by Rhonda Loucks
— It is a special day for sweethearts and lovers, but since our children were born, Valentine’s Day has become a day for each of those you cherish and all of those you love. So, we make or buy some little something and surprise each other with special thoughts and unique gifts, and we call each other sweetheart for the day.
For Valentine’s Day this year our family decided to go together and buy each other a fish tank. We had just moved into our new home and there was a beautiful space in the wall of the stair case that begged for a large feature. We considered a painting (too flat), a floral piece (too normal), a statue (too, well, not us). Then someone suggested fish. The square hole constructed in the side of the stairs would be a perfect place for a large glass aquarium. Just perfect!
The space was about four feet wide. It was taller than wider, and about a foot and a half deep. It had no electric outlet nearby, and although we could have followed the advice of one of our middle children to run the bright green Christmas light extension cord around the corner of the hall and half way up the stairs, we decided to wire an outlet to a more inconspicuous spot. Since the space was directly connected to the under stair storage unit, wires could be easily added, which they were. OK, they were added as easily as all household projects are. The electricity project took longer and was more expensive than our earlier estimate of “10 minutes and $10.” But, there it was – the first part of our plan completed – a new outlet for our fish tank.
We gathered up our seven children and their allowances and chore money (some of which was still contained in piggy banks and change jars) and headed toward the van. Some of the kids were willing to spend it all while others were reservedly allowing themselves to spend only a precise percentage amount. This “gathering” also took longer and cost our patience, and our day, much more than originally estimated.
Off and away to the store! A 40-minute drive from our small town to the big city which housed the retail stores selling our Valentine’s Day dream – the family fish tank. On the way I made the mistake of asking a simple question. Actually the mistake was in believing my mind’s deceptive cinematography of the response. As I ran the question and its response through my mind, it played out like a beautifully polished Victrola of harmonic family union and consideration for each other’s opinions. But when actually released from my lips, the echo of answers to my question sounded more like a pack of hungry puppies just loosed on a portion of raw meat. They did not intend to harm each other; they each just wanted the meat. So to make sure their opinion was heard, they verbally scurried and fought and jumped over each other to make certain that they had gotten a slice of what was thrown them. I had asked, “What kind of fish should we get for our new fish tank?” And though the question seemed simple enough, it had the hidden power to reduce our beautiful family trip to pouting and tears and broken hearts.
“Sharks with big teeth” was one suggestion. And while my mind whirled for a reply, I heard someone else say, “That’s just dumb! Everyone knows that sharks need salt water to live in, and we are getting a fresh water tank.” This then led to a fact-filled discussion from all age groups regarding salt water verses fresh water sharks and their capability to not only survive but thrive in those environments. Even the oldest children pulled ear-phones from their normal “plugged” position and added scientific comments. My head screamed, “Does no one realize that salt is not the reason we are not even considering sharks with big teeth for our tank?
“Little pink ones with babies!” came from the sweet lips of the youngest child who was cozily sitting beside me. And before I could explain to her that the mommy fish would not be carrying around the baby fish in blankets or pushing them in buggies it began:
“Some with spots,”
“No! Little eyes,”
“Fish don’t have eyelids, you know.”
“Mommy, can we please get some baby fish?”
“Fish babies are eggs, and you can eat them.”
“Mommy, are we going to eat our fish babies?”
“He wants dumb ole fish that you cant even see.”
“Uh-Huh! You can see their bones.”
“Who wants to see their bones unless they’re dead?”
“I saw some big fish bones in the Hysterical Museum last year when we took a field trip.”
“You didn’t go to any Hysterical Museum.”
“Uh Huh! I did.”
“No you didn’t. There is no such thing.”
“Mom, Didn’t I go to the Hysterical Museum?”
“Historical, honey, not Hysterical.”
And with a squint of my eyes I let big brother know that he could have corrected that quite differently.
“What? What did I do?”
“You confused him,” I said.
“How did I confuse him? He’s the one who said he went to a hysterical museum to see dead fish bones.”
“Mommy, let’s not get any fish with bones in them, then they won’t die.”
“Hey, are we getting sharks or not?” came the question again from the middle seats. And then my husband calmly said, “No sharks, and we’re here.”
With measurements of the hole in the staircase wall recorded in blueprint format and a tape measure in hand we entered the store, my head still spinning from all the unanswered questions. We spent a good half hour bouncing from exhibit to exhibit. “Like a zoo for free,” I said, and my partner laughed. Kittens and puppies and snakes and Yuck! Yuck! Yuck! “No! You are absolutely never having one of those, I made very clear.” Lizards and more lizards and lizards with beards! And, “What in the world are those things? Gross!” Gerbils and hedge hogs and even a porcupine! “Mommy, Can I pick it up?”
Then I heard myself say “Hey, Come look at these birds of all colors and sizes. Maybe we should get a bird. Honey do you remember the bird you got me when we were first married?” He replied, “Do you remember we renamed him ‘Toughy’ for a very particular reason?” What was I thinking? We have four farm cats that now live in the city. Well, small town. However, the temptation would be far too great for them. And, thank goodness, that rules out all pet rodents as well.
“Fish, Honey. Fish. Didn’t we come to get fish?” I heard the sound of my husband’s deep voice and like a piped-piper; a line formed from all directions and followed him across the store to the aquatic section.
Two very tall walls, holding at least 100 tanks lined the perimeter of the section entitled “Aquatic Oasis.” They were filled with every sort and color of fish. At least, every sort and color that was described in the van on the way to the store. Everything, that is, except sharks. Again, thank goodness. And, while the seven of them stood there, clustered together, mesmerized by the options, my husband and I slipped down a perpendicular aisle to look at the tanks.
We were hoping for an all-in-one, all-you-could-possibly-need kit. You know: the perfect bundle that will save you time, money and frustration. Well, no such thing – at least not for (what seemed to now be) a very uniquely shaped and sized tank we needed to fill our “perfect place for a fish tank” hole in the wall. “Let’s ask someone,” the second most thoughtless words from my mouth that day slipped out. “Come on,” I said to my glaring husband, “That looks like a nice guy.” And so he was. I think he said his name was Joe. And Joe, the fish guy, knew more about fish and tanks and water than anything we had ever expected. And although sometimes our elementary questions seemed to really perplex him, he just nodded and grinned and kept explaining.
We had armed ourselves with general Internet research which now seemed to be very limited and obsolete, at least that is what Joe felt. “Obsolete?” my head said. “How in the world can fish information be obsolete?” “Fish are ancient,” myself agreed. “And, fish are just fish,” I added to my own argument. My head hurt. We had covered three long aisles in the last 30-40 minutes of tanks and filters and accessories. And, by my calculations, we were up to about five times what we had expected to pay for this project. And that’s without the fish. “Fish. Fish,” I repeated in my head like a trigger to an alarm. Where are the kids?
Still looking. In one glance I saw that they were all still looking. So, I sighed with relief. They were moving slowly up and down like some sort of rhythmic ballet: big ones lifting and lowering, middle ones stretching and bending, little ones waving their arms with great expression. What a beautiful and harmonic ballet. I turned around as quickly as I had turned away and there was my husband standing without Joe. I dared not ask. Instead I joined my silent fish-tank-selecting partner in ìthe reading of the labels. We were trying to sort out the information overload. “Better start simple,” I said. “Tank that fits, good filter and pump, and add the rest later,” he defined. He and I were in absolute agreement. And still, we filled our cart with rocks and tubes and so much more. Then we called the kids to pick out one center piece.
There were so many really cool things and so, so many options. So, we gave the kids some categories and word phrases to help. We came up with, “too much money”, “too big for the tank,” and “too evil looking.” This helped us, and them, quickly eliminate some of the options. Then we added democracy. Everything left was in the running so we sat one of each on the floor in the aisle in a line in front of us. I’m sure we looked like some sort of crazy fish-tank-decorations-judging-committee, but at this point things were what they were and what my husband and I were: desperate to finish.
Everyone got one vote, sort of. We ended up with one large coral reef (with a few bright pink plastic flowers attached), one medium sinking pirate ship (with dilapidated sails and secret compartments), and one smaller underwater diver (with treasure chest and working bubbles). No one voted for the diver except me, and still, my husband put it in the cart. Now, we needed more tubes and a pump that could supply three outlets instead of one.
“Plants?” Really, I thought.
“Live or Plastic?”
“Joe, I honestly don’t care,” I stated.
“Yes sweetie, if there are pink plants, you can have one.” She had been the one to make the greatest concession with the choice of coral color, I justified to myself. She had wanted the large pink and purple sparkling princess castle with bubbles. And, I was still going to have to tell her about those fish babies. So, “Yes, yes you can.” And I threw a look to her older male siblings as if to threaten death to anyone who spoke against this great pink idea. They bowed their heads in silent agreement. Hoorah! I still maintain the power.
Then out of the victorious silence I heard a sound. It was the kind of sound that only mothers hear: the kind that straightens your spine and tenses your muscles like a lioness ready to leap. Radar on! Ears up! Eyes scanning! There it came again, the sound of one of my children in real distress. I turned toward the sound. It was the voice of my youngest son: a whine, a yelp, a cry and then running towards me, a loud and anguished sob. “Mom, mom, mom, we can’t get any fish today,” He said. And then came the tears.
Pulling back in my claws, I met him half way and cuddled his face in my hands. “What did you say about fish? Slow down and say it clearly.”
“That fish lady over there said we can’t have any of her fish.”
Then the rest of my tribe reached me with detailed explanation and each had comments and translations of their own.
“We can’t buy fish on day #1.”
“Yep, first day, I knew that.”
“We can have fish but not the fish he was looking at.”
“We can have fish but only from the tanks with blue stickers.”
“Tanks with green stickers eat the fish in tanks with blue stickers.”
“What?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”
“Fish in tanks but not today.”
“Not blue and not green.”
“Oh no not today!”
“Not any sticker tanks.”
“That surely won’t do,”
“Because today is day#1 for you.”
And, the very matter of fact, Dr. Seuss-type fish lady salesman ended with
“Not for fourteen.”
Which did not rhyme, by the way, but the whole family understood. We were going to have to set up the tank, let the water age, and then bring in a sample. If the sample passed the fish lady’s test, we could buy her fish. If not, then back to the long tank accessory aisles of answers we would have to go. “Daddy, daddy, can I have two pink plastic plants now ’cause I don’t get a castle or a fish today?”
Ashamed of the riot she had caused and the tearfully sobbing child she had wounded, the fish lady melted a little and tried to softly explain. She started by reassuring my younger children that she did indeed want to sell them fish but that the fish would get sick if we put them in their new home today. She said that the new home had to get “dirty” a little and that would take some time. I saw the proud thinking in my younger son’s eyes. He knew how he could get that tank dirty fast.
Then the fish lady said in more quiet tones, “We have to do it just right.” And with a very, very, almost inaudible voice, she whispered the words, “Or, they may die.” And before anyone could respond, she said very cheerfully and in a louder more poetic voice, “This is when we let all the kittens out to play. They have to have their exercise. Does anyone want to hold one?” I saw her face; she must have been a mom.
My husband grinned at her cunning and said it would be okay. And off they went: the medium ones and the little ones. Quickly my partner and I and the older ones made the final choices, double checked our lists, and then made our way to the checkout counter. With all decisions made and everything in order, I sent my husband to collect the children. I knew that would be easier for him than the process of check-out. And finally, we were finished.
We had come with expectations of acquiring an easy kit tank, a large amount of beautiful, tranquility-offering fish with a small to medium budget. Three hours later, we walked out of the store with no fish, a tank whose box boldly stated “some assembly required: and “tools required” in large red letters, and no peace or tranquility anywhere in the vicinity. Oh, and we had spent double our budget.
The kids laughed and skipped and played with each other on the way to the van. Three of them were holding hands. The entire 40 minutes home they talked in excited tones about what they had seen and what they had held and how they couldn’t wait to return. They all thought that the trip was really, really “cool.”
The youngest feel asleep holding a sack “all of her own” which contained one very bright and sparkling pink plastic plant. The older boys made plans of how they would build the thing and what it would look like when it was all finished and full of water. I could picture the beauty and feel the excitement myself. My husband drove in silence with a look of satisfaction on his face that made me feel absolutely content with the experience.
It was not what I had expected to happen that day. It was certainly not what we had planned. We had some moments when things were pretty rough, and I was afraid for us, for our goal, for our relationships. Pressures and influences from the outside tried to confuse us and trap us and turn us against each other. And pressures from the inside broke open to the surface and tried to wound us beyond repair. But there we were: a family unbroken.
Churches are like families. Christian groups are like families. Families are families. We set out with great expectations and grand plans and elaborate project dreams. And, often times, we have no real knowledge of what it will take to accomplish the desired result. And while we are doing too much, or maybe too little, we end up wounding each other and frustrating ourselves.
And the family is broken. And groups separate. And the church breaks.
Please teach us to live in constant awareness.
Help us to remember that it is the people and not the project that is important.
Please help us realize that it is the fun we have, the memories we make, and the trials we overcome that really matter.
Help us to be willing to adjust the plans as needed for the sake of the people and Your will.
So Lord, today as we set out to take on the next big project, please help us keep our hearts on the people and not on the stupid fish tank.
Rhonda D. Loucks is an author, wife, mother, Sunday School teacher and member of Wichita First Church of the Nazarene. More of her writings are available at uncutobedience.com.