Almost every day this week, my Accu weather app tells me “This is a poor day for Outdoor Fitness”. Yes indeedy, it is. This is a week of seeking warmth, any way it comes, especially through your stomach.
To accompany the traditional sauerkraut and pork dish for New Year’s this past week, I used my mother’s white KitchenAid mixer pictured here in all its vintage glory to make mashed potatoes. In an era when the media told women they needed to save time and money by adopting convenient shortcuts to cooking, my mother fully embraced the concept of cooking most meals from a box. However, she always insisted on making mashed potatoes from scratch. Fluffy, but hearty, and very, very buttery, perfect on a day like today when the wind chill is in the single digits.
As the wire whip of the mixer blended the warm milk into the buttery potato creamed concoction, a New Year’s day story from my childhood begged to be jostled from my memory bank.
Traditionally my family spent New Years day at my grandparents’ house in NE Ohio cooking and eating comfort food in between watching college football on a large console color television set. As an only child, I especially looked forward to this day as I got to spend it with my cousins, who were slightly older than me, and taught me things that only older relatives can, aka things my parents did not want me to know about. The year was 1977 and the most “edgy” show on television was Welcome Back Kotter, which my mother deemed inappropriate for a girl of 9 to watch due to its modeling of “sweat hog” behavior. Later that year, my father’s sense of humor won out over my mother’s rule and since he thought the show was funny, I got to watch it too. But by being around my older cousins, I learned much more than watching the Sweat Hogs.
An annual highlight of New Years day was a phone call from my aunt who had moved to Rhode Island following college. My grandparents’ avocado-colored phone was passed through each family member as we wished our good-lucks and got caught up with her life on the East Coast. The phone was plugged into an outlet in my grandfather’s office, but the cord, extending almost 30 feet, was able to reach the television set so the talker wouldn’t miss an extremely good play.
This particular New Year’s day was extremely cold and my grandfather had lit the season’s first fire in the fireplace earlier in the day, but it had caused so much smoke in the living room that he let it extinguish before we all arrived. Everyone had taken their turns talking to my aunt, except for my grandfather, who was sitting at his desk, with his back to the boisterous football fans down the hall.
Perhaps I was growing a little bored of the football game so I wasn’t quite as intent on the t.v. as the others. Out of my peripheral vision, I caught a small furry object drop out of the chimney and climb up and out of screen enclosure of the fireplace. I poked my cousin in the arm and got no reaction. I poked him again, harder this time. “OW! Stop it. I don’t want to miss this play!” The furry object I had seen was a squirrel that was now skip-hopping at a quick pace down the hallway, intent on my grandfather, obliviously chatting away with my aunt. I poked another cousin and he simply poked me back, but much harder. I stole a quick look down the hall and at this point the squirrel was about ten feet from my grandfather, standing on its hind legs. “Grandma, look!”, I yelled, pointing at the squirrel that was now in a full-clip charge aiming directly for my grandfather’s head.
“Oh my God! Ted, Ted, Ted!!!” she yelled. The whole family quickly turned and started yelling, but not one of us stepped into the scene that surely would have made the best of “When Animals Attack” if video cams had been affordable at the time. My grandfather, assuming we were yelling about the game, held up an index finger in our direction, letting us know he would be off the phone in just a bit.
That’s all the squirrel needed to see in order to motivate its quest for human blood. One flying leap into the air and it landed on my grandfather’s shoulder, sinking its teeth deep into his finger. “YOWWWWWW!!!” he yelled, tossing the phone up in the air and jumping up just like the squirrel did. He started swinging the squirrel in a circular motion over his head, the squirrel hanging on for dear life only by its teeth still firmly planted deep into the tissue of his finger, limbs and tail outstretched, a picture perfect model of Rocky the flying squirrel, of Bullwinkle fame. We all dove behind the furniture as my grandfather lurched down the hallway, running towards the front door. Screaming ensued but not because of a football play. We scattered in different directions as my grandfather barreled through the door, squirrel still in tow.
Once we felt it was safe to come out from our hiding places, we hovered around the window, watching as the squirrel was flung up into the air about 20 feet. It grabbed onto a branch of a maple tree and quickly disappeared into the tree canopy.
My grandfather hired an animal trapper to do rabies testing on the advise of the doctor who stitched the wound with sutures later that day. Unfortunately, because the trapper was skilled, the squirrel population in and around my grandparents neighborhood dropped considerably that winter, but rabies was never detected.
The prevailing theory for why the squirrel attacked my grandfather was that the fire lit in the chimney earlier in the day had burned up the squirrel’s nest and the squirrel somehow knew my grandfather was the responsible party. I guess we’ll never know. I do remember the sadness I felt knowing many squirrels’ lives were lost due to this incident and had we all paid better attention to the nesting habits of our non-human friends, this story would have a happier ending for the squirrel.