That time I nearly killed my grandmother

My father was always a bit vague about how he got his interest in natural history. He remembered an aquarium full of freshwater life at his primary school. He spoke of finding caterpillars and moths on his paper round, and a mole cricket when he was evacuated to Yorkshire during the Blitz. By the time he was a young man, it was deeply ingrained and he spent hours trooping across Wimbledon Common, Bookham Common and the City of London bombed sites collecting insects and plants. Wherever it came from, he certainly did not get any wildlife interest from his mother — she hated creepy-crawlies, and although she fed the sparrows in her garden, she could not pick up a frog, and a newt would probably have given her conniptions.

I always found it odd that though ‘Nana’ was such a tough old bird, she had the squeamishness of a parody Victorian maiden. Widowed, with my 5-year-old father, and a newborn babe-in-arms, at age 24, she worked as a single mum in an era when this carried a terrible stigma — surviving bombed-out London during World War 2, becoming a supervisor in a munitions factory, before remarrying, out-living her 8 siblings, a second husband and a late-onset boyfriend, and surviving scrawny but vigorous until she was 93. Yet she despised mud and dirt, could not stand the sight of blood, and I nearly caused a significant family rift when, as a young teenager, I tried to use the word ‘guts’ in a scrabble game.

When I was about 12 Nana and Grandad Clifford came to stay in our house in Newhaven, when we went off to Swanage for our family summer holiday. Whilst we trekked across the Purbeck hills to see Old Harry Rock, Lulworth Cove and Corfe Castle, she and Cliff would visit the pub in Newhaven for a half of Guinness each, or potter in the garden. I never questioned the sleeping arrangements: she would be in my room, Cliff would be next door in my Brother Peter’s.

Her delicate sensibilities emerged within minutes. The first thing she made me do was take down a long narrow poster showing a cut-away diagram of a Saturn V rocket. About half way down, a round-oval fuel tank was helpfully coloured in bright red, but she said it looked too much like the stomach of a medically dissected dead body. It had to go.

Bemused, I took it down and we left, but although I did not realize it, I had left her a much worse time-bomb resting on my chest of drawers.

The caterpillars of the privet hawk moth, Sphinx ligustri, had come to me as hatchlings, tiny 10-mm worms from a neighbour’s garden. They had done well in an an old aquarium covered with a strip of net curtain. I had remembered to replenish the privet stalks fairly regularly, and nearly a year later, by the time they were fully grown, electric blue and as big as my thumb, nine of the original twelve larvae had survived to pupate in the few centimetres of soil at the bottom of the tank.

When we returned from the Purbeck, that August, we were getting compaints before all the suitcases were even in the front door. The giant moths had started to emerge, and after they had hung from the twigs to expand and dry their wings, they began to make exploratory flutterings late one night after Nana had turned in. Very soon their were several large vigorous hawk moths beating their powerful wings against the restraining gauze of the lid. This ghostly quivering was too much for Nana. Rudely roused from sleep, and on the verge of a heart attack, she had abandoned the bedroom, closed the door, and did not return. Next day she sent Cliff in to gather up her belongings. She was still visibly shaking as she recounted the terror that had been unleashed on her that night.

When I went upstairs to check on them, some of the hawks were still alive, but they were all worn and battered, frayed and faded, almost beyond recognition, as they had awoken each evening to try again to fly off into the night.

To this day I have never seen another live privet hawk moth, or the giant sphinx-like caterpillars, but people occasionally send me pictures, asking what is the monster they’ve found in the garden. Nana continued to abhor insects. I once had to go round to her house in South Norwood to retrieve a giant stag beetle she’d imprisoned with a flower pot on the lawn, and which she would not venture near.

I’m sorry she was so frightened of my moths, and I try to be understanding now, when other seemingly well-adjusted adults exhibit unreasonable fear of large insects. But I still remember my disappointment at seeing the damaged and abraded results of my year-long rearing experiment. One or two might have been preserved for the collection, but none looked anything like the handsome pink and chocolate  beasts I had seen in the picture books, and which now taunt me from the email attachments of my correspondents.

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