When my children were young and the three of us spent our days at home together we had a dog named Porter. He was gentle and goofy and could not be left alone for a moment. Because he was never out of sight, we were witness to all of his antics including his attempts at hunting voles. He caught them on occasion and when he did he was as surprised by his conquests as we were. Sometimes he swallowed them whole before anyone yelled for him to let go, and if it wasn’t too late he’d open his mouth and the rodent would leap out and escape to freedom. One time though the vole dropped to the ground, dead.
Upon picking it up I discovered that the dead rodent was female, and under the thin skin of her belly there was motion. Without fully thinking it through I brought it inside, plopped it on a cutting board and performed a c-section in front of my children. This wasn’t an attempt to save the baby voles, it was a chance to see something that we don’t normally get to see.
It wasn’t until I’d extracted the babies and put them in a box with some straw that it occurred to me that I’d set my children up to watch the animals die. The kids were already attached to the tiny pink squirming bodies and were rooting for their survival, even arguing over what to name them before I realized what I’d done.
My thought was to tuck the box away and let the infant voles die while nobody was watching, but the kids wanted to keep them nearby and check on them frequently. I explained how in nature small mammals need things that only their mothers can give them and that the cow’s milk in our refrigerator was not an adequate substitute for their mother’s milk. I reminded them that the tiny creatures hadn’t even been born yet and that their hearts and lungs might not even be fully developed. I did my best to prepare them for the inevitable.
I suggested removing the mice from the box and taking them outside and finding a place for them to die in the grasses, but neither child agreed to that plan. In the end we put the box on the coffee table and for a few hours we checked on them until one by one their bodies became motionless. Then we took them outside, along with the body of their mother, and buried them.
All of this took place before Dean got home from work. When he returned and asked about their day they told him how Porter had killed the mama vole and how I had cut it open and found live babies and then we put them in a box and then after a while they all died and we buried them. It was all very matter-of-fact. They were not visibly traumatized by the experience as I’d feared they might be.
This story came back to me today seemingly out of nowhere, the way that memories often do. Maybe it’s because it’s Thanksgiving and I’m feeling nostalgic and I’m inviting the memories of those little kids to come around. They remind me of how this house has a history that’s rich in spite of its need for upgrades and improvements. Our family’s stories give our home value that transcends the real-estate market, at least to us.
Somewhere out there in our yard in the ground there’s a spot where the earth has reclaimed the cross we made out of Popsicle sticks and the voles that didn’t survive our dog all those years ago. Our beloved dogs Porter and Nyack are buried closer to the house under a big spruce tree, not far from where the crocus flowers come up each spring.
This isn’t a sad thing. There’s intimacy in having lived in a place long enough for our stories to be a part of the landscape. And there were stories here before we ever arrived on the scene. Bob and Doris, the homesteaders who moved here before there were roads and electric lines, sold these five acres to Harley and Betty who built the house and lived here for twenty years before we came along. There are those too, who must have passed through and taken shelter on this land long before any of us parceled up the place and claimed ownership.
We can draw up papers and build houses and put up fences, but it’s good to remember that our time here is temporary. Our stories may live on after we’re gone or they may be reclaimed by the earth. Either way, this land belongs as much to the people who are yet to come as it does to us. Remembering this is humbling and beautiful. It connects us to something ongoing and perpetual. It gives us a reason to question the things we’ve come to think of as normal. It allows us permission to do better.