Friday, December 22, 2017

by Roy Inman

I did not do well in fourth grade. We had made one of our many moves at midterm and I began the January semester at yet another grade school, Rollins, on Main Street between 40th and 41st in Kansas City Missouri.

The majority of students were from the silk stocking district of the Country Club Plaza or Brookside. We were in the “lower socio-economic demographic” as we say now, so I was not a part of the in crowd. And because I jumped around from school to school I was behind academically as well. For instance, my previous school taught long division in the winter term, which I missed, and Rollins taught it in the first term, which I had also missed. So in that fourth grade year I had to come in after school for several weeks to get caught up in math and other subjects.

We lived in an old carriage house on Warwick Boulevard about six blocks from my school, and only about four blocks from the auto repair shop where my dad worked. Like most families in those days, we had only one car and felt lucky at that. The fact that my dad could repair it himself made it affordable.

Anyway, suffice to say that I had no real friends at Rollins. One of the kids in my class was having a birthday party and went around the room and personally handed out invitations to everyone in class except me. The teacher did not like me very much either it seemed. I always was a pretty quick study and comprehended what I read, so most of the time I knew the answers to the questions she asked in class. Even when I would give her the correct answer, she sometimes would not acknowledge it.

Fortunately, the next year we moved to Kansas and I changed schools yet again, but this time to Abbott elementary, where I found myself among boys and girls of similar circumstances: poor. So we all got along together very well. Had a blast we did, actually!

But I will never forget that one Christmas we spent in the carriage house when I was at Rollins. I can recall it as clearly now as when it happened those many decades ago.


We always set up the Christmas tree either just before Thanksgiving or immediately thereafter.

And of course we always ran the Lionel Santa Fe passenger train around in a circle under the tree. Bubble lights were clipped to the branches, and were tilting at odd angles as bubble lights were wont to do; never could keep the things up straight and proper, which as I look back on it, added to their charm. A Christmas tree, glowing with lights and ornaments always lends a warm and homey atmosphere to otherwise pretty basic living conditions.

One night just before I went to bed I was lying beside the tree, sort of dozing, watching the lights bubble, and noticed out of the corner of one eye a fleeting blur of movement. Was it real or was I dreaming? But there it was again, and this time I was certain it was something real, and it was alive!

I crept over to just behind the manger scene, poked my head around the corner and was startled to see a tiny white mouse with pink eyes and a pink nose standing on his hind legs just looking at me, wriggling his nose and whiskers. He couldn’t have been more than five inches tall. I tried not to move to see what he would do next, but he just held his pose. In a few seconds he sat back on his haunches. For some reason I got the feeling he was hungry. I whispered to him so that mom and dad in the next room wouldn’t hear “I’ll be right back.” It seemed perfectly logical to me at the time that he would understand what I was saying.

I walked as nonchalantly as I could to the fridge and got a few scraps of cheese and grabbed some soda crackers, casually munching on one so as not to arouse suspicion as I again passed mom and dad.

I half expected him to be gone, but he was still there. So I made a little trail of cheese and crackers; I watched him gobble them up, progressing right around the back of the tree, just next to the toy train track. I then realized that he was probably thirsty as well. But what to use to give a mouse water? I found a small paper plate that my mom had used to sprinkle some sugar on a cake and I put a few drops of water in it. And sure enough, he was able to reach over the edge and slurp. 

Then he looked up at me one last time and disappeared back into the darkness of a small spare room that held boxes from our last move.

My mouse and I repeated the ritual almost nightly. I had to be very careful to keep mom and dad from finding out of course. I knew by heart the usual adult admonishments that would come: “Mice belong outside.” “They carry germs.” “They bite.” Over the years whenever I heard all that stuff, I thought to myself, “So do people...”

Then one day my little Christmas mouse made the mistake of sitting up right and proper directly in front of my mom as she was fixing supper. She turned to put down the stack of plates and there he was, reared as though he was begging for some supper.

Mom was quite startled to see a mouse in her kitchen and she shrieked and dropped the plates, shattering them on the floor. My dad ran into the kitchen wondering what the commotion was all about, but by now my mouse had vanished.

The next day before my dad went to work he put out two mousetraps and baited them with cheese. As soon as he was gone and just before I had to leave for school, I carefully sprung the traps and took the cheese, leaving small bits to make it look as though we had one smart mouse, which of course we did indeed.

This game of “cat and mouse“  (so to speak) that I was playing with my dad, went on for several days. Then as I came home from school one cold December afternoon, I was horrified to see my mom chasing my mouse around with a frying pan, intent on smashing him flat.

I jumped in front of her, pleading, tears streaming down my cheeks, “Mom, please don’t kill him. He’s the only friend I’ve got!” For an instant I thought my plea had been for naught, but then she seemed to soften her expression and I thought I saw a tear come to her eye. She knew how alone I felt at school but it took that moment for her to fully comprehend how desperate I was to have just one friend, even if it was only a mouse.

I rapidly explained through the tears about my unbaiting of the traps, and all the rest.

She put down the frying pan, my mouse scurried away and she said that when dad got home we would talk about it.

It took considerable discussion, but at length we settled on a compromise: I would make a nest for the mouse in the crawl space under our rented carriage house and take food and water out to him every day. 

For several months this arrangement actually worked.

Then one day when I went to feed him, there was another mouse, but this one was not like him. This new mouse was the more typical gray color and slightly smaller even than mine. So now I had to care for two, which I did not really mind at all. I did not tell mom and dad about the new addition.

It was a several weeks later, with springtime approaching. There were now three teensy, bald baby mice, eyes closed and nestled in the straw I had put down. Now I knew I had to tell mom and dad.

After another long discussion, it was decided, and I reluctantly agreed, that we would drive the mouse family out to the western edge of Wyandotte County, find a good spot and release them. Besides, we would soon be moving to Kansas City, Kansas and sharing a house with Grandma Miller, Uncle Roy (my namesake) and Aunt Mary Miller, Cousin Cheri and uncle’s dog Blackie. There would be no real place for the mouse family and Blackie would probably eat the mice anyway.

On the ride out to the edge of the city, the mouse family traveled well in the shoebox my mom gave me, my white Christmas mouse occasionally looking up at me as if wondering what was happening. I brought along some bits of cheese to feed them all and they seemed content.

At length, and at the curve of a gravel road, we found a small meadow, lush and green with the beginnings of spring. At one side was a small creek and just beyond lay dense woods. The mouse family would have plenty of grassland to scamper in; there would be plenty of cover in the woods and a water supply.

I wanted to go out in the meadow all by myself and release them, so mom and dad stayed in the car watching. For a very long time, I just looked at the tiny creatures moving around in the shoebox.

At last, I carefully tilted the box on one side, and they slowly crawled out, somewhat unsure, sniffing the air and the new grass as they went. The little ones by now had their eyes open and could scamper almost as fast as their parents.

I turned around, tears welling up, and even though I didn’t really want to, I looked back just one last time. There in the middle of the field, standing up on his hind legs on a small rock was my Christmas mouse watching me leave.

I cried softly all the way home.



After we moved to Kansas, I learned in school that my Christmas mouse must have been an albino, relatively rare in nature. And I also found out that sometimes albinos sometimes possess unusual perceptions or gifts. I thought that my Christmas mouse must have been one of those special little creatures so blessed. Why else would he have just stared at me that first time from under the tree, not moving a muscle even though his life could have been in danger?

Just last December I had a photo assignment at the Legends shopping center in western Wyandotte County. As I left by the back entrance it struck me that the place where I released my mouse family was not far off, very close by in fact. I took that same narrow road we traveled those many Christmases ago, now paved, and came upon the very meadow that was etched in my childhood memory. It had matured as all meadows do, but I recognized it just the same. Small trees and bushes had spring up, but the stream was still there, just off to the side, and dense woods lay beyond. About a half-mile away a new subdivision was almost completed. The city was slowly gobbling up the prairie. But on that day the meadow was safe.

Mom passed in 1969, dad in 1988. I am sure that my little mouse family is gone by now. But as I stood there in the fading, golden light of a chilly December day, I liked to imagine that many, many descendants of my little mice friends had scampered to and fro on this Kansas field. And maybe, just maybe, one of the offspring was a tiny, white mouse with pink eyes, and a curious nature, just like my Christmas mouse from so long ago.

I cried softly all the way home.



1 comment:

  1. damn

    besides being a great photographer, you're a not bad at all writer. I hope you take both as strong compliments.