A grandfather teaches his granddaughter of nature's delicacy with a poem about sea otters.
In the day's fading light, they approached the house down the long sidewalk. The dining room's lace curtains were drawn and they could see Gabby's mother, Dotty, positioning white bowls on the table. Jacob and Aubrey, her older brother and sister, placed silverware beside the bowls. With the kitchen window slightly ajar, the aroma of beef stew wafted out across the yard and Grandpa Daniels smiled. The two ascended the white wooden steps, crossed the gray porch, and stepped inside the house foyer. Gabby's dad greeted them at the door and Grandpa Daniels handed him his light-brown jacket.
“Gettin' a little nippy out, Pop?” asked Michael, hanging the jacket on the hall coat rack.
“Just a little. Aroma's wonderful, Dotty!”
“Feed the ducks?” the father asked his daughter.
“No, never came to our side,” and Gabby went into the kitchen to put the loaf of bread beside the toaster.
Grandpa Daniels looked forward to supper. A good stew was his favorite meal on a chilly evening, and his daughter-in-law made an excellent one. Earlier that afternoon, Dotty put sliced chunks of chuck roast, small new potatoes, wedges of yellow onions, and chopped carrots into the crock-pot seasoning it with salt, pepper, minced garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and a bay leaf on top. Four hours later, she dished the savory stew into a large red bowl and set it on the middle of the dining room table. Two trays of butter and fresh bread from the bakery accompanied the meal.
“How bad we whip Vanderbilt?” Grandpa Daniels asked Michael as they sat down to the table.
“Didn't. Won 17-10. Peyton threw two interceptions.”
“Pass the butter, please,” Aubrey said to Jacob.
Gabby scooped some stew into her bowl with the big silver spoon. “Mmm,” she said after taking a bite.
“Gabby, wait for grace!” instructed her father.
“Sorry … Daddy, I have a question.”
“Dotty, please get the butter out sooner!” complained Michael, unable to spread it across his bread. He said this halfheartedly as he, too, had been guilty of the oversight. “What's that, sweetie?”
“Grandpa says sea otters hold hands when they fall asleep. Is that true?”
“Care for a beer, Pop?” Dotty asked from the refrigerator.
“No thanks, just water. Have some paperwork to go through after dinner.”
“Well, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” answered Mr. Daniels, “Grandpa was a marine biologist, so I would trust what he says.”
“He also said they talk to each other.” Dispensing this second piece of information, Gabby stared at the corner of the ceiling with a raised brow and smirk on her face. She often used the look to express doubt in something someone said. The frozen smirk made them smile, but never laugh. They did not want to offend her.
Winking at his father, Michael added, “And I would use good judgment in trusting everything he says.” Grandpa Daniels grinned.
Dotty set the iced water down and took her place opposite Michael at the end of the table.
Jacob turned toward Gabby. “They have the thickest fur of any creature on earth.”
“How would you know?”
“Let's say grace,” interrupted the father.
The family held hands and recited Bless Us Oh Lord.
Jacob continued, “Mr. Myler said so last week.” Mr. Myler was their science teacher at St. Anne.
“Mr. Myler's correct,” said Grandpa Daniels. “Most warm-blooded creatures in the sea, like whales and seals, have blubber to insulate them from the cold. Sea otters only have fur, but it is so thick they can barely feel the water.”
“Stew's good, Mama,” said Jacob.
Grandpa Daniels nodded his agreement.
“Sally's mom uses onion soup mix in hers,” Aubrey said to her mother in an attempt to steer the conversation a different direction. The Daniels's oldest child had no interest in discussing marine animals. “I can't remember ... have you ever made it that way?”
“No, I haven't. Why, is it better than mine?”
“I didn't mean it like that. It just has a different flavor.”
“Maybe I'll try it next time,” and she smiled at her daughter.
“Tomorrow night's good for me,” suggested Grandpa Daniels.
“Is the Pacific water cold?” Gabby asked.
“What's with all this otter and ocean talk?” said Aubrey.
“Maybeee ya ought-en ta tink beyooond your Bobbseeey Twin boook sometime,” replied her sister in exaggerated southern drawl.
“Be quiet, Gabby,” Aubrey snapped loudly.
“Girls, enough!” said their mother.
“What part of the Pacific?” asked the father, dipping a slice of buttered bread into the stew. “It makes a difference.”
“Off Washington,” answered Gabby.
“Ice-cold. You could maybe put a big toe in it.”
“What if it was a hundred-degree day?” she wondered.
“Maybe your foot, then,” said the father.
“I don't think so,” Gabby stated.
“Well, we can find out right now,“ said Grandpa Daniels.
“How?” asked Gabby.
“We'll fill the bathtub with ice and water and you can take a bath.”
“No thank you.”
“What's for desert, Mama?” said Jacob.
After Gabby finished her pie, she asked to be excused from the table. Grandpa Daniels knew where his granddaughter was going. In the dark shaded den, she removed the encyclopedia's S-Sn volume from the bookshelf alongside the fireplace and stretched out on the rug beside flickering flames. Embers crackled and made the only sound in the room. The fire provided ample reading light. She turned the pages: 'Scales' . . . 'Seeds' . . . 'Sea' . . . 'Sea Otters'. When Gabby read how sea otters use flat stones to crack open urchins, she felt a little knot in her stomach. Reading further that the cute creatures hold hands to fall asleep in a circle, the knot grew tighter. She got up off the floor, placed the encyclopedia back in its slot, and returned to the kitchen. Her mother was at the sink cleaning dishes.
“I think in his study.”
Grandpa Daniels lived on the other side of Ruby Falls but often spent weekends at their home — especially during football season. Michael and Dotty had converted the room at the bottom of the stairs into a bedroom-office for him. Although officially retired from marine biology, Clarence Daniels was considered an expert in the field and various institutions consulted with him regularly. He used the office side of the room for this purpose.
Gabby walked out of the kitchen and through the short corridor. A DO NOT DISTURB sign hung from the gold knob. She looked at the light beneath the door and returned to the kitchen.
“Grandpa has a DO NOT DISTURB sign on his door. May I still go in?”
“Maybe not right now. Grandpa mentioned he had some paperwork to look at. What is it, honey?”
“He was right about the otters. They hold hands to fall asleep and use rocks to crack open urchins. I feel bad about doubting him.”
“I see. Well, I'm sure he would like to know that, but he'll appreciate it just as much in the morning.”
“You think so?”
“All right,” said Gabby. “Goodnight, Mama.” She kissed her mother's cheek and went upstairs for the night. It was early but, unlike her brother and sister, she loved to read under the bright light of her nightstand lamp. Aubrey preferred to listen to music and admire herself in the mirror. Her deepest thought of the day usually revolved around which hairstyle to wear. As for her brother, he loved to play video games or throw the football outside with his block buddies. At quarterback, he always rolled out as if he were Peyton Manning. For some reason, unknown to her parents, Gabby became the child who loved to learn. They were thrilled with the consequences and always took full credit for it.
While brushing her teeth and putting on her pajamas, Gabby continued to feel bad about doubting her grandfather. The lingering guilt finally dissipated when she resumed reading her latest Nancy Drew mystery. After a while though, her eyes grew tired. She turned off the lamp and fell into a deep sleep. Several hours later when she woke and looked at the clock, the red numbers showed 2:05. Gabby considered going downstairs to wake her Grandpa Daniels; she had done so two weeks earlier when thunder rattled the house overnight. Half way down the stairs, she saw the light still under his door and the sign on its knob. “Must be some important paperwork,” she thought, returning to her room.
Gabby woke again at 7:00 A.M. She quickly dressed and went downstairs to Grandpa Daniels room. The DO NOT DISTURB sign no longer hung from the knob. She opened the door and heard him lightly snoring in his bed against the far wall.
“Time to get up, Grandpa.” He did not move. “Grandpa!” and she lightly poked him. He twitched. “Grandpa! Grandpa!” His eyes opened.
“Good morning, Biscuit,” he said, struggling to focus.
“Why you so tired?”
“I stayed up too late.”
“Where's the poem?
“Now, slow down, we'll read it at the pond. How 'bout some pancakes and bacon before we go?”
“I'll make the pancakes if you make the bacon,” said Gabby.
“Sounds like a game plan to me.”
Grandpa Daniels dressed in khaki pants and a blue checked flannel shirt. He struggled to put on his socks and white sneakers. Before leaving the room, he wrote something on the top of a yellow sheet of paper, then folded it with similar sheets and put them in his pocket.
“You want Mickey pancakes, Grandpa?” Gabby asked as he entered the kitchen.
“Sure.” He pulled down the cast iron skillet and set it on the gas burner.
“Grandpa, you were right about otters holding hands and using rocks.”
“Oh, so you looked at the encyclopedia,” he said, leaning into the refrigerator to retrieve the bacon.
“Yes. I'm sorry. I should have believed you!”
“Well, I told you sea otters can talk.”
After he positioned four slices on the skillet, the aroma instantly filled the room. Gabby placed a butter tray and syrup on the kitchen nook's table. The grandfather poured a few drops of half and half cream into his mug (a gift from Gabby with Grandpa's Mug inscribed on it) and then coffee. When breakfast was prepared, they dished up their plates and sat down at the table.
After grace, Gabby said, “Grandpa, I didn't know you were a marine biologist.”
“I can't hide it. It's true.”
“So that's how you know so much about otters!”
He took a sip of coffee. “Sea otters are some of my favorite animals.”
“Can I be a marine biologist?”
“You can be anything you want, Biscuit.”
“I can't wait to hear the poem. Oh … did you find out who wrote it?”
“Darn ... I forgot to check.”
Grandpa Daniels, with coffee mug in hand, waited by the front door. Gabby was in the kitchen adding waters and granola bars to her knapsack. She had already put in it two books from her room. The knapsack always contained these items on their visits to the pond. When she approached him by the door, he said, “Are we forgetting something?”
After she went back to the kitchen, Grandpa Daniels realized he had forgotten something as well. He set his coffee mug on the edge of the Bible stand and removed his jacket from the coat hall rack. Slipping it on, he was now prepared for the cool morning. Gabby returned with the half loaf of bread, and they exited the door to begin their old, familiar stroll.