Wayfarer Daughter and Roving Spider

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson 2016

“She seemed to have been there awhile when I returned from my trip to the Faroe Islands in early July,” Naomi said. “Then she made the trip from New York to Michigan with me and she’s still hanging out. Or he. Not sure which.”

I bent closer to study the light, tensile webbing anchored on the right view mirror and spreading down to the upper part of the passenger door. The half-inch wide, light brown spider was, as befitted its ilk–industrious. It barely paused as I peered closer, then skittered up from the door. I determined it was safe to open it and get in the hulking Durango–safe for said spider, safe for me.

The big vehicle was stuffed with labeled boxes and odds and ends for the trip to South Carolina; it looked massive and heavy before I embarked with more loaded totes. We were also pulling a trailer crowded with Naomi’s art works. The long moving van was filling up, too. With all that packing going on, I figured the spider would give up and head out for better habitation. That’s what we were about to do: leave upstate New York to make our way down through Pennsylvania, then Virginia, then South Carolina. Not that upstate New York isn’t lovely and hadn’t been good to my daughter–it was just time for a farewell to one university so she could embrace her next position as Assistant Professor of Art in Sculpture.

I didn’t give undivided attention to the busy spider as we started off. There were places and people to enjoy along the way; interminable traffic requiring conscientious driving (I drove a little); easy and deeper conversations shared. I wouldn’t ordinarily give any attention to a spider on the outside of a car. It didn’t bother me. But it is true I have come to hold contradictory feelings about them–not surprisingly, as most people do. For most of my life, I’ve felt neutral about spiders. I have long been impressed by insects, for one thing, and though spiders are not insects but arachnids they still crawl about doing various weird and good things. I have been as curious about them as I’ve been with beetles and lightning bugs and moths, for example. (Not so much centipedes, which I have encountered bare footed.)

But there occurred a frightening scenario resultant of spiders. Not for me, but my son. A few years ago he sustained seven bites on arms and legs from hobo spiders. Since Josh was not living nearby, I didn’t know how bad it got until it was very bad. I talked to him on the phone, though, and that elicited significant alarm; he was becoming quite ill. When I finally saw the wounds, I feared for him. Although hobo spider bites are non-fatal they are venomous, causing many difficult symptoms with significant pain and, often, infection. He recovers from injuries and wounds well but this was a challenge. Josh dealt with the experience by getting a tattoo of a spider on his arm near scarring from wounds. He also, sensibly, vacated the house where he was bitten, though no one else had been bitten there. Josh still maintains he doesn’t fear arachnids and knows they must have needed to protect themselves or their domain. It is a mystery; it meant something to him in the end.

But I was not quite so accepting. Since then, I’ve felt wary of spiders in a way I had not been. In Oregon we have lots of spiders; I have had a few benign though bothersome bites. But brown recluses (and hobo spiders) are most concerning since people also get those dangerous bites. I often vacuum and sweep away any cobwebs. I am careful how I pull items from my closet if they have been undisturbed awhile. I always shake out my boots and shoes. We’ve also lived in Tennessee, where black widows thrive, and found them in wood piles. We learned how to safely remove wood from the stacked cord for our wood stoves, and the children were taught to identify them and step away. As wood splitter, I stayed cautious.

That New York resident spider appeared nonthreatening but looks can be deceiving. Certainly it was disinterested in our activities. Upon looking it up I couldn’t determine if it was a barn funnel weaver or a cross orb weaver or an American house spider or none of the above. I didn’t feel it was venomous–though why rely on mere feeling? But so it went. I was mildly interested in its movements and experienced no alarm. Well, it was outside the car window, though I rolled it down a bit to let out stagnant heat until the air conditioner cooled things off.

Then we were off, and all unfolded well as we headed south into rolling hills. After New York we traversed part of rolling Pennsylvania hills, then onto West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and finally South Carolina. Through the Allegheny Mountains, then Shenandoah and Blue Ridge Mountains. Increasing sweatiness oozed from my skin. Heat felt heavier, denser every day, not so comfortable since I am used to clearer, cooler mountain air of the Northwest. The clouds pressed onto the horizon and towered above us with threats of rain. But we made good progress daily. Naomi and I had pleasant breakfasts or lunch with artist friends in different states.

As we slowed or sped up I found myself checking the spider’s position. It was still there, either working or just hanging on. I began to notice that even as the car got up to fifty-plus mph, it remained planted on the web, even if there was some rain. But if the speedometer reached between sixty and sixty-five, it finally disappeared behind the mirror, into the plastic mirror housing. Wouldn’t it be like a hurricane force wind for a tiny spider at even fifty mph? I wondered about its seeming lack of good judgement. And why hadn’t it hopped off at rest stops, restaurants or gas stations we stopped at? There had to be plenty of better places to set up a cozy home base. Was this a true vagabond spider that had finally found a home–the Durango? It had remained there,,I estimated, for about five weeks.

Maybe it was a female and there was a cache of eggs tucked behind that mirror.

I told my daughter I thought–maternal instincts notwithstanding even if I was right–that this spider was exceptional, a fearless traveler. It deserved a name bestowed upon it.

“Good idea,” she agreed. “Maybe make it gender-less?”

“Riley? O’Riley?…I sort of like the Irish reference.”

We considered a couple of others when she came up with another idea.

“I think it should be Louise.”

“Louise? Not my favorite. Oh, wait…the sculptor?” I thought of the metal spider seeming to climb up or down on a building in Ithaca, New York where we’d stopped to see Naomi’s friend.

“Louise Bourgeois, yes. She makes gigantic spider sculptures, remember?–she’s fascinating.”

“A renegade. Perfect. Louise it is, boy or girl–likely girl, I think.” I found myself smiling at the intrepid spider who now had a name and a destination–it was the same as ours. Perhaps.

Just to clarify things, Louise Bourgeois was an important French American artist who died at 98 in 2010. She often exhibited with Abstract Expressionists; her work at times fit Surrealist definitions or appeared to be Feminist art. She tended to create large sculptures. Metal spiders were one of her artistic manifestations, the largest reaching over 30 feet tall. She saw them as benevolent, helpful creatures. Since they eat mosquitoes they are particularly important to human health, she noted.

So, honestly, the naming bit made sense considering Naomi is also a sculptor who tends toward the abstract and experimental, is a quick and courageous thinker and doer as well as an international traveler. (I’m her mother…so I can say these things.) Well, our spider was only interstate in her forays (although Naomi had lived an hour or so away from the Canadian border for two years…). The human Louise died in Manhattan though born in France.

It was clear the small one riding along with us on the car was committed to her work and was physically tenacious beyond any reasonable expectation. I checked on her every hour or so as we cruised along. It seemed logical that the drafts generated by the moving car would tear her web to shreds, that the force of other winds would lead her to an uncertain if not a fatal end. But no. She only hid behind the mirror when things got really rough and came out again when they calmed down.

We rested in our snug beds indoors, away from the elements. And in the morning when we got going there was Louise, ready for another accumulation of bouncing, speeding, dampening mileage. What small web portions were previously unraveled she’d re-woven for the next jaunt. We greeted her then left her to it, noting her residency time to time.

“Still there?” Naomi might ask.

“Yep, about to scurry behind the mirror, though. Maybe she’s a natural voyager.”

“Or wanted to go South on the cheap.”

We entered the Blue Ridge Mountains, an uplifting landscape crowded by darkly burgeoning clouds. Secretly I imagined Louise would get off before the storms hit, gather herself and latch onto a bush or plant for more decent shelter. But no, she clung on even as we entered a zone that I was not as thrilled with: heavy thunderstorm territory.  I haven’t dealt with a truly bad one–read: quite possibly tornado producing– since I moved to the Pacific Northwest 24 years ago. And that storm was bearing down upon us. Louise hid well as was her habit, we slowed way down, I watched the clouds shape-change for miles and the sky turn inky while winds swooped down on trees, houses and vehicles in charged rushes of thunder and lightning. My heart rate went up a couple of times as treetops flailed about and we could barely see out the windshield. The rain engulfed, then finally was gone; we emerged with trailer intact. Also Louise. She crawled out from the mirror’s cave and hung out on her web awhile.

A whole week-end was used for resting and playing in Richmond, Virginia, visiting another daughter and a grandson. We shared hugs, good conversations and food with Caitilin and Nick. Daytime required being indoors mostly due to scorching temperatures (Cait said it was a boon it was cloudy, so cooler). We took walks in humidity so cloying that even at 9 p.m. I was a bit breathless after 45 minutes traversing the graceful neighborhood. And yet the cicadas’ rasp and the crickets’ singing mesmerized me as we loped along under overarching tree limbs, passed the magnolias and powerfully scented jasmine.

Louise stayed put, even when we went to historic Colonial Williamsburg, VA. for an afternoon. The spider had a plethora of choices for resettling in crooks and crannies of buildings dating from the 1700 and 1800s. Later we had outstanding Virginia barbecue of pulled pork or chicken, sat at picnic tables under dusky skies and listened to ever companionable crickets. Louise did something on her own, but I don’t know what.

Finally, Naomi and I arrived in “famously hot” Columbia, South Carolina. We disembarked and slowly got moved in. Except for you know who. Louise was weaving, snaring things, then resting– endless repairing or redesigning, preparing for something about which I had no clue. She had easier rides to stores and restaurants and to Naomi’s new university over the next three days. There was another major thunderstorm that I watched with restlessness on the new wide porch. As vivid lightning divided darkness  with thunderous shouts and winds unleashed their power, I sat on the porch swing a bit and wondered if Louise was okay. Of course, she would be. So I went to bed. I had a long plane ride the next day. It would be awhile before I would see Naomi again. Before I would be back in her light-filled office, learning first-hand about the new work and life being constructed.

I’ve been home for a week now. My daughter has updated about Louise a few times: “Yes, still there.” But when Naomi didn’t inform me of the spider’s activities today, I asked her to take a minute in between tasks and errands to check. She got back to me in a while. Sh had said something a couple of days before about driving a forklift; I tried to imagine all one hundred-some pounds of her doing that. Or she was helping set up a new laundry area in her place. She never stops for long.

“Not there right now–not sure what she’s up to. I haven’t seen any babies but who knows? And remember, she might be a guy.”

“Maybe a change barometer change roused her?” I checked her city’s weather in her city–no rain today so far. Not that a little whirlwind of a storm could oust Louise.

“And there’s no web right now. She may have jumped ship.”

I felt a small sinking in my middle. Come on, it’s a spider.

“I’ll check in the morning again.”

“Okay, thanks. I know I’m overly inquisitive of Louise…”

“That’s okay. But I’m calling it quits for the day. Lots more to do tomorrow.”

“Yes, rest up. Love you. Hey, did you watch any Olympics? Yay, USA!”

“Watching now. Love you, too!”

I sit back in my desk chair. My daughter starts her new classes in a couple weeks, university meetings are about to deluge her and she’s running around getting stuff she needs to settle into her new spot. Make it a welcoming habitat. There are big changes in the breeze for her. I know she’ll open her arms to new people and opportunities as that’s what she does. She’ll take things in stride even–or especially– when it becomes demanding or tumultuous, as work and life just do. I suppose she is a bit like our spider–persevering, productive, creative, energetic, one who strikes out and forges her own path. In the end, I don’t worry about Naomi much. She is strong and good-hearted; she has family and friends who hold her dear.

It is Louise I think about for now, if she is going to have a family or if she had a perilous fall or if she got sick and tired of that spot and moved on to wider terrains and loftier bushes, shadier corners or tastier venues. Maybe she has taken stock, is rearranging things, then will begin anew tomorrow. I know that impulse. Once one slogs through one phase, one must re-evaluate. And if you make it over rough trails and through dangerous storms you hope for, even plan for clement weather for awhile. And then you gather strength and strike out and take whatever comes once more, looking  for and making your joy and peace, sharing it as you can.

In Oregon when I returned last week, I got ready to use my car for the first time in 2 weeks. I opened the driver’s side door and was confronted with– yes, it’s true–a gigantic web. It was spun inside the car door’s opening. It was breathtaking, covered so much of the area that I could not get in without wiping it away. I had a moment. Wondered how I could destroy such a labor intensive piece of art. But I had to get in and there was only one things I could do. I ran a stick over the empty web and shook it off with some difficulty, then got in. I also checked for scattered spiders but saw none.

After my errands I parked my car, got out and for some reason I looked at my purse. There was the spider I had dislodged, hanging on. It looked curiously similar to Louise. Of course it isn’t Louise, I told myself, this one was an Oregonian, likely from the big bushes next to my car. I do see spiders there a lot. Though you never know for sure, it seems, as they can migrate, right? I shook it off gently and think it ran away into dirt and grass. I wondered if my car would become an arachnid infant nursery, like the stately Noble fir we once got for Christmas–we later had tiny spiders hatching and running all over our walls for weeks.

I almost called my daughter but no, it’s only a little spider meeting, nothing of import. I went in and put it aside for later musing. But I do still wonder over it all; I have a different view.  I wonder what my son, the spider attack survivor/defender, might have to say, too.

But I admit that I miss Louise. And, of course, our one and only Naomi. I miss those gentle-fierce pilgrims like mad.


1024px-Maman_de_Louise_Bourgeois_-_Bilbao COurtesy Wikimedia Commons
Maman by Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain Courtesy Wikimedia Commons 2011

(PS An odd aside: Louise Bourgeois said spiders represented her mother. “Maman” translated from French is “mom” or “mommy”–whom the sculptor loved greatly.)

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