About a month ago, I was digging around in some old boxes and came across a stack of weathered photos. I grabbed them up and stuck them in the drawer on my night stand, promptly forgetting them. This morning, while digging around through said night stand, I found them again. The top picture caught my attention; it was of Chickpea and me. We were in the kitchen of our married student housing apartment in Madison, Wisconsin.
Chickpea was a gray squirrel. We became acquainted on a wet Tuesday morning. I was walking to the school to pick up my son Leland from kindergarten, when I saw a little boy swinging something. I thought it was a toy of some sort but when I got closer, I saw that it was kicking. It was a tiny baby squirrel, most likely blown out of its nest in the storm from the night before. The little boy was swinging it from its tail. I cried, "Oh, it's a baby! Give it to me!" and the kid handed it over. Chickpea laid like a dead fish in my palm, his body no bigger than my index finger. I looked around for a barking mama squirrel but there was nothing: no noise, no mama, nothing. I stuffed him down my bra and continued toward the school.
Leland was enchanted when I showed him the bedraggled baby. "That's the squirrel Daddy and I saw this morning on the way to school. Shafagh was trying to feed it a peanut." That ended any chance of finding the baby's nest. Leland and Peter, my ex-husband, had seen the baby a quarter mile from where I found it.
We walked together to the grocery store where I bought an eye dropper, a carton of cream and some hamster vitamins. We took Chickpea home, dried him off, heated the cream, added the vitamins and a splash of almond extract for taste, then tried to feed him. At the first hint of food, that little critter went nuts. He started squirrel snarling in his tiny walnut of a voice, throwing his head around frantically. The cream went everywhere but in his mouth. I wiped him off and tried again with the same results. Finally, I cleaned him up, rolled him up in a wash cloth so he couldn't move and jammed the eye dropper down his throat. He ate and fell asleep.
My daughter Rhianna, four years Leland's senior, came home from school and immediately knew what to do. Rhianna has always been something of a Doctor Doolittle. She has an affinity with animals the likes of which I've never seen. We went to the library at her suggestion and found a book on baby squirrels. The little things had to eat every four hours, on the dot.
When my husband came home, he pitched a fit about having a rodent in the house but I was adamant. I'd taken charge of that hairy little life and I wasn't going to shirk the responsibility of it, no matter how much of a pain in the ass it might be. Peter droned on and on in a rage and I finally asked, "What the hell is the matter with you? Why are you so mad?" He looked at me and blurted out, "Because I'm ashamed. I walked right by that damn thing this morning and never even thought to try and help it. You see it for two seconds and take the whole thing on. That's just how you are. You jump in and rescue things."
I decided to take that as a compliment. How cool to be told, no matter how angrily, that you're the type of person to automatically help someone or something that's suffering. That was very cool to me.
Chickpea ate and slept for four days. On the fifth, he became a very, very active little squirrel. Up and down, over and across, his skittery little toes were everywhere; up your pant leg and down your shirt, up the curtains and down the side of the couch. Run run run, from sunup to sundown, that crazy animal was never quiet. I'd take him outside for tree climbing practice. Sitting under a crimson maple, I read a book while Chickpea did acrobatic cartwheels and scampers along branches, always looking down toward me for approval at his courage. I clicked my tongue and cheered him on, opening my sweater so he could dive in for a snuggle when lonely.
We weaned him off the cream and introduced him to hardier fare: almonds and pecans, acorns and apples, carrots and strangely enough, green beans, which he loved. Peter began to rage again as Chickpea started burrowing through the bedroom curtains, so Rhianna and I began to re-introduce our squirrel to the wild. "If he can find a mate," Rhianna said, "He'll be fine. Squirrels mate for life."
After a failed attempt to build his own nest - waist high in a hole with no stuffing or bedding - Leland, Rhianna and I banged together a makeshift box on poles and planted it in our tiny garden. I lined the box with Chickpea's favorite sweater of mine, then crammed him inside. That's where he slept for about two weeks. On the morning of the third week, I saw a beautiful sight: Chickpea and a wild female, banging away on top of his box. They both ran away at the sight of me. I grinned and heaved a great sigh of relief. Chickpea would be fine.
He went totally wild but still remembered how to get in through the hole under the air conditioner in the summer. Rhianna would come home from school to find our startled former pet with a giant cookie in his mouth, and once he and his mate crammed an entire apple pie through that minuscule hole. We followed the crumb trail from the empty pie pan, across the table and down the kitchen floor, all the way to the air conditioner. They had laboriously stuffed the whole thing through, and there wasn't a sliver of apple anywhere outside the window. It was glorious.
Isn't it fun to stumble across a drift of memory captured forever in a random snapshot forgotten in a drawer? Ah, I hadn't thought about Chickpea for a long time. Now I smile as I type away, imagining those nimble toes and tiny hooked claws racing across my pant leg, demanding attention and play. What a fun little guy he was. Hope you liked me telling the story of Chickpea the Squirrel as much as I liked remembering it. Take care.