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  • Writer's pictureChica Jo

Authenticity - The Littlest Deer


My painting: Maternal Forearms, Female Gharial Skull and Jenner's Shell dorsal/ventral (*1)

I’m about to break a promise I made to my dad over thirty years ago by telling you a story. Technically, he made me promise not to tell my three big sisters so this accidental baby of the family played it safe. Until right now I’ve told only my son and husbands (consecutive, that is; I’m not a polyandrist . . . too much work!). But from the wishfully-wise, crone perspective I now have looking back over my salty shoulder I believe it was a mistake for him to ask me to hide the story from my sisters. Because it meant also keeping hidden away so much of what makes me, authentically, me. Dad died about a year after the promise and I only have one big sister left alive and kicking, so I believe it’s time. It’s time because I’d like my biggest of big sisters, fifteen years my senior, to know more of the real me, instead of just the protective, polished shell I crafted. Plus, the story will help me introduce you to one of my favorite marine animals who knows better than to keep tucked away their most precious and tender selves. You'll also get treated to an excitingly voracious video of Paul's if you stick with me to the end. Here’s an inquiring hint to prime your curiosity pump: Do you know what a Cowrie is? I’ll wager you think you do but you actually don’t. We’ll see . . . .


The forbidden story begins when I was just-out-of-college, teaching part time, and beginning to search for my own place to live in the Shenandoah Valley. I was perched on the edge of the all-girl, raucous, Bowman-family nest and just about to test my wings when the nest toppled to the ground. It was Christmas Eve and out of nowhere, in the middle of the frozen, starry night at my boyfriend’s house, I got a call. My on-the-cusp-of-retirement mom was dead. I’d spent my youth in fear of scaring my dad and giving him a heart attack (after the one that almost killed him when I was three). But never-missed-a-day-of-work Mom? (*2) And on Christmas Eve? After she lovingly spent months secretly sewing intricate doll clothes and accessories for my two nieces who were expected to go American Girl(tm) ape shit when they unwrapped those particular boxes the next, Christmas, day? As my dad drove those black, cold, country roads like a hell-bent maniac, rushing to the hospital “in town” about forty minutes away, Mom’s last words were “Oh no. This is going to ruin Christmas”. I’ve never known if she meant this as a brief hospital stay ruining that particular Christmas or if she was aware this meant death and that it might occlude the yuletide joy for the rest of us forever. (In case you’re wondering, for me, it did and then eventually it didn’t. Mostly.)

I recall trying with all my baby sister power the next day to be calm and Southern-girl-stoic, as a red and green, tinseled stream of other family’s baked holiday treats flowed incessantly through our family home. A home with an unprecedentedly cold and empty oven. Even when Mom’s friend, Vi Orbaugh, bounded in with her garishly happy!-happy! reindeer sweater and battery powered, blinking, Christmas ornament earrings and sat on Mom’s loveseat next to my ancient, puddle-skinned Oma (who just lost her baby of the family) I kept myself together. Even when Oma, feeling her pooled hip-skin in a pinch, yelped, “Vi! You’re sittin’ on me!” (Oh, where-o-where IS an exoskeleton when you need one, I ask you?), and I felt the absurdly inappropriate stress giggles begin to bubble up in me, even then, dear friend, young me managed to clandestinely cover my face with my hands to appear appropriately teary and speed walk up to my frigid attic bedroom before the unsuitable guffaws burst out into my snot-soaked pillow. I didn’t want to make things harder on everyone, especially my dad, by being (hmmm . . .  well, I guess by being . . .) me. But of course, that was before Boxing Day and before the dog.

By Noveczki Katalin - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10261746

Good lord that dog. On the other end of The Valley, my boyfriend’s housemates kindly agreed to help out a friend by taking their pure bred Vizsla, Kaiyo, off their hands for the year while the owners dealt with some sort of family drama. Those same housemates went away for the winter holidays leaving me and my fella to care for the (as understated by Wikipedia on the breed) “rather lively” young stud. And quite a player was he! Every time I was alone and doing yoga on the floor he would get sort of googly-eyed, grab hold of me, and start a humpin’, giving memorable significance to the downward dog pose. And you couldn’t leave him inside alone for a hunting-dog-minute since he wasn’t yet house trained and knew only one speed: full out racing with only toenails for brakes. Now, none of that would’ve been so challenging except for the fact that that particular winter in Virginia was off-the-charts frigid, blustery, and blizzardy. When I drove the hour or so from my home to his the day after Christmas to get more of my things I found the poor, semi-orphaned beast curled up like a snail and shivering inside his thin shell of a dog house (the Vizsla, that is, not my boyfriend who was gone working twelve hour days) with, and I’m not kidding, early stages of frostbite on his perfectly spherical, furry testicles (What can I say? It was a close relationship). So, I did what I believed to be the right thing. I called my dad, reported the situation, and begged him to let me bring the abandoned-pooch-in-need back with me. His response was, “. . . . . . . . . Oh boy, Catbird. Well. Just keep him up in your room whenever your sisters are here or they’ll get all upset.” And that’s just what I did. Until . . .  


I swear I didn’t do it on purpose. It wasn’t some timely, anti-Christian statement. When my sisters arrived from their own homes and families to start making funeral arrangements I went downstairs to join them and that dog - that rascally, slippery, squirmy, inconvenient hound burst past me in the sliver-cracked, attic doorway, zoomed past the shocked faces of my sisters (their mouths: O and 0 and 0 ) in the narrow hallway of our kitchen, and skid-landed at the base of the last-ever-Mom-decorated, live Christmas Tree, where he naturally emitted a strapping yellow stream on the straw at the feet of three-inch-long baby Jesus be-swaddled in his manger. Mary and Joseph were understandably too new-parent-exhausted to care. The Three Wise Men, being worldly and wise after all, seemed stoically calm. And the sheep and donkey? They were like, “Well, it IS a stable, for animals, and that IS straw, ya know”. One of the wise men’s chillaxed camels, perhaps having a bit of wisdom rubbed off on him, paused his cud chewing to point out, “Y’all did bring an actual living tree into the house. Just sayin’”.  And the dangling drummer boy, hovering above from a festooned branch never ceased his rum-pa-pa-pum. But haloed-holy Boxing Day people! The layered and multi-directional sister-shrieks and shouted accusations about how I was going to give Dad a heart attack too by thoughtlessly, selfishly, and immaturely bringing this out-of-control quadruped to the house at a time like that left no room for the opinions of either the grief-stunned, peace-seeking father or “the kid” who suddenly found herself in a cold, hard, shame-inducing place. A half-orphaned spot without any mom cushioning between her own sensitive nature and her ever-indisputively-right older sisters. Reminding them to consider WWJD (what would Jesus do?) was beyond even imagining. So, back in the icy Honda Civic I went with poor, family-less Kaiyo. The next weeks and months are an amnesic blur of loss and adjustment. But I do recall that for the rest of my ice-sickled, teaching holiday, until the original, dog-sitting housemates returned, I drove the hour or so back and forth most days from tending to Kaiyo to tending to my dad. And lemme tell ya; the former was a relative cinch.


Dad, unlike happy-go-lucky Kaiyo, was troubled with guilt and inefficacy. Besides all the usual loss-of-partner self-doubt and husbandly regrets he feared that he made a fatal mistake by rushing Mom to the emergency room instead of calling the Rescue Squad (*3). And he may have. The cardiologist who tried in vain to revive my mom assured him that it would not have made any difference and I consoled him with the notion that at least her last moments were in the comfort of her husband of forty years. But one of the things that really got hold of his conscience was his inability to properly thank that emergency room doctor for the incredible kindness and empathetic, extra effort he gave to my mom’s heart, likely, Dad thought, just to assuage my dad’s fears that he screwed up not calling 911. It was a chaotic Christmas Eve in the emergency room of that same, small-city hospital where Mom gave birth to us four. Dad never even got the physician’s name. So, Dad had to live with that heartbreaking inability to show his deep gratitude. There’s more, and way more joy, to the outlawed story but first, back to the question I asked you. What is a Cowrie?

Paul's pic of my lotus arrangement of cowrie shells that we found and then returned to the sea. Four of them are Jenner's Cowrie shells like the two in my lead painting and a couple are fossils.

If you have an answer you likely pictured the little, lacquered, oval seashells with a bump-toothy mouth giving a Mona Lisa smile on their undersides. You may even recall that they were “money shells” long ago used as currency. But, not only were cowrie shells the original counting bears and game pieces (and both just the right size for a four year old to get stuck up their nose like my sister Henri (at 30 years) did on an epic first date - story to come at the end of this post *4) but disparate cultures around the world considered them powerful symbols of femininity.

Paul's ventral view pic of a cowrie shell with a sweet-spot pebble lodged at the top.

Enough beating round the bush - Yes, that ventral “mouth” does indeed resemble our (women’s and girls’) vulvas (minus the nubby teeth, thank you very much)! That resemblance is quite possibly the reason these particular seashells became currency since women and girls were commonly traded as chattel. Perhaps the cowrie shells were an early form of IOUs?! The mid-Atlantic slave trade certainly spread the use of cowrie shells as currency and is likely the reason you knew about them as money shells. And get what I just remembered: If you were a kid like me in the ‘70’s you may recall the era of feathered bangs a la Farrah Fawcet when instead of a cell phone you kept two items in your back bluejeaned pockets: a comb for “training” your bangs in one and in the other, one of those nifty, rubber coin purses you’d squeeze to open! They looked like this retro one you can purchase via Amazon:


(Yeah, I know, right? I wonder where they [whoever they are] got the design idea? I’m sorry you’ll never see those coin purses the same ever again. No, actually, you’re welcome! I mean, they’re more subtle, less in-your-face, than the Washington Monument or Jeff Bezo’s vanity rocket.)




By Raja Ravi Varma - [1], [2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12864157

Going way back, Archeologists unearthing the earliest Homo sapiens settlements in Egypt and areas of the Middle East have discovered ceremonial graves with cowrie shells placed ritually around the heads of women and young children. The shells’ symbolic importance may have carried through to more modern mythologies in various cultures. In some regions of Africa they symbolize fertility, sexual gratification, and good luck. Hindus in India use cowrie shells to pay tribute to Laxmi, their ultra-feminine goddess of fertility and dream fulfilment. In East India they are the imagined token payment (in place of a cow) for the departing soul’s mythological, reincarnating, ferry ride across the Vaitarani River. But, guess what? None of that tells us what, or rather, who, a Cowrie is. Allow me to introduce you. (And if you didn’t know and I won the bet, you can pay me in cowrie shells!)


Imagine you come sailing with us on Triplefin and I somehow manage to sweet-talk you into a night snorkel. We’re hovering above the rock and coral bottom and you see me begin to make flashlight beam circles around something the size of a toddler’s fist while using my other arm to come-hither you. When you swim over and spy what my light beam is orbiting around your eyes pop way open (0 0). There, creeping along and carving a path in the coral-smothering algae is perhaps the freakiest looking beastie you’ve ever encountered in the flesh. That flesh seems to consist of hundreds of pale, olive green, undulating, and soft but possibly venomous-tipped spikes. I briefed you not to touch anything on our night snorkel so you’re surprised when I dive down and gently use my bare index finger to oh-so gently tickle the top of the mysterious critter. When I do your eyes get even bigger (O O) as those fleshy spikes part along a line. You watch as the animal sort of unzips themself partway to reveal something unexpectedly familiar to you: the top of a porcelain-polished (*5) cowrie shell with faint, tawny-brown bands and light spots like a baby deer. Meet Mexico’s Little Deer Cowrie (Macrocypraea cervinetta)!

Just like most all the seashells we find, collect and admire, cowrie shells are just the pretty, usually-mobile home of marine mollusks. But, Cowries, like the fawn-speckled Little Deer, are living, marine sea snails who, instead of staying mostly coiled up inside their shells like most gastropods (mollusks who make a coiled shell), have the habit of extending their soft, fleshy body (their mantle) out of that lovely, vulva shaped opening and wrapping it up around the shell when they emerge to scrape-feast on algae at night. (The paths they mow in the green remind me of the time rascally-teenager-me mowed a spiral shell pattern in our backyard. Dad was amused despite himself.) It’s that fleshy Cowrie mantle that secretes calcium carbonate and protein, thus building their shell based on their species’ specific DNA recipe. (Think original 3-D printing!) The top photo above is Paul's pic of a live Little Deer Cowrie with their mantle partly retracted, revealing some of the shell. The bottom is my illustration with the parts not visible in the photo added.

Pauls pic of a Cowrie shell that we cut in half to prove to you that the animal is indeed a snail with a spiral shell!

And get this: It’s the extending and retracting of the fleshy mantle that actually polishes the Cowrie’s shell to its lacquered state! And those frightfully pointy projections you were afraid of on our imaginary night dive? They’re harmless, non-venomous (*6) papillae (that’s a sciency word for numerous nubby projections) that increase the snail’s surface area possibly helping them absorb oxygen from the water and likely disguising the animal to keep them safe from other hangry, carnivorous snails.


So, now that you have a better idea of what a cowrie actually is, are you ready to meet a tender part of me I have been secreting away (particularly from my big sisters) since our mom died? (If you’re reading this, biggest of big sisters, get ready!) The spring after that literally and emotionally sub-zero, white-out winter came late but when it did my dad and I decided life was too short for sitting around watching TV. So, one day we decided to do one of our favorite things together. (Little did I know then that it would be the last time we ever would.) We went for a canoe trip on our beloved Shenandoah River but instead of the North Fork that ran by our family home, we decided to drive up and around Massanutten Mountain to my boyfriend’s place (yep, same guy, same shared, rental farmhouse) along the South Fork. Guess what four legged “rather lively” dog came bursting down the driveway to greet (or in my case, hump) us? Yep, Kaiyo! He almost bowled us over! As we petted him, Dad and I exchanged knowing, pained glances at the memory of that brutal Boxing Day. Then something unexpected occurred.


Another car, one I didn’t recognize, crunch-rolled down the gravel. It just so happened that today was the day the rightful owners of the spastic purebred were coming back to claim him - their troubles evidently resolved enough by then to handle training him. I suppose it was a tough winter for not-just-our-family. A man stepped out of the car and stood to face us in greeting. When he did I watched my dad’s face go pale. Dad braced his hand on my shoulder. He extended his other hand to the man as he approached and then Dad began to tear and choke up a bit. Then I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Dad was thanking the man profusely for all the extra care and attention he gave to my mom and to him on that horrendous Christmas Eve. Astonishingly, that dog happened to belong to that cardiologist who my dad so yearned to personally and thoroughly thank. What a surprise to next hear a return of gratitude when the doctor profusely thanked my dad and me for helping take care of their family pet at such a difficult time for them!!! Once the doctor and dog departed, Dad and I were alone together, quietly tying half and timber hitches to attach the canoe to the roof of the car. That’s when Dad broke the silence. He looked me seriously in the mutually bleary eyes and gave a crooked, cowrie shell-like smile. Then he said, “Don’t you ever tell your sisters about this”. I regretfully agreed. It’s time now to correct the mistake, so here I go:


Dear Dad,

I just broke my promise to you. The one I made on the day of our last canoe trip. I am sorry that this time doing the really right thing means betraying your wish. I know you were just trying then, in our suddenly mom-empty world, to keep me, the baby, safe. To protect me from my sisters’ well-intentioned but toothy attacks. You were following Mom’s lead by telling me to tuck in and “just stay out of their way.” But you see, that confirmed to me my greatest, guilt-dense fear: that I was special - inherently bad and a danger to those I love. It taught me to hide away the best of myself because if anyone found out how awful I really was I would surely be rejected. But I see now that my sisters just weren’t always able to appreciate the often inconvenient and quirky forms my particular best can take. What I needed to learn all those years ago was to unfurl my tender, gorgeously freaky, sometimes-loudmouth, authentic self. Even if, like the soft-spikey, living Cowrie, some others are initially fearful of my bizarre, yet harmless mantle. But don’t worry, Dad. Your bigger, making-a-fuss Catbirds in the nest taught me how to forgive and be forgiven. They gifted your sensitive baby some real emotional resilience.

Dad, I’m a sailor now. Can you believe that? I’m actually the BowWoman on a Sailing for Science, all solar-electric, Trimaran! You should see my honed anchoring skills and the speed with which I can whip out a bowline knot. Nope, I don’t fish like you taught me. You know how I couldn’t even stand to put a poor earthworm on the hook. Yep, I’m still just eating veggies and tolerating folk’s jokes about it. I do have your old Navy sextant. A friend of mine is going to help me learn to use it to find my old-school way around out here. I don’t want to rely solely on some absurdly rich dude’s satellite to tell me where I am. I’d rather depend on those stars you lifted my face to learn to recognize as old friends.

Of us four girls, there’s only your biggest and littlest rascally Catbirds left. I hope you’ll forgive me for going back on my word those over thirty years ago. It’s just that I’m now feral at sea and taking a cue from the Little Deer Cowrie by unfurling my tender mantle. I’m getting acquainted with my really real self, venomous-looking papillae and all, and frankly, I quite like her. So much so that I’d like to share and wear her like a cape, in all her imperfect beauty, with a world who could really use some unconventionally creative and super-hero-level, compassionate ideas. I’d also like to share my full self with the last sister I have while there’s still time. (For example, I don't call her as much as I'd like to because I still get deer-caught-in-headlights nervous when we talk!) She’s a sort of beaming and doting grandma now, so I trust she’ll get this way-back story. And Dad, I believe you would understand and agree that it was a mistake for me to have kept tucked away inside my mom-wide, dimply, smiley shell my own awkward truth and feral beauty.


Well, dear friends, Paul (hubby #2) just proof read this and had two hard questions for me that he feels you may be wanting answers to. (Ugh, he makes me work hard!) Are you also wondering: Why did my dad think it important for me to not tell my big sisters about who the dog’s owner turned out to be and why should you, frankly, give a damn?

My pic of Paul's tidepooling spot at aptly named Punta Colorado (Red Point) at Isla Carmen.

I had to curl up on the bow and gnaw on this old bone a bit while Paul went tide pooling. I know Dad was ultimately trying to protect me from my older siblings (who were trying to protect him) but why would that story have so irked their ire? I think it comes down to something we all struggle with, and that’s the reason you too will care. If I had told my sisters the story at the time they likely would have felt shame for how they judged and verbally attacked me that Boxing Day. What a shame shame is, huh? We can’t stand to feel it ourselves because we need to believe we are incapable of making deeply hurtful mistakes. So when a sticky, melted-tar-glob of hot shame gets tossed our way we often deflect it by throwing it onto someone else. It’s like a sadistic game of hot potato. And we Homo sapiens like easy targets (such as siblings fifteen years younger) who already have sloshing around inside them a deep sea of shame that our culture trickled in sneakily one sick-icky drop at a time. Dad likely reckoned that if I told my sisters the story I would have ladled on the shame gravy (And you can bet your sweet, swaddled butt cheeks that defensive, 23-year-old me would have!) for how uncompassionate, overblown, and disruptive their actions were that dog gone day. And Dad surely knew that if so I would have experienced searing, hot-tar backlashings. I think his request to keep that story tucked safely inside my shell condenses down to allowing someone to “save face” or, specifically, to retain their always-in-the-right, big sister identities. But we all get stuck playing the hot-potato shame game, don’t we? Just like we all craft pretty, shiny shells to cover our more difficult to understand yet vastly more tender and interesting, real selves.

Now, for the vicious carnivory Paul just happened to coincidentally witness and film in that tide pool. You'll see a Jenner's Cowrie (7) devouring live coral polyps. The spikey white projections on the Cowrie's mantle may be actual stinging cells (nematocysts) from coral polyps previously eaten that the Cowrie incorporated into their own mantle for defense! It would be like you tackling and devouring a bull and then growing horns on your back . . . at a snail's pace! Here ya go:


(*1) Jenner’s Cowrie (dorsal/ventral) with Mother Forearms & Gharial Skull: I was playing with typically overlooked negative space when I created my painting. As a mother of a far-away child who is now older than I was when my mom died, I muse over how mothers are the ultimate empty space - the steadfast yet invisible ground to our lives filled with figures. But when suddenly taken away as mine was, the things in our lives that we do focus on - the people and situations and our very selves - seem to lose their stability. In my case my sisters’ crocodile-like jaw-snaps filled the void for a time until I realized they were venomous only when I believed they were. Now I understand my big sisters, those three other little deer, were falling back on old habits of mind and action during such a destabilizing time in their lives too.

A Gharial is a nearly extinct, narrow-shouted, fish-eating crocodile found in a few, barely-there, wild places in northern India. Coincidentally, like cowrie shells on the Indian subcontinent, Gharials hold a culturally feminine significance. In Hindu mythology, Gaṅgā, the goddess of spiritual purification through forgiveness, travels along the Ganges River on the back of a Gharial. I like that. It reminds me of the need to forgive my sisters their toothiness. The Gharial must be a pretty sweet ride because another Hindu God, Varuna, also rides one as he directs the winds for us sailors!

(Forgive my art teacher self here.) Can you find the hidden negative space cowrie shell in the painting? And what does the small orange sphere in the work mean for you? Leave a comment; I’m curious to know! And an odd thing I just learned while researching this piece: Kaiyo, is Japanese for “child of the sea” as well as, aptly, “forgiveness”.


(*2) You can learn all about how women were misled about hormone replacement therapy resulting in many early heart-disease deaths (including, likely, my mom and sister, Henri) and early dementia via this NY Times-based podcast. You can also get The Daily podcast via Spotify: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/12/podcasts/the-daily/menopause-treatment-hormone-therapy.html


(*3) I don’t know if it’s a Southern thing or a (Shenandoah) Valley thing, or maybe a Hillbilly thing but I grew up referring to our 911’s ambulance teams as “The Rescue Squad”. It must sound very Benny Hill to Paul who laughs every time I say it. He also thinks summer veggie stands in The Valley announcing “Taters, Maters, and Cukes!” is hysterical. He grew up in California, so I try to overlook his ignorance.


(*4) When I was in middle school my big sister, Henri, the crazy-wild one, had an epic first date with a lovely musician named Stuart. (He also dated my soon-to-be 9th grade Earth Science teacher. The one who never smiled because she didn’t want to get wrinkles. I remember deciding then that I’d just have to keep smiling a lot the older I got because, I mean, WTF?!) They were at his place drinking wine and playing Mancala, the ancient, African game played with counting-bear-sized stones or shells. Just being first-date-nervous-silly she stuck one of the Cowrie shells up one of her nostrils. And, yes. When she went to pull it out that snail’s mantle-polished, slippery shell instead slipped further up her nasal passage. Tweezers were located by her bemused date but those too simply scooted the money shell closer to her ADHD-stressed brain’s frontal lobe. That’s how their first date began with a money shell and ended in that same emergency room. They dated though for a year or more! Bless his heart.


(*5) According to Wikipedia, the word cowrie comes from the Kiswahili Kauri, where in parts of East Africa it means porcelain. And guess what the term porcelain is derived from? Yep, the old Italian term for the cowrie’s shell (porcellana) due to the exquisitely smooth, glazed-like, delicate look and feel.


(*6) Fact checking: There is one species of Cowrie out there who secretes sulfuric acid from their pointy bumps, Cypraea clandestine, but they’re found on the other side of the Pacific.


(7) Technically the Jenner's is not considered a true Cowrie because instead of a mantle that is split in two and wraps around the shell from both sides (as in true Cowries) the Jenner's has one solid mantle that wraps around the whole shell from just one side kinda like our middle school gym teacher, Mr. Boyd, with his comb over that flopped around while he bounced around shouting at us not to be "MO-rons" and that there was "a fungus among-us". (That was your reward for reading this whole thing!)

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