I hated jellyfish as a kid. Yup, I know, they clean the water like gelatinous filters, but as a kid they represented ruined summer days. Like most kids, I loved summer. I had the good fortune of spending my summers on the water in Long Island. After my parents divorced my sister and I would spend summers with our Dad and his side of the family including my Nana (my paternal grandmother) and her sister, Minnie, and my Aunt and Uncle. I loved it there. Swimming, boating, water-skiing, croquet, miniature golf, the weekly barbecue—what’s not to love? I’ll tell you what—jellyfish.
A “good” summer was often defined as one in which there weren’t a lot of jellyfish. During the “bad” summers, there could be so many that you didn’t want to risk getting in the water. Our family owned a plot of land, complete with a dock, across the street from the house. This is where you could find all of us. My sister and I lived for high tide because we were allowed to jump off the dock. We had all different types of jumps (which we named) and we entertained our family with our so-called comedic abilities.
But during a bad jellyfish season, jumping off the dock could be precarious. Usually we had one or more family members on the lookout. If one was spotted, we’d either wait for it to pass, or, if it was close enough, we’d scoop it up with a net and plop it into the bushes (not proud of that). It was a constant struggle to stop the family dogs from eating said jellyfish (and then promptly throwing them up).
In case you didn’t know, jellyfish are sneaky. At times they swim deep and can’t be detected, even by the most seasoned lookout. There’s nothing that can invoke terror more quickly than being in mid-jump and seeing a jellyfish moving to the surface. You know you’re doomed and there’s not a thing you can do about it. If you’re already in the water you almost never see them until it’s too late. My Dad used to swim laps every day. I’m not exaggerating when I say that at least once a week we’d hear him screaming obscenities, his voice carrying across the creek and out into the bay. He used to get nailed in the face by one of those MOFOs on a regular basis.
Aside from that, because there were so many boats, many jellyfish would get scrambled by the motors, the propellers acting as giant whisks, sending tentacles everywhere. The thing about tentacles—you can’t see them. One chance intersection with a stray tentacle would have us yelling our heads off in 2 seconds flat. My Nana and Minnie would be at the ready with meat tenderizer. Usually my sister and I would get stung on an arm or leg. Nana would sprinkle a little tenderizer directly on the affected area while we either whimpered or full-out wailed. You may be wondering, “does meat tenderizer actually work?” I’m not sure if it really worked or if it was the placebo effect in action, but it was a staple in the boathouse.
More often than not, when we swam into a jellyfish, it was one of the “good ones,” meaning it was the species without tentacles. They were small, clear, floating blobs. There was always a moment of panic when I felt the “jelly” part of the jellyfish, not knowing if it was a good one. Invariably my face would relax when I realized it wasn’t one of the evil ones. Somehow my whole family appreciated the “good” jellyfish because THEY had a purpose. THEY cleaned the water. The stinging jellyfish had one purpose: to ruin our summer.
Over the last few summers, the “jellies,” as we called them, have been few and far between. In fact, this past summer I spent hours in the water and didn’t spot one. Don’t get me wrong—I was really happy about that. But it did make me wonder where they’d all gone. They’d been my summer nemesis for so long, it felt strange NOT to worry about them. I guess there’s something weirdly comforting about things staying the same—even when those “things” can cause a 2-inch welt. My Nana, Minnie, and my Dad are gone now. The absence of the jellyfish makes that fact just a little sadder somehow, as if they carried the memories on their tentacles. I told you they were sneaky.