Mary Jo Shannon
Mary Jo Shannon

It was early autumn many years ago when my oldest son said a tearful goodbye to Charlie. Charlie had been his best friend for the entire summer and parting was painful. Charlie was a squirrel.

I knew when Harry bounded up the steps after school that such exuberance was response to something other than the last day of school at Woodrow Wilson Junior High. He held something cupped  protectively in his hands. A fluff of fur protruded from between his fingers.

“Look,” he said. “His name is Charlie.”

He opened his hands and revealed a young squirrel with shiny black eyes that looked directly at me, as if he knew his future depended on my vote. Now I was a pushover for pets – puppies, kittens, gerbils, hamsters – but a squirrel?

“Kenneth found him under a tree in the woods,” he continued. “I gave fifty cents for him. You will let me keep him, won’t you?”

I know today we are advised not to care for wild animals, but at that time good intentions prevailed. I grew up in the country and had cared for baby birds. Sometimes they survived and sometimes they died. But I tried.

“You will let me keep him, won’t you?” he repeated.

What does every parent say under such circumstances? “You’ll have to take care of him yourself.”

An abandoned hamster cage was carefully cleaned and became Charlie’s quarters – although he only stayed there at night or when his master had something to do that couldn’t be done with a squirrel on his shoulder.  They spent most of the day outside.

Charlie was evidently old enough to eat solid food for he nibbled at peanut butter spread on bits of soda crackers and chunks of apple. And lots and lots of peanuts. When he stretched to retrieve a peanut placed behind Harry’s ear, he appeared to be whispering secrets.

Sometimes he would chatter and run along the stone wall in our back yard. Harry would talk to him in “squirrel” – repeating rapidly, “Chh—chh—chh –.“ Charlie would cock his head and appear to be listening.

Not once did he try to bite or scratch his host. But that courtesy was not extended to anyone else. Once my husband tried to pet him. Charlie caught his finger in his teeth and held it – not hard enough to break the skin, but as if to say, “Leave me alone or I will bite hard!” No one else in the family tried to pet Charlie after that warning.

As the summer days flew by, Charlie grew fatter and sleeker. My husband announced that Charlie would have to be released to the wild. Squirrels are destructive, and we couldn’t risk Charlie chewing up the furniture when confined indoors. Harry was appalled. If he left him outside a dog would surely get him. If he released him in the woods a hunter might shoot him. He couldn’t bear the thought of such certain doom.

His dad had a reasonable solution. Our family camped frequently at the Peaks of Otter. One of our favorite walks was to the Johnson farm, an old farmhouse furnished as it was in 1930 prior to the building of the Parkway. Charlie would be safe, for no hunting is allowed on this property. We planned a picnic and headed for the Peaks one sunny Saturday in October, with Charlie. After lunch our family hiked to the farm. Harry took Charlie deeper into the woods and carefully placed him under an oak with a thick cover of acorns beneath it.

“Goodbye, Charlie,” he said, and turned to join his parents and siblings. Charlie cocked his head, and then scampered toward Harry, climbing up his jeans and plaid shirt to perch on his shoulder. Harry looked wistfully at his father, then retraced his steps and placed the squirrel on the oak. “Goodbye, Charlie!” His tone was emphatic. Again Charlie scurried down the tree and up Harry’s legs to his favorite spot.

This scenario was repeated a third time, and then Charlie seemed to get the idea. He remained under the tree. Who knows what thoughts went through the little squirrel’s mind? Harry was silent on the way home. We all knew what thoughts were going through his mind.

Fast forward to the following October.  Harry’s father decided to camp at the Peaks for a few days – time alone to escape from the everyday hustle at home. On a whim, he walked to the Johnson farm, wondering if by chance he might see Charlie.

I wonder if anyone noticed a grown man, tiptoeing through the woods, repeating “Chh—Chhh- Chhh—Charlie.”

If Charlie heard, he refused to answer – which is sometimes as it should be.

By  Mary Jo Shannon
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