Pt 1 – What is Conscientiousness?
Mother was a very dear soul; she was kind, considerate and well-loved by many many people – even those she never met face to face. She was also a pianist, so our home was full of music, a blessing that has stayed with me. She gave up a promising musical careeer to keep a home and raise five children – I being the youngest. She gave lessons to friends and relations, young and old – for almost nothing. The fact that she charged anything at all was only out of worry that her pupils might feel demeaned by a handout. We joked about her ‘piano lesson money’ – a pittance she kept in a jar on the Steinway baby grand.
Her conscientiousness was overwhelming. I’ve never known anyone with more sense of doing the right thing. Especially did she practice telling the truth, because, as she said, it was the means of our salvation. She could not lie – nor can I. Not intentially that is, though memories don’t always serve, and story telling is something else.
Mother was physically strong too. Thin as she was – bony in fact – she could mix Lebkuchen cookie dough with a large wood spoon, using only one hand, while adding ingredients with the other. I couldn’t mix that dough easily with two hands on the spoon! She also had a grip of iron! If I were foolish enough to go to the neighbors and play without getting permission, she would come find me, grab my wrist with her unshakeable hand, march me home, and say ‘Go to your room!’ (I don’t recall for how long.) I could count on being spanked by my father, when he got home from work. I would be called to his study and stand passively by his big roll-top desk, while he reached into the deep desk drawer and pulled out a paint paddle, reserved for this ritual. ‘Drop your trousers’, he’d say, and give me a few ceremonious smacks (never painful), and dismiss me with a reprimand.
Mother also loved gardening. She had a green thumb, and knew all the flowers, weeds, shrubs, and trees in the region. Our yard was large and covered with green lawn, interspersed with numerous flower gardens – all carefully tended. The plants and flowers had their usual pests, which were taken care of appropriately. But the lawn had moles, which are very hard to get rid of. These cute, soft insectivores wreak havoc on lawns. They bore numerous tunnels at various depths, for breeding, raising young, hunting worms or bugs, and for commuting from one area to another. The dirt they clear out of these tunnels is pushed to the surface, leaving hills of different sizes. Some tunnels are so close to the surface you can watch them growing in straight lines, like the blue veins on a thin person’s arms.
Whenever mother discovered moles at work tunneling, she took her favorite trowel in hand as a weapon, and did ‘what must be done’. It was a narrow wood-handled trowel, made in England from stainless steel. She put her heel down behind the busy mole, to keep it from escaping backwards. (She always wore pumps, with short stocky heels, even when gardening.) Then she squatted down, dug the mole out of its tunnel, and with her jaw set in determination, she “patted it” to death with the back of her trowel! The children in the neighborhood were awe struck. I inherited that trowel, and the memories it produces.
Pt 2 – Like Mother, Like Son
I moved from my home town in Pennsylvania long ago, and after many adventures, settled in Chicago. I have children and grandchildren – most of them adult. Our family has always loved nature, in the country and hills nearby, and in the Chicago proper – skiing in Wisconsin, boating on Lake Michigan, wandering through forest preserves, city parks, arboretums and zoos. The changing seasons and extreme weather gave endless opportunities for education, recreation and enjoyment.
We’ve seen uncaged animal life in totally unexpected places – falcons sitting on skyscraper ledges, coyotes trotting along highways, a dead fox by the roadside (which I took to a taxidermist colleague), and baby possums in my basement! And of course there are all the ordinary creatures, like fish, newts, turtles, seagulls, geese, cranes, crows, rats, weazles, rabbits, raccoons, skunks and squirrels. Squirrels all over. Let me tell you about our adventure with one grey squirrel – whose name I’m sure to recall before finishing this account.
Three of my youngest children were staying with me in one of my frequent re-locations in the city, when we found a baby squirrel on Belden Ave. Apparently it had fallen out of its nest (I think it was a boy, but I’m not sure; one has to be careful about gender). We took him home and started to research about his species, and how to care for him. This was in the Fall – maybe October. Grey squirrels have two mating seasons. Gestation typically takes 44 days, producing about a half dozen offspring per litter. The ‘pups’ have to be nursed and tended to constantly for the first 8 weeks. Need I say the females do all the work. By 6 weeks the young have the look of adults, only they are are smaller, and still need feeding. I think our adoptee was at this stage. It was Autumn – maybe October. We cared for it until Spring, and were eager to liberate it.
There was a spacious city park near our apartment – popular for adults and children and dog-walkers. One sunny day in April we took the squirrel there, eager to see it return to nature. Among others, a man with a German Shepherd was enjoying the park too. The dog – perhaps well trained (until instinct took over) – was allowed to play without a leash. It saw the squirrel and stiffened. The man took no notice.
The squirrel stood still in the grass, hesitant, looking for trees. In half a dozen bounds the dog caught the squirrel by the head and bit down. I ran towards the squirrel, yelling something. The dog dropped its prey, but I could see quickly there was no hope for our pet. Its head and nose were bleeding, and it was paralyzed. I stood for a moment; then stomped my boot heel down to put the creature out of its misery.
The kids were horrified, understandably. “You killed Belden!” they cried in disbelief. Yes, his name was Belden, for the street where we picked him up. They didn’t understand; but Mother would have. I had to do it!