Mothers of Mine

This is how I remember it all… (But memories are mischievous things. The winds of time have a way of upsetting them, twisting and warping them, distorting and contorting them. And in some cases, changing them entirely. So, what I remember, may not, I
regret, be true.)

We are playing on the great, green lawn in front of Grandmother Rose’s home. I am four and have no fear. We are running in circles, around and around. We are having so much fun. Out of breath, I want to stop for a moment. But before I have a chance, her claw, her dewclaw— an additional claw used to trip and catch fleeing prey, typically gazelles on the wide plains of Africa—inadvertently flies out and catches my arm. I hear the long rip as I fall, in slow motion, to the ground.
Japanese John—as he was called then—who is hanging the wash nearby, stops what he is doing. Scuffling over in his slippered feet—they had been badly burned during the First World War—he kneels beside me. Rani, our baby cheetah, owner of the dewclaw, begins to lick my wound, an instinctive response surely, as saliva promotes blood clotting and defends against infection. “Mmm,” old, wrinkled John whispers. “Mmm.” He nods. “You good. You okay.” John’s few words—John knows very little English even though he has been working for
my grandmother for decades—serve to keep me at peace. I don’t feel pain. I don’t feel frightened. It isn’t until Grandmother Rose comes rocketing out of the house, her long, red hair wild and streaming out from its usually-neat knot on top of her head, her blue eyes on fire, that any of these ideas begin to occur to me.

I, of course, still have the scar today, many years later. Therefore, I know this memory to be true. It begins above the inner fleshy part of the elbow of my left arm, and goes up a good five inches. It’s wide, white, and jagged.

As you can see, I had a lot of mothers growing up. I had, of course, our cheetah, who mothered me quite well, and possibly saved my life immediately after almost taking it. I had Japanese John, whose gentle composure contrived to keep me more reasonable than I might have been had I grown up without him. I had my Grandmother Rose, the first woman to receive a speeding ticket in the United States, on a ride through Fairmont Park—an inspiration that speaks for itself. I also had the nuns, called Mothers, at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, where I boarded for many years. They wrapped me securely in their black-habited arms when I needed to be contained, and sang hymns to me with sweet, angelic voices. My mother, Jule Junker Mannix, who actually gave birth to me, was possibly the most influential mother in my life because, due to work, she traveled around the world a lot. I, too, have a travel bug within me that takes me far and wide as often as I can get away with it.

I know what I remember may not be true. But, truth be told, my life is a magnificent, crazy and wild ride. So anything I remember that makes me feel a burst of ecstasy has to be seized and cherished. For I am, after all, the product of some very brilliant, if unorthodox, mothers.


Jupo the Spider Monkey, Part II

When my baby monkey, Jupo, jumped out of my arms and onto the branches of the 80-foot tree, my heart stood still. She had never left my side before, except to go into her enclosure some nights, or when I went to school during the day. She had never been out in the wild aloneInfants rely, the encyclopedia said, completely on their mothers until they are twelve months old. Jupo was barely nine months. This was far too soon for her to be leaving me.

I watched in horror as she agilely made her way from the outside branches towards the center of the tree. Then, without any hesitation, she began to climb up the thick trunk. Seconds later, she was at the top. I let out a blood-curdling scream, and within minutes both my parents came running.


Spider monkeys, my encyclopedia told me, have prehensile tails that serve as a fifth hand. When a spider monkey walks, even a baby one, its arms are so long they practically drag on the ground. Their hands are long and narrow, too, and they have no opposable thumbs. They are highly agile, and, when they reach a certain age, can easily jump from tree to tree.

“Call the fire department,” my parents both screamed when they reached my side and saw what the situation was. “Call them immediately!”

“Jupo is on the highest branch and it’s too light to hold her safely,” my father added, as he began to climb up after her.

“Oh no,” my mother cried. “Dear baby Jupo. I don’t want her to fall.”

While my parents both watched Jupo, who was now tilting back and forth on the top of the tree, I ran into the house and called the fire department.

“Hello,” I said, trying to keep calm. “We have an emergency. Please come right away.”

“What is it?” the fireman who answered asked. “And tell me where you live.”

“Sunny Hill Farm,” I answered. “It’s my baby monkey. She is stuck at the top of a tree.”

There was a brief silence, and then the phone went dead.

I had to call back several times before anyone at the firehouse would take me seriously. But when they finally did, they came running. Three fire engines came, in fact, with sirens blaring and lights flashing. Since none of them had ever seen a monkey except at a zoo, and especially a monkey stuck in a tree, all the firemen at the firehouse had decided to come along for the occasion.  It was the two youngest ones, trainees probably, who were sent to climb to the top. The others climbed up too, but separated themselves so they were each five feet apart.

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According to the encyclopedia, when a spider monkey sees a human approaching, it barks loudly, much like a dog. It climbs to the end of the branch it is on and shakes it vigorously to scare away the possible threat. It shakes the branches with its feet, hands, or a combination of the two, while hanging from its tail.

When Jupo saw the two men climbing up after her, and all the others behind them, she was so terrified that she let out a piercing howl. Then she began to bark. Leaning out to the edge of the branch she was on, just above one of the firemen’s head, she began to shake it fiercely, while still hanging on to the narrow trunk with her tail. I was so afraid that she was going to let go and fall, I had to close my eyes and bury my head in my mother’s arms. But before she let go, the top of the tree was hastily clipped off. Clinging tightly to her branch, she was carefully handed down from fireman to fireman, until she was finally safe in my arms again.

The following morning, my mother, Jupo, and I went out into the orchard, picked dozens of apples, and made half a dozen pies, which we delivered to the fire station just in time for lunch.


Jupo’s first time out in public was when my mother and I took her to the Acme supermarket. I had her all wrapped up in a soft pink baby blanket, which had a triangle flap at one end that I used to cover her face. Pushing the shopping cart with one hand, I held her very carefully with the other. It was on aisle three, I remember, just as my mother was asking if I thought we needed more pickles for the hamburgers we were going to grill that night, when a sweet little old lady came over with a big smile on her face.

“Oh my,” she said sweetly. “Would you mind if I saw her face?”

My mother was a few feet away reading labels on the pickle jars. Smiling, I answered, the sweet old lady, “Certainly.” And as I did, I proudly lifted the triangle flap aside so she could get a good look.

Spider monkeys have coarse hair and it ranges in color from ruddy gold to brown and black; their hands and feet are usually black. Their heads are small, their nostrils very far apart, and they have hairless faces. Mostly, their eyes are blue. With her twinkling blue eyes, the same color as mine, Jupo stuck her head out from the blanket and smiled happily.

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My mother had moved back in time to catch the dear old lady, who was on the verge of fainting. “Oh dear,” the lady mumbled, her face as white as a ghost. When she was steady on her feet again she looked at my mother and me.

“Oh dear me,” she said, shaking her head. “I am so, so sorry.” Then, putting her quaking hand over her mouth, she all but ran away.

To be continued…


Jupo the Spider Monkey, Part I

Jupo, the baby spider monkey given to me on Christmas Day the year I was twelve, popped out of the wooden crate she was in, just like she was a jack-in-the-box. I screamed. I screamed so loudly that she got scared and jumped back in, covering her tiny head. It took me fifteen minutes of whispering soft, sweet words for her to show her face again. And after that, she never left my side.

Our family had a set of encyclopedias, and my parents suggested I use it to find out about my new pet. Spider monkeys, I read, come from the tropical forests of Central and South 181238-baby-spider-monkey-aaawww-1America, and from southern Mexico and Brazil, as well. Their disproportionately long limbs and long prehensile tails gave rise to their name. They are social animals, and live in bands of up to 35 individuals, but will split up to forage during the day.

As far back as I can remember, I had always wanted a monkey. It didn’t matter what kind. My parents had all sorts of wild animals—a cheetah, an American bald eagle, two coatimundi, several ocelots, pythons, hawks, Guinea fowl, peacocks, a baby fox, a coyote, some bats, a tarantula, a pair of kinkajous, and an otter. We also had domestic animals, like horses, sheep, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese, and a little Cairn terrier named Wriggles. But we didn’t have a monkey.  And then, suddenly, that Christmas, we did. And she was mine. All mine.

We lived out in the country in an old stone farm house which was in the center of twenty five acres of manicured lawns, eighty-foot trees, rolling green pastures, an apple orchard, a pond, and a great big, old wooden barn. My brother and I had full run of the place. Since Jupo was with me all the time, that meant she had the run of the place, too.

Spider monkeys primarily eat fruits, the encyclopedia said, but will occasionally consume leaves, flowers, and insects. They are diurnal, so spend 6a010535647bf3970b0134853c556e970cthe night sleeping in carefully selected trees. I knew I could give Jupo fruit and leaves, but I wasn’t certain about the insects. So I called the Philadelphia zoo for help. They gave me a list of things that would be healthy for her to eat, like mixed-together egg, corn flour and meal bugs. I had a floor-to-ceiling enclosure for Jupo in a corner of my room. There was a sturdy tree branch inside for her to climb on, and a blanket for her to wrap up in. But at night, she mostly slept with me.

I don’t know what season Jupo and I enjoyed the most back then. At the end of one season, I was always anxious for the next to begin. Her first summer, however, was the most unforgettable one. I remember taking her out one June day when she was just eight months old, spreading a red plaid blanket on the lawn, and sitting there with her in my arms so she could look around. But her small body trembled so hard I finally took her back into the house.

A mother spider monkey, I read, carries her baby around her belly for the first year. I carried Jupo across my front—her arms, legs Spider_monkey_mommy_babyand tail would wrap around me and she’d hold on tight. Spider monkey mothers are very protective, and they put their young on their imagesbacks when teaching them to navigate from tree to tree. After Jupo’s first few days outside, she stopped shaking. Soon, I moved her from the front of me, onto my shoulder. One day, I went over to one of our Ginkgo trees and stood right next to a branch. Spider monkey mothers sometimes pull branches closer together so the baby can climb for the first time, feeling more secure. So I did that, making a nice little shelf with two branches that she could sit upon safely.

That’s when, out of the blue, Jupo suddenly detached herself from my shoulder and, without even a glance in my direction, jumped onto the branch. In the time it took me to open my mouth and let out a gasp, she had climbed to the top of the 80-foot tree.


To be continued…


My Menagerie

The Christmas of my twelfth year, I received a wonderful baby spider monkey, whom I named Jupo. After I opened her crate and let Julie VonZerneck_Page_09her out, she immediately climbed our Christmas tree and wrenched away most of our beautiful family ornaments. A floor-to-ceiling wire enclosure had to be erected in my bedroom, but she cried when I put her in it at night. Also, it was so cold that winter that all the blankets in the world wouldn’t have kept her warm enough, because she would just toss them off. She even ripped off the little doll-sized, red-striped pajamas I’d put her in. So, in the end, she slept with me, inside my nightgown, stretched out across my chest, where she could hear the sound of my heartbeat under her own. Jupo only loved me and would cling to me, her arms around my neck, all day long. She kept my life exciting with all of her antics for five wonderful years. And then it was time for her to find a mate, which she did—Butch, a strapping young spider monkey, who lived at the Norristown Zoo in New Jersey.

Julie von Zerneck in formal wear w- squirrel monkey, MachoWe had a cheetah named Rani who lay out on my bed some afternoons and slept ‘till it was her feeding time.  And of course we also had the American bald eagle, Aguila. We had Otty, the otter, who liked to attack me in the pond and nibble my toes and make me scream bloody murder when I was swimming; and Coy, the coyote. We also had several ocelots, a bunch of skunks, vampire bats, a tarantula that we used a toothbrush to clean, six peacocks and pea hens that cried heeeelp, heeeelp when anyone drove up our quarter-mile drive; eight falcons, an unattractive hyrax, a fox named Tod, whom my father wrote about in one of his children’s books, foxdpmThe Fox and The Hound; and many other animals, including dozens and dozens of various snakes, some very poisonous, that came and went through the years. We also raised rats and rabbits to feed these animals. And then there was the roadkill that we found along the country roads. Our icebox in the shed was filled to the brim with not only the usual chicken and lamb chops, but with square enamel trays of dead furry things that had wandered too close to Route 401 just off Bacton Hill.

When I was little and still living at my grandmother’s house, it was actually safer keeping me inside a cage because so many of the animals my parents brought back had free range; my playpen had a top cover and was made of metal mesh. As a young child, I was not encouraged to have friends, but later, when I was a teenager, school friends would flock to our house because they were utterly and completely captivated BabyJulie-wSkunkby what they and their parents referred to as “the eccentric Mannix family and their menagerie”.

At least once a month there was an article in one of the Philadelphia newspapers about adventurers Jule and Dan Mannix returning from Kenya, or leaving for India, or acquiring a pair of kinkajous, or having just written a new book. I hated when my friends brought cameras when they came to visit and had me take pictures of them with Rani licking their hands.rani


[excerpted from Secret Storms]