Laughter in Tragedy

Trigger Warning: Possible homicide of small critters.

We moved into the suburb of Tucker, Georgia up Hwy 78. It was a very large home with a mother-in-law suite in the hopes my father’s mother, Me-me would move in with us and live downstairs. At the time it was just four of us. Me-me never moved in choosing to live in cramped spaces with one of her daughters, my aunts. Although her story is not for today.

This story is about squirrels.

My mother and grandmother, Mama Bridges, both loved birds. When I was a girl visiting Mama Bridges, I would be sat in the swing, wrapped in a handmade quilt with a big book of birds and set to identifying as many as I could find in the very early mornings of a working farm in Union Point, Georgia.

So my mom’s love of birds was brought about honestly. When we moved into Tucker, it had a large kitchen window that looked out into the backyard. Early on, my father tore up the backyard to install a workshop for woodworking and general tinkering. There was a back patio that as nothing more than a concrete slab, an area of red clay that had pallets laid down that led to his workshop with a wood-burning stove so he could tinker in winter comfortably. He loved This Old House and The Woodwright’s Shop. Watching those shows with him were some of the most peaceful of my young life and even today I am sucker for any home improvement or how to make something show.

Behind the workshop were lots of trees. A grove of them and behind them a green space where my dad set up beekeeping. My dad was undiagnosed bipolar with severe manic and depressive episodes. During manic times, he was charismatic, almost loving, and full of laughter and charm. And he would throw himself into a hobby with little reflection of the amount of money these hobbies cost or how that would upset the family’s budget. A lot of my mom’s stress was around money – usually the lack of money caused by my dad’s manic spending. But that story is for another day.

This story is about squirrels.

My mom did dishes by hand most days not really trust or use the dishwasher. She had never had one before and ultimately she used it as a way disinfect dishes not wash them. The dishes were thoroughly clean before they saw the inside of the dishwasher.

Some of my most visceral memories of my mother at peace were her looking out the window above the sink, her hands in soapy water, and a house dress covering her work clothes as she picked up after dinner. She was only 5’4’’ and had short cropped salt and pepper hair, it never went silver like mine did. She was plump and really reminds me of what a southern mother must look like in the minds of people outside the south. I have a myriad of mental images of her making biscuits in that kitchen, cooking dinner, and looking out that window as she did so.

When the squirrels came into the picture my brother was old enough to have complete sentences with me. But as time is eternally altered in my mind, I have no clue how old he or I was. The kitchen was open to the family or TV room which had a large brick fireplace in it with an old fashion rope rug on the linoleum floor. Often my siblings and I would lounge on the floor watching TV an easy distance from my mother working in that kitchen.

Often the back door to that concrete patio was open and an old fashion broom was behind the back door while a true screen door that would slam shut whenever opened and often made soft shutting noises because the wind would allow the breeze outside to flow into the kitchen and family den.

One day, my father, at my mother’s request bought her a large bird feeder to put into the area outside her kitchen window. She was thrilled. This large bird feeder was quickly hung by rope in an area easily seen by her while she worked in the kitchen and filled with birdseed.

Thus, the Battle of the Squirrels began.

Shortly after it was hung, birds of all sizes and types started flocking to this bird paradise in my backyard while my mother would call out what birds she saw that were unique or different. Then one day, the siblings and I lounging in front of the television, heard our mom’s exclamation!

“OH NO! Stop that! Get out of there! That isn’t for you!” all while moving swiftly to the screen door where she flipped the hook from its resting place, pushed open the door, and let it slam shut as she hurried outside.

My brother and I quickly ran to see what the commotion was about. Through the screen door, we could see our mother scolding a very fat squirrel who had perched itself on the roof of the bird feeder evidence of its thieving ways dribbling from its mouth, marking its hands, and peppering its fat belly.

Eventually, my mom stomped back into the house while my bro and I resumed our places in front of Saturday Morning cartoons quietly giggling. What we couldn’t foresee where the battle lines that the squirrel had drawn and how it would end for all of us.

The next thing I knew, my dad was causing a ruckus in the workshop shed and could be heard muttering with my mom. Finally, after several days of testing theories and the ability to pull them off, the family was watching TV together when my mother jumped from her couch and said, “Hi-test fishing line!”

Only my father seemed to understand because he quickly ran outside and pulled down the bird feeder. Soon, the large feeder was anchored by four eye hooks on its four corners and strung to hang in front of the kitchen window carefully anchored to the house and the workshop. My mother had to get a free-standing ladder to reach it and fill it up, but as a family, we were impressed with her idea and dad’s ability to execute it.

Life went back to its predictable rhythms. mom making pancakes from Saturday breakfast or preparing a roast in the Crockpot for Sunday dinner after church while cataloging birds that came back in droves for the feast she provided them.

“SHOOOOOT!” my mother’s exclamation reached my ears over the piano I was practicing in the other room. My fingers lingered on the keys in an uncomposed pause, as from my mom’s ongoing exclamations I quickly ascertained the issue.

The day before I had been reading and hiding in the trees beyond the workshop. My dad’s mood had changed and shouts were heard muffled by brick and mortar, so I snuck out a book and blanket and took cover in the trees. The back patio was easy to see and I could hear my dad’s souped-up wood-paneled station wagon leave when the Nascar-worthy engine turned over. That would signal the all-clear to come back inside.

My eye was caught by movement near the back porch screen door. Above it I noticed a squirrel testing the fishing line. In awe and a small amount of amusement, I watched the squirrel perform a Mission Impossible-worthy high wire act toward the easy bounty of the bird feeder. Halfway to it’s goal, I watched as it slipped from the thin wire and used its tail like a rotating rudder to nimbly land on all fours in the red clay beneath the feeder. It was as if it was a part cat and not just a wild suburban squirrel.

I thought nothing more of the high-wired squirrel until my mother’s commotion as I played piano. She scolded that squirrel and it chattered back at her. Clearly, it had perfected its performance and taken the bird’s feed as its due.

About a week later, book and blanket in hand, I stopped short just outside of the screen door. As it slammed back announcing my departure, I was puzzled over the new location of the bird feeder. It now sat on the smallest metal pole I had ever seen. The pole had been screwed into the very center of the feeder and driven into the ground beside the edge of the concrete patio. Obviously, this was the latest attempt at thwarting squirrels out of the bird feeder. I went out and read until dark forced me to return.

As I approached the patio in the twilight, I watched a squirrel clinging to the small pole do the most incredible back flip and grab of the edge of the bird feeder with one paw. With the strength of a long-denied gymnast, it grabbed onto the edge of that feeder with its other paw and pulled itself into the feeder properly.

Shaking my head, I continued my walk to the patio scaring off the thief, and noticed my brother standing inside the screen door.

“Are you going to tell her?” he asked me.

“Oh no!” I vehemently replied, “Are you?”

“I am not stupid,” he said.

A few days later, my mother’s hand threw suds around as she started off to the back door screaming, “Shoo! Shoo! Get down from there!”

No one in the T.V. room flinched. Clearly, we had already all witnessed the bird feeder thief’s exploits before this moment of my mom’s realization.

Suds still dripping off her hands, she defeatedly wandered into the TV area and said, “Don, what is the slickest substance we own?”

“Axel grease,” he absently replied, eyes glued to the latest cabinet exploits of The Wood Wright’s Shop.

“Can I have some and an old paint brush?” she asked.

“It is in the workshop,” he said hands waving toward the backdoor, patio, scene of the crime, and workshop.

Quietly as everyone else watched T.V., I snuck over to the open back door and peered through the mesh of the screen door. On her knees in the fading southern light, my mother had a can of axle grease in one hand and the scuzziest paintbrush in the other. With great care as if she was painting a masterpiece, she applied the grease to the small metal pool and the sturdy underside of the bird feeder. Moving back to my place at the end of the couch to watch TV, I silently prayed it would work.

That next weekend while mom slept in, my bro and I watched Saturday Morning cartoons. The back door was open letting in the spring morning breeze. My brother got up to get some cereal and gasped as he passed the back door. His arm began to wave frantically in my direction and I jumped up. He slowed me down with hand jesters while he carefully squatted on the floor. Curiously I slowed down and got low and moved so I could once again peer out through the screen mesh.

At first, nothing seemed unusual to me, the concrete patio still had the greased bird feeder next to it and the red Georgia clay stirred up by the installation of the Workshop still lay in small mounds from the leveling required before it was installed. My dad had always said he would clean it up and never did.
Soon, however, I noticed something rolling around in that dry red clay. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing until the red clay-covered entity darted toward the skinny bird feeder pole. Without slowing down the clay-covered mammal threw itself at the pole, vaulting as high up as it could, grasping the pole with all four paws and even wrapping the prehensile tail around it. Sliding down the pole the gray axle grease quickly covered every surface of the squirrel’s front, paws, and tail leaving only the back a normal squirrel brown color.

Once their little bottom hit the concrete patio, the squirrel ran to a mound of discarded red clay and began to bathe itself with the cleansing earth. Soon its front, paws, and tail were a mottled gray and red combination of grease and Georgia Clay. Bath accomplished they darted at full speed again launching like a pole vaulter onto the bird feeder’s pole and starting his sliding trip down to the red dirt. We watched this process while the squirrel’s distance to its goal was clear in the streaked gray and red concoction left behind its sliding wake.

My bro closed the back door shutting out the horrendous setup from my mom’s next freak out. Shooting me a wary look, he shrugged. I shrugged back and we made our way to cereal and Saturday Morning cartoons.

The morning was beautiful, the sun shining with a cool breeze as my mother came in her house dress of 70’s flowers and snap front covering her “real clothes.” She went to the kitchen to clean. She passed the back door, opening it on her way passed, seeming to be in a relatively good mood. My bro and I split our attention from the cartoons to the far more interesting drama about to unfold.

Her screeching wail, though predictable was still startling. A noise of indignant frustration continued without form as she reached behind the back door for her old fashion corn broom and slung open the screen door with a battle cry upon her lips.

We ran to the back door and through the mesh watched my mother charge the bird feeder, broom raised above her head ready to squash the ratty-looking squirrel living large off of the feed for the birds.
“THAT IS NOT FOR YOU!” she screamed threatening annihilation with her broom. “THAT IS FOR THE BIRDS!!!!”

The Squirrel had the decency to look startled and a bit impressed. However, screeching and running at the bird feeder was somewhat passe now. It wasn’t until she didn’t stop and the broom started a long arc from my mother’s back toward the feeder, that the startled look morphed into terror. Without thought, the squirrel jumped from the tall feeder arms and legs splayed to catch whatever breeze might slow their descent his greased and red tail whirling. His descent was abruptly halted by the concrete patio. Its little body doing an impressive imitation of a belly flop without water.

The breeze died and my mother, broom over her head, stood still. Her face morphed from anger to concern, and horror quickly as her nemesis lay knocked out cold on the back patio. The broom dropped and she started to reach and bend toward the fallen burglary suspect. My mother’s body began to shake as she took her hand back without making contact. Suspended at that moment, my mother’s tears began to stream down her face, the only movement of that mild spring morning. She turned toward the screen door and my brother and I quickly made for our bowls and the television.

She entered the house not allowing the screen door to slam it’s happy “someone’s just come in” song. Standing with tears streaming down her face we turned back to her and she broke out into uncontrollable sobs and tore through the house, down the hall, and into her bedroom. We could clearly hear her wailing about the squirrel with her running commentary that had started when the squirrel first swanned dives without a net.

“I didn’t want to kill it! I just wanted to watch the birds feed in it. I miss that about back home. All the birds eating, I just wanted birds and not stupid ugly squirrels..”

My brother and I slide along the floor to sit in front of the mesh door. The squirrel had still not moved.

“Go and see if it’s dead,” he said to me.

“I am not touching that squirrel.”

“Fine, use the broom and poke it.”

“Dean, I am not poking a dead squirrel.”

“We can’t leave it out there. If mom sees it is really dead, she will lose it. We have to get rid of it!”

“How do you propose we do that?”

“We could get a shovel..”

“And do what bury it in the backyard?”

“Crap, Look!”

Distracted from burial arrangements, we watched in fascinated horror as the squirrel got up and began to drunkenly walk toward the trees. It was the first time I understood what drunk must look like. Weaving and stumbling, it crawled into the undergrowth by the workshop and we breathe a large sigh of relief.

“Well, we don’t have to bury it,” I say to Dean.

“Do you think it is going to live?” he asked.

“Not a chance,” I reply

Drama over, we move back to soggy cereal and Saturday television. Several hours later, our mother would emerge dressed for going out. She walked to the back door and peered through the mesh.

“Did you bury it?” she asks us.

“Oh no!” I say with false cheer and bravado. “It just got up and walked away.”

“REALLY!?! I didn’t kill it?” she asked hopefully.

“Nahh,” my brother says, “It was just stunned.”

“That’s good,” my subdued mother says, “That’s really good. Time to do your chores. Turn that off now. I am running to the store.”

She leaves and I start dusting and vacuuming and cleaning my bathroom. I hear her return and then the slamming of the screen door. I look out the window and my mother has the step ladder next to the scene of the recent murder and the lid off the bird feeder. She scoops the seed out and scatters it on the ground. Then fills it with fancy nuts in the shell: walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, pecans, and peanuts.
I am staring at the back door when she comes in with the empty bags from the nuts she has just put out.

“What?” she says. “It was time to fill up the squirrel feeder.”


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