Throughout my life, I’ve always enjoyed being in and observing nature. I suppose in part I owe this love to my father who studied forestry in college. I learned most of what I know about nature from my father through nature hikes, camping, fishing, and hunting.
As a small child, my mother often complained about the need to check my pockets before washing my clothing. I consider this a small price to pay for my many treasured finds. Rocks, pine cones, bird feathers, owls seats, worms, sticks, and other rarities often could be unearthed from my pockets after a long day’s exploration. Tadpoles and frogs were fair game as well, but couldn’t survive in my pockets, not that the worms faired well either.
Our back porch often held a collection of entrapped specimens. Caterpillars weaving cocoons, mosquito larvae, fireflies, and of course, George, my annual toad.
George seemed to reappear every summer like magic. I’d be out playing in the backyard, hanging from my tire swing or building a fort and suddenly remember my need to check the knothole at the base of our hollowed out tree. My yearly vigil almost always seemed to pay off eventually for there I would find my beloved toad, George. Every year I’d capture him with glee and run into the house yelling, “Mom, Georgie’s back!” I’d find some sort of suitably tall bucket and set about making a “home” for George. This often included leaves, sticks, and rocks. Occasionally I’d try to find dead bugs to place in George’s dwelling, but (of course) he never seemed overly enticed by these offerings. I’d watch George intently for the remainder of the day only saying, “good night” when Mom made me come in for dinner. More often than not, the next morning I’d return to find an empty bucket. He always seemed to escape his homemade penitentiary…at least until the next summer when I’d find him hiding in the same exact knothole at the base of our maple tree.
THE MICE (trigger warning: bad things happen to good animals)
My great grandparents owned a farm and in my earliest remembrances they had what seemed to me like gigantic dairy cows. I remember the large black and white beasts towering over me as my great grandfather lead them from the pasture to the barn and back again. I remember a small calf I named Daisy because I’d made a daisy chain for around her neck. I also vaguely remember the mysterious disappearance of Daisy from the barn and questions that had arisen from this incident, but I don’t remember the answer I was given as to Daisy’s whereabouts. Funny how time glazes over the – shall we say – less desirable memories with a frosting of sweet forgetfulness.
Gram and Pap also had chickens housed in a small chicken coop on the farm. Though my adventure may have begun with said chickens, it certainly did not end there. One day I discovered to my great joy and amazement that there were, in fact, more than just chickens in the henhouse. There were also mice. A mama mouse and several baby mice to be more precise. I had recently read Beverly Cleary’s The Ralph Mouse Collection and the naive fantasy of a mouse riding a motorcycle was still very fresh in my mind the day I found the mice in the chicken coop and needless to say, I decided I should catch a mouse to keep as a pet.
I scooped up one of the baby mice with some fur and I stuffed him in my jean jacket pocket. Now, least you think I was cruel, I made sure to keep it open enough to allow him to breathe; I kept my hand just barely inside the pocket to hold it open. I knew very little about the realities of mouse rearing, being all of six or seven years old, but I understood enough to know that I’d somehow have to figure out how to keep my mouse warm and breathing. Not crossing my mind at that very moment was what exactly I would feed him.
By lunch time that day I was so overjoyed and excited about my find that I could barely contain myself and I eventually spilled the beans. I mentioned the mouse family I’d found in the henhouse to my grandparents not realizing that not everyone viewed mice with the same adoration I did; however, that quickly became apparent. What happened next I could never have anticipated from my kind, gentle, loving grandfather.
Upon discovering that I had a mouse in my pocket, he forced me to hand over the rodent as tears welled up in my eyes. I was afraid he was going to put it outside and I’d lose it by the time the meal was done. My young mind could not fathom the far worse horrors about to occur. My grandfather walked outside with the young mouse and proceeded to stomp on it. I let out a wail of disbelief and horror at what I’d witnessed. I couldn’t understand why he’d do such an atrocious thing. I believe he tried to explain something about the mice eating things in their cupboards and stealing the chicken’s food and perhaps something about mice being dirty and spreading diseases, but none of that mattered to me; it went in one ear and out the other. I ran off crying to sulk for the remainder of the day in the henhouse intent on coddling the rest of my brood in secrecy.
After what happened with the first mouse, I knew I had to keep the rest of my refugees a secret until I could ensure their safety. When I returned to the hen house that afternoon I realized that I’d put the whole mousey family in great jeopardy and it was now necessary to remove the entire lot of them. Into my pocket they went, but to my dismay I was unable to capture the mama mouse.
When my father arrived to pick me up a few hours later, he had no clue that he was now the unwilling accomplice to my smuggling the mice off the farm. My grandparents, bless their hearts, mentioned nothing of the trauma I’d experienced that day.
When I got home I snuck off to my room to fix a box for the baby mice. I made them a nice soft nest in a shoebox. I knew I’d have to keep them warm and find them some food. In my young mind, I knew that babies drank milk. I’d watched my aunt warm up bottles for my baby cousins and test the temperature on their wrists. I came to the much-misguided conclusion that I would need to heat up some milk from the refrigerator to feed my babies. This I did and attempted to feed the mice via an eyedropper. They didn’t seem to like it, but I had no better ideas so I assumed they were just not hungry yet. I believe I may have also tried cheese, but was met with equal defeat.
The next morning I discovered the first loss among my young friends. One of the babies appeared cold and stiff to the touch and I knew it hadn’t survived. After my first misstep of trusting adults with the knowledge of my pets, I knew I had to keep them a secret from all adults. Adults could not be trusted. They would regard my harboring the mice as a criminal infraction and I knew it. Yet, I had to get rid of the evidence of my crime, the body.
I could not effect an escape with a mouse down the stairs and outside without drawing suspicion, so I foolishly hid the body in a wastepaper can in the seldom used back bedroom *. I then proceeded to dress for the school day.
Since it appeared to me that the dead mouse had died because it was cold; I figured I’d have better luck keeping the mice warm if they were with me. I gently put the mice into my pants pockets until I could transfer them back into the much roomier pockets of my coat. Once outside, I placed the mice carefully into my coat pocket and off to school we went.
I knew adults were not to be trusted, but surely my classmates would prove more trustworthy. As soon as I got on the bus, I told my best friend Leland that I had mice in my pocket. I took one out to show him. Of course this was a mistake that I would soon regret; we hit a bump in the road and the tiny mouse went flying down the aisle, frightening the driver, who immediately flung the bus door open wide and shooed my mouse out. I’d like to think it survived.
I was saddened by the loss, but Leland very much enjoyed the devilry of it all. I still had a mouse in my pocket, but I could see that the day would not be an easy one.
Upon arriving at school, I hung my coat up on the coat hook and took my seat. I only slightly worried that my mouse would escape, but I was more concerned that he would get cold without my body heat to keep him warm. I checked on him at every chance I got and told no one else of my stowaway. I even spent recess out of harms way with my mouse safely tucked away in my pocket. He seemed to be doing fine.
Eventually, the school day ended and I went home. I tried again that night to feed my mouse milk and cheese unsuccessfully. I sadly realized the reality of the situation; he would likely die if he didn’t eat. That was when I knew I had to let him go.
I smuggled my Ralph Mouse back outside once more and set him free by the woodpile. I wished him luck and hoped that he’d be able to find food for himself.
*Side note: My parents did not discover the truth about my mousely adventure until several weeks later. The discovery being made as a direct result of the horrid smell emanating from the wastepaper can. At which point I was considered the likely culprit and accused of doing something to cause the offending odor. I was forced to confess to having deposited the deceased body of one mouse in said trashcan and admit that I’d stolen it from Gram and Pap’s farm. I told no more of the story than the evidence required me to confess. It was not until I was an adult that I told “the rest of the story.”