When I was growing up, my grandma had a great system for spending time with her grandkids. It ensured bickering would be low to nil, and the level of care quite manageable. She would invite all of us kids to spend a week with her and grandpa at their modest but cozy home during the lazy summer months. We were all invited – just not at the same time!
Being significantly older than the two siblings who ruined my perfect life as an only child, my summer visits to the grandparents were usually solo. And, because my grandpa would be out working in the bush felling trees, I spent a lot of time with Grandma.
We got along pretty well. We had some common interests, like reading and playing Scrabble. She seemed to like making pie and I certainly enjoyed eating pie, especially cherry pie. I now understand that not all of her domestic duties were fun and games, but then again she did start cooking for the family and hired hands on her parents’ farm in Idaho at the tender age of seven. But I digress, and need to get back to another of our shared passions: fishing.
Grandma would take me out to a little lake on the dusty back roads between her house and mine. Eastern Lake was perfect for fishing from the canoe. We would try our luck in the deep water along the way to a field of lily pads with their joyous yellow blooms.
I am sure Grandma urged me to leave my line in the water, but for a fidgety kid nothing beats casting, casting and casting some more. Oh yes, and nearly hooking your grandmother’s earlobe, getting your line tangled, catching the weeds, and very occasionally getting a nibble or strike from a real rainbow trout. Why would she want me to sit quietly with my line dragging in the water?
One of our earliest expeditions to Eastern Lake nearly ended in disaster.
Grandma was in the stern of the canoe, paddling us along the shore where the sedges and reeds were thick and the occasional willow extended its craggy arms from a mossy hummock. I was probably fidgeting and wondering when it would be time to start casting. I liked to stare at the water and look for the rings of the rising trout I would soon be trying to entice with my shiny new Mepps spinner.
Grandma looked up and smiled, taking one hand off of her paddle to point behind me.
“Look!” she said. “Devil’s darning needle!”
I heard a whirr and turned to see a creature the size of a small airplane, with a hideously elongated body and bulging eyes, coming straight toward me.
I cried out, dropped my rod and started scrambling to get away. As the canoe wobbled fiercely Grandma grabbed the gunwhales and hollered at me. “Sit still! You are going to drown us both!!!” She got my attention, and I held steady long enough for the canoe to stop rocking and the dragonfly to continue its meandering flight along the shore.
Something about the invocation “Devil’s darning needle” got me. I don’t recall hearing the term before, but somehow the definition must have been in my DNA.
According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica:
The term devil’s darning needle is derived from a superstition that dragonflies may sew up the eyes, ears, or mouth of a sleeping child, especially one who has misbehaved.
Grandma must have been thinking about that last bit when she lobbed out the folkloric name of the creature buzzing toward my head.
Grandma spent the rest of the trip assuring me that dragonflies would not hurt me, and in fact they eat loads of mosquitoes and other bugs that like to feast on small children. Her explanation must have been effective because I never developed any dragoferosus (the technical term for dragonfly phobia) after the day I nearly dumped us into the tannin-brown waters of Eastern Lake.
Two events in recent weeks conspired to remind me of this story.
The first happened while digging through a little neighbourhood “free library” on a city visit. One of the children’s books was called “A Wildlife ABC”. I opened the book to the page you see in the feature image for this article.
The second was a morning kayak outing with Valerie. As we paddled around the point near our house, she said “Something’s in the water!”. There was a small, vibrating ripple just off the bow. As I steered the kayak and floated by, I saw a dragonfly in the water. I scooped it with my hand and gently set it on the side of the kayak. It raised a foreleg and sadly wiped a drop of water from its googly compound eye. It sat there, waterlogged and motionless as we paddled off into the sunrise.
I forgot about it until we were almost home. I looked down and the dragonfly had dried off. I marveled at its iridescent eyes, the perfect aerodynamic shape of its metallic rust-red body ending in a needle point, and its strong and nimble dark-veined wings. I reached down and with the tip of my finger lightly touched the Devil’s darning needle on its thorax between the two sets of wings. It started vibrating its wings very slightly, as if warming up its engine, then shot up and away toward the shore, above the waves on its way to straighten out another misbehaving child – one stitch at a time.
Image from The Wildlife ABC: A Nature Alphabet by Jan Thornhill