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Miracle on Forest Avenue
"You couldn't really call it a miracle, I don't think," my mother mused.
"Oh, I think you could," I assured her.
The 'old bats'
I've written before about my parents bucking their age group's reputation for getting up at 4:30 a.m. and tackling the "early bird" special at 4:30 p.m.
These two boldly go where few 80-somethings have gone before: a schedule favored by college students, artists and the bon vivants of Manhattan night life.
Unfortunately, in their town of 2,000, there is no night life. There's just the two of them, watching TV, writing letters and generally pursuing their interests until 4:30 a.m. or so, 6 on a really good night.
Of course, when they roll out of bed at the crack of 2 in the afternoon, it's a race to get post-office trips, calls to doctors' offices and drugstore visits crammed in before everyone in the business district has the audacity to close up shop and go home to supper.
Their own suppers are usually ready in time for them to eat as they watch the 10 p.m. news. My mother can't figure out how to have one of her better-scheduled friends over for a meal.
"She eats every night at 5," she says in wonder. "Can you imagine?"
All this is crucial to what follows, and none of it is made up or even exaggerated. The last time I described my elders' schedule, I threw in the phrase "old bats" but tried to temper it by saying I was referring to their nocturnal habits, not calling them rodents.
That was the only thing my retired wildlife-biologist father took issue with in that column. Even then, it wasn't the "old bat" verbiage that offended him, rather, the nature of battiness.
"Bats aren't rodents," he said sternly. "They're chiroptera."
It takes one to know one, I guess.
So, one morning in September, my mother went to bed at the unusually early hour of 3:30 or 4 a.m., though my father was still going strong, making applesauce out in the kitchen. After tossing and turning for quite a while, she propped herself up on one elbow, turned on the light and peered at her bedside clock.
She didn't have her glasses on, but she could see it was 4:30. As she was about to switch the lamp off, she also spotted movement, just a couple feet away, on the floor between the nightstand and the wall.
She could just make out something white as the thing undulated away from her. Something long and white.
There is stern stuff in my mother in a real crisis, although she's been known to panic at inconveniences. Probably most illustrative was the time she was "stranded" by a dead car battery in the middle of a Shopko parking lot.
She sat there and sobbed, although the Plymouth was surrounded by other cars and shoppers, and my cousin Gary, a 6-foot-tall auto-assembly worker, was sitting in the passenger seat. "Your mother just went to pieces," he reported. "It was like we were alone in the Arctic without a dogsled."
But faced with a potential catastrophe of this magnitude, she's suddenly endowed with the strategic genius and steely resolve of a field commander.
"All I saw was that stripe and I knew immediately it was a skunk," she said. "And I knew what not to do. I haven't been married to a DNR biologist for 50 years for nothing."
She didn't scream. She didn't even flinch. She just carefully turned off the light and held her breath until the skunk rounded the corner of the room and headed into the closet.
As soon as she heard it scrabbling around in a box of old letters, in a corner of the closet where it couldn't see her, she scooted down to the foot of the bed, lowered her feet to the floor and ever-so-slowly edged out of the room and shut the door.
'You saw what?'
My father was not the rock of reassurance and aid she'd hoped he'd be. To start with, he couldn't hear her.
She encountered him in the bathroom down the hall, and, still mindful of being quiet, hissed at him that there was a skunk in the bedroom.
Unfortunately, after a lifetime of hunting, a stint in the Army and some bad ear infections, he has some trouble hearing her in ordinary conversations. Whispering, even accompanied by violent gestures, is out of the question. Although they were nose-to-nose and he could tell she was trying to convey something important, he had no idea what it was.
She shut the bathroom door, putting two closed doors and a hall width between them and the interloper. "There. Is. A. Skunk. In. The. Bedroom," she told him, as loudly as she dared. "I. Saw. It."
Finally, he understood her.
He didn't believe her.
In hindsight, that's understandable. They live in a 60-foot-long ranch house, and to get to that bedroom from the service door (which had been left ajar during trips to the garage to bring in apples) the skunk would have had to travel from one corner to the opposite corner in what's certainly not a straight line.
Along the way, it could have been startled at many points: by my father rattling around in the kitchen, by the blare of CNN's wee-hours programming or by a sudden cascade of gift catalogs if it brushed against one of the many stacks along its route.
My father thought it incredible that a skunk could travel this perilous journey without announcing its presence in the usual manner. If my mother had seen something alive, could it have been a mouse? A squirrel? Someone's housecat?
"It took me a while to convince your father I wasn't crazy," is how she recalls the debate.
Once he'd agreed there was a skunk in the bedroom, she asked who they should call.
He looked at her in disbelief. "There's no one to call," he retorted. "If I were still working, we'd be calling me."
First, he had her shut all the other doors along the hall in that end of the house, while he hauled several sheets of plywood in from the garage.
After blocking out a route that would lead the skunk from the bedroom down the hall, through part of the living room, through the foyer and to the front door, he thawed some hamburger in the microwave.
My mother peered over the plywood as he carefully put a tiny piece outside the bedroom door, another a few yards down the hall, another at that crucial living-room juncture and another in the foyer near the door. Each bait looked to my mother like about a half-teaspoonful.
"Shouldn't you make them bigger, to make more of a trail?" she asked.
"No; if skunks get too full, they find somewhere to hide and fall asleep," he explained.
This is why it's good to have a wildlife biologist in the house.
He tiptoed own to the bedroom door, eased it open, tiptoed back and joined my mother on the other side of the barricade, their La-Z-Boys now turned away from the TV to watch real-life drama unfolding.
They sat there for an hour, then finally saw movement at the end of the hall. As they sat watching, barely breathing, the skunk waddled toward them.
It moved from treat to treat maddeningly slowly, taking detours to examine the baseboards, closed doors and spots where other foods had once hit the carpet.
It meandered around the corner of the living room, unknowingly inches away from its hosts, and contemplated the possibilities of the space behind the Lane chest in the foyer.
It finally spotted the last hamburger bait, outside the open door on the porch. It stepped daintly over the threshold, ate the hamburger and then lingered within a bound of the open door, apparently considering its options.
After what seemed forever, it suddenly bolted for the wide-open spaces. My father was close behind it, slamming the door with a bang that shook the house.
"I first saw it at 4:30 and it was 6 when we finally got it out of the house," my mother said on the phone that night. She then underscored what a harrowing morning it had been in a way particularly impressive in our family: "We were awake until noon."
Looking back, I think getting the skunk out of the house without having anyone sprayed was a miracle in a number of ways. For one, there's the split-second timing of that first realization.
"I can't imagine what would have happened if I hadn't chosen just that moment to see what time it was," my mother says, still thankful months later. "I only looked at the clock a second before I saw the skunk, and it was only where I could have seen it for a couple seconds longer than that."
She adds, "A few seconds can seem pretty long when you're looking at a skunk."
We mentally retraced the animal's route, where at any point it could have taken another turn: into the full-length basement, into the living room, dining room, spare bedroom, bathrooms or closets.
There are hundreds of places where it could have bided its time until it was inevitably disturbed.
If that had happened? "We would have had to tear down that part of the house," my mother says firmly.
I believe her. Both parents are martyrs to "smells," even of toiletries and cleaning products. A skunk? We would have had to move them out for however many months it took to rebuild.
Something else occurred to me. In any other household, the skunk would have also had several clear hours in which to operate.
"You know what else was a good thing?" I asked her, then answered my own question.
"It's good all three of you were nocturnal."
Holly Wenzel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 651-748-7811.