A Spider Story

An Arachnophobe Remembers

                “Robin, go in the root cellar and get the potatoes,” Marie barked as she bustled around the kitchen.  “Make it quick!” I wiped my hands on a nearby dish towel and looked out the latticed cottage windows, the old kind with no screen that pushed open when you needed air.  Dishes clinked rapidly as we hurried to prepare the evening meal. With one last wipe of my damp hands on my pants, I left the kitchen with its white pine slat walls.  The kitchen was in the basement of the lodge building at The Clearing, a folk school built in 1942 in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin.  The main lodge building was built by Jens Jensen, landscape architect and founder, and it is nestled in a lush natural landscape of maples, pines and ferns.   The kitchen door banged behind me as I sailed down the slate path to the small building, the root cellar where the potatoes lay.

Half-way into this natural pantry, I heard a muffled last call from the kitchen.

                “Oh . . . and don’t look up!” someone shouted.  The words drifted my way like a challenge.

I had heard about Marie.  Word was she could be quite a character.  At The Clearing, Marie was a “lifer.”  As head cook, she spent most of her days and many of her nights in the kitchen and flew from one task to the next with precise efficiency.  Her kitchen was her castle and we were there to do her bidding.

                The root cellar, a small, stone and concrete structure, was comfortably nestled between tall cedars and maples, blanketed on both sides with May apples, ferns, and wood violets.  This dark, rounded hovel housed potatoes and other root vegetables for Clearing meals.  When I entered the root cellar I had to duck because the door way was just inches over my head.  The dim light of the doorway helped me see the potato bin which lay at the far end of the root cellar.  A foot and a half of broad wooden slats stretched from one the far left corner across to the far right end of the nine foot wall, creating a bin which brimmed with potatoes.  The floor felt unfinished, mounded with hard, packed soil.  I remembered my Grandpa’s unfinished basement as I inhaled – dampness with slight mildew, the smell of buried earth.

Now Door County, Wisconsin, is a Midwestern resort paradise with lush forests, sand beaches and high bluffs that rise from the blue waters of Lake Michigan.  Because of tourism, hundreds of college students go there each summer to get a job, and thirty years ago, I was one of those.  My roommate, a Door County native, brought me to The Clearing which sits on two hundred acres of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline and woodlands.  To get to work each day, I turned off Garrett Bay Road and bounced along the narrow wash boarded driveway turning and twisting to avoid the maples, spruce, birch and cedars that lined the driveway.  At any second, I expected a whitetail deer or a porcupine to jump out.

                Now, what do you naturally do when someone says “Don’t look up.”?  You look up. The ceiling of the root cellar was dark and damp, but my eyes had adjusted enough to the dim light to see seven or eight solid black circles a little bigger than a nickel, maybe even the size of a quarter.  With another look, I realized those circles had legs that extended out to further increase their size.  There, on the ceiling of the root cellar, just a half a foot above my head were spiders that were almost the size of a baseball — the biggest spiders I have ever seen in the state of Wisconsin.

                I’m not quite sure where fears lie in a person’s psyche or when they begin in a person’s development.   I only know that in the middle of them they stand in front of you, face to face like a monster to be wrestled with.

                After looking up, I immediately struck a paralyzed, stooped-over-woman pose.  Without breathing I began to tiptoe out of the cellar making no sound or sudden movement, praying there wouldn’t be the slightest puff of wind or a motion to cause a spider to fall on me.  Now out of the building, I raced back to the kitchen to see knowing looks and scattered smiles on kitchen staff faces, especially the cook’s.  It seemed this joke had been played on new hires before, a rite of passage of sorts.

It has been thirty years since the summer I worked at The Clearing.  Two weekends ago, I happened to see my college roommate again.  She was the one who grew up in Door County and first told me about the job at The Clearing.  It was so good to see her after all these years.  We talked about her family and their unforgettable coffee-on-the-porch hospitality, but eventually I found myself guiding the conversation away from people and to the spiders.  Surely my roommate’s memory of that summer must include my spider trauma, I thought.

                  “Orb-webbed spiders…,” I said.  “I talked to an entomologist who visited The Clearing that summer and he mentioned that name.  I’ve been telling that story ever since.  They were the biggest spiders I ever saw!”

                First of all, to my surprise, she didn’t remember ever hearing my spider story.  Then she dropped the bombshell.  There were other big spiders in Wisconsin that I didn’t even know about!  “I don’t know about orb-webbed spiders,” she said trying to match my description of the hairy beast with her local knowledge, “But we have wolf spiders up here that could be that big.  One time I saw something cross the road and I thought it was a mouse.  It was that big.  I threw a stick at it only to see babies scatter off its back and run in every direction.”

That night I grabbed my computer and searched for images to reconcile my spider mis-labeling.  Was it possible that I held onto the orb-webbed spider fear for thirty years and didn’t even have the right spider?  What did that mean for the rest of my fears, prejudices and even memories?  Were they trustworthy?  Reliable?

                This summer, when I came back to The Clearing to take a writing class, I arrived on Saturday at around five and poked my head into the kitchen.  I introduced myself to the new cook, and took a moment to fondly look around the kitchen.  I told the cook I heard Diane still worked here.  He told me she did and was, in fact, setting tables upstairs.

                I climbed the stairs of the lodge.  Designed by Jens Jensen, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, the shake-covered building fit perfectly in this woodland setting, accented with moss and ivy.  The dining room overlooks a meadow which leads to three white pines on the edge of the bluff which hangs over Lake Michigan.  Not much had changed.  The same mission style cupboard sat in the corner, filled with blue willow china that we used at every meal.  I saw Diane hunched over the table, forming a place setting.

“Diane. . . “  After introducing myself and catching up on a few things, I asked Diane the question I was dying to know.

                “Diane, do you remember the spiders?  In the root cellar?” I prodded.

She nodded and agreed.

                I thought back to another day at The Clearing thirty years ago when my spider story came to a climax.  Like an insidious movie reel this scene replays whenever I get too close to an arachnid, and hard-working, diligent Diane was a major player in that scene.  It was her turn to get the potatoes.  Now, Diane knew about the spiders but didn’t have the fear that I did and usually went about her work purposefully without a lot of emotion.   But she was tall, maybe five inches taller than I was which may have been the critical factor in the incident.  She set out to get the potatoes from the root cellar as she always did, but when she came back to the kitchen, an orb-webbed, or wolf — or whatever — spider clung to her back.  Pandemonium ensued.  People jumped.  People moved.  I think someone grabbed a broom or a paper and swished the spider off Diane’s back.  When Marie lifted her head from her kettle and realized what was happening, she jumped backwards, a controlled jump but a jump nevertheless.  Her face became pinched and wrinkly like a big prune and she took a few steps forward waving her wooden spoon.  “Ooo, ooo, ooh,” was all she could get out, finally at a loss for words.

                “And do you remember the time when you went to the root cellar and came into the kitchen with one on your back?!”  I questioned.

I waited anxiously for her answer. She thought for a moment and then calmly, said “No.” Why she didn’t remember that incident I don’t know.  I can still hear Marie’s little “ooo’s”  and see the swinging of a broom.  I know the “Don’t look up…” joke wasn’t played on anyone else – at least not that summer.  I had often wondered if Diane had been as affected by that day as I was and now I knew.  She wasn’t.  Apparently, I hadn’t even shared the spider story with my roommate at the time.  Work took precedence – work that would pay college bills.  Also apparent, was the realization that memories are home grown, that a slice in time can be viewed from many angles, and we all put our own flavor of icing on our memory cake.

                I came to The Clearing this summer, not as a worker but as a student.  I was enjoying the classes and the food and talking to all of the interesting people.  Shortly after lunch on the first day, I began searching for a restroom.

                “Excuse me,” I asked the program director.  “But where is the nearest restroom?” He pushed back his carved wooden chair and stood up.

                “Right there,” he said as he gestured out the window.

                From the dining hall window in the lodge, I looked to where he was pointing.  The root cellar now sported a new roof and a sign.  Men/women.  The root cellar was now a bathroom!  Hesitantly, I walked to the remodeled building.  I opened the door and instinctively cringed, my eyes darting to the ceiling just to be sure there weren’t any spiders there. Like someone relieved of a great burden, I exhaled and started to breathe more normally. The rocks were still there and the smell, that deep, dank musty smell but the ceiling was raised and made of clean pine boards.  It was now well lit by the flick of a switch and the room housed a glass jug of drinking water and a refrigerator.  A woman was in there opening the refrigerator and I could see somebody’s wine and beer.  I began to relax even more, smiling.  The place of my fear now housed people’s snacks.

                To the left of the refrigerator, there was a second door that led into the restroom.  Again, I looked up.  Only one small, regular spider sat in his web, in the corner above the door.  One small spider was hardly unavoidable in this lush, damp area I rationalized.   After washing my hands, I turned to leave.  I opened the door to a completely dark room.  The woman who had been looking for wine must have followed the directions that hung on the door – “Please close doors and turn out the lights when you leave.”  Quickly grabbing onto the memory of this place as if it were an old friend, I lunged for the switch.

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Story and photographs are credited to my mom.

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