Thursday, August 22, 2013

Lessons from a Duck

When I was about 2 my grandparents gave me a little yellow duckling for Easter.  I have no idea where they got it or why they decided I needed a pet duck as an Easter gift, but they did.  Somewhere in our family archives there exists an 8mm film of me toddling down the brick path from our house, picking up this little yellow chick in my chubby little toddler hands.  It is cute if I do say so myself.  My cousins were visiting and I was quite enamored with my cousin so I named the duck after him, Patrick.  When Patrick the Duck matured and began laying eggs his name was changed to Patty.  I only ever remember her being called Patty but of course I know the story, it’s family lore.

            I suppose Patty lived an interesting suburban life for a duck. She had the reign of our fenced backyard amid the swing set and constant movement of children in and out the gate.  I remember my sisters trying to catch her and put her on a swing or holding her still for me to occasionally pet her. Patty didn’t seem appreciative of their effort but I was.  She was not a cuddly pet by any means nor did she show much interest in me at all.  She mostly tried to steer clear of us and laid her eggs under the shed.  We always gave the eggs to my grandfather who ate them.  At that time, the idea of eating something from the underside of my duck did not appeal to me in the least.  But looking back now, I don’t know why we didn’t just eat them ourselves.  My mother easily could have slipped them in the egg carton and we’d never have been the wiser.

            When my grandparents acquired my Patty they also acquired their own duckling and kept it in their back yard.  Their duck was named Daffy. My grandfather's name was Donald so that name was certainly out. Much to his chagrin Pop Pop’s duck was male and never laid an egg.  I think that was the ultimate purpose for his duck.  Daffy’s existence may not have been as pleasant as Patty’s.  He was kept in a pen since my grandparents didn’t have a fence all the way round their yard.  To me, Daffy didn’t seem like a pet without the freedom to roam his domain.  I can remember my cousins Ronnie and Heather and I sticking the tips of our sneaker-clad feet through the fencing to annoy Daffy.  He would nip angrily at our toes and we would all laugh and run away.   The grownups never knew.

Back at my house Patty reigned free.  We kept her food in the shed.  The shed was red on the outside, dark on the inside and always smelled of gasoline and cut grass.  I loved to look through the mysterious things on the shelves that I am sure at some point had a purpose but seemed to have outlived their usefulness.  I knew I wasn’t supposed to go in there or touch anything but I did anyway.  I especially loved the oilcan.  It looked just like the one they used in the Wizard of Oz.  Sometimes we snuck it out into the yard and I pretended I was the tin man frozen in time.  I think there is a part of each of us that is always frozen in time. The point in our lives where everything was simple and your biggest decision of the day was peanut butter and jelly or bologna and cheese for lunch

Well, one day, when I was five, the boy next door and I where going to play “Speed Racer” on our big wheels like we did most afternoons.  I couldn’t find mine.  It was not on the front porch or the in the driveway.  It was not supposed to be in either of those places anyway, but I of course I knew that it could be.  Next, I thought I’d look in the backyard.  Down towards the end of the yard was a  “big pile of white”.   Since a five year old is easily distracted I ran down the yard to investigate.

It was Patty.  She was mangled and I can clearly remember her head lying on its side with her eyes closed.  Some hideous creature of the backyard had eaten her! I ran to my parent’s room.  They were getting dressed to go somewhere special.  I remember sitting on the edge of the bed crying and my father,  who didn’t know what what to do, curtly said “what are you crying for you never fed it anyway”.  He didn’t handle tears very well.

I never knew what happened to her after that.  Who cleared up the remains, what did they do with her?  There was no ceremonial burial or little marker in the yard to serve as reminder of her existence.   She is just an anecdote in my memory.   So, what did I learn from having a pet duck?  I really couldn’t tell you other than tears obviously made my father uncomfortable.  I know it’s a strange insight for a five year old but I could see he really didn’t know how to handle the situation.  In a way I felt bad for him.  Truth was, I was crying more out of guilt than anything.   I felt guilty I didn’t know more about her, that I hadn’t actually made her my “friend”.  I’m sure ducks must have a personality in there somewhere. Maybe it was just a gentle way for life to begin teaching me eventually everything will pass through this life so I must appreciate it. 

I’d love to tell you that because of this I have never taken a pet or person for granted but that’s not true.  Now, as an adult, I try never to do that but Patty the Duck wasn’t the one to teach me that lesson. Like most people that lesson is hard learned through mistakes we make.  Maybe it’s as simple as having a pet as a child brings experiences that turn into memories that linger in your psyche and become part of who you are.  Memories of good times spent with siblings and cousins and people we love our whole lives because they were part of that simple period that was full of innocence.  Memories of a father who doesn’t like his little girl to be sad but doesn’t know how to help her so instead he puts up a stony front.  Funny how every time I see a white duck it triggers memories of my grandparents’ kitchen and my grandfather sitting in his screened porch dozing in a chair, memories of my sweet cousins and I laughing and running.  The pets may be long gone and more importantly some of the loved ones as well but the memories linger frozen in time for us to spend as much time with as we like. Those memories I will always cherish.