By Gwen Rockwood
Some fathers teach their kid to swing a bat. Some fathers teach their kid to swim. My father taught me to raise squirrels.
He brought them home from work one day, the way some fathers tote home a briefcase. A self-employed landscaper and tree trimmer, he had accidentally rendered the two baby squirrels homeless during his day’s work. He discovered the two orphans unharmed once the tree had fallen, and he knew the missing mother would not be back to claim them. So, since he accidentally moved them out of their home, he decided it was only fair to bring them home to his.
I was about 6 at the time and my brother was 13. My mother had not arrived home from work when Dad walked in and lowered his cupped hands to let us get a look at the new arrivals. And there they were – two brownish-gray, furry warm bodies with wide eyes and twitching noses, completely helpless.
The three of us quickly set about making the squirrels a suitable nest. My brother insisted the squirrels should stay in his room since he was older. Dad handed each of us a squirrel, and he disappeared out the back door. He returned a few minutes later hauling a sizeable tree branch, complete with leaves and all. He carried it upstairs to my brother’s room and set about re-constructing the squirrel’s former home.
He had to work quickly, as the time was nearing five o’clock and my mother was due home any minute and might put a sudden halt to the squirrel adoption. But by the time her car rolled into the driveway, Dad had nailed a large tree branch to the built-in desk closet in my brother’s room.
In hindsight, it might not have been the best choice for a squirrel nest. My mother was quite fond of that built-in wooden desk, and had, in fact, asked that it be specially designed with overhead shelves and closing closet doors when the house was built. But, at the time, those specially designed features were also precisely the characteristics that made it such a great choice for a squirrel nest. So the squirrels moved in.
My mother, disgusted that her son’s room looked like the set of “WildKingdom,” immediately declared she would have no part of this squirrel-raising. This was to be a project that Dad would have to oversee.
So the next day we went to the veterinarian’s office and bought tiny bottles to feed the squirrels with. Dad mixed their baby squirrel formula, which consisted of milk and a drop of honey. He showed us how to hold the squirrels and feed them, how to stroke their heads gently and tenderly. He supervised feedings and insisted that squirrel bedtimes be strictly enforced, as baby squirrels can get tired from every kid in the neighborhood coming over to see them and their unusual home.
My brother insisted that, because he was older, he would be the one to name the squirrels, as little kids like me would not know as many cool names as he knew. I felt it was supremely unfair, but the squirrel nest was in his room and I could not risk being denied access to it, so I submitted and let him assign the names. I am embarrassed to list those names here and can only attempt to explain them by reminding you that he was 13 at the time, and a 13-year-old’s sense of humor is far from sophisticated.
Weeks passed and our squirrels, Stink and Stank, began to grow up right before our eyes. We were going through several baby squirrel bottles a day. Soon we were chopping up bits of apple and grapes, and eventually Stink and Stank graduated to Cheerios. They were getting larger and more playful, jumping from desk to limb to shelf and back again, playing chase with one another.
We raised the best squirrels around. Stink and Stank, despite their ill-chosen names, were fine animals with lots of personality. They could have easily been mascots for Cheerios and made a great name for themselves.
But, unfortunately, the story takes a sharp downturn. One day my father noticed that Stink and Stank had done the unthinkable. They had covertly chewed the wires off the back of the television that sat on that built-in desk.
A father can forgive a squirrel for a chewed bookend or a chewed desk corner, but a father has a hard time when squirrels mess with his television set. So Dad decided it was time for Stink and Stank to return to the wild, to make their own home in the outdoor trees.
We had a squirrel liberation ceremony the next day, allowing Stink and Stank to scamper off into the backyard, where they lived in the trees for many months. After that, we never saw them again. Perhaps they rented an apartment down the street. Who knows?
Nonetheless, those two orphaned squirrels lived the good life for a while and, in the process, allowed a father to teach his children lessons in compassion, lessons in nature and nurture, and lessons about love and letting go.
At the time, it was just two squirrels in a desk closet. Thirty years later, I see it as one of those fine moments in life when a father’s instinct to rescue, protect, nurture and love is illustrated beautifully.