(an edited version of the following, written by me, was printed in the Dallas Morning News on Jan. 31, 2001.)
“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a really cool fish tank.”
My oldest daughter turned six on Thanksgiving Day, and we surprised her with something she’s wanted for a year: an aquarium. Only this is no ordinary aquarium. This is the 1.5 gallon Undersea Encounter Aquarium, ordered from the JC Penney Christmas catalog, complete with “underwater viewing scope” which moves up and down and rotates so kids can get a “face to fish” view! And the tank has a “3-D undersea environment” with a fake volcano that bubbles if you buy an optional air pump! “Just add water and live fish!” Even though I know from when I was a kid how hard it is to keep goldfish alive, I think maybe this time things will be different. Surely things have changed since the 60’s and 70’s. I mean, when I was a kid, my goldfish were in a bowl from Woolworth’s and didn’t have a fancy pump. And I never had printed INSTRUCTIONS, for goodness sake. So I have high hopes that this time will be a success. My daughter eagerly awaits the trip to the fish store to choose the fish.
“On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me, two goldfish, and a really cool fish tank.”
After all the other things we had to do finally got done, she and I got to the fish store about thirty minutes before they closed. I read the aquarium instructions for the first time while sitting in the car in the parking lot of the store. “Oops,” I tell my daughter. “It says here that you have to sit the water in an open container for 24 hours before pouring it into the fish tank. We may not be able to get the fish tonight, but we’ll get the supplies.” Disappointed but still hopeful, she bounds into the store. Instruction sheet in hand, I tick off the list of supplies we need, to the clerk.
“Gravel, a cellulose sponge, an air stone, three feet of tubing, goldfish food, water conditioner, and a small air pump. Oh, and it says that the water has to sit for 24 hours before adding the fish. Is that true?” I ask. “No,” the clerk says. He tells me that as long as I put the instant water conditioner in, the water will be safe. Great, I think. I never had water conditioner when I was a kid. Then another thought occurs to me. “But another reason they say to sit out the water is to get it to room temperature. If I get it straight from the tap, won’t it be too cold?” I ask. “No, goldfish are cold water fish. They’ll be fine,” he assures me. Allison stands in front of a tank brimming with frisky goldfish that all look alike, trying to decide which to choose. She chooses one that looks like it has a white mask on, and a non-descript looking one, and the clerk puts them in a plastic bag filled with water. She carefully holds the bag of fish on her lap on the drive home, and by the time we get there, she has decided on names. The white-masked one is christened Glowy, and the regular-looking one is Goldie. She says that today is the happiest day of her life.
“On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, three prayers, two goldfish, and a really cool fish tank.”
Allison says she didn’t sleep well because the air pump hums too loud. Still, she is extremely happy and sits in her bedroom watching the fish before we go to church. Goldie and Glowy do not look so happy. They are swimming listlessly and do not dart to the top when we sprinkle on a little food. When Glowy finally eats, she appears to regurgitate it back into the water. (Great, I think. I have a cat that throws up and now a fish.) I think the air pump is churning and bubbling much too hard for such a tiny tank. Maybe that’s why they are distressed. I turn it off. I worry that the fish may not be alive when we get back from church. While there, I say an extra prayer for Allison that she will be able to handle it if they die. When we return after lunch, they’re alive. Hallelujah.
“On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, four admonishments, three prayers, two goldfish, and a really cool fish tank.”
Allison actually gets ready for school on time this morning because she can’t wait to get to school to tell her friend, Emily, about her new pet fish. Though the fish appeared to perk up for a short while yesterday, this morning they again refuse to eat and look like they’re breathing heavily. The water is cloudy. After Allison goes to school, I bundle up the baby and we head back to the fish store. This time, Barry, the owner, is there. He reminds me of “Nick Burns, the Computer Guy” on the Saturday Night Live skit– he is an expert in his field and can’t believe everyone else isn’t smarter about this stuff. Barry rolls his eyes at my predicament and declares my aquarium a “toy”. He informs me that I shouldn’t be feeding them every day at first, that I should have sat out the water to let chlorine escape into the air before I added the fish, and that I should turn the pump back on. I buy an “air control valve” to help the pump not churn so much, and he promises to stop by my house later that day to check out the set-up. He says he wants to see what this new toy is all about, in person. Later that day, he stops by and has a good laugh. He looks at my instructions and shows me which ones are completely wrong. He vows to e-mail the company with a complaint. I say great, but my daughter loves this aquarium, can’t we make it work? He helps me hook up the air control valve, and shows me the proper amount to feed. He says the cloudiness is normal with a new aquarium. He says to page him if I have any more questions. He leaves shaking his head, saying he’s tired of toy manufacturers getting into the business of selling aquariums, because they don’t do it right and then kids have a bad first experience with fish and don’t ever want to have them again. I am hoping that is not the case with my child.
“On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, seven scoops of dirt, six tiny flowers, five salty tears, four admonishments, three prayers, two goldfish, and a really cool fish tank.”
When I was picking up in Allison’s room today, I looked in the tank, and there was Glowy, showing the obvious signs of fish rigor mortis. Ah, how I remember it as a child– the blank staring look, the body on its side, curved into a “c” shape. My mother-in-law had told me that if one of the fish died, to just replace it and Allison would never know the difference. But of course the one that died just had to be the one with the unique white-masked face. Damn.
And there was Goldie, still looking distressed. I found a paper cup and scooped out Glowy. I decided to let Allison decide what to do with her when she got home from school. I broke the news in the car on the way home. She cried. “At least you still have one,” I said. What I didn’t know was that Glowy was her favorite of the two, and she was really upset, and cried all the way home. This is the worst day of my life, she declared. She decided to bury her in a backyard flowerbed. “Can I go back and dig her up when I want to look at her?” she asked. “No, I don’t think that would be a good idea,” I answered. Later that afternoon, I fed Goldie a little bit and she seemed to perk up. Oh well, I thought, Barry said the tank was too small for two fish, anyway.
“On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, eight cups of cloudy water, seven scoops of dirt, six tiny flowers, five salty tears, four admonishments, three prayers, two goldfish, and a really cool fish tank.”Well, the fish really didn’t even make it twelve days…when I went to wake up Allison for school, I saw that Goldie was now dead as well. I tried to stand in front of the aquarium as Allison wiped the sleep from her eyes and sat up. I was hoping she might be able to get to school without noticing– sometimes she got ready and didn’t look at the tank. Not this morning. As soon as I left the room, she noticed. She came into my room and softly said, “Mom, come here. I think Goldie’s dead.” Yes, she is, I assured her. She was sad, but didn’t seem to take it as hard. She says she wants a beta to replace the goldfish, and a new aquarium. I say okay to the new fish, but not a new aquarium. “We’ll do things correctly from the start this time,” I say. Before she leaves for school, she tells me she sprinkled some food in the tank, hoping it might revive Goldie. Later that morning, I can’t believe I’m burying the second goldfish and will soon be elbow deep in the aquarium, sponging off the walls instead of “decking the halls” of my house…
(Author’s update: the fish tank has forever since been stored in the garage, and we never got any fish again. Our next pet after that was a long-haired guinea pig named Snickers. Allison was allergic to its hair.)