I grew up in rural Pennsylvania in a tiny town nestled below the Allegheny Mountains. I loved the placethe woods, the farmland, the mountains. And my grandfather was really cool. He could pare the skin off an apple in one long piece that spiraled off his knife like a corkscrew, and he could say the alphabet backwards faster than anyone else could say it forwards. We hiked and fished . . . and he taught me how to triangulate a bee tree before I could tie my shoe.
One of my favorite pastimes was playing with ants. I played with them by the hour. I dipped the stem end of a black walnut leaf into the birdbath and used it to “paint” mazes on the flagstone walkway. The lines of water made barriers the ants wouldn’t cross. I could make the ants work harderand walk furtherthan they wanted to. I was in charge.
I loved everything about those summer daysthe way the walnut stem oozed stickiness, the way the flagstones smelled of earthworms, the way long-legged bugs made footprints on the water. Thing is, I didn’t call the little black creatures “ants.” Like everyone else in town, I called them antimires . . . or something like that. I don’t actually know how to spell it, but it sounded like “Aunty Myers.” I never doubted the name.
When I was old enough to go to school, my parents moved to the city in hopes I would get a better education. “City” is a relative term, of course. To folks in town, the city was a place with a stop sign and more than one diner.
Turns out, I didn’t like school all that much except for lunch and recess, but I made the best of it. One autumn day we were on the playground when I spotted an ant hill. Elated, I called to my new friends. “Antimires!” I said pointing. “Come on, let’s dig ‘em up!”
I dropped to my knees and began to paw through the dry-as-dust soil. My fingers bled on these raucous occasions, but I never cared. Soon a voice behind me demanded, “Antimires? What’s that?”
“You know,” I said, continuing to excavate.
“Antimires?” she said again. Something about her voice didn’t sound exactly friendly, and when I looked up I saw a small group gathering around us. Then more kids arrived. And more. Soon they started to chant. “Antimires! Antimires!”
“It’s fun,” I defended weakly. “Look, they got eggs!”
I heard someone in the group say something about ants, and it slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y, dawned on me that it was the word they objected to, not the activity.
As the chanting grew louder, heat spread over my skinlike viscous burning molasses it stuck to me, tortured me. My throat felt like I’d swallowed a bramble. My ears burned until the chanting shattered into silence. I wanted to run but my legs were rubber. I wanted to disappear, but all I could do was cry.
Long story short, I never forgave the ants for the humiliation I suffered that day. I haven’t played with ants for decades. I feed them to my chickens. I stomp on them with malice aforethought. That ants are Hymenopterans, just like honey bees, is an annoying fact I just have to deal with.
The odd thing is that the word “antimire” isn’t the only regionalism that stuck with me. Although I’ve spent a lifetime ridding myself of quaint mountain expressions, every now and then I utter something that marks me as a child of the hills. Still, “antimire” is the only one that really hurt.
Lately, though, I’ve been thinking. If I could find a walnut leaf, a flagstone, and a birdbath, maybe I could start over. Maybe I could renew the old friendship and spend the rest of my life peaceably co-existing with the antimires. Seriously, I wonder if I could . . .
P.S. If you like antimires–or even if you don’t–be sure to check out more insect photos at Alex Wild Photography.