I first became acquainted with the story of the grasshopper and the ants as a young girl—not by reading Aesop’s fable, but by seeing a Walt Disney cartoon. In the cartoon, the grasshopper fiddles and sings while the ants gather food for the winter. The queen ant warns him that he’d better prepare too, but the grasshopper continues fiddling.
When winter comes, the grasshopper, blue from the cold, knocks on the tree where the ants live and begs them to let him in. The queen ant gives her “I-told-you-so” speech and ends with “So take your fiddle and”—there is a long pause—“play!” So the grasshopper earns warmth and food by playing.
Aesop is not as kind. When the grasshopper comes begging for food, the queen ant tells him, “You sang through the summer, now you can dance through the winter.”
Even as a child, Aesop’s version made me uncomfortable. It still makes me uncomfortable. You see, I am a grasshopper.
I dance in elevators. The second the door closes, I begin tap dancing and flinging my arms wildly about. I make faces and stick my tongue out at the hidden cameras I believe exist in every elevator. When the doors open, I stop short and stare with what I hope is a bored elevator look into the open hallway ahead.
I am a grasshopper. It takes me a full day to dismantle my Christmas tree because I dress up in the decorations. I wrap the gold tinsel around my head in a turban. I make a shawl for my neck from glass beads and paper chains. Red glass balls hang from my ears. Then, standing in front of the hall mirror, I sing “New York, New York.” I feel like a star.
I am a grasshopper. I have never prepared for winter or the Apocalypse. I do have two thousand pounds of wheat, which I hope never to eat, and a box of chocolate chips that won’t last through next week. Last summer I tried to bottle some peaches—the cold-pack method—just to see if I could do it. I bottled three jars. They sit in my freezer like museum pieces.
I am a grasshopper. I live in a metaphorical world. I read and write fiction. I draw pictures. I dance in elevators. I dress in Christmas tree decorations.
But I was reared by ants. My mother and father immigrated to America from the Netherlands in 1948 with four children. Five more children were born in Salt Lake City. My father was an electrician. My mother kept the house and us immaculate. She knitted us sweaters and baked our bread. Dinner was ready each night at 5:30 on the nose. She taught me to work—to wash woodwork, wax floors, and clean behind the toilet.
But my priorities were not the same as hers.
Even as a child, I was a grasshopper. I wrote, drew, and daydreamed. I never outgrew it. I never intended to. If growing up meant leaving behind the imagination I loved, I didn’t want to be grown up—at least not in the same way as most of the adults I knew.
Although I have not grown up to be like my mother, I admire her work. I love to open her linen closet and see the neatly folded sheets and pillowcases—color-coordinated, meticulously stacked. I like to stand in front of the year’s supply in her dust-free basement and admire the rows of preserves, laundry soap, peanut butter, and polyunsaturated oils. I like to see her white—really white—laundry blowing on the clothesline. I like to ask her for the kind of things that I can never find in my own house, like the negative of a picture taken twenty years ago or a darning needle. She always knows where such things are located.
I clean, too, but I do something my mother doesn’t do—I write lists of things I clean up. Here’s a partial list from my journal, dated March 3, 1984—Saturday:
What we found when we cleaned under our bed:
one triple combination
A Mormon Mother, by Annie Clark Tanner
The Clown, by Heinrich Böll
the December ’83 National Geographic
the Roseville phone directory
one set of Tom’s office keys
one red mixing bowl
one kitchen knife
one empty chocolate chip ice-cream carton with lid
one empty raisin carton
one red-lead pencil
five felt-tip pens
two pen caps
one roll of packing tape
one cloth handkerchief
two plastic clown heads
one broken dart
one pair of pantyhose
one black high-heeled shoe
one coat hanger
one white shoelace
one disposable razor
one stake directory
one plastic action figure
numerous pieces of mail
one empty Kleenex box
one score sheet from Yahtzee
one piece of chalk
one orange peel
one Popsicle stick
I’m not completely comfortable with this list, just as I haven’t always been comfortable with being a grasshopper. I’ve always wondered if there is room in a family of ants—or in a church of ants—for a grasshopper. I fear that ants will not accept me unless I am just like them.
I take comfort in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” in which Mrs. Turpin, a middle-aged Christian Southern woman, views mankind as a hierarchy: “On the bottom of the heap were … the white-trash; then above them were the homeowners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged. Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and more land.”
At the end of the story, Mrs. Turpin receives a vision that destroys her delusion of a hierarchy. She sees a “vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives … and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people … marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”
I like this story because it is about redemption. Without the atonement of Jesus Christ, our virtues, whatever they are, don’t amount to much. We are all equally human.
King Benjamin asks, “Are we not all beggars?”
“What about works?” someone may ask. “Don’t ants work harder than grasshoppers?”
No. Grasshoppers work differently from ants.
I would like to rewrite the ending of Aesop’s grasshopper-and-ants story like this: It is winter, and the grasshopper is walking in the snow, talking to herself and answering herself. She wears a yellow slicker over her sweater because she can’t find her parka (which is buried in the debris under her bed). Because she was out of groceries this morning, she is eating a brownie with a carton of milk bought at the local convenience store which, thank heaven, is open twenty-four hours a day. The door in the tree where the ants live swings open. The queen ant appears and says to the grasshopper, “We are bored to death. Won’t you tell us a story or at least a good joke? Our teenagers are driving us crazy; maybe you could write them a play to perform, or just a roadshow? Do you have any ideas for a daddy-daughter party?”
The grasshopper replies that she has ideas for all of them. So the ant invites her in and seats her at a spotless kitchen table with pencil and paper, and the grasshopper writes the roadshow.
The ant feeds her guest a slice of homemade bread, fresh from the oven, and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. “How do you get all of these ideas?” she asks the grasshopper.
“They come to me,” says the grasshopper, “while I am taking long hot baths.”
I am a grasshopper. I work hard at writing, at teaching, at singing and dancing. I work hard at mothering. I have taught my four boys some grasshopper ways. They can all make chocolate-chip cookies and brownies without a recipe.
My mother used to say, “I don’t know where you came from.” This bothered me. If she didn’t know, I certainly didn’t. But I found out where I came from years later when I went back to Holland for the first time since I was five years old. I stayed with my paternal grandmother—Oma—who lived in Utrecht. In her, I found another grasshopper. When she set her alarm for nine o’clock in the morning, I knew where I came from. I came from Oma.
I came from you too, Mother. Otherwise I would never clean under my bed. And like ants and grasshoppers, I also came from God.