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A Chipmunk's Tale

Where’s all this dust coming from? Good grief. I’d better shut the windows.

            The backhoe in the field behind the house was not only making a racket, it was stirring up the dust sifting through the open windows. Irritating. But as my husband says, things often get worse before they get better. I should be used to such things after twenty years of marriage and almost that many remodeling projects.  At least this project wasn’t requiring me to empty all the kitchen cupboards and wash dishes in a dishpan sitting on a plank of wood. I’d already done that.

This was strictly an outdoor improvement program, transforming a weedy field behind the house into a grassy lawn plus a spot for a vegetable garden.  My boys were enjoying the earth moving machine and piles of dirt. Boy heaven. They had been out there all day, only coming inside to refuel with ham sandwiches and cold drinks. It was late afternoon, and they should be stopping any time now.

Here they come now. Looks like they are carrying something. What next?

“Look Mom! The backhoe dug up a chipmunk’s nest, The mother ran away and left two babies in the nest.”

I’d never seen baby chipmunks before. They looked distinctly rodent-like. Very little hair. Eyes not open yet. Tiny and helpless. But you could tell they were chipmunks. I could easily guess what came next.

“Can we keep them? We can tame them and they’ll be our pets.”

“I don’t know,” I said skeptically. “Chipmunks are wild creatures. They’ll probably die in captivity. Besides, how would we feed them?”

The youngest ran to his room and came back with an empty shoebox. “We can fill this with grass and make a little nest for them.”

“And we can feed them milk with an eyedropper,” another said.

“And we already have names for them,” said the third. “We’ll call them Chip and Dale.

I was outvoted. Who could resist those pleading eyes and enthusiastic plans. Besides, I was sure they would soon lose interest in feeding the creatures, if they were successful at all at getting them to take milk from an eyedropper.

Much to my surprise, the baby chipmunks did drink the powdered milk mixture the boys provided them, and fed a couple of times before bedtime. In the middle of the night, I turned over in bed and said to my husband. “I wonder how those chipmunks are doing? If they are still alive.” I padded out to the dining room, and saw them squirming in their box. “They probably need to eat,” I said, having had plenty of experience with newborn babies feeding every four hours.

I filled the eyedropper with milk and picked up one of the chipmunks. To my surprise, my sleepy-eyed husband soon joined me. I held the baby in my right hand and the eye dropper in the left. I wonder if this is Chip, or Dale, I mused. He was warm and soft, I put the eyedropper to his mouth, and he began to suck. He raised his tiny paws to the eyedropper, just like an infant drinking a bottle. I could feel the steady beat of his tiny heart. I bonded with the chipmunk. I admit it, embarrassing as it is.

I wasn’t the only one, My husband sat beside me, intently watching. “I can’t believe what a sap I am,” he said, “up in the middle of the night watching a chipmunk nurse from an eye dropper.”

We were hooked.

Not only did those chipmunks survive, they soon opened their eyes and climbed out of their box. We found an old birdcage in the cellar and decided that would be an ideal home for them, but they thought differently. There’s no caging a chipmunk, as anyone who has watched Simon, Theodore, and Alvin should know. They had the run of the house.

They politely used one of my potted houseplants as a litter box and often joined us at mealtime. They ambled along the table, selecting food from each plate, neatly nibbling each bite, then stuffing their little cheeks with tidbits for later snacks. Yes, we truly allowed rodents to eat from our plates, Watching them was our dinnertime entertainment. Sort of a floor show, except it was on the table.

Sadly, one of the pair did not survive, but the remaining chipmunk became part of the family and ran around the house at will.  All I needed to do to find him was to make a clicking sound with my tongue against the roof of my mouth, and he would come running. He had no fear of being picked up and held by anyone in the family. He often perched on the back of the furniture, observing everything that was going on.

When the boys were at school and I was doing my housewife’s chores, I called him, and he ran up my leg and got into the pocket of my bathrobe while I made the beds, or sat on my shoulder as I washed the dishes. My husband Tom liked to wrestle him with the fingers of one hand. The chipmunk must have liked it, because when Tom headed to the door to go to work, the chipmunk raced to catch him, running up his leg and prolonging the interaction.

Although Mr. Chip was perfectly safe in the house, he longed for the wide world beckoning to him on the other side of the door. He didn’t understand about cats roaming the neighborhood or automobiles speeding down the road. He became restless as a teenager waiting for his driver’s license. Who knows? Perhaps he was just longing for love.

We finally decided he deserved to go live with his own kind, We drove him thirty five miles to a place called Brooktondale camp. Tom’s father was semi-retired and worked as the caretaker there. There was a considerable chipmunk population there, living in high style on account of campers who thoughtfully left half-eaten sandwiches, and other desirable items throughout the summer months. We were sure our chipmunk would find himself welcome there.

We released him, and watched him scamper away with a pang in our hearts, sort of like seeing a child off to school for the first time.

We stayed on the campground that night. I had a hard time sleeping. Had he been accepted by his fellow creatures? Did he find a warm, comfy place to sleep? Would he adapt to the wide, wide world, or long for familiar surroundings?

In the morning, I ventured out in hopes of seeing him, though I realized the odds were not good. I walked to the spot I had last seen him, stood still, and made a clicking sound with my tongue against the roof of my mouth. I waited. I did it again.

Incredibly, a chipmunk poked his pretty little face out from behind a shed. He came to me, and sat looking at me with a knowing expression in his eyes. I put my hand out to see if he would let me pick him up and he retreated. He sat there, out of reach, but looking at me for a full minute. I knelt down and extended my hand again. He hesitated, as if he was saying, “Yeah, I know who you are, and thanks for everything, but I’d rather to be free.”

With a flick of his tail, he was gone.

In  years to come, one by one my sons left home and went out to find their way in the wide, wide world. I thought about Chip, grateful for the nurturing we gave him, but needing to be free to explore the world and follow his destiny. With a tear, I let them go.

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