The Lantern Books Blog: Lantern Books 2005 Essay Contest Runner-Up, June Eastvold
May 1, 2006 11:32am
A Possum Tale
by June Eastvold, Port Washington, Wisconsin
It was a summer evening. I was sitting in a comfortable chair in my friend’s sunroom, quietly reading poetry. My mind was totally absorbed in the poet’s images and I barely noticed that the sun was going down and the outdoor light was dimming. As I reached to switch on the lamp, I got a peculiar feeling. Someone was watching me. Startled, I turned to see a ghostly white possum boldly staring at me through the window. Up close and personal!
He held his ground, never flinching, even though my reaction was panic. His bright, intense eyes penetrated through the glass as I slowly got up from the chair and left the room. I called my friend to come, but by the time she came from the kitchen the creature had vanished, a shadowy apparition that teased my imagination and engendered fear in my heart.
Possums cannot help how they look. They are not attractive. Their long tails, their funny noses, their claws, furry backs and beady eyes do not win in animal photography contests. Yet, although the incident was years ago, I still picture that form at the window and get a chill up my spine thinking about it. Some of the residual feelings, I believe, come from the totally unexpected appearance of an albino possum gazing through the window from a landscaped patio in a cultivated suburb. It was eerie.
I recalled that possum’s visit twenty years later in my son’s kitchen, listening to the squealing of my granddaughter and her best chum as they ran in the back door to report meeting a huge possum walking along the sidewalk toward them in the city of Milwaukee. Wild animals openly strutting down the congested streets of urban America?
Their story brought on other stories: the sighting of a handsome large red fox leisurely moving through city traffic on a Sunday morning after church, at ease with its surroundings and seemingly confident about where it was going; skunks seen by the garbage truck and families of raccoons down by the river bank; deer wandering through backyard gardens chewing on rose bushes, while the loud blare of trains and traffic sounded in the background. What a peculiar mix of species in places where one would not expect to see them, adapting to the metropolitan environment in search of survival. That, of course, in large part because the builders of the cities have fled to the country, destroying natural habitats that once provided these animals with food and shelter. Ironically, everyone struggles, out of context, to fabricate the “un-natural.”
I must confess that I, like my mother, have never bonded with the wild ones. Once, I sat shivering for three hours in a bathtub afraid to step out because a mouse had run across the floor. Another time, sitting on a blanket in the grass, watching a small town baseball game, I felt sharp digs under my slacks and saw a moving bulge coming up my leg. It was a disoriented rat!! I screamed, stood up, kicked as hard as I could and ran faster than lightning to the extreme opposite end of the field. The flying rat landed and scampered, dazed and confused, out under the lights. The catcher clobbered it with his mitt, the crowd cheered, the dead rat was carried away upside down by its tail, while I watched trembling in the wings vowing never to go to another ball game. Even Walt Disney’s animated characters did not close the breach. I was not fooled into romanticizing animals.
That is, until Brandy the terrier moved into the house. She was ten years old, abandoned at the Humane Society with a huge tumor growing in her neck and a desperate need for dental work. She sat in a small cage, weighed eight pounds, and abounded in charm and persuasive appeal. Now, mind you, I was not ordinarily drawn to wee animals, but this girl was irresistible. One walk around the parking lot and my heart was taken. Oh, make no mistake. She WAS a dog. But I began to appreciate what a dog really was. I observed her high intelligence, her ability to bond, and her instincts and a sensory capacity that made me marvel. But most important, I learned how to be a friend with one of another species. I learned the exchange of emotion and caring that helped me to see all animals through a different lens. When Brandy died I suffered loss, but I also enlarged my life.
I live in a tree house looking down into woods. In summer the branches are filled with green, but in winter the trees’ naked limbs afford a brilliant view of Lake Michigan shining below and beyond. We do not trim the trees to expand our view. The squirrels run up and down the trunks, leap from branch to branch, store their goodies to get through the cold, and practice their gymnastic routines under a circus tent of foliage, while also traveling their woodsy network of freeways. In spring migrant birds return from the south and settle into nests to have their young. We would not think of altering their woods. We call our place Peacewood and confess that we linger long over breakfasts fascinated by the multi-colored birds that come to our deck to feed.
The final proof of my conversion was a passage of fur moving slowly below the sill of my office window. I was at the computer deeply focused on my writing. In my peripheral vision I caught a glimpse of gray, and thinking it was all in my imagination, I ignored it. But then it passed again, the other way. This time, I looked. It was a large possum out exploring for food. I was not repulsed. I drew closer to the windowpane to watch with fascination. He was too busy to acknowledge my curiosity. There were droppings from the bird feeder that our messy chickadees and cardinals had discarded all over the deck. He was in no hurry. I called my husband to join me.
Indeed, possums are not pretty. But, they are who they are. No doubt in mating season they appeal greatly to their kind and think their babies beautiful. There is room in the woods for all of us. We need not threaten or fear, only respect boundaries and appreciate the diversity of our woodsy community. That goes for the human community, too. It helps to look through the window from both sides.