Family and/or Autobiography

Snoop Story

When I was young, I loved visiting Grandma and Grandpa Allegra — which was weird, really, since neither one of them ever seemed very happy to have me around.

Unlike my doting maternal grandparents, they never asked me questions or told me stories or drove me to the Five and Ten to pick out a Matchbox car. They never plied me with ice cream or candy. They never played games with me; in fact, their house had no games or toys in it at all – not even a stray crayon, which was pretty much all I needed to entertain myself in those days.

Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m not quite sure that Grandma and Grandpa Allegra understood that I was a child. Their Christmas gifts support this theory. Every single year they gave me the same thing: cash and a box of handkerchiefs. It was a generous gift, but not a fun one.

At Grandma and Grandpa Allegra’s house, fun was never given; you had to go and find it.

No problem.

One of my favorite childhood pastimes was to snoop around people’s stuff. So five minutes after pocketing the cash and pretending to be surprised and delighted by my holiday handkerchiefs, I headed down to the basement.

Grandpa was a pack rat of the first order and his basement workshop proved it. How many overflowing coffee cans of rusty nails does a person need? According to Grandpa: seven.

Pretty much everything in that room had a protective coating of rust on it. That was especially true of Grandpa’s wide assortment of old, useless tools — such as flathead screwdrivers with flatheads as round as thumbnails. He also had a wall of saws that couldn’t cut butter, a collection of hammerheads separated from their handles, and a pegboard of petrified paintbrushes.

It wasn’t all broken tools, of course; that workshop was a museum of oddities — much of it dangerous. I knew I wasn’t supposed to play with Flit guns or those animal traps that clamped down on the legs of unsuspecting raccoons, but, really, how could I not? Besides I was careful, I donned Grandpa’s air raid warden helmet and gas mask before Flitting away. I also never put my own foot in the trap, because that would be stupid; instead I pried the trap apart, carefully set it on the ground and threw screwdrivers at the trigger until it snapped with amputating force.

The workshop also showed off Grandpa’s appreciation for art. Hanging on one wall was a framed paint-by-number picture of a prim, haughty, topless woman sitting on a rock. The image was remarkable for its lack of aesthetic or erotic appeal. The room also contained an illustration of Alfred E. Neuman uttering his iconic catchphrase, “What, me worry?” Considering the fact that this workshop contained cans of lead paint, Freon, and DDT, perhaps a little more worrying would’ve been advisable.

Buy, hey, I grew up in an era where unsupervised excursions to dangerous places was a rite of passage. If you weren’t smart enough to not drink paint, the world was better off without you.

To be fair, Mom was an attentive and vigilant parent under normal circumstances. A visit to Grandma and Grandpa Allegra’s house, however, was anything but normal. There, she had a role to play. Protocol required Mom to sit at the kitchen table and pretend she was having a civil conversation with her in-laws. Mom was always civil, but her civility was rarely reciprocated.

Grandma Allegra hated my mom. No one quite understood why. I don’t even think Grandma understood why, but hate her she did. As a consequence, our visits were never very long. After about 30 minutes, Mom would decide she had had enough passive aggression for one day. She’d deliver a sharp elbow to my Dad’s ribcage, stand, and call, “Michael! We’re going!”

That was my cue to drop everything (usually a screwdriver onto a raccoon trap) and hustle up the stairs. I understood that when Mom said, “We’re going!” it meant, “We are going now. Right. This. Instant. Do you understand me, young man?”

I did indeed. But I was always disappointed. A half hour wasn’t nearly enough time to explore such a junky nirvana.

So one day I clomped up the basement steps and announced, “I wanna stay here overnight!”

My declaration was met with stony silence. Not one of the four adults present wanted to implement this idea. Mom diplomatically brought the topic to an abrupt close with a “We’ll see.”

A “we’ll see” from Mom was really a “like hell.” The topic was never broached again.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t stop wishing that someday I would find enough time to get the Full Basement Immersion Experience.

Sometimes your wishes are granted. And, sometimes, when they are, you wish you never wished for them in the first place.

Grandpa Allegra died in 1991. Grandma’s mind deteriorated quickly and a decision was made to send her to a nursing home. The house was to be sold to pay her bills. Before a realtor could be called, however, the contents of the house had to be dragged to the curb. Dad assigned me to the basement.

I was, more or less, an adult in the early 1990s and many of my adult personality traits had clicked into place – for example, my pathological aversion to filth and clutter. Other traits, however, had remained intact since childhood – like my severe allergy to mold.

To put it another way, cleaning out that basement was hell. By the end of the day, I was filthy, sneezing, coughing, wheezing, sweating, bleeding, and discovering new and exciting uses for the F-word. My fondness for my grandparents — which was never all that fond to begin with — easily devolved into a sweaty, squinty-eyed hatred.

Oh, how I hated, hated, hated them – and unlike Grandma’s hatred for Mom, I knew exactly where my hate came from. Why would anyone hang on to so much worthless crap? What kind of monsters would subject their own grandchild to such an exhausting, moist, mold-encrusted torture?

I’m much older now. The hate is gone. My views toward my grandparents have mellowed considerably. More importantly, that terrible basement cleaning experience has turned me into a wiser man.

The other day, as I sat on my bed reading, my son entered the room and started rooting through my end table drawers.

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing. Just looking.”

So I read and he rummaged. After about ten minutes he slammed the last drawer shut and expelled a little, disappointed sigh.

“What’s the matter?”

“You don’t have interesting junk,” he said.

“You bet your butt, I don’t,” I said with pride. “And someday you’re gonna thank me.”

Family and/or Autobiography

A Mouse Divided

Hiya!
How can you not love me?

I’ve written a great deal on this blog about how much I like cute little rodents. Over the course of my life, I’ve owned three gerbils, one fancy rat, one sewer rat, and an adorably blorpy guinea pig named Pig.

I also sometimes run a mouse hotel.

This has led Jilanne Hoffmann – one of my more smart-alecky blog followers – to suggest that my pro rodent (“prodent”) views must be the result of some sort childhood trauma.

Well, Jilanne, you’re right. Thanks so much for forcing me to dredge up my past. I hope you’re happy!

Sigh. Well, I might as well tell all of you what happened.

***

My story takes place in the summer of 1979. I was eight.

When I was young, I loved to sleep over at my maternal grandparents’ house. In retrospect this is kind of strange thing for me to love. Yes, both Grandma and Grandpa were very nice to me (and neither thought twice about plying me with ice cream) but there was also a lot of tension in that house. My grandparents didn’t have a marriage that one would describe as “happy.”

Actual dialogue between my grandparents:

Grandpa
(Entering the kitchen:)
So! What’s for dinner?

Grandma
Poison.

I usually stayed overnight at their house by myself, but on this occasion, my six-year-old cousin, Jason, was there, too. This was great, for it was the middle of summer and my grandparents’ pool was always more fun when there was someone else to swim with.

Shortly after my Mom dropped me off, Jason and I were taking turns doing cannonballs off the diving board when I came up with my brilliant idea: I had noticed that the pool’s water level was about ten inches below the topmost edge. To my eight-year-old brain this was kind of a bummer.

“I got an idea!” I shouted to Jason. “Let’s fill up the pool to the very, very top!”

My plan was simple. We would get some buckets and go into the house. We would fill the buckets up in the bathroom sink, go back outside, and dump the water into the pool. We would then repeat these actions until the pool was completely full. Easy peasy mac ‘n’ cheesy.

There were a couple of problems with the plan, of course – the first of which is that all pools have pumps to regulate water levels. But even if that machinery didn’t exist, it would have still taken a few thousand gallons to raise a pool’s water level 10 inches. That’s a lot of trips to Grandma’s bathroom.

I had no grasp of these problems. The only problem I could discern was that there was only one bucket in the dilapidated shed that held the pool toys. But this didn’t faze me. I handed my cousin a toy tugboat. It had small holes in the top which allowed it to be filled with water. It was no bucket, but it would still help the pool-filling cause.

Happily wielding our water receptacles, we went into the house, leaving wet footprints in our wake. I filled up my bucket and turned to leave, expecting Jason to be a few steps behind me. Instead, he screamed like a banshee.

This was not part of the plan.

Little did either of us know, a mouse was living inside of the toy tugboat – and this mouse didn’t take too kindly to drowning. So, once water started gushing in it’s home, it leapt onto Jason’s shoulder just long enough to give a kid a coronary. Then the mouse scrambled into the kitchen and under the refrigerator.

Grandma was on the scene in an instant. She spotted me first. When she was agitated, she would mix up her grandchildren’s names. Without fail, she would start to call me Jason before switching gears in mid-word.

“Ja-Michael! What happened?”

But all I could do was shrug. I hadn’t seen the drama unfold.

She ran into the bathroom. I followed. There we found a paralyzed Jason – who was not quite paralyzed enough to not rat me out.

Grandma learned of my pool-filling idea. More importantly, she learned that because of my pool filling idea there was now a mouse hiding in her spotless kitchen.

To my surprise, she took the news in stride. Then she did something that was even more surprising, something I had never seen her do before or since: she sought out Grandpa.

As I mentioned earlier, Grandma and Grandpa did not get along. I learned just about every  curse word on the planet from Grandma; she used those words to describe Grandpa. I had grown up believing that those two old people had absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing in common.

But I was wrong. When it came to rodents, my grandparents were of one mind: the deader the better.

Grandpa, normally a pretty excitable fellow, was also shockingly sanguine upon hearing the news. He just nodded, hopped into his livingroom-on-wheels of a car, and glided down the street.

Ten minutes later he was back bearing mousetraps. I had never seen traps like these before. The traps my father used in our house were called “Hav-a-Hearts.” They kept the mice secure in a cage until they could be released into the wild.

My dad had this! This is a good trap.
My dad had this. This is a good trap.

Grandpa’s trap didn’t have a cage.

Grandpa gathered Jason and me to his side. “Let me show you boys how these work.” He was in Mr. Wizard mode.

With some effort he pulled back the metal bar and clicked it into place. He laid the trap flat on the kitchen table. Then he handed me a wooden spoon.

“See that spot?” he said, pointing to the trigger.

I nodded.

“I’m gonna put peanut butter there for our little friend. Now touch that with the spoon.”

I did.

And THWACK! The bar slammed down with such force it left a dent in the spoon. Grandpa smiled, I suppose he was expecting me to be delighted.

Grandpa had this. This is a bad trap.
Grandpa had this. This is a bad trap.

But I wasn’t delighted. I was shocked. Then I was furious.

“You’re not using that,” I said.

“Of course I’m using that,” he replied, a little bewildered. “You let a mouse into the house and we have to get rid of it.”

It was at about that point I became unglued. “No, no, no!”

“Wait a minute,” he said. “Settle down.”

“You can’t use that trap! You gotta use the other kind! The kind with the cage! The kind daddy uses!”

Then Grandma joined the conversation. “Knock it off, Ja-Michael! We’re not going to keep that thing in a cage!”

I could not believe my ears. Grandma was taking Grandpa’s side? Grandma never took Grandpa’s side! How could she take his side when less than an hour before she called him s***head? Had the world gone topsy turvy?

I was dumbstruck. My grandparents had joined forces to oppose me and I was powerless to stop them.

And it was all my fault! If it wasn’t for my stupid pool filling idea, that mouse would’ve lived his entire cute little life in a cute little toy tugboat. My God, he was like the main character in a picture book and my grandparents wanted to snap his spine in two!

So I did the only thing I could do under these terrible circumstances: I waved an accusing finger at them both. “If you use that, I’m going home!”

“Oh, stop it,” said Grandma. “Get an ice cream.”

“I mean it!” I screamed.

And I did mean it. I carried on like this until Grandma called Mom and told her to pick me up. My overnight trip to Grandma’s was no longer than two hours.

I didn’t say much on the car ride home. I was sick to my stomach; I was afraid of what Mom was going to do to me. Mom was the one who laid down the law in our house. I had stupidly brought a mouse into her parents’ house and then, when they attempted to deal with the problem, I screamed at them like a maniac. Maybe I had the math wrong, but I was pretty sure that was grounds for justifiable homicide.

I sat in the shadowy-est corner of the backseat. I tried to become invisible. Mom and I were quiet for a very, very long time.

She spoke first.

“What you did,” Mom said finally, “was very principled.”

That was it. As far as Mom was concerned, nothing more needed to be said. She knew how much I loved my pet gerbils. She got it.

My grandmother, on the other hand, didn’t get it. She never really got over it, either. For the rest of her life, she told that mouse story to anyone who would listen. The takeaway of the story was, “My grandson is nuts.”

But I never minded. In fact, when Grandma told the story, it filled me with a weird sense of pride. No, I wasn’t able to save that mouse. But that little guy didn’t die in vain. He radicalized my prodent beliefs — and for that I am forever grateful.