Several years ago, when our children were very small, my husband and I finally agreed on one aspect of child rearing. This was worth noting because at the time, we seemed more interested in arguing than in just about anything else. We were raised in very different families and were both convinced that our own philosophy about any particular thing was the correct one. We did finally agree, however, on this one thing: that our children would grow up to appreciate nature and the environment. My husband was a city boy who took to life in the country like a pig to the watering hole. In addition, he is truly fascinated by the macabre in nature. I, on the other hand, had been raised in a rural, sometimes primitive atmosphere, but had grown up somewhat squeamish. I don’t like this side of myself and wanted to squelch any such leanings in my children early on.
It began when we found a big book that had full page, graphic color pictures of all kinds of snakes. The theory was that if we looked at the book with the kids when they were small, they would grow up without the paralyzing fear of snakes and other such creatures that so many of us seem to have. “Look at the pretty snake,” I would say while gingerly turning the page by its edge, making sure my fingers didn’t touch the pictures. Those snakes really gave me the creeps. But I wanted my kids to approach nature without fear, so we sang songs about spiders, allowed crickets to run free in the house in the wintertime, and took hikes in the forest well off the beaten path.
All three kids happily went along with the program, loving all God’s creatures, not just the pretty ones. One day while weeding along the edge of the house I cam across a few salamanders. “Oh, look,” I called to the kids, “salamanders!” They came running, eagerness in their little faces, not knowing repulsion was my immediate reaction. I let them look at the slimy creatures and poke them with grass. “But don’t pick them up,” I warned. I hate it when they pick things up. “Send them home to their mothers.”
All this oneness with nature backfired when they got a little older. At age three they were happy to pick up snails (touching only the shells) and throw them in the road for my version of organic pest control. At age five, this changed. “No, Mommy, he’s my friend,” was the response of one of my little darlings. “But snails aren’t our friends,” I gently explained. “They eat the lettuce and the strawberries in our garden.” This was a concept he understood. “Mommy,” came the quick response, “they’re hungry!”
These memories came back some time ago after an expedition to the beach with the three kids and the boyfriend of the oldest girl. We were on our way home, driving slowly along the narrow country road, looking at the cows. Suddenly, this little animal darts out of the field straight under the wheels of my car. I slammed on the brakes, but by the time we stopped I could see a little lump on the road in my rear view mirror.
Always the good wife, I decided to check to see if the animal’s head was intact and if it were a creature my husband would want for his skull collection. “Matt,” I said to the boyfriend, “go see if it’s dead. I’ll wait here.” Matt dutifully went and reported back that it was indeed, dead. “Get a bag,” I said to Jacob, my middle child, the snail lover. Fortunately, we carry a supply of plastic bags in the car for these occasions.
The five of us gathered in the road around what turned out to be a weasel. I had never seen a live weasel before. Of course, this one was dead. But it had been alive only moments before, and the only hint of its demise was a slight trickle of blood coming from its mouth. It was beautiful in a way, quite small, with a delicate long nose and lovely red and white fur. “Don’t touch it!” I warned as three pairs of hands reached toward it. I made them get the trowel, also kept in the car, to scoop the weasel into the bag.
“Daddy will be so pleased,” I commented as we piled back in the car. The kids were strangely silent. Finally Caitlin, the oldest, spoke. “I wonder why it ran out in the road like that,” she said.
“Maybe it was a mommy weasel trying to get home to her babies.” Carin’s voice trembled slightly. “They’re probably waiting for her.”
“They’ll starve to death,” Jacob added.
“In the first place, this is the wrong time of year for weasels to be having babies, and in the second place that weasel is male,” I said firmly. “I checked.” I hate to lie to my own children, but sometimes they take this nature thing too far.
We made it home without being stopped by a cop. I mention this because later I found out we could have been fined several hundred dollars because this particular weasel is endangered. “Of course it’s endangered,” I told my husband. “It’s prone to suicide.” He was pleased at our find, but couldn’t decide what to do with it. “It seems a shame to just keep the skull,” he said. “It’s really a beautiful animal.”
We ended up wrapping the weasel in plastic, enclosing the whole thing in a brown paper bag, and putting it in the freezer while my husband inquired about taxidermy. I guess he thought a weasel would look nice next to the stuffed armadillo we got a yard sale. Since $300 was the minimum amount quoted to stuff the weasel, it remains in the freezer, in limbo until its fate is decided.
In the meantime, when the children are present, all visitors to our house are immediately escorted to the freezer to view our little friend. The kids unwrap it carefully; its body, unmarred by time’s passing, looks natural, as if it were just sleeping. “Isn’t it pretty?” the children say. “And its fur is so soft.”
But I remain vigilant. “Don’t touch it! It probably still has germs!”
Sometimes I wonder if those snake books were such a good idea after all.