An August Surprise
(An animal story)
One summer in the 1970s, our youngest daughter, Laura, went to Animal Friends Camp in the afternoons, after her morning class at the Children’s School of Science in Woods Hole. The sessions weren’t very long, about two hours, so I would drop her off and drive to a small, uninhabited beach in West Falmouth to read or write, while I waited for her.
On the last day of camp, Laura came running out with her counselor, carrying an assortment of bags and a box. “Laura has volunteered to adopt our guinea pig,” the counselor announced, with a huge smile. With that, she opened the hatch and deposited everything in the wayback of the station wagon.
I was speechless.
“I hope it’s all right with you,” she said, as an afterthought.
This was my moment. Was I going to be the good sport mom who welcomed stray animals into our home? Or was I going to be the old crank, who never let her kids do anything fun? You know the answer.
“Oh, by the way, it’s a male,” the counselor assured me, as she waved goodbye.
For the next week we all enjoyed the guinea pig. He was very pretty. Brown and white, with long, silky hair, quite roly-poly. He was calm, good natured, and enjoyed being handled. He had a name, but I can’t recall what it was. Laura claims it was Chocolate Chip, so I’ll go with that.
Once a day, the children would let him run around the playroom. They were very good about feeding him. In fact, I noticed he seemed to be getting fat.
Labor Day weekend arrived and it was time for us to go home. I always became a martinet when we closed up the house at the end of summer. The children knew it was wise to stay out of my way. We had a division of labor. Shelly, who was a summer researcher at the Marine Biological Laboratory, had to pack his lab, so the bulk of the cleanup at the house fell to me. We started loading the car with suitcases and boxes of books, and the guinea pig in a carton (he would later have a cage). The girls had finished their jobs, more or less cleaning their rooms, and I sent them out on the deck. I told them to stay there while I finished the house and not to come inside, on pain of death.
I was almost finished with the kitchen when Laura appeared. “Mommy…”
“I told you to stay outside,” I said, and I’m afraid I wasn’t very pleasant.
“I’ll say it one more time, then you’re in trouble.”
“But, Mommy, the guinea pig had babies!”
I can’t tell you how cute they were. One was jet black; the other, the most beautiful shade of caramel. The girls named them Licorice and Butterscotch.
Shelly came home to the news that the “male” guinea pig had given birth. He felt rather foolish. A biologist who hadn’t checked the gender of the family pet? Guinea pigs are notoriously hard to “sex.” Even vets sometimes are unable to tell if a guinea pig is a male or female.
We had indisputable proof.
Shelly warned me that one of the babies might die. Guinea pigs sometimes favor one pup, and “he” who was now a “she,” would probably neglect one of them. It soon became apparent that Licorice was not nursing and Butterscotch was the preferred offspring. My daughters simply could not accept this cruel fact of nature. All the way home, they made plans to use a baby bottle to feed Licorice, but by the time we reached our Westchester County house, poor Licorice was on his last legs…. Without much ceremony, Shelly saw to his interment (we were assuming it was a he).
Butterscotch became a frisky and much loved member of the household.
We had a part time housekeeper, Teresa, from Ecuador. One morning, as I came down to the kitchen, I heard her talking to Laura. “…a li’l onion, a li’l garlic, a li’l pepper…some celery, is very good cuy. We eat all the time in my country.” Translation: cuy = cavia porcellus = guinea pig.
With a look of horror on her face, Laura was sitting on the floor clutching Butterscotch as Teresa repeated the recipe.
I’d like to tell you that Butterscotch lived a long happy life with her mother, but in all too short a time, Chocolate Chip became sick and died. That left Butterscotch, who seemed to be thriving when Shelly and I departed on a three-week trip to Asia.
We returned, to learn that Butterscotch had passed on. There had been a proper funeral this time, and she was buried out in the garden beneath the apple tree.