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Getting a little squirrelly

Ghosts of chipmunks past: Grandpa Swanson with a chipmunk on his head. You can see my reflection as I took the photo of the photo, and floating above my head, the reflection of Uncle Pete, who took the original.
We just brought Churchy inside for the second night in a row, which means there’s no more denying it: summer is over. This evening I found him under the chives, barely able to squeeze his turtle body into his shell, full from a season of sun-gold tomatoes, blueberries, worms, and the occasional raw mini-meatball set aside from our hamburger dinner. He’ll spend the night in his terrarium, and we’ll put him back out in the garden tomorrow when it warms up a bit. Pretty soon, we all know, even that won’t be possible.

He seems more accepting as he gets older, a gentle hiss just to make sure we know he’s still a wild thing. Maybe I’m projecting, but I admire his ability to hibernate, to tuck himself inside his shell and dream his turtle dreams. Seems like a decent way to pass the winter months.

This past weekend we battened down the hatches at the family place up north. It’s an old resort that my grandparents ran in the 1960s, with a house, the store (which my dad lobbied unsuccessfully to rename “the lodge”), and a few old cabins. I’ve previously written about my experience in Cabin 3 a few summers ago, waking up to a bat circling over my bed. But last Saturday afternoon, I was determined to become one with nature, dammit. I sat on the moss-covered lake bank with the intention of clearing my mind of the detritus of a tough couple of weeks. Work’s been intense, and I have only just barely come to grips with the fact that my eldest has in fact gone off to college and seems to be adjusting just fine. Also, I might be a little too engaged with the political news of the day.

The lake is a steep drop from the bank, with tree trunks bending and leaning precariously across the water. I looked up and saw a red squirrel perched on one of those trunks. He looked at me, looking at him. Maybe it was the previous experience with the bat, but I wondered if it was considering attacking me. Does a squirrel have to be a flying squirrel in order to leap at you? Just as I was starting to get nervous, and then telling myself this was a ridiculous fear, the squirrel went about its usual business of racing up and down the branches and ground, as if searching for something important. I’m thinking acorns or shiny things.

And because I seem to have lost the ability to sit and do nothing, I decided to record the squirrel’s frenetic activity in a video that I would later upload to Facebook and encourage my friends to watch. (Surprisingly, some did; it garnered three likes and four comments, although admittedly one of the comments was mine.)

The next morning, when Mom woke up, there was a squirrel sitting on top of her little white TV, staring at her. The day before, she’d shown me evidence that a critter had gotten in the building. A couple windowsills had been chewed and the animal’s scurrying had displaced a framed photograph. “But we haven’t found a dead body,” she said, worriedly.

The photograph is of my grandpa, and there’s a chipmunk sitting on his head. He’d trained chipmunks to crawl on him and even fetch peanuts out of his shirt pocket. I thought it was weird that this picture, of all things, was displaced by the invading critter. Was it a chipmunk-descendent of the one sitting on Grandpa’s head who caused this havoc? Well, no, now we knew it was more likely a squirrel—hopefully the same one who had been perched on Mom’s TV.

We thought it might be living in the closet. Looking for the nest, I pulled out empty cardboard boxes dating from my New York move 20 years ago, a box of fabric remnants, another with zippers. Mom screamed as the squirrel darted from the closet, across her feet, and under the bed. We opened a door to give it egress, and my brother stomped on the floor with Mom’s cane to try to get it to leave. We did this stomping ritual for maybe five minutes, my daughter, brother, and I, but we didn’t see the squirrel again. We could only assume he'd escaped back into the wild, because I hate to imagine what he might do over the winter in that enclosed space. No one wants to see a squirrel with cabin fever.
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