Monday, April 28, 2014


To Matt, Josh & Lauren,

Every summer we seem to find a wild animal in the yard that needs to be rescued.  The box turtles that wander aimlessly through the grass after climbing up the hill from the creek or the robins that build their nest on the front door wreath where comings and goings are sure to disturb or the Monarch caterpillars in the milkweed patch at the side of the house that are waiting to be picked off by marauding wasps.  Whether your father likes it or not, you’re all drawn to helping creatures in need and really, it’s not your fault.  The rescue gene runs deep through your Durandetta & Frisk bloodlines.  Your great-grandma Mia had a pair of pet raccoons named Nanette & Pierre. Uncle John tells the story of the baby blue heron that rode the sewing machine treadle in Grandma Durandetta's kitchen.  And I had BeeBop the robin whose untimely demise is cemented lore in our family’s collective memory.  Wait til you hear that sorrowful tale one day!   

My own first wild animal rescue actually happened before we moved to the farm.  I was about 3 or 4 years old and our family was living in a little house on Filbert Street in Curwensville.  There was a small backyard that led to a steep hill, thick with trees and brush.  Along the back perimeter was an old stone wall and chipmunk families used to make their homes among the crags and gaps.  

Grammy remembers how one morning I came into the house with my hands cupped together to show her what I had found while playing in the yard.  All she could see was a thin tail hanging out from under one thumb and she immediately thought I had captured a rat.  But as I opened my hands to show her my prize, she saw that it was a baby chipmunk that had fallen from its nest.  Realizing that its chances of survival were very slim, she allowed me to tuck a washcloth around it and place it in a shoe box while I kept vigil over the next several hours. 

Hours turned into days and amazingly, the little orphan survived and began to acclimate to being held and fussed over.  Soon, he was running around on the couch cushions and end tables and Grammy and Grandpa began to concede that I had adopted my first pet.  In no time at all, Chippy was living the high life in a hamster cage by night and charming everyone with his spunk and joie de vivre by day.   

There were pillows to climb and grapes to peel and pockets for hitchhiking and guitar strings for high-wire acrobatics.  Grammy even let him ride around on her pregnant belly as she grew round with Uncle Jason in the fall of 1977.  

By the following autumn, we had bought the Reynold Bloom farm in Olanta and were packing up the little house on Filbert Street.  I don’t have any memories of leaving town, but I do recall the first time we walked into the empty farm house and how the smell of paneled wood steeped in the smoky gauze of coal dust filtered through my nostrils.  I remember running through the lower field and pulling the dried seeds off the ragweed stalks and marveling that as far as my eyes could see, there wasn’t another house in view.  I recall walking into the attic for the first time and thinking that I was going to be swallowed up into the deep dark corners that seemed to press around me like towering curtains of black velvet.  So many memories of those earliest days on the farm, but all tales for other tellings.  

Uncle John reminded me recently about Chippy’s first day on the farm and how we almost lost him.  In the bustle of packing up the house, someone had set the hamster cage to the side, out of the way, but in the direct sunlight.  For hours, Chippy baked in the late August heat and by the time Grammy realized what had happened, he was limp and unconscious.  Fervent prayers and a series of dunks in a bowl of cool water brought him around and he survived to climb another couch.  How many rodents can boast of being saved not once, but twice, in their lives?  

Life on the farm brought new and exciting adventures for all of us, Chippy included.  While I discovered the dizzying joy of climbing to the top of the hayloft, some 30 feet above the barn floor, Chippy discovered the thrill of climbing up the drapes in the dining room and flinging himself to the rug below.  While I learned how to squeeze out the sweet autumn insides of Concord grapes from the branches of the arbor that stood like an old hunchbacked woman trying not to totter down a hillside, Chippy learned how to stuff his cheeks with the leftover watermelon seeds from a late summer picnic and then stash them for midnight snacking under a pile of pine shavings in the corner of his cage.  As I soon realized that catching a chicken on the run involved zigs and zags and turn-on-a-dime reflexes, none of which the human body is well suited to make, Chippy realized that the braid rug under the dining room table was a perfect racetrack which his slender, streamlined body was well suited to exploit.  (He even had built-in racing stripes!)  

Grandpa and I were recently reminiscing about him and laughing how he seemed to especially enjoy racing when the barn cats were at the glass patio door waiting to be fed.  All they could do was watch in maddening defeat as a perfect bite-sized snack made defiant laps around the rug just inches from their reach.   

As animated as he could be, he was also inclined to nesting.  He had a favorite washcloth that he pulled around him at night and spent many hours napping in Grammy’s bathrobe pocket while she percolated through her early morning chores at the stove or sewing basket or writing desk.  For more than five years, Chippy lived this extraordinary life with our family.

Perhaps it was the onset of old age or maybe an incipient disease provoked the change in behavior, but around the fifth year, we began to notice that he was shunning interaction and was turning his tiny claws and teeth against us with purpose.  Eventually he became too difficult to handle and the decision was made that we would take him to a place where he had the best chance of living out the life he would have known, had I not saved him from the stone wall all those years before.  

I still recall the day when we drove down to Irvin Park at the bottom of Bloomington Hill.  (You have been there several times on our visits back to Curwensville…remember how we found the wild animal tracks in the mud and skipped stones at the edge of the river?)  Grammy was driving our periwinkle blue station wagon and Chippy’s cage was in the back while Uncle Jason and I were belted into our seats ahead of him.  We parked near the walking path and then carried his cage to a shady spot under the towering oak trees which reached 40, even 50 feet above us.  The air was filled with the sounds of his wild-growing nature…birds calling to each other and leaves rustling on the forest floor.  As hard as it was to open the lid, I knew, even at that young age, that whatever time he had left, he should have the freedom to spend it there.  

We were all crying and hoping that he would shun the open door, but almost immediately he raced across the path and up the nearest tree.  Higher and higher he went as though he were scaling the grandest draperies he had ever known.  And then to our utter disbelief, he flung himself off like an adrenaline-crazed base jumper to the earth below.  He crunched into a pile of dead leaves and lay immobile for a few moments before finally racing off into the woods and out of our view for the last time.        

The third time a charm, Chippy needed no rescue during the last chapter of our lives together.  He bounded off into the forest with the same joie de vivre that encompassed all his days with us, days which we were the better for.  And that’s why today, when you come to me with cupped hands around butterfly wings or squishy frog legs, I can’t protest or demand an immediate release of your captive treasure.  I want you to gather and relish and laugh out loud at all the life around you.  And then I want you to know when and how and why to send it out again.       

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Hymn for Dreamers

Help me, Lord, to hold my dreams,
the dreams I've dreamed in days gone by…
Help me Lord, to hold my dreams
with open hands to Heaven high.

Teach me, Lord, to trust the dreams
you've dreamed for me from ancient old…
Teach me, Lord, to trust that dreams
no matter time, can still unfold.

Remind me, Lord, to see this life-
these mother's struggles, sacrifice-
as once the dreams I prayed to live
and waited on Your love to give.

So help me, Lord, to hold my dreams
in cords of three as breath slips by.
Help me, Lord, while holding hands,
to turn their hearts to Heaven high.

For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord.  
Plans to prosper you and not to harm you.  
To give you a hope and a future.

Jeremiah 29:11