my beloved Mr. Parasility of the wavy Brilliantined black hair.
Never was I so confident of the success of my project. Even Hitler would have approved.
Finally the day arrived to learn the results of our bug collections. It was a chilly day in November, the 22nd , when we reported to the biology lab. The walls were lined with charts of dissected frogs, amphibians and reptiles from Ohio, and glorious butterflies, several of which I’d “only followed orders” to assassinate.
Mr. Lindshield asked us to come before him at his desk, where he would show us our grades, with comments. Wearing a blue skirt and monogrammed blouse – RZG – from Dad’s apparel company, I walked confidently up to receive my grade.
I stood over tiny Mr. Lindshield as he handed me my grade, never making eye contact.
I gasped. I’d received a D-plus with the comment “incomplete work, you didn’t follow directions, and your writing is illegible.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. Didn’t follow directions. Worst of all he didn’t appreciate my well-crafted curlicues.
But something far worse than my D-plus had taken place earlier that day.
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
Riding home on the yellow rapid transit, total silence prevailed and the sound of weeping could be heard. I wept, too, for our president and for my bug collection.
My soulful-eyed granddaughter, Grace Catherine Deming, is a most compassionate kindergartner. It is not unthinkable I may someday share this story with her, violent though it may be.