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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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Why can’t ants understand physical distancing? The rest of us are doing a pretty good job with this new directive, but they don’t seem to be on board. Every time I think these particular insects have left me and my kitchen alone this year (because I’ve hardly seen them) is exactly when I see one. Or more.

I made it past the halfway point of the summer without too much ant angst. Then I opened the baking utensil drawer. Well, that’s what I call it. Really, it’s the little-of-this and little-of-that drawer, with a few measuring spoons and a spatula thrown in. And there it was – a big, black ant scurrying to hide under the egg yolk separator. My first hope was that it was a small piece of burnt toast from the nearby toaster, flung into motion by the opening of the drawer. But the drawer stilled and the “toast” didn’t. It was an ant. And I had to deal with it immediately.

When my husband attempted to enter the kitchen shortly after my encounter, the vacuum and its various attachments blocked his way. He saw both the drawer and the jumble of kitchen gadgets, now squeaky clean, drying on the counter and couldn’t help but comment.

“That’s a bit of an overreaction, don’t you think, Paula?” he commented mildly.

“No, I don’t think,” I replied. “An overreaction would be to empty every single drawer in the whole kitchen looking for more of these annoying creatures. Then vacuum and wash everything. An overreaction would be to call pest control. Or put the house up for sale.” I paused, considering my obsessive-compulsive words.

“Or maybe, considering what’s happening in the world right now, it’s just a few bugs.”

Ants aren’t new to our kitchen. We’ve had them, in varying numbers, most summers in our 24 years in this house. Some years were very, very bad. Others were just medium bad. The year my youngest child turned 2, terrible on so many fronts, she would pick them up off the floor with her bare fingers, spotting them with the keen vision of an eagle. Well, keen vision or a vantage point of only two feet off the ground. My gasps of horror quickly cured her of that weird and icky behaviour. And I like to think, although I’m by no means certain, that I caught her each time she tried to put one in her mouth.

When we renovated our master bathroom 11 years ago, the ants all but disappeared from the kitchen. We’d never seen any ants in that bathroom but maybe there was some kind of connection, something to do with the bathroom being directly over the kitchen. Strange that they didn’t disappear when we renovated the kitchen. Whatever link did or didn’t exist was irrelevant to me. I was happy to enjoy a few blissful, insect-free years.

Sadly, they returned in odd ways. One year, when my kids were in elementary school, the ants took up residence in the seldom-used-in-summer cupboard that held, among other things, the school lunch bags. When I opened that cupboard looking for ice-cube trays, I saw the bags covered in the shiny, black bugs. I guess I should have washed those bags a little better before I put them away in June.

Other years, the ants made the dishwasher their summer home. I would see them as I loaded the dinner dishes. Somehow, my love and respect for all living creatures didn’t extend to them in those moments. I would press start, and not feel like a murderer. Or perhaps I felt just like the average murderer – remorseless.

Sometimes I imagine their conversations, as the ants decide whether to come out in large numbers, or one-by-one and two-by-two as the old children’s song goes.

“Full-on attack is our best bet,” Ant No. 1 might strategize. “Release the workers, cover the counters, the floor and that large trap that drowns our troops on a nightly basis. Really give the lady a scare.”

“I disagree,” Ant No. 2 would counter. “I think it’s more insidious if we stay hidden for a while. Lull her into a false sense of security, then begin our slow and steady campaign of terror. Send one soldier to the microwave on the first day. Then another to the pot drawer the next. And two more to the kitchen table the day after that. She’ll always be on edge. It’ll be great.”

I know I’m overstating their intelligence with these simulated scheming sessions. After all, they only made it to the food cupboard once over the years.

With summer over, I know I will soon be able to relax for a few months until the cycle begins anew next May. Their return will surprise me then, as it does every year. There will be a first sighting, always by me because my husband and daughters conspire to keep me in the dark about these invasions.

“They’re back,” I will say to my husband.

He will reply with the same three words he does every year. Words that send a shiver through my shoulders and burn images I don’t care to see in my mind. He will say in his spooky, scary-movie narrator voice:

“They never left.”

Paula MacDonald lives in Oakville, Ont.