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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Go Set A...Memory


My wonderful, Literary-Leaning son Jared surprised me with a gift copy of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee's original manuscript of what eventually became her opus To Kill a Mockingbird. Actually, he told me he got me a copy. It didn't matter; either way, I felt terrible when I said, "Oh, Jay, thank you so much! How thoughtful. But I hope you can return it or give it to someone else. I'm not going to read it. I just can't. I can't bear to have Atticus ruined for me. I have a lot invested in him." And it's true.

Oh, sure, there's the almost thirty years I taught the book, teasing out the finer points of his character, analyzing and illuminating his famous address to the jury in the Robinson case, and stopping the film every single time my more vocal students would say, after Bob Ewell spit in his face, "If I was Atticus, I'd knock him out!" in order to explain why maybe they would, but a man like Atticus never, ever would.

No, I have a lot invested in Atticus because I parented based upon the Atticus Model. I don't lie to my children, and I have always spoken to them like they have sense. I have tried to be patient and be confident that, in the long run, their better nature will assert itself and they will eventually do The Right Thing. The To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus taught me that. He also taught me that this kind of parenting will encourage my kids to feel as if they could ask me anything. As I said to Jared, I'd prefer to have the To Kill a Mockingbird  Atticus be the seminal Atticus for me, forever.

Memory is a fragile and unpredictable thing. We can't always choose what we will remember or what we will lose to oblivion. This is part of the reason why I don't go to funerals and memorials even when the services are touted to be Celebrations of a Life. "Oh, Nance," you might say, "my aunt's wake was a big party! We all laughed and told our favourite stories! It was a great time!" But your aunt wasn't there, and it was still tinged with that sadness. And her immediate family had to deal with all the arrangements and be there, tired or not, grief-stricken or not. Not one memory from my father's funeral comforts or cheers me. And now, whenever I think of one of my former students, all I can see is his face in his coffin. Both of these facts cause huge waves of resentment; I don't want those memories.

In our lives we will have sorrow. Our loved ones will die, people will disappoint us. Our heroes will prove to have feet of clay. But sometimes, we are lucky enough to be able to avoid small sadnesses and hurts. We can choose our memories, even by keeping some intact.


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Friday, July 24, 2015

Wrapping Up The Wildlife Wars: Nothing Is Impossible

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"Rick," I said one day not too terribly long ago, "there is something in the garage. I'm serious. Some animal. It smells foul in there, and there's dirt on the hood of my car. Like from the flowerpots up in the loft."

It's important to note that my husband took in this News the same way he usually does, which is by Not Looking At Me while I deliver it, and then by giving not one single sign that he even heard it. I waited for approximately two minutes, and then I said, "Rick. I mean it. Some animal is living in there, and--"

He interrupted me calmly, slowly and patiently turning around to face me with a completely unchanged expression of relative disinterest. "Nance. First of all, I don't smell anything in there. And second, there is no way any animal can get in there. No way. It's impossible. There's no point of entry for anything. A bird could maybe get trapped in there and get a little dirt on your car, but that's about it. I'm telling you, it's nothing."

Shortly after that, several convincing Pieces Of Evidence presented themselves that convinced even Rick that We Were Not Alone: a broken flowerpot on the hood of my car; bite marks on all of the bags of potting soil; pawprints and scratches on a car door. It was time to Do Something, and for once, that Something did NOT involve the BB gun.

"Looks like I have to clean out this garage," he said. "Take everything out and see where the hell it is and see how it's getting in here." In Rick's defense, the garage was already pretty tidy. In no time at all I heard him yelling, and I ran out from the kitchen to see what was happening.

Rick emerged from the back of the garage, triumphant, a shovel in one hand and a bloody raccoon tail in the other. "Got him!" he said, smiling. "That sucker took off so fast! But I got his tail, anyway. He won't be back."

I was still standing there, my hand on my mouth--which was gaping--and my eyes staring at that bloody tail. Finally, I managed to recover myself. "But how did it get in there? And what if it does come back? What if it had babies in there? And what do you plan to do with that tail, for heaven's sake?"

Very soon, I had answers to all of those questions. The clever raccoon had pried off a soffit panel at the back of the garage and sneaked in that way. There was no nest, no babies, for it had no need--it could come and go at will through this access. And the tail was tacked to a nearby stud to serve as a deterrent and a trophy. Rick also fastened the soffit panels with roofing nails to prevent any more invasions.

We went to bed with easy minds that night.

But about three A.M., I was awakened by a loud metallic clunk from the basement. Rick, of course, did not hear it. I sat up and waited for it to repeat itself. When it did not, I still woke him. It had been loud and sounded bad, maybe mechanical. He had to check it out. We both crept down to the basement landing.

As soon as we neared the steps, a terrible stench assailed us. It stunk like something rotten or rotting. "Do you smell that?" I asked him. He nodded. Tears came to my eyes, an involuntary response from fear. I grabbed his arm as he reached for the light. "Be careful!" I whispered, which was stupid. We hadn't bothered to be quiet until now, and once we turned the light on, any hope of secrecy or surprise was long gone. He flipped the light switch, and we both stared in shock.

Trickling under the door to the right was a small stream of deep red. It was travelling inexorably to the drain just ahead of us near the bottom of the steps.

"Holy shit," said Rick with heartfelt piety. "What in the hell is that?"

We pushed open the door to a massacre scene. Deep red splatters covered the spare refrigerator and dripped down its full length. The stench was overwhelming and disgusting. The floor was covered; we instinctively turned to check the bottles of wine in the racks. Those racks contained a lot of money in reds, and...what was this?

One bottle was missing its cork. Instinctively, I looked at the floor. Sure enough, there it was. Rick was sliding the bottle out of the rack, careful not to spill any more of it. He took it over to the sink and poured it out: the remaining contents were a thick, putrid sludge of sediment. It was a bad bottle, probably the last of the run. That sediment had fermented and popped the cork, which hit the ductwork, producing that clank I had heard.

Mystery solved, but now we had a lot of smelly, messy work to do in the wee hours of the morning. As we started to gather our supplies, I turned to Rick. "I thought it was blood! I thought it was that damned raccoon, that somehow it got into the basement and bled to death in this house!" I said.

"Did you really?" he said, and he turned toward me. A patient, kind look illuminated his face. "Nance. There is no possible way that raccoon could ever get into this house."

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Rambo Moment: Wildlife Wars Continue, Part III

Back when the boys were quite little, we had a very, very wet spring and summer--quite a lot like the one we're having right now. Everything was soggy and waterlogged, and it seemed like all manner of creepy crawlies and varmints came out. Especially annoying was the influx of a skunk family who wandered up our driveway each night, left a scented greeting, and departed by dawn. Naturally, our neighborhood was blessed by a robust stray cat population, so altercations were frequent and fragrant. (Our bedroom windows overlook the driveway--did I mention that?)

It was also the Summer Of Spiders, and I felt as if I would never get rid of them. Or the Thousand-Leggers. This was The Time Before Cats as well, although I doubt seriously if EmilyCat or TravisCat would have been much help. Travis whined terribly when he encountered any bugs near his food dish, and Emily simply couldn't be bothered.

But I digress.

It was after dinner one day when we were in the living room. Sam suddenly pointed into the kitchen and said, "Kitty! Hi, kitty!" Sam was only about two, a toddler who had been slow to talk, and one of those kids who called all men Daddy and all drinks Juice. Anything, therefore, which was small and furry and walked on four legs was a Kitty. Horrified, I asked him to clarify. "Sam, what did you say? Where is a kitty?" He smiled excitedly and pointed into the kitchen. "Kitty in there!" he said.

"Rick," I said, sick and dreadful. "Something is in the kitchen." Somehow, I was able to make the boys stay in the living room while Rick went out to investigate. In short order he was back. "Nance, it's a mouse. I see where it went. It's behind the dishwasher now. I'm getting the BB gun."

I felt like I was in a bad action movie and that Rick was suffering a Sylvester Stallone delusion. What in the hell was he going to do to a mouse with a BB gun? And behind the dishwasher? "Rick!" I yelled, but it was too late. He had grabbed the gun, cocked it, and was going in.

"It's in the space under the counter, in the insulation. I can see it!" he said. I heard the gun pop, cock, then pop again. "Got it!" he said. "I really got it." There was a pause, then, "Where the hell did it go?" I heard him open the cupboards next to the dishwasher and rummage around, heard him open the drawer, and then a strangled yelp. "Dammit!" There were the sounds of a brief struggle, then his footsteps on the basement steps. Moments later, he came up and into the living room, smiling and triumphant. "Got him!" he said. "But I'll get some traps in case there are more. I hit him, too. He was bloody. He jumped out of the drawer and ran downstairs. But I got him."

Rambo's victory was short-lived, however. And the mouse was probably just a scout or the recon team.

A day or two later, I heard the snap of the trap behind the trashcan in the kitchen. I was home with only Jared and Sam, but I wasn't afraid to dispose of a mousetrap. As I walked over to the can, I was surprised to hear more noise. It sounded like the trap snapping over and over again. How could that be? I wondered. With trepidation, I slid the kitchen can away from the wall and took a look.

What I saw was huge, a mouse on steroids with its head caught in the trap, trying desperately to free itself by shaking its head back and forth, knocking the wooden trap on the tile floor each time. The thing had its mouth open, revealing sharp yellow teeth on top and bottom, a pink mouth open in a silent scream as it writhed right and left, right and left. Horrified, I swallowed my own scream, mindful that Sam and Jared were around somewhere, and I slid the can right back into place and tried to think of what on earth to do.

Rick was quite a ways off on a job site, and no way was I letting that thing back there until the end of the day. But I could not bring myself to touch it. I immediately thought of my colleague's husband Lou, who lived one street over. He was the dearest and kindest man, and he used to walk over to deliver his famous homemade soup to us. He would know what to do, and he would be my Knight In Shining Armor! I called Carol and explained the situation. "I'm sending him right over!" she said. "Lou will take care of everything. Don't worry about a thing, Nance," she said.

In moments Lou appeared through the yards across the street, carrying a paper bag, gloves, and a whisk broom. I wanted to kiss him. The Giant Mouse was still flopping, making noise behind my kitchen trash can. He took a moment to reassure me and then went to work while I stood in the next room. In less than a minute, he had taken the creature outside to my garbage cans and came back inside to talk to me.

"Nance," he said worriedly, "that's no mouse. That's a river rat. You need to tell Rick. Somehow, that came up from the river and got into your house, maybe through your basement or something. He needs to find where and take care of it. And you need bigger traps."

Rats. Can you possibly imagine? First bats and then rats. I was ready to burn the place down. I think that's exactly what I told Rick when we...discussed it later.

We avoided that eventuality by finding the old sump crock with outside access and plugging it up, ending our rat problem. And Rick remained fully clothed throughout.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Where The Wild Things Were: The Second In A Series

When Rick and I went looking for our house, we had next to nothing for a downpayment. We knew we were looking at a major fixer-upper, but since Rick was a carpenter and could do pretty much anything, we were fine with Buying Neighborhood first and a House second. We found our teeny little story-and-a-half bungalow on a wonderful tree-lined street where our kids would attend the same schools their father did. Jared was only a few months old, and we lived in our apartment for a month while we got as much of the house ready as possible to move into.

It had been a rental for years and years, its landlord in Florida, its last inhabitants forcibly evicted. The place was a disaster, but it had beautiful woodwork and lots of potential. We worked hard getting things ready, and fought off an invasion of carpenter ants which came literally cascading out of the wall behind the bathtub. I never stomped so much or so hard in my life, screaming the whole time. That was almost a dealbreaker.

One afternoon, as we were sweating and working, we heard a strange tapping at one of the windows at the side of the fireplace. I walked over and was astounded to see a caricature of an old woman, hunched over her cane, standing in the driveway of the house next door. She had apparently banged on the window with her cane. As soon as she saw my face in the window, she squinted up at me and said something unintelligible.

"I'm sorry, but I didn't hear you. What did you say?" I raised my voice in case she had trouble hearing me. She took a wobbly step toward the edge of her driveway and fixed me with a severe look. "I said That's a bat house! You bought a bat house. You should have bought my house, but you bought a bat house. There's bats in that house. Shoulda bought my house."

I was so amazed that I almost shut the window and walked away, but St. Patsy didn't raise me that way. "We haven't come across any bats, but thank you," I said as politely as I could to this bizarre woman.  "And your house wasn't on the market when we were looking. It had a buyer at the time. Again, thanks for your concern." I walked away with what I hoped was a pleasant smile and wave, but she was unimpressed. "That's a bat house!" she said, decisively.

My memory fails me as to when the first bat appeared, but it was quite some time, and Mrs. Jessie had moved away by then, replaced by a couple our age. Jared was already upstairs in a Big Boy Bed, and his scared little cries on the monitor about something flying around up there woke me. Super Rick went galumphing up there in his underwear, and as soon as he told me it was a bat, I had a Bat House Flashback. I called up to Jared that it was "a nightbird who was lost" and that he had to get under his covers until Daddy said to come out; then I cowered downstairs with a sinking heart. Holy crap. What if we did have a bat house?

After wounding/stunning it with a tennis racket, Rick put it in a towel and took it right outside to beat it to death in the driveway. The neighbors, of course, came out to see What In The Hell Was Going On. From that moment on, Rick became known as Batman. And I was Mental Case. I could not stop thinking about Mrs. Jessie's dire pronouncement. We Had Bought A Bat House. My precious child lived in a Bat House. What kind of parents were we?

It seemed like once a week there was a bat incident, one even swooping down the steps and into the living room. Jared would run downstairs into our bedroom and he and I would tent up under the comforter, waiting to hear Rick come downstairs announcing, "Got it!" and listening for the inevitable applause from the neighbors (if it were not in the middle of the night). Rick had even taken to leaving a tennis racket and fishing net at the top of the steps, along with an old pillowcase--his BatKit. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. I dismissed the idea that it was just wayward bats sneaking into the house. I had to admit that they were already there. It was time to call an exterminator and see what we were dealing with. It was either that or put our house on the market, something I had wailed more than a few times.

We were so strapped financially those early days! And we would not borrow money from family; I remember so many birthdays when Rick's gift from his grandparents was a car payment. But it was clear that we had to hire a professional for The Bat Problem or I was going to need another kind of expensive Professional Help.

Enter Critter Control, a pest control company who specialized in bat and raccoon problems, and whose name I found warmly reassuring. A sturdy, capable-looking gentleman went outside to have a look around, then went upstairs to inspect the crawlspaces after hearing my story. When he came downstairs, he spoke to me in the tone of a doctor who is about to break The Worst News Possible to a fragile patient. His eyes were doe-like, and his voice was like warm pancake syrup. "Ma'am, first of all, we're gonna be able to help you, no problem at all. We'll do what we need to today, and it won't take but a night or two, and everything will be taken care of. No more bats. And that's a guarantee." My eyes teared up immediately. The sense of relief I felt was immense and overwhelming. But he wasn't done. "Now, Ma'am, what you have up there, in your crawlspace--in a void wall--is a bat colony. And at dusk--"

And this is where I stopped him. I stopped him because I felt like I was going to throw up or faint or both. I had a colony. Of BATS. In my HOUSE. Right now up there and he was just standing there. I tried to remain calm as I formed my question. "When you say colony, what...how big...how many...?"

"Now, Ma'am, we don't want to get into specifics. We really truly don't. It doesn't matter. Because here's what we'll do...." And in very simple, clear language--with visuals--he explained to me exactly how he was going to turn My Bat House back into My House in just a day or two. In that lovely, hypnotic, Mrs. Butterworth voice. And I remember how I stood there, nodding and understanding and feeling relieved all over again. He was like...an Extermivangelist.

Just as he said, my bat problem disappeared immediately. Rick's tennis racket and fishing net could return to their original purposes, and the neighbors could find other forms of entertainment in the evenings and wee hours (although reenactments and Talking About It still provided plenty).

For those of you scoring at home, that's Us--2; Wildlife--0.

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