jayellebee's Blog

May 3, 2013

A Fish Story

     Each year during breakfast on the day before Christmas, my Dad would announce that even though his office was closed, he needed to go in for a while.  Mom nodded, and hours later he returned with boxes, bags and a satisfied smile.  One might think Dad was a natural procrastinater, but I actually believe he liked the hustle and bustle of what used to be the busiest shopping day of the year.  Whatever the truth, Dad’s routine was predictable and his gifts were not.

photo1     When I was in college, he took my breath away with an aquarium kit: ten gallon tank, filter, heater, decorative gravel.  The whole shebang.  Even a gift certificate redeemable for  fish.  I’d had lots of half-dead carnival goldfish as a child.  Generations of fan-tailed male guppies and their plain Jane female counterparts had even taught me a little something about multiplication.  And once, Grandma sent away for a pair of mail-order seahorses.  But the package arrived with two desicated corpses and a  disagreeable odor, so I’d never had tropical fish!  I assembled the tank and exchanged my certificate for schooling neon tetras and a pair of “glass” catfish (their transparent flesh makes the skeletons visible).

     Maybe Dad was trying to augment my education, because I learned more from his gift than many of my classes.  First off, the pH of aquarium water matters.  My Chem 1A prof at Cal can be forgiven for not mentioning this fact.  But the owner of the pet store should’ve let me in on the secret.  If he had, he could’ve sold me a pH test kit.  Since he hadn’t, he got to sell me a batch of replacement fish.  Method to his madness?

     One hard lesson followed another until I eventually had a pretty good handle on how not to kill fish.  I even learned to select fish that wouldn’t kill each other.  The tank moved with me into a cozy apartment when I got married.  My groom discovered he liked having an aquarium, too.  Just not in the bedroom.  Something about the constant burble of bubbles . . . . photo4

     Our nights on the town often included visits to aquarium shops.  We invested in a succession of ever-larger tanks, elaborate stands, aquatic plants and exotic fish.  Red tailed sharks were always a favorite.  The hobby followed us into our first home, then our second.  Our children delighted in their “pets.”  Eventually the challenge of keeping the tank clean and healthy became a chore and when the carpet needed to be replaced, the set-up was stored in the attic.

     Five years passed.  Son Number One caught a crayfish at Clear Lake and brought her home.  [You can read about “Garbanza” in my November 2012 post, “The Birds and the Bees (and Crayfish, Too)”]  The old tank was resurrected and our son fell victim to aquarium fever.

     His freshman dorm at San Jose State allowed small tanks, so it wasn’t long before his favorite oscarphoto2 moved on-campus.  My son has always had a knack for  — hmm, the word “scams” seems so harsh — entrepreneurial schemes.   This oscar preferred live food and would actually eat feeder fish (young goldfish) out of my son’s fingers.  By buying ten feeders for a buck, and charging his fellow dorm dwellers a quarter to feed the oscar, my son had a lucrative side business and his fish grew  fat and sassy.

     A change of colleges (his decision, not the administration’s) brought this young man back under my roof.  Somehow or other he ended up with a second, considerably larger tank to accommodate an arawana, an eel-like creature native to the Amazon basin.  The fish’s iridescent scales shimmied as it swam the length of the tank, trolling  the water’s surface non-stop with two feelers in case an errant fly or jungle snake might have fallen within reach.  As the fish increased in size, the tank’s lid had to be weighted down with books (the only real use my son had for his courses’ required tomes) to prevent this 16-ish inch-long, leaping arawana from landing on the bedroom floor and thrashing about until it could be re-captured in a towel. 

     “Larry” moved with my son to his first house.  A tank built just for this denison of the not-so-deep (eight feet long by only about a foot deep), was created.  But that wasn’t enough for my son.  He dug a koi pond in his backyard and adorned it with a waterfall.  Then he knocked out an interior wall and built an aquarium viewable from two rooms  in the void.  Truly, he was a man possessed.

     My youngest son was only eight when he succumbed to the aquarium bug.  The same symptoms Ken and I experienced as newlyweds manifested themselves in this little boy.  His first ten gallon tank was quickly outgrown.  He couldn’t spend enough time in the shops that catered to his cravings.  Yes, the oscars his brother enjoyed were interesting, but lion fish. . . .  Oh, lion fish! photo They were hypnotic with their poisonous quills and insatiable appetites.

     My twelve-year-old had no use for a closet, since his clothing was happiest on the bedroom floor.  So, the sliding closet doors went into storage to make space for the biggest tank the kid could afford.  Thanks to a winning Bingo card, that tank was humongous.  I couldn’t really complain, though.  My boy was so happy.

     As a young man, this son realized he could support his habit by working for an aquarium store.  He drove to businesses and homes servicing other people’s tanks and saw wondrous things.  Wondrous, salt water things.  Wondrous, expensive, salt water things!  And the corals.   Ooo, the corals sang to him like those fabled sirens of the ancient mariners.  He’d found his calling. 

     Son Number Three has limited himself to three aquariums in his home.  But he now has his own business selling, setting up and maintaining fresh and salt water aquariums for individuals and businesses around the San Francisco Bay area.  He is also on the board of a “Coral Club” which brings members together to share and trade all manner of beautiful corals raised domestically, not ripped from the Earth’s endangered natural reefs. 

 academy of science 020    He recently took Ken and me on a personal tour of the new Steinhart Aquarium in Golden Gate Park‘s Academy of Sciences.  While there, I thought about the hours I’d spent with him in shops, reading labels on row after row of tanks, teaching him what little I knew about fish.  That day he repaid me many times over by pointing out the intricacies of his favorite displays, helping me see them through his informed view of the aquatic world.

     Dad couldn’t have known what he was starting with that one Christmas present all those years ago.  How could he have foreseen the impact of his gift on generations not yet born?  And yet I know without a doubt, he would be very pleased to see my sons’ passion.



  1. Thank you, Joanne. As usual, very well done.

    Comment by Jean Georgakopoulos — May 3, 2013 @ 9:06 pm | Reply

  2. I have a fish-kill rap sheet that makes me a criminal. I gave up the habit in my 30’s. Cleaning tanks just wasn’t worth it anymore. I miss my fishy friends swimming calmly through the plants and rocks. They give me a sense of peace whenever I see an aquarium (dentists’ offices and restaurants seem to like them). Ah, well. There are generations of fish who are probably glad I gave away my last aquarium 4+ decades ago.

    Great post! I always love what you write!

    Comment by Bee Hylinski - Author and Baseball Fan — May 4, 2013 @ 6:54 pm | Reply

  3. Something about fish tanks. I had one growing up and did an experiment for school to prove that a balanced tank needed no pump/aeration. It thrived and stayed relatively clean due to the diligent wall-cleaner fish (don’t remember the name, but you know).

    Your story is a magnificent example how all the money poured into a college education cannot provide the passion instilled by family osmosis.

    Comment by Chris Pedersen — May 6, 2013 @ 11:48 am | Reply

    • Amen, Chris!

      Comment by Bee Hylinski - Author and Baseball Fan — May 6, 2013 @ 2:12 pm | Reply

      • My son The Fish Guy majored in Ultimate Frisbee and Geography at UCSB (in that order). Without the geographydegree he might not be sosuccessful at finding his way around the Bay Area to all his clients when the GPS app on his smart phone fails.I’ll be happy togive those of you who don’t enjoy maintaining aquariums (or killing fish) his contact info. 🙂


        Comment by Joanne — May 6, 2013 @ 5:11 pm

  4. As a child my son was always entranced with fish in tanks and they seemed to bond with him in a way that seemed uncanny . . . fishy? But because of my previous luck with other small animals growing up, (same as Bee’s)I didn’t pursue anything either. But it’s lovely to read about your successful story!

    Comment by lizbooks — May 6, 2013 @ 2:16 pm | Reply

  5. I had no idea of the genesis of #3’s passion for aquariums. Thanks for illuminating me.

    Comment by Donna — June 4, 2013 @ 8:49 am | Reply

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