I was an avid keeper of goldfish as a child, but I suspect every child passes through this phase at least once. For me, goldfish provided the opportunity to prove myself responsible. They were the first step toward securing a more serious pet such as a cat, a dog, or to fulfill my wildest dreams, a horse
My piscine experience began with a traumatized little specimen won at a carnival. I believe I landed a Ping-Pong ball in the narrow mouth of the perfectly round bowl from which my prize desperately tried to escape. As he waited for me to hone my skill to victory, he pinged his nose against the circumference of the bowl looking for the fissure that would allow him to swim free.
Several goldfish were procured in this manner, and like each of their predecessors, they usually succumbed within a week. About this time, I discovered the goldfish tank at the local grocery store, Acme Click’s. This was during the era when they had a wonderful pet department, toys, clothing, and home goods.
In my youthful ignorance, I failed to understand that I viewed a tank full of feeders doomed to end up in the belly of a larger fish. I saw a pet lover’s bonanza of tangerine, carrot, and marmalade colored fish just waiting to be owned by me. I pinpointed the goldfish that caught my interest and followed him around the tank with my eyes, never once losing sight of him.
The perfect name always presented itself upon the purchase of my latest aquatic pet, names that usually determined the gender depending on what I’d chosen. It would be years before I would learn how to sex a fish, and even then, it proved to be tricky. Other than Coral and Muffy, I don’t recall what I named any of my goldfish.
What I do remember was the clerk’s frustration as she tried to net my specific fish from a tank of hundreds, possibly thousands, that all looked alike. Her minor annoyance paled in comparison to my desire to rescue the goldfish I knew I was destined to own.
“Is it this one?”
“No, it’s that one right there,” I said pointing him out even though I had turned my head to watch the girl’s pathetic efforts, all the while thinking just get back in there and listen to my directions as I guide you toward my fish. Because of children like me, today’s breeder tanks bear signs stating, “Unable to net specific fish.”
Sometimes, I didn’t even have a bowl for my goldfish. A plastic margarine tub provided living space for one goldfish I won in Tennessee while visiting my great aunt and uncle. I floated little yellow flowers on the surface of the water and enjoyed watching him nibble at them. Without the benefit of a lid, I held the bowl on my lap for the long trip home to Ohio. As water swayed precariously close to the edge, my father constantly reminded me to not let it spill on the seats of our Cadillac, and I fretted the whole time worrying that my goldfish wouldn’t make it home alive.
My panic increased when a broken fan felt disabled our car late into the evening just outside of Akron. My Uncle Howard had to retrieve us for the last short portion of the drive home. I thought for sure my goldfish would be left behind to spend a chilly night in the car, but my mother allowed me to bring him as we crammed five abreast into the cab of Uncle Howard’s truck.
One year, I secretly campaigned for a goldfish when my Aunt Ann asked me what I wanted for my birthday. My mother absolutely could not refuse goldfish given as a present, of this I was sure. My Aunt Ann, a parent herself, knew better. Much to my chagrin, she asked Mom right in front of me if it would be all right for her to give me a goldfish. I thought her tactics a little unfair as I recalled her own daughter, my cousin Lisa, used to have two lovely goldfish named Sonny and Cher that swam in a bowl on Lisa’s dresser. I used to sneak into her room to watch them swim, coveting the fish with superstar names.
It all worked out in the end when Mom called me home from playing Barbie dolls with my best friend. As I ran up the driveway, I spied Aunt Ann and Uncle Howard’s car parked there. I had actually forgotten my request until I burst through the side door and saw my aunt and uncle sitting at the kitchen table with a bowl, net, fish food, and two brand new goldfish flitting around the clear, plastic bag. Good ole Aunt Ann; she came through for me.
The sensation of owning a pet as a child is hard to describe. It probably had something to do with overcoming my father’s resistance to having animals, a fact which perplexed me because he grew up around pets even if they weren’t his. I would have gladly compromised and kept my furrier acquisitions outside, but until then, I kept my aquatic ones in my room. Evidence of their lives appeared as pine twig crosses staked beneath the tree in our backyard, fastened with bent nails pilfered from Dad’s toolbox, marking the graves of each dearly departed goldfish. He insisted I keep them to the area where the pine needles fell so he wouldn’t mow over them. One summer, the sad reminders of lost lives encircled the entire base of the pine tree.
My services as funeral director were pushed to the limit as I scrounged my jewelry box and top dresser drawer for earring and necklace boxes in which to bury my beloved goldfish. Their dulled bodies with cloudy, vacant eyes were gently placed between the layers of cotton before I sealed the box with tape. As I walked to the garage to look for my mother’s hand trowel, she called from the window, “Make sure you bury it deep enough so the cats don’t get it.”
Decades have passed since I last owned a goldfish. I turned to bettas as an adult, and my fish hobby exploded to twenty one tanks of rainbow-colored, freshwater, egg laying fish that I bred and enjoyed for years. I even joined the Greater Akron Aquarium Society and participated in fish auctions always as a buyer. Never once during my adult fishkeeping days did I select a goldfish for my tanks, not even the lionheads or fantails. I grew beyond the humble goldfish in favor of killies, gobies, and tetras. I even succeeded in acquiring many pets of the four-legged, furry variety just short of a horse. Riding lessons were as close as I came. Still, I will never forget the role the always popular, readily abundant goldfish played in my initial love of animals.