Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lady Bugs, Inch Worms and Mice, Oh My!

For the most part, you could not pay me enough to live in a brand new house. Those level-straight floors, counters that fit snug-tight and Anderson windows, thick as an astigmatic’s glasses, don’t appeal to me. Where is the character? Where is the history?

In our house, the massive beams that form the sills are splinter-rough and bear the slashes of the axes that hewed them. After two hundred and twenty years, they continue to do yeoman duty. It doesn’t require even close inspection, however, to detect the dusty residue left by hungry borers or the rot caused by centuries of rain. One would think this a concern, and perhaps it should be, but a builder friend checked out the house for us. He tested the sills by jabbing a key deep into the unnervingly pliant wood. After he withdrew it, he wiped the key clean of saw dust on his jeans and said, “Look at that. I can drive my key its full length into this beam, but you’ve still got more solid wood at the core than the width of the timbers they use in new construction. Those old builders knew what they were doing.”

I keep reminding myself of those comforting words, particularly when the yawning fissures and holes in this old house grant passage to an assemblage of creatures I’d just as soon stay outdoors.

This has been an exceptionally cold winter and I don’t begrudge anyone shelter. Even the mice that laugh at our cats would be welcome if only they’d refrain from leaving turds in the utensil drawer. As unnerving as it is to pull out the garbage pail under the sink and have a doe-eyed, Disney-eared, little guy leap at me, I could live with that. Seriously. Not so long ago, a mouse pursued by our cats around the edges of the den as Dave and I watched TV would have prompted me to shriek like a lunatic. Now, I lift my feet and urge Dave to do something, but there is no hysteria in my voice.

While mystified as to how the mice attain such a lofty and seemingly uninviting destination, I have even tolerated their leavings in the potholder drawer which is next to the stove, four feet off the kitchen floor. But when I took placemats from the sideboard in the dining room in February and discovered nibblings and turds even there, I was creeped out. Visions of running, tumbling hordes, reminiscent of those pictured in documentaries of the bubonic plague era, sent shivers pimpling my skin. It was “eewww” territory, definitely.

That’s not all. I love this house, but what is it with all the lady bugs? I have always thought lady bugs charming and highly desirable visitors. Some people import them to populate their yards - they must prey on bad bugs or something. They are the subject of cartoons, quaint watercolors, and painted handbags - always cheery in their rotund redness and perky spots. But in winter, they materialize, in prodigious numbers, on the walls and windows of our house. They crawl over one another, falling in showers from window shades and curtains. I would never have imagined recoiling from the ever- friendly lady bug, but ewww!

Sadly, anyone who reads this will give our house wide berth from now on, but there is yet another unwanted pest that has made free to join us. Gleefully tormenting us in two incarnations, sort of a chicken and egg kind of thing, we are beset by moths in the summer time. (Please note, pretty much every season is covered.) In different circumstances, I have been known to capture a moth in gently cupped hands to release it outdoors to freedom. That has changed in recent years as these dusty butterfly cousins erupt from cupboards and even from the guaranteed air-tight (moth-tight!) Tupperware flour cannisters. What is the deal? Luckily they seem more interested in the kitchen cupboards than the closets upstairs, so our woolens have been spared so far.

I am knocking on wood as I write that.

The moths are mildly annoying, but it is their delightful offspring that trigger the ew-meter. Dave calls them “maggots;” I insist on the far less repulsive “inchworm.” I picture Danny Kaye singing, “Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigold...” But I’m not kidding myself, it’s unnerving to see them on the ceiling, making their way along the shelves, curled under the lip of those Tupperware containers. I swear, we are not disgusting people - why the invasion?

I have, in fact, discovered that most of these intruders seem to have arrived in sealed bags of rice or beans. It’s small comfort because now every boxed product is suspect, the contents scrutinized for movement or dried carcasses while being poured into boiling water.

I guess these are just part of country living and I believe the trade-offs are worth it, but I can’t help a shudder as I scan the kitchen ceiling, tissue in hand, performing a maggot-purging ceremony.