April 24, 2008 Issue
Chestnut Hill Local
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Local Fiction & Poetry Edition
It’s fair to say we were not raised in a pet-friendly house. I always blamed our mother. She had minimal tolerance for children and no use for other small animals. But with the wisdom of years, I have a new theory. She was protecting potential pets from Dad.
Now don’t get the wrong idea. Our father was as gentle a man as you could find west of the Ohio River. He never kicked a cat or threw a stone at a dog. A farm boy, in fact, who loved to tell childhood stories about driving teams of horses to turn the earth.
Every year that I can remember he would load copper bins with field corn for the squirrels and sunflowers for the birds. The field corn he would collect from Earl Miller’s farm on the edge of town. Ears passed over by the combines that gleaned the golden acres. The sunflowers Dad grew as a stately border at the back of his vegetable garden. When the garden was plowed under in the fall, he would lop off the large faded yellow heads, put them in bushel baskets, and store them in the garage to dry. As the snow began to fall he would break up the sunflowers, collect the seeds in one of the copper bins, and then shower the seeds with field corn, rubbing ears together until the kernels tore each other off the hulls. Mixing up this home recipe, Dad would fill a coffee can and tromp out to fill the bird feeder hung about eight feet high on the trunk of a walnut tree outside our kitchen window. Below the bird feeder a three inch nail had been pounded into the tree, its flat head filed off. There an ear of field corn was impaled for the squirrels.
For the duration of the winter Dad would check daily to make sure there was an adequate supply of birdfeed and a kerneled ear of corn. From the kitchen table we would watch the parade of cardinals, orioles, blue jays, grey squirrels and other wild supplicants come to his backyard diner.
I tell this to dispel any thoughts that Dad hated animals. He loved them, as long as they were outside. But I digress. I was talking about pets. And there one has to wonder.
In the trauma that was my adolescence, Kelly, my sister, somehow managed permission to bring home a young kitten. This was our first pet. Pepper, she named it, in youthful honor of its silky blackness. I can remember a small grocery box tucked in the corner of the kitchen near the stove. Or at least I think I can remember it. Pepper was with us only briefly, and I confess that specific memories of its appearance and lodgings may be imagined. But I do remember the morning Dad walked back into the dining room after leaving for work, calling “Mother!”, in that voice that signaled something was wrong.
Dad did not deal well with things that went wrong. Some sort of pact between them relegated moments of crisis to Mother. In backing the blue DeSoto out of the garage young Pepper, somehow AWOL, had received a terminal introduction to the solid product churned out By Detroit in the 1950s. I know that Dad felt terrible about this, or at least I thought he did. Letting people see that he felt terrible was not something Dad especially liked to do.
It was maybe a year or so later that I came home with a turtle from the creek that snaked through the woods behind our school. The idea of a turtle being in the house did not inspire my mother, but another grocery box was allowed to be put to use on the side porch. This turtle was named Morton for reasons I really can’t remember. Probably a non-flattering tribute to some short-necked boy my sister didn’t like. Being a few years older, she always had the last word on critical decisions, like names.
Now in fairness it’s hard to blame Dad for Morton’s early demise, but he was the one who refused to allow Morton to ride with us to Tulsa when we went to visit Uncle Earl and Aunt Gladys.
Kelly and I were pretty upset about this, but Dad wouldn’t relent. And he was the one who suggested the Drumhillers. That, I’m sure I remember. So Kelly and I knocked timidly on the screen door of the red asphalt shingled house next door. Although the Drumhillers had lived there as long as we could remember, neither Kelly nor I had ever been in their house. Mrs. Drumhiller, always pleasant in the yard, agreeably consented to turtle-sit. On the morning of our departure we marched Morton and his box over to their porch along with a Tupperware container of hamburger.
One week later we returned to find on our porch the box, the Tupperware and Morton, shriveled in one corner, dead as a doornail, and stinking to high heaven. A note from Mrs. Drumhiller professing sorrow and disclaiming all responsibility was tucked under one edge of the box. How hard could it be to take care of a turtle for one week, Kelly and I wondered? But the subject was never mentioned with Mrs. Drumhiller, and we never did see the inside of her house.
We were pet-free for a long time after Morton. It was about three years later that Kelly won the duck at the Thanksgiving weekend skate-a-thon at Maple Park Roller Rink. First prize was a turkey. Kelly said later that she didn’t realize until after the drawing that the door prizes were alive. I never believed her. I’m pretty sure she was angling for another pet.
She only got to keep the duck because Mom and Dad were happy she had arrived home in one piece. Kelly had just turned sixteen and the skate-a-thon was only her second time with the car on her own. The fact that she walked in carrying a large white duck seemed incidental to two worried parents who were happy to see her walk in at all. Timing is everything.
The duck was put in the garage with an old blanket for a bed. I thought having a duck was prettycool, and Kelly seemed surprisingly attached for someone who had thought about nothing but boys for two years. Within a couple of days she had named it Puddles. It was hard to assimilate Puddles into our familylife. Mom was adamant that the duck (she never could quite call it Puddles) could not be brought into the house. And there was only so much time either of us wanted to spend in the garage in November during the winter talking to a duck. We did make a leash out of an old leather strap Dad had in the garage, but Puddles just couldn’t get the hang of going for a walk.
After a couple of weeks the novelty of having a pet duck was wearing a little thin. I noticed that the feeding duties were falling on me a little more and that Kelly and her boyfriend spent precious little time in the garage. Puddles just waddled around the garage making a mess, which was becoming less interesting to clean up everyday. Dad also was getting a little irritated about having to brush snow off his car every morning. He had a limited view of garages. They were for cars, not ducks.
It was about a week before Christmas when Dad dropped the news on us at dinner.
“The duck is not fairing well in the garage and we can’t keep this up. We should have him for Christmas dinner. It’s the right thing for everyone. It’s God’s plan.”
Kelly did not take this well. The tears and screaming I do remember. But I have to admit, I was torn. Kelly was my big sister and I pretty much looked up to what she wanted.
But Puddles had become a bit of a drag and there was something, how should I say it, weirdly exciting, almost spiritual, about the idea of eating our pet duck.
Kelly’s problem was that she had no real options for Puddles. The duck was domesticated and couldn’t be set free, and keeping it as a pet just didn’t seem possible. Dad’s resolution of the problem was farm-born practicality backed by biblical blessing. A real one-two punch.
The details of Puddles’ demise were spared us all. But come Christmas day Puddles looked scrumptiousin the center of the table, the assembled extended family appropriately oohing and aahing. Kelly picked at the vegetables, mashed potatoes, cranberry compote, and dessert. She did not partake of the main course. I walked on the wild side. But we never had any more pets.