In the treasure chest of gems I inherited from my father when I was born, I can count blue eyes, freckles, long toes and a love of all things Irish. But there's one dark characteristic John G. Melia bequeathed to me that has cast a dark shadow over every summer of my life: a deadly fear of bugs.
When did I first realize this? It may have been the first time I saw him frantically brushing ants off his feet in our backyard in a dance against Mother Nature. Or it could have been the day I saw him spraying everything in sight with a mist that left a hazy stench around our house for hours.
His phobia almost killed my family. I was about 10 years old and looking forward to our yearly summer vacation in the mountains. My father and mother packed their five young daughters into their '55 Chevy. After a few hours of singing, arguing and snacking in the car, just when everyone was settling down, my father let out a blood-curdling scream and the car suddenly lurched to the right, pulling off the road near a steep cliff. With a sense of panic, my father shut off the engine, jumped out of the car and started swatting his pants. A few minutes later, as the six of us watched with terror, we spotted the problem. A furry bumblebee, big as a bird, flew out of the ankle of his pant leg -- and my father sighed with relief.
You could say that my sisters and I have been scarred for life by this fear. On a hot summer day, when we sit by the pool and a fly lands on one of us, the scene is dramatic. The victim jumps up quickly, flails her arms and runs in circles. Considering ourselves warned, the rest of us follow suit in what looks like a mad parade, until the coast is clear and the danger passes. The bonding grows deeper with each summer.
You may be surprised to know there is an advantage to this fear that we share. After years of battle, we are ever prepared, whether the enemy be grasshoppers, cicadas, yellow jackets, beetles or the dreaded earwigs.
For instance, my sister Mary knows the exact date -- Aug. 10 -- when the greenhead flies will arrive in her pool. Eileen knows that on June 1, she can find the beginnings of a wasp nest in her barbecue -- and destroy it. I know that on March 15, I'd better call the exterminator or my kitchen cabinets will become a diner for a colony of ants.
My son-in-law Nat has watched these antics for years with the objectivity of one who is part of the family but lacks our DNA. When I visited him and my daughter a few years ago, they gave me a tour of their beautiful vegetable garden. My granddaughter Olivia, then 3, held my hand as we walked. Sure enough, a bee flew by and I started waving both arms. Olivia looked at me and said, "It's OK, Nana. The bees are our friends." I looked at Nat with awe as he explained he was determined to break this family tradition.
My dad would be so proud of him.
Reader Kathy Levine lives in Long Beach.