Playing with Dead Rats: Searching for Humanbeingness

During lunch break, a group of teachers, all women, had gathered in the lounge to savor cups of hot coffee, check out catalog bargains, and talk about home and school. In one of the conversations, a second-grade teacher shared that several little girls in her class regularly brought Barbie and Ken dolls to school. She remarked that their play episodes mirrored the drama of TV soap operas, and her comments sparked a lively conversation about the loss of innocence, about premature sophistication, and about the powerful influence of television. 

The conversation also led teachers to reminisce, and they shared their experiences with dolls, baby dolls mostly. They talked of dressing them, putting them to bed, playing school and teaching them. They spoke of favorite dolls, described how they looked, and recalled their names. The conversation triggered memories for me also, and so I shared.          

“I really didn’t like store bought dolls,” I explained. “They were never real enough for me. You see, my father was a trapper. Each winter morning, he would leave the house before daybreak to check his traps and would return home around breakfast. I remember eagerly waiting for his return, waiting for the sound of him kicking snow off his boots outside the kitchen door. If when he stepped inside, he smiled and nodded, I knew that there would be a baby muskrat, one drowned in a trap but too small to skin for its pelt. So, I would hurry to his hunting jacket and search its pockets for the little furry creature that would become my doll for the day. A muskrat baby was a perfect doll. I would diaper it, would cut a hole in little squares of cloth for its tail – it would actually mess its diaper, and if I pried an eyelid open, there was a real eye inside.” 

I was so engaged with relaying this treasured childhood memory, that I was unaware of how silent the room had become. My story was abruptly ended when a teacher gasped, “Oh my dear! She played with dead rats as a child!”

“They weren’t dead rats,” I defended. “They were clean, silky young muskrats, and I would only play with them for one day. They never smelled.” The looks of horror registering on listener’s faces cautioned me not to relay that too much handling caused blood to ooze out of the tiny nose. Neither did I explain that I knew Papa would feed the carcass of “my doll” to the dogs at the end of the day.

Prior to this conversation, I had never considered the idea of handling the carcasses of dead muskrats anything but a reasonable act. As a child I often watched my father skin-out pelts in the main room of our home, in a corner away from the wood stove. He would, having hung a muskrat head down suspended from the ceiling on two wires, one through each hind paw, carefully slit around the tail and hind legs and then skillfully pull the skin off as though turning a glove inside out. Papa sold the pelts. This was how he made money in winter. Muskrat pelts were what made Christmas gifts possible. 

“Now we understand,” one teacher blurted out. “We understand why you are the way you are.”

I did not consider this comment an insult. I knew that my colleagues regarded me as a creative and successful Gifted and Talented educator. But, during the fleeting moments of this interchange, I realized that my early years differed drastically from those of my peers. What I grew up believing to be a wonderful experience, one of the fondest of my childhood, was being viewed with disgust and misunderstanding. Isolated from the context of my family life, using a dead baby muskrat as a doll became playing with the carcass of a dead rat.   

Though time has distanced me from this conversation and the stories shared by my fellow teachers have been forgotten, the emotional impact of the experience will remain with me forever. I had always thought that my childhood was different, but not very different. The opportunity to reminisce about a shared experience, playing with dolls, affirmed likeness. I, like the other teachers, played with dolls; it was just that my dolls were young muskrats, dead young muskrats.  

At the time of the conversation, shock and horror communicated by my colleagues isolated me for several moments. In that isolation, I was able to step away from myself and view my memory from a different perspective. I understood the teachers’ horror and attempted clarification to gain their understanding, but I also knew the circumstances of my childhood and defensively refused to compromise my memory. This attempt to uncompromisingly clarify left me speechless, and I sat in silent reflection. Though my childhood was unique, I had really never considered myself culturally different, but this talk of dolls had forced me to consider the error of my assumption. It also illuminated another reality, my peers, having never had the opportunity to play with silky muskrats, would never appreciate the pleasure of that experience. I came to realize that I was of an “other culture”, and realization of my “otherness” allowed me the opportunity to reflect on my perspective in its relationship to a different perspective. To this day, I consider my reflection during this conversation about dolls and dead rats an awakening.

Herein lies the purpose behind sharing this story, a purpose that might not appear to follow logically. I assumed that others would have no difficulty relating to my childhood memory. As strange as it may seem, I had never considered that playing with a muskrat carcass would be considered offensive. I had never had reason to question the family culture in which I had been socialized. Now, after my awakening, I propose that one reason racial schisms exist and threaten to deepen is because members of separate cultures view other culture members as “different” and rarely consider the shared values and beliefs that underlie differences – the teachers heard my story and responded with repugnance, and I listened to their responses through my dual-culture, my childhood memories as well as common beliefs about dead animals. I understood their repugnance yet treasured my memory. I could have been hurt by this conversation, by assumptions that my childhood was deprived, even depraved, but I knew differently, and I also knew that my colleagues and I shared a common experience – playing mother.

 After telling this story to Dr. Carl Grant, a black scholar and UW Madison Professor Emerita, Carl shared his concern that the focus on diversity in multicultural education threatens to separate rather than unite people. When discussing racism with Dorothy Davids, a friend and Native American elder, Dorothy commented, “We must celebrate “humanbeingness.” She recommended accomplishing this by identifying and discussing underlying values shared across cultures. 

I believe application of Dorothy’s and Carl’s wisdom, the wisdom of two elders, can bridge today’s racial divide. I believe that it is imperative for parents, teachers, professors, and journalists to consider how divisive focusing on diversity has become. Perhaps searching for cultural commonalities should be the purpose of multi-cultural education. Perhaps the most important questions to be answered by Critical Race Theorists today are, “How are differing culture groups alike, and what does it mean to be HUMAN?”

A Christmas Story: Eight Hens Roosting

Excerpt from the memoir titled Nettles and Roses

Sixty-four Year Old Santa Under the Christmas Tree

(Henry David, a vintage doll, sits next next to Santa. Henry (named after Thoreau) was rescued from an abandoned cabin shortly before it was demolished.)

After the house burned and while we were living in a one room tar-paper shack, Papa got an offer to transport house trailers between Florida and Indiana, an offer he couldn’t turn down. This job gave him something he yearned for, the opportunity to travel. Mama did not protest when Papa explained that the trucking job meant he would have to spend time away from home. If the job made Papa happy, she was happy.  

Ted and I were thrilled by the stories that Papa shared when he returned from a trip. Ted was twelve and I was ten. Papa described trees draped in Spanish moss and brought home samples of the moss to hang from a nail in the shanty. He brought a cypress tree table lamp. Mama picked up a shade for it at the Salvation Army store. He brought pecans and oranges. One time he brought home two baby alligators, one for Ted and one for me. 

Ted opened the small crate his was in first and gently lifted the little creature while saying, “Cool! An alligator.” I hurriedly opened my crate only to find that mine had died. When tears welled in my eyes, Ted said, “Here, Judy. You can have this one.”

“No, Ted. That’s yours,” I protested.

“It’s ours,” he replied. 

We didn’t keep this exotic pet for long. Being a cold-blooded reptile, he had to be kept warm, and the shanty was far from warm. Ted and I took turns sleeping with him at night, after tucking him inside a wool sock. Feeding him was also troublesome – he would only eat if submerged and would only eat raw hamburger. Neither Ted nor I objected when Mama traded him for a parakeet.

When Papa left on a haul in mid-December, Ted and I quietly discussed our concern that he might not return before Christmas. Overhearing our conversation, Mama assured us that he would. 

“Are we going to have a Christmas tree?” I asked. 

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Mama answered. “This year I think we should have a live tree, one that that can be planted in the yard in the spring. We can get one at the greenhouse.” 

And that’s what we had, a foot-tall spruce tree in a bucket. Mama set the tree on top of the small black and white TV that Papa had brought home after one of his trips. She wrapped a towel around the bucket and hung tiny blue baubles on the tree.

But another type of tree filled a corner of the shanty. It was made of ascending poles placed across a corner of the room, the longest at the base, and shorter ones toward the ceiling. This was a chicken roosting tree. December was extremely cold, so cold that at night the chickens’ feet were freezing in the coop, so Mama decided to let them roost in the shanty, with newspapers spread beneath their roosting area. During the day, they were returned to the coop. We made a joke of it singing, “On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eight hens a-roosting.” We didn’t mind sharing space with chickens. It was the right thing, the kind thing to do. We were also awarded each morning by one hen that chose to lay an egg at day-break. She always sang her egg-laying song afterward, “Puck puck pu duck! Puck puck pu duck!” 

Schuler Pharmacy on Main Street in a nearby town displayed and sold toys in the upper level of the store at Christmastime. Several days before Christmas, Mama stopped there with Ted and me. 

“You may each pick out one gift for yourself and a game that you can share. After you have made your decisions, let me know what you want,” she directed.

Ted and I each knew what we wanted. We had looked through the toy selection earlier in the week. Ted wanted a BB gun, and I wanted a stuffed foot-tall Coca Cola Santa Clause with a realistic hard rubber face holding a miniature Coke bottle. But we took our time studying the games before deciding, eventually settling on the Marlon Perkins’ Wild Kingdom Trivia Game. 

Papa arrived home late in the afternoon on December 24th, and shortly afterward, he and Mama left to get Ted’s and my presents. Schuler’s stayed open until six on Christmas Eve.

“We’re going to Schuler’s,” Mama said. “We won’t be long.”

While they were away, Ted and I put fresh newspaper under the chickens, straightened the dishes and pans, and made our cots. After smoothing every wrinkle from the bedspread covering Mama’s and Papa’s bed, we placed the gifts we bought for them on their pillows, a wool scarf for Mama and a pair of socks for Papa.

Finally, the door burst open, and Mama and Papa blew in with snow and icy air. They quickly closed the door and placed the bags containing our unwrapped presents on the bed. 

Ted was given a BB gun, and I was given the Coca Cola Santa. Sixty plus years later, I still have this jolly old elf, though his face is grimy with age, his cloth body has cotton protruding through holes, and the tiny Coke bottle was lost long ago. Each Christmas I wrap him in a soft yellow blanket, my oldest son’s baby blanket, and tuck him under my Christmas tree in a judicious spot where he can watch what’s going on without being seen and having his feelings hurt when someone asks, “Why do you have that under your tree?  Looks like he should have gone up the chimney a long time ago.” But for me, when I see this dear old Santa smiling at me from under the tree, I am reminded that blue baubles on a small tree growing in a bucket are more memorable than those on a grandly decorated one, that Christmas is as thrilling for a child receiving a few gifts as for one receiving many, and that waking to the cackling of a hen gifting an egg on Christmas morning was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.