I have never had children of my own, and I have never been more glad about that than I was the day I visited the zoo on Mother’s Day of 2003.
It was the first beautiful Sunday of what had been a rainy spring, and my boyfriend and I tried to think of some way to enjoy the weather.
Both of us were into hiking, and therefore had a morbid fascination with grizzly bears. I had a bright idea.
“Let’s go to the Woodland Park Zoo,” I said. “It’ll be totally empty. Who takes their mom to the zoo on Mother’s Day?”
It was decided.
It was also misguided. We had to park in the reserve lot usually used for concerts. It appears that most of the residents of the Pacific Northwest take their mothers to the zoo for Mother’s Day. There were mothers pushing strollers, mothers waddling pregnantly along with yet more progeny on the way, mothers of quadruplets, mothers of squadrons of awkward teenagers pretending to push each other into the chimpanzee enclosure.
We cut through the slow-moving crowd, making straight for the grizzly bear exhibit. It’s a pretty cool exhibit, quite large, consisting of a sloping hill and a stream that cascades into a lake. There is a subterranean viewing area in which the waterline of that lake is about level with the eyes of an elementary school kid.
Also visible from inside that subterranean area is a stone ledge bordering the lake. The ledge extends into a cavern, the darkest part of the enclosure, and it’s a good place to spot the bears.
That Mother’s Day, there were scads of people crowded into the viewing area, watching trout flicker through the lake water as one bear ambled aimlessly far up the hill.
Resting on the ledge in the dark recess of the cavern was the other bear. It was a massive, rough-coated lump of a thing, impressive for its sheer size, but one can only marvel at a furry lump for so long.
The viewers were growing restless when suddenly a chorus of cooing rose from the crowd. A mother duck and three fuzzy yellow ducklings were strolling down to the lake.
They had clearly been living in the enclosure for some time. The babies were too small to have flown themselves in; they must have hatched there. And they had been around for a couple of weeks at least, as they were old enough to walk reasonably well.
The babies splashed into the lake and swam toward the glass, cutting tiny little boat wakes in the water’s smooth surface.
I was so absorbed watching them float around like animated bath toys that I almost didn’t notice the bear in the cavern stir to life.
There was a sound of awe as the bear stretched, shuddered and then ponderously dropped itself into the lake, graceless as a rolling log. I worried a bit for the ducklings, but they were small and quick, and the bear seemed as agile as a hippo, so I figured they’d be okay.
I wasn’t much at figuring that day.
Once it was in the water, that bear turned into a shark. It unerringly swam for the glass before the horrified viewers, closed in on a duckling and snapped it up like so much popcorn. Cries of horror filled the viewing chamber.
The bear wheeled in the water, ignoring the wall of people past which it sailed, cruising straight for another duckling.
Children were now wailing, mothers were shielding the eyes of toddlers in strollers and fathers were threatening to sue.
The bear arrived in front of me, catching up with the last duckling and finishing its ghastly deed.
An exodus began from the viewing area, sobbing children towing shiny balloons in their wake as their mothers did their best to explain about nature and fumble through the general philosophies that accompany such a traumatic sight.
I stood there, stunned. The bear planted its paws in the gravel at the bottom of the lake, nearly level with my own feet on the other side of the glass. Then it stood, as if to seek any remaining morsels in the evacuating audience. I gaped up at it. Its paws were level with my head.
Such is fate.
As much as that story has provoked horrified laughter in listeners over the years since, it reminds me of what it is to be a mother.
My own mother survived a number of years in which a fate every bit as threatening as that towering grizzly loomed over me; that of addiction and my own general reckless idiocy.
I’ve never thought of Mother’s Day since that shocking Sunday at the zoo without thinking of that duck, bereft on the bank. Mothering takes courage. It is a massive risk to the heart.
My wish for mothers this Mother’s Day is that all their children flourish in happiness and health. For moms, that’s the best gift of all.
And maybe skip the zoo on Mother’s Day.