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Each June when we arrive at our summer cottage in Maine and I open our Whirlpool Side-by-Side, its pungency, an odor mild and salty, not unlike that of dried seaweed, tilts me toward loathing. Peering inside I note drops of moisture on the isles and inlets of the fridge. Dribbles of last season's juice and milk miter glass to plastic. Silted threads of food and splashes of Pepsi mar the alabaster innards.

Like a neglected lover, my fridge demands instant attention. So, plastic-gloved and aproned, pristine sponge in hand, I kneel on the oak-planked floor to begin my dab and dibble. First, I pick out crumbs and congealed liquid with the edge of a butter knife. Then, swiping sponge through soapy water, I swirl grease from the plastic butter "den," flicking the ants, who sought shelter from the cold only to founder on these icy bluffs, onto the floor. Every June the same drill--every June the blotting, the scrubbing, the removal of winter's muck.

So much to do, so little time.

I am about to roll out a shelf when a shadow trailing below my right shoulder catches my eye. A few inches from me a spider dangles from her dragline. As I incline my head for a better look, she slips a smidgen, hovers parallel to my right cheekbone, then lounges comfortably in the space between refrigerator and range top. I stare at her; she stares back.

They say that spiders, in spite of their many eyes, have poor vision. But this spider sees me. She catches the flickering fuzz on forearms, the stray hair protruding from a nostril, golden flecks swimming in hazel irises. I let my breath out slowly and rise to face her, but she dances up the line, resting at the cornice of an oak cabinet. She is not a spectacular member of her species, not a banded Argiope decorated with zigzag black and white bands on her carapace, nor a Miracanthena enhanced by a hard, glossy abdomen. She is not arrow-shaped or star-bellied, golden or puff-furred. She is an ordinary black house spider, bullet-shaped and spindly. I sweep her kind into the trash daily.

Perhaps sensing this, the spider angles above me for only a few seconds, then, rupturing the air with one foot, scampers into the cabinet, ingesting her line. I return to my labors.

The shelves of my Whirlpool are plastic and removable for easy cleaning. I drag them to the sink, turn on the faucet, and am joined again by my spider who swings back and forth at the end of her line in front of the kitchen window. Sunlight illuminates her body, accentuating the furry body hairs, the minute chelicerae forking in front of her mouth, ending in hollow fangs. Tiny spinnerets bellow from her abdomen.

As I turn on the faucet, the spider glides down her line. Now she is a dot paralleling my right eyebrow. Lifting my head to place her in focus, I see a lady lounging on her couch. When I squeeze my sponge, she curls around her line. A knot no larger than my smallest fingernail, she seems a blushing coquette. My sponge drizzles suds into the sink. Milady flickers out of sight, rebounding seconds later on a new line. In the sunlight I can make out her thorax and abdomen, the feelers on her head and her eight scrawny legs. Two long middle legs hug the line, the shorter, outer limbs probe the air.

She humps her back then stretches again. Dark dots, remnants from a long ago segmentation, dapple her carapace. One theory has it that spiders have evolved from marine-segmented worms. Looking at the spider now, with her compact, rigid body, it's impossible to imagine her undulating along ocean floors, legless and slimy, impossible to envision her minus her workmanlike legs. These legs--which seem never to rest, which agitate the air--creating geometric patterns, traceries as delicate and deliberate as those left by the edges of figure skaters on blue ice, are as workmanlike as they are artistic.

Peering beyond my spider to the dirt road beyond the kitchen window, I remember hunting her kind with my grandson.

He adores spiders. During his summer visits we foraged through the woods for them. We crouched among the birches, barely moving, to watch garden spiders weave their webs between the tree branches. I was as fascinated as he to encounter spiders scurrying up their webs to repair broken lines, to observe their repetitive drill, the arranging of vertical and horizontal threads, the spiraling round and round, the zigzagging, matting, and twisting of silk into circular, square, orbic, sheet-like, and patchwork patterns.

At five or six, my grandson informed me that the vertical lines were radials, the round were spirals. Not only that: "The spider's threads come out sticky, Mom-Mom. Then they harden in the air as soon as they hit it. Wow!"

I joined him in his wow. The spider's webs, symmetrical and graceful, with a fragile, vitreous delicacy were amazing. Yet the spinning was repetitive, monotonous, and instinctually done, the end product having more in common with mass-produced goods than with art. Wanting, perhaps, for my grandson's sake, to raise the spider's labors to a higher plane, I recalled the German word for factory: Werk. The capitalization seemed to bestow more dignity on the spider's labors. In my mind, then, spider work morphed into spiderWerk. And so it has remained. Whenever I see a spider the word pops into my mind and merges with the spider's spinning.

Because both male and female spiders are cannibalistic, my grandson and I immediately placed each into its own jar. Later we'd house them in private insectovariums, equipped with magnifying glasses, and watch as they worked solo in their private workshops. In the magnifier, the spiders, their spots and dots, their legs and chelicerae, eerily resembled their arachnid cousins, the crab and lobster.

Once, through the glass, we witnessed a spider shed its skin. We marveled as it pumped and pumped, heaving its abdomen up and down, like a woman in childbirth, until finally, thrusting off its skeleton, it gave birth to itself. Once we followed the female as she dragged her huge, silken egg sac across the web, searching for a place to deposit it.

By eight or nine my grandson had lost interest in the spiders' spinning and turned his attention to their battles. Spiders were the Captain Planets, the Earthworm Jims, the Rambos of the insect world. Single-handedly they worked night and day to clean up the environment. "If we had zillions of spiders," he said, "we wouldn't need Raid or the Terminix man."

In July when he visited, we would set the stage for spiderWerk by inserting an insect into the spider's home. Then we'd sit nearby, an audience of two, waiting for the drama to begin. No matter where the antagonist entered the web, be it stage left, right, or center, the climax was precipitous, the falling action swift, the resolution preordained. The victim, floundering to escape the web, vibrated it. The vibrations cued the protagonist who, sprinting over the taut terrain, wrapped his quarry in sticky twine before injecting him to death.

Like Wilbur the pig in E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, I cringed at the spider's bloodthirsty instincts. My grandson, however, was enraptured. Sitting with elbows on lap, hands under chin, chewing his cheeks with excitement, he'd yell, "Wham, Mom-Mom. The critter's dead." Then he'd lean closer to the glass, marveling as the spider devoured her prey. Sometimes, he'd ball his fists into the air and shadowbox with the spider. He was clearly impressed with the spider's powerful fuselage. Uncomfortable with the violence at the center of the spider's domestic circle, I concentrated on her labors, on how diligently she worked at her craft.

My spider returns. My knees throb. Again, I rise slowly to greet her. From her abdomen a silken line climbs at least five feet and stops at the base of a cabinet. She hovers at its end, about a foot above the range top.

The spider shimmies up her line again, then balloons down and, like a bungee jumper, jerks the line, then swings downward, dangling a few inches from my shoulder. I turn my head slowly, careful not to stir the air. The space between us is floaty, vulnerable. Like tightrope walkers balancing on parallel lines we contemplate our next moves. My grandson would sever the spider's line with a karate chop, but I remain still as granite, riveted by my companion, not willing to scurry her up her lifeline by resonating the blade of air between us, not wishing to blink her away.
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Title Annotation:grandmother's narratives
Author:Rosen, Evelyn Bodek
Publication:Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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