A fish called Goldie
My niece just had the kind of Christmas that only happens when you are the first grandchild on both sides of your family. I’m glad there was a lot of video taken, because when the next kids start arriving, she’ll want picture proof that there was a time when every present under the tree was for her, and her baby brother ruined what was a really good thing. Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything.
But anyways, one of her more awesome gifts was a beta fish. She named it “Chonger” I don’t know why. I’m assuming it’s a character on some show she watches, or else she’s just a really creative namer. But Chonger is her first Lilly-owned pet, which got me thinking about my first pet: Goldie, the goldfish.
When I talk about first pets, I mean the first one that you took real ownership of, and for most of us, its either a fish or a hermit crab, because there’s not a whole lot a small child has to do to keep them alive. Basically, you feed them, occasionally clean their bowls/ cages, and they just live a happy little existence, never the wise to the fact that their caregiver can’t even tie their own shoes.
I was four when I won Goldie at the Ripley Carnival, a place that has probably been the site of many a child’s first pet. I’m thinking now that parents must have hoped fervently that the ping-pong ball game-guy got lost on the way, because really, how happy can you be that your child has the hand-eye coordination to get a ping-pong ball in a glass fish bowl when you know you’re taking that fish home with you (side note: all the kids who were great at the goldfish game went on to be master beer pong players in college. Again, not something their parents are that proud of.)?
So I won myself a goldfish in a little plastic bag filled with water, and I named her Goldie, because I was not as clever at naming things at a young age as my niece is. My parents got me a glass bowl from the old pet store across from the Dairy Queen, some tank rocks, and a little ceramic castle for Goldie to play in. And Goldie lived happily on the edge of my dresser, and I happily fed her little fish flakes, and not-so-happily cleaned her bowl out once every few weeks.
Goldie lived a long time for a goldfish that started out life in a plastic bag. For four years, she and I co-existed in my room, until the day my dad took a landman assignment in Pennsylvania, and had the opportunity to bring the whole family with him for the summer. Since I was on summer vacation, my parents decided that I would go ahead up with him, and my mom and brother would follow. Since Goldie had already proven herself to be highly low maintenance, she was coming to Pennsylvania with me.
I’d like to tell you we went out and got Goldie some fancy fish carrier, but this was the 80s: my mother just washed out one of the nearly-empty tubs of Country Crock margarine we had in the fridge, slid Goldie and her tank water into it, then slapped on the lid. I held that Country Crock tub for the entire trip to Erie, Pennsylvania, five-hours of driving, plus a one-and-a-half-hour stop at someone’s house while my dad got a lease signed (because as all landmen know, if you do even a little work, you can charge the whole day. That’s landman math.). Goldie handled the trip like a pro, and when we finally got settled into my dad’s temporary apartment, her transfer to a large silver mixing bowl as her new home seemed to go smooth, for a few weeks.
The thing about animals is, fish especially, you just don’t know how they’re going to react to change. Why Goldie decided to fling herself out of her silver mixing bowl one day, I’ll never know. What I do know is that I came home, went to check on Goldie, and she was floating on the water’s surface, where my parents had gently placed her after finding her on the carpet. I asked my parents if she was sleeping; she was not.
Here’s the other thing about goldfish as a child’s first pet: they are often a child’s first brush with the concept of death. I was devastated at her loss, just cried and cried. And then my parents did what all parents have to do in this situation: explain in broad terms the concept of death, and then make a little ceremony out of it involving a prayer and the bathroom toilet. Who knows how many children have prayed over goldfish as their parents pressed the toilet flusher; millions, I’m sure, as sure as I am that the Lord heard every one of those prayers and sent a little healing into tiny broken hearts.
Flash forward a number of years, and mid-twenties, my friends and I decided to head to the Ripley carnival late one night, and I got the wild idea that I wanted a goldfish again. So to the ping-pong game we went, and let me tell you: I couldn’t win a goldfish to save my life. I was winning stuffed animals hand-over-fist, including some dog the size of a small child, to the amazement of an actual small child next to me, who had won no less than eight goldfish of his own. His parents overheard me complaining to my friends that I didn’t want the stuffed animals, just a goldfish, and they offered a trade: their child wanted my stuffed dog, and they’d give me all his goldfish. I negotiated that they had to take all my stuffed animal winnings, which they did happily, and I walked away thinking I was mastering The Art of the Deal.
Not so much; see, mid-twenties me realized literally on the way home, with a passenger seat full of bagged goldfish next to me, that I didn’t really want to be responsible for goldfish right now, and since it was almost midnight, I didn’t have anyone I could call to pawn them off on. So I did what I thought was the sensible, humane thing and dumped them into the pond in our yard (I took them out of the baggies first-put away your robo call to PETA). I figured they’d either sink or swim, literally.
Into the pond they went, and I didn’t think much about them for months, until one day I was walking around the pond and saw a large flash of gold. And because no one ever told me that goldfish will grow to the size of the body of water they live in (seriously, what did I go to college for, if they can’t give me this kind of basic knowledge?), I couldn’t believe until someone finally fished one out that those eight carnival goldfish were now the size of my arm. And many years later, there’s still a school of them in my pond, delighting the kids who fish in it, and delighting me because I don’t have to feed them or clean their living habitat.
I know one day my niece is going to have to say goodbye to Chonger, and he’ll have the equivalent of a Viking funeral in the guest bathroom. But I hope that Chonger has the longevity of Goldie, a good goldfish and an even better first pet. And if anyone sees me at the ping-pong game at the Ripley carnival in the future: you have my permission to stop me, take my money, and send me home, no matter how much I tell you I want a goldfish. You’ll be doing me a real service.