Every year on my sister’s birthday, I make a donation to Bat World Sanctuary in her name, and on mine, she contributes to Heifer International.
While our choices of beneficence may suggest not-too-subtle metaphorical underpinnings, these are actually two of our favorite charities.
Our aunt was a biologist who was one of the world's foremost authorities on Myotis Lucifigus (the North American Little Brown Bat) and taught us how harmless bats are and how useful to the environment. And Heifer International gives livestock (ducks, lambs, pigs, cows etc.) to third world families and teaches them how to care for the animals and increase the flock for a sustainable source of food.
For my most recent birthday, I was genuinely touched to learn that a llama had been donated to a family in the high Andes on my behalf. The sale of the wool would help pay for food, education, and medicines for the recipient family. The donation announcement included a note from my sister: “I hope this is also a corrective emotional experience.”
Boy, my sister really knows how to hurt a person. The Llama Incident has been on my conscience for decades and she knows it. But let me say in my defense that every new bride makes mistakes. Is there a bride out there who has not left the bag of innards in the turkey? Who has not confused a bulb for a clove of garlic and ended up with a beef stew that could wipe out New Jersey?
But I’ll admit that my desecrating the llama was probably a little more unusual. I was a young bride, still in college. Inexperienced in the ways of the world, and specifically, wool cleaning.
Of course, it wasn’t a whole llama, just the skin of one, which my parents had received as a gift and which I persuaded them to lend me for my tiny newlywed apartment. Naturally, a white long-haired llama skin gets pretty dirty after a while, so the next time I called home, I asked my mother if it might be washable. Dry-cleaning on a student budget was out of the question. She said she thought it was.
Now, afterwards, Mom insisted that what she meant by “washable” was that I might put the llama skin ever so carefully into a bathtub full of cold water with the teeniest drop of Woolite and poke it very gently from time to time with my index finger.
Mom said she NEVER meant that I should take it down to the basement laundry room and throw it in the Jumbomatic Super-Washer with a whole load of underwear. (Even I knew better than to mix whites and darks.)
Well, imagine my utter dismay when I went down to get my laundry and found that the backing on the skin had somehow disintegrated (I only used warm!) and I had a whole washer load of wet, hairy llama with all of our dainties hopelessly (and I do mean hopelessly) entangled within.
I was miserable. The waste! Not only had I ruined this beautiful skin but this meant that the donor llama had died in vain. Not to mention, it wasn’t even my llama. What was I going to tell the folks, I agonized, as I stood there tearfully hacking the matted (but so clean!) mass from its death grip on the agitator with a meat cleaver (wedding gift). Finally succeeding, there was nothing to do but put the big hairy ball in the dryer. All of our underwear was in there somewhere.
It was truly weeks before we could extricate all the laundry from the tightly tangled mass of hair, which we kept conveniently piled on top of our dresser. My last task before bed at night was to delicately, painstakingly, extricate a set of undergarments for the next day from the llama with a pair of nail scissors.
Friends would ask us, “What’s that big hairy thing on your dresser?” (It was a small one-bedroom apartment and you needed to go through the bedroom to get to the bathroom.) And to his credit, my then-husband would put his arm around me protectively and say, “It’s a llama with underwear in it.”
Unfortunately for me, it became a favorite family story: The Time Inga Ran the Llama Through the Washer and Ended Up with a Hair Ball the Size of Connecticut.
So I was truly grateful to my sister for what was some long overdue llama therapy. I couldn’t bring back the first llama but I could bring food and warmth and income to a family far away who probably knew better than to wash animal skins in an automatic washer, not that they likely had one anyway.
I feel better already.