Fishing for innocence in Roland Park

WHEN SPRING arrives and the flowers are blooming and the birds singing, I know that carnival time cannot be far behind. In our house, that means only one thing. We will soon be the owners of goldfish.

There are few things in life that can be counted upon. One of them is that, each spring, my two boys will come home from the school fair at Roland Park Elementary School in North Baltimore with small plastic bags full of water and tiny fish.


Apparently it doesn't matter how good one's aim is in throwing Ping-Pong balls at plastic buckets. It seems that only effort counts, and my boys, deprived as they are by their mother's allergies to fur-bearing pets, always try very hard.

My oldest, Ian, is 7, which means that we've been on the goldfish circuit for about three years. We have not had great luck with our goldfish; the strongest of the lot lasted only a month. We've accumulated quite an assortment of fish paraphernalia: A large bowl, plenty of unnaturally colored pebbles, some plastic seaweed and, of course, several boxes of fish food.


These supplies travel regularly between our house and the homes of friends with elementary school children. When their fish die, the stuff comes back. Knowing that, I should not have been surprised last month when a classmate's mother appeared on my doorstep with bowl in hand.

"Thought you might need this," she said. "After all, May Mart is just around the corner."

May Mart is a big deal at Roland Park school. It's the school's biggest fund raiser, and we go all out. Giant air-filled moon bouncers and long tables full of flowers grace the courtyard on Roland Avenue, slowing traffic and beckoning passers-by.

My favorite attraction is always the dunking booth, where children of all ages delight in sending the principal under water. My kids like that, too, even though they are too shy to participate. We spend way too much money on junk food and face painting and T-shirts and, just when I'm ready to leave, they always remember -- the goldfish! I try hard to forget about goldfish in the off-season. It's not that I dislike them. It's only that I know the chances are good that they will not survive long. If my overly enthusiastic children don't kill them the first week with too much food and attention (read, "handling"), they will be neglected as the novelty wears off. By the second week they become pretty much my responsibility to feed and clean up after, and, frankly, I already have about all I can handle with two children, a husband and a job.

It was, therefore, with mixed feelings that I looked up one recent Saturday from my post at the cotton candy booth into the beaming face of my second-grader as he held aloft the fragile bag with his newest pet.

"Look, mom! I won a fish!" he gushed. "I'm going to name him Flippy!" My heart sank. It's always harder when they name them.

My younger son, Will, because he was at a birthday party, had not snagged a fish. I anticipated this would be the cause for great gnashing of teeth, but by the time I returned home from scrubbing clean the cotton candy machine, my thoughtful husband had rectified the situation. After a quick trip to the pet store, Will had become the proud owner of a 12-cent goldfish named, of course, "Swimmy."

Swimmy and Flippy enjoyed their new home and each other's company for about six hours before disaster struck. While I was pondering how long it would take for an errant elbow or a misguided Pokemon toy to knock the bowl from the top of the bookshelf between their beds, and Will was lamenting the fact that his brother wouldn't trade fish with him, Swimmy was quietly going belly up.


"Uh, oh. I think he's dead," said Ian, by now an expert at identifying floaters. Will, who only moments before had declared he hated the fish because it was "too big," promptly burst into tears.

"Oh, Swimmy!" he wailed. Evidently, a fish of any size is better than a dead fish.

Swimmy was a goner. My husband and I convinced Will, racked with sobs, that Swimmy should be flushed away where he could find his way to fish heaven, the sooner the better for Flippy's sake.

"OK," Will reluctantly agreed, "but can I hold him first?"

I watched, stunned and saddened, as my preschooler came to terms with his grief. Lovingly, he held the little fish for the first and last time before dropping him into the toilet and pulling the handle."'Bye, Swimmy," he waved sadly, as the water swirled away.

"It's OK, Will," his brother offered. "We can get you another fish."


"I don't want another fish," said Will. "It wouldn't be the same."

He's right, in ways more profound than he may realize.

I am old and hardened enough that, anticipating the goldfishes' demise, I take no joy in their arrival. Luckily, my children see things differently. They are not afraid to love for fear of loss or to try for fear of failure.

Living with them has awakened some parts of me that fell dormant on the way to adulthood, and that is why, year after year, I hand them tickets to buy Ping-Pong balls at the goldfish booth. For it is my secret hope that, before they grow too old, I too might smile at the possibility of a tiny orange fish in a plastic bag.

Michelle Trageser is an architect and freelance writer living in North Baltimore.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of concern in Baltimore's neighborhoods.