All Creatures Great And Small

My mother is obsessing that Christmas has come too soon and there’s not enough money to get all the gifts and decorations she wants for the holiday. I’m trying to remind her, we never remember the gifts, we only remember the company; drinking eggnog, listening to the Bing Crosby records, and admiring our tree. We’re all flush or broke at Christmas time. We all want the Christmases we remember as children. It was all magical then. It’s the encroachment of age that steals it from us. But then we find the magic again through the children. You’re always as happy as you decide to be. [expand]

I had a really great Christmas several years ago. I was renting a house on Worthy Way that winter. It had a sliding glass door and the woods began just a few feet from the deck. I love birds and I always threw out generous handfuls of seed on the deck. I must have hit upon a Cardinal haven, because I never saw so many Cardinals. I counted 13 pairs and four single males. I spent so much time watching them, I got so I could distinguish several individuals. They were surprisingly aggressive and if I didn’t have that seed out by 7:30 a.m., they started pecking at the glass door. I put out suet balls and lots of treats and they’d hang around on the railings of the deck talking to each other. They were so beautiful hopping around an occasional carpet of fresh snow. It made my Christmas and all it cost me was birdseed.

My most favorite Christmas was when I was six. We were living with my grandparents in Sayville at the time. I was the only grandchild, except for my little three-year-old brother, followed rapidly by three more brothers and 12 first cousins. But I was there first, green-eyed, reddish haired and insufferably cute.

My grandfather was a carpenter in the winter and clammer in the summer. He had a true love of animals. He found an injured three-legged squirrel and nursed him back to health in his cellar. He named him Petey and built him a sort of squirrel condo in the huge maple tree in the backyard. My grandfather built a bench all around the tree. He built Petey a tiny ladder. He made wooden toys for us, so he really knew how to build ladders for disabled squirrels. The rungs were tiny dowels perfectly fitted into slats and all varnished. It went from the bench to the first giant limb, about five feet up. I wasn’t allowed to touch the ladder or try to pet Petey. My grandfather painted red lines on either side of the ladder – that I was to stay behind. However, I was allowed to put saltines with peanut butter in the forbidden zones and watch Petey climb down and eat. He was missing a back leg, so he sat funny. I thought he was just wonderful.

I didn’t see Petey in the winter, because cold made him sleepy, however, my grandfather assured me he wouldn’t miss Christmas. Taking him to Mass with us in my grandmother’s purse on Christmas seemed to be out of the question, but I could make him a little tree and leave him some treats. I made a very extravagant noodle tree, painted gold and full of red glitter. It was a true work of art. My grandfather tacked it up high on the limb so Petey could see it from his nest. I left him a little plate of peanut butter cookies and some stuffed dates.

My grandparents assured me that, thanks to me, Petey was going to have a wonderful Christmas. It’s not like every squirrel on Long Island could see a genuine golden noodle tree from his nest. And so few squirrels got cookies and stuffed dates delivered to the door at that time. It’s not like today when they could just order from the Internet.

That Christmas I got a card from Petey. It came in the mail, so it was official. He thanked me for the tree and all the treats. Furthermore, he planned to come out on St. Patrick’s Day, if there wasn’t any snow. I looked at that card for a long time. Finally, I asked my grandfather how Petey could have written that card. Nobody was going to fool me, I was sure Petey didn’t know any letters. My grandfather explained that Petey knew all his letters; he just had to ask my grandfather to make him a very small pencil…

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