Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The Ghosts of Christmas Pets


As I continue to work on my new book, a memoir whose working title is Happily, I take short, braced-for-sentimentality trips back through the journal which I’ve kept since the first days of my marriage to Jean and continued while raising our two sons Deighton and Schuyler, and our daughter Kylie. This year, I found a few apt moments featuring some of our former family pets and thought I’d share the amusing scenes with the rest of you.


For starters, there’s Ember, the most loveable and loving member of our current tribe of three cats. Here he is in a candid shot from yesterday with this year’s “Christmas Tree.” Since we’ll soon to be moving out of this grand old 4,000-square-foot Craftsman house into an apartment about one-tenth the size, we didn’t bother to unpack the Christmas ornaments or find a tree to put in the nearly-bare living room.

The cats are disappointed. What?! No sap-sticky branches to climb? No cotton-and-plastic ornaments to swat off the hooks? How dare we?!

Sorry, bud. You’ll have to settle for this tinsel-and-cardboard cone which is meant to evoke some sort of nostalgia for a Christmas circa 1971, I guess. Hate to disappoint, but 2019 will be remembered as Spartan Yuletide.

In the meantime, remember these other pets from Christmases long, long ago? Yeah, neither do I...


December 24, 1992

’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a hamster. That’s because Jean killed it.

Let me back up. Earlier tonight, I went to a neighbor’s house. They were desperate to get rid of their hamsters because the mother had been caught eating her babies. “Yeah,” the (human) husband said, “I came downstairs one day and my stomach kinda turned. She was biting one of ’em in half.”

So, full of pity (and also a little revulsion), I brought one of the beige babies home, put it in a cage, then went upstairs while Jean went about preparing the new home, spreading wood chips and rigging up the water bottle. When I came downstairs a few minutes later, she was holding the hamster in a cupped palm, a look of horror on her face. The hamster looked like a dustball she’d just found under the sofa. “I killed it...” she said in a hoarse, broken voice. “It jumped out of my hand and went ker-splat on the floor.”

I put my arm around her. “It’s okay, hon. We’ll go back to the guy and get another one tonight.”

“I have such bad luck with pets. I always kill them off.” Jean was remembering the goldfish that flipped out of the Crayola crayon aquarium onto the carpet last summer.

We did get another hamster tonight. Again tan, but this one’s eyes are still sealed shut from its birth-blindness. We love him and pray he makes it through the night.


December 10, 1995

We bought two zebra finches for Schuyler for Christmas – a male and a female. They’re small, flighty (pardon the expression) birds, drab gray/dun brown in color. The male has a dark tan patch on his cheeks. Their beaks are like large noses–imagine a Jimmy Durante schnozzola on a little bird and you’ll get the idea. You can’t miss the finches’ beaks because they define the entire face!

Schuyler says he’s naming them David and Jean because “they look like they’re in love.”

Yeah, the awwww factor is pretty thick in the house tonight.

Laura, Jean’s friend who we bought the birds from, says they must be fed and watered daily and that we can’t turn a light on suddenly or they could die from the shock.

Elsewhere in the journal, I find a conversation I once had with a wildlife biologist: “A pine grosbeak carries the scent of a pine tree, so if you hold one in your hands, it will smell like Christmas.”

When no one is looking, I take a tiny sniff of David and Jean. They smell like dust and worry.


December 23, 2005

We’re late in setting up the Christmas tree this year. Normally, I get everyone in the Christmas spirit a week after Thanksgiving. This year, of course, I wasn’t there to be able to spread the holiday spirit. I had a good excuse: I was busy fighting the “bad guys” over in Iraq.

This was the Christmas I thought I might not live to see, given the severity of mortar attacks on any given day during my tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Baghdad. But all that was behind me now; I’d returned home to Georgia five days ago to a burst of banners and balloons from my welcoming family, and we were all starting to settle back into our normal household routines. Now, Christmas was upon us.

I drag the artificial tree out of the cobwebby crawl space in the garage and pull it up the stairs into the house. I set it up, then straighten the fake branches. Jean, Kylie and I start hanging ornaments on the branches, stopping every now and then to get misty-eyed about particular ornaments as they brought back memories.

“Hey, Mom, remember when we gave this to Schuyler? He was really into Scooby-Doo that year, wasn’t he?”

“I think we got this one during that trip to Glacier National Park, didn’t we?”

“Remember when I cross-stitched this little thing? I formed the year out of the curlicues of smoke coming from the chimney.”

Suddenly, Jean let out an ear-splitting scream. I mean, a real window-cracker that hung and hung in the air. Kylie and I nearly dropped our ornaments. “What is it, hon? What’s the matter?” I rushed over to her side.

“It’s a—it’s a—ohmigod! There! Right there!”

I look to where she’s pointing. It’s a brown lizard lying on the floor beneath the tree, panting from fright. Jean had picked him up, thinking his brown tail was part of an ornament leftover from last year. The lizard crawled across the back of her hand, whereupon she launched it into flight halfway across the room.

Eventually, I caught it and dumped it outside; the lizard slinking away through the grass, little realizing how he’d suddenly gotten a starring role in the Abrams Christmas Legends storybook.

The next morning, we’re watching the TV news and there’s a short clip about a family in Pennsylvania who brought a live tree into their living room, set it up and decorated the thick piney branches. That night, the daughter was doing homework when she noticed something moving near the top of the tree. It was an opossum, roused from his sleep deep inside the branches. Fish and Game had to come out and trap it.

“Well,” Jean said with some amount of disappointment in her voice. “The possum trumps my lizard, I guess.”

“Don’t worry,” I reassured her, “There will be other Christmases and other animals.”


2 comments:

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  2. I once picked up a gopher snake that I thought was a belt. But that's another story. Thanks for the laughs. Great blog.

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