One of the dubious joys of an older house is encountering the critters that seek to make it their home as well. All plans for today were put on hold when I discovered a turd on the kitchen floor. Too big for a mouse, I swallowed and started looking for other signs. I Immediately came upon a hole that had been chewed into the drywall above the baseboard behind the stove. Ironically, it was directly above a bait trap.
Next, I checked the lower cabinets, which have a history of access. Rats and mice had left evidence everywhere! All of that has occurred in the last week as cold weather has finally come to stay. Pulling everything out so I could clean up and identify the entry holes for my husband to plug got me to thinking.
The phrase “Of Mice and Men” sprang to mind. I somehow escaped reading the Steinbeck novel in High School and college. Nor did I first encounter Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse” until many years later. But the longer phrase, “The best laid plans of Mice and Men,” has been a part of my mental landscape from childhood. My parents often used it when their plans went awry. Yet, it isn’t the philosophical comparisons between the two mammals that initially dominate my thinking but the constant warfare between a creature seeking shelter and the human seeking to protect their own, and the futility of it all.
When I was small, we lived in a house that my parents built. New as it was — and despite my dad’s attention to detail — we still got field mice in the winter. We had a live trap that caught the mice, and then we’d release them outside where the dog could chase them. That same dog was known to catch them during the night and leave them at the bedside for my dad to step on. Later on, in Seattle, I got to experience the same treatment when my mom’s cat left a half-eaten mouse on the kitchen floor! It was that house that introduced me to rats.
I was in high school at the time. I kept hearing things at night and waking up thinking that a rat was running across my long hair in the bed. Dad claimed it was either my imagination or a mouse in the boxes of stuff in my closet. I cleaned out the closet and the rest of the room, but the nightmares continued.
One weekend I was gone for the day on some outing, and Mom went to strip my bed to do laundry. She pulled back the top sheet to reveal a large Norwegian Wharf rat in my bed. Dad couldn’t dismiss my claims anymore! With Mom’s voice still ringing in his ears, he crawled under the house and blocked the access he found but swore my mom to secrecy. True to her promise, she told me after he died.
I’ve had encounters with both rodents since, and it may make no sense, but I’ll take mice over rats any day. Maybe it’s those high school memories. Or perhaps it’s because of a story that has stuck with me for many, many years. It was in a book of German short stories and fairy tales I was required to read in German class in college. I wish I still had the book to verify the details and give the author proper attribution. But I’ll share it as best I remember.
A child is helping to prepare the household for the night. It’s Christmas Eve, and everyone is excited! He’s going out to the barn to tend to the animals, when he spots a small creature in the snow. It’s a mouse! His sister would scream if she saw it, his mother would take a broom to it, and his dad would certainly kill it, perhaps with a hatchet.
But it’s Christmas Eve. Cold, snowy, and oh, so quiet — just like in the carol they sang at mass earlier. Why, even the stars are peaking through the clouds! Gingerly, so as not to spook the mouse, he scoops it up in his hands. Through his gloves he can feel the patter of its racing heart. “Don’t worry,” he whispers. “You’ll be all right,” and he carries it to the barn where there is hay, and water, and warmth from the other animals.
He awakes early the next morning — the first one up in the household. Creeping down the stairs he spies the Christmas tree. (It wasn’t there last night!) Laden with shiny ornaments, ribbons, and sugar candies, it dominates the room with its presence. And there, near the top — its shiny black eye twinkling at him — hangs a little gray mouse, just the size of the one he met last night. And he is certain: this is the best Christmas ever!
Rest assured, I have no plans to rescue any mice this winter, let alone for Christmas. But I do hope that, in the midst of the holiday chaos — or lack thereof — you and I can take a moment to stop and look around and listen. Are my eyes open to see loneliness where I can gift my presence (even virtually)? Are my ears unstopped to hear the pain and sorrow that I can sit with? Can I look beyond my own pain and loneliness to rejoice with those who are rejoicing?
It’s easy to rail against the things we can’t do this year. But let’s not forget the myriad things we can do — things which those who came before us couldn’t even dream of. Little things are important. Even a mouse, insignificant and lost in the snow, can teach compassion, hope, and love.
Grace, Peace and Hope to you and yours.