In those days I would sit on the deck and wait. We had only two bird feeders (we should rethink the six we have now) and redwing blackbirds would gather – four and twenty at least – maybe five or six at the feeders and the others waiting their turn.
I would wait for the maximum to hit the ground before letting out a loud clap of the hands and Molly and I would watch as the flood of yellowredblack would flow into the woods.
One morning Moly asked, “Do you think your clap scares them?”
Any movement or noise startles them, honey, but they keep coming back so I don’t think they’re really scared.
“I guess I have to go to the bathroom, Poppa.”
“Okay. See you when you get back.”
Molly was six then and smarter than I wanted her to be. Her parents were at the Cape for some alone time, which I appreciated as much as I hoped they did. And her sister was with her Aunt Joan and her kids. I walked down to the pool to check the skimmers. Floating in the first one was a dead chipmunk. Just as I pulled it out by it’s tail Molly got back sooner than I anticipated.
She stared at me and then the dead chipmunk. “Is he okay? No, of course he isn’t. He’s dead.”
We had any number of chipmunks living among us. “Yeah, honey, he must have tried to have a drink and fell in.”
“I think he’s the one who ran under the chair this morning. It is. I can tell. Look, his nose is just the same.”
She started to cry. “Poppa, what can we do?”
My mind flashed on a story about Bing Crosby’s son Lindsey discovering his turtle floating belly-up and Bing planning an elaborate funeral only to have the turtle come miraculously back to life and Lindsey asking his dad, “Can we kill him?”
“Poppa,” Molly sobbed, “what can we do?”
I felt foolish for drifting off so. Hey, stupid? What can we do?
“We’ll bury him, honey,” I said. ”Okay?”
“In the back, by the fence.”
I carried the dead cute thing into the kitchen and wrapped it in a paper towel.”
“This would make a good coffin,” I heard Molly cry from the dining room.
Coffin? I thought. What does she know from coffins?
“This,” she said, pointed to an antique cigar box on the buffet. “Hemmingway,” the label said. I’d bought it at a yard sale 10 years before.
“It’s perfect, Poppa, perfect.”
My wife – my voice of reason was gone for the day. Plein-air watercolor lessons. I was definitely going to lose my Hemmingway cigar box.
“Did you know your mother once had a pet rat?”
“A what?” Molly asked. “A dead what?” She was acting.
“You heard me. Your mom had a pet rat.”
“Well it wasn’t really so yucky. What happened was when you mom was in college she took a psychology course.”
“What’s a psychology course?” Molly asked
“It’s when you study about why people act the way they do, what makes them tick.”
“Well…what makes people sometimes do things that makes no sense or makes them sad or happy or whatever.”
“Well, sometimes, like your sister.”
“Anyway, in psychology courses they use white rats to do experiments with.”
“No, really. And what they do is see if they can get them to behave differently when they give them rewards, like food. Like if I promise you an ice cream bar every day if you remember to pick up your room.”
“Okay,” said Molly. “I see.”
“So at the end of the school year your mom’s teacher says, ‘You can keep your rat or leave it with us.’”
“And mom kept the rat?”
“It was really cute. White with a little pink nose. Well your mom asked what the school would do with her rat and the teacher said, ‘Well, we would put her to sleep.’ Which meant they would kill it.”
“It was a her?”
“I don’t know. I think so, maybe not.”
“So she kept the rat?”
“Well, yes, except she was coming to East Hampton.”
“With the rat?”
“She had a job as a waitress and came out to the house for the summer before your grandma and me. Then one day or night the rat fell of the bed.”
“The rat was in her bed?”
“I don’t know just what – anyway it hurt itself bad, and your mom was really upset and wanted us to come out, and then it died before we got out here.”
“So Mom lived with a rat?”
“I used to say that to people – that my daughter was in East Hampton living with some rat.”
“That’s funny, Poppa.”
“Yeah, well, we came out and she was really upset and we decided to bury the rat, and I had a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne somebody had given me and we hadn’t drunk it yet and it came in a fancy box.”
“Like our box?”
“Kind of . . . and we decided to bury the rat in the box.”
“Back behind the fence.”
“By the house there?”
“There wasn’t a house then. When they built it we thought it would be funny if they dug up the box and thought they had some fancy champagne and it was just rat bones.”
“Did Mommy cry?”
“I think so, yeah, I think she cried, but she was glad we . . . did it right.”
We buried the chipmunk in the far corner of the yard behind the hydrangea. My wife got home and we had dinner and watched TV for a while until it was 9 o’clock and I walked Molly to her room. After she brushed her teeth we read a story together and I kissed her goodnight. As I walked to the door she asked, “Poppa?”
“Did you make that up, Poppa – about the rat?
“No. You can ask your mom. She’ll be here tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Poppa.”
“For what, sweetheart?”
“But . . . you know . . . I really . . .I really don’t think it was the same chipmunk.”
“Goodnight, honey. Sweet dreams,” I said, and closed the door.