I don’t remember how old I was, but it wasn’t so old that I could tie my own shoes, since I learned to do that the next summer. I’ve never thought to remember how old I was when I learned to tie my own shoes, and Mama was always too busy to remember something like that for me. By the time she noticed I wasn’t asking her for help; well not really asking, simply clip-clopping around with loose laces until she called me over to tie them. “Come over here Mouse,” she’d say, turning away from peeling, or washing, or folding something. I’d come over and stand, or hop, on one foot while she bent and twirled laces through her strong fingers until my shoes had pretty bows on them. Sometimes, though, she’d have to switch them on my feet, just like she’d sometimes lift my shirt over my head, and put it back on, or turn my pants around. She’d take my face in her hands, smile and say,”Try to remember, Mouse, to put the name in the back.” Then she’d give me a hug and a kiss on the top of my head. I can touch the spot sometimes and the memory comes back, smells, sounds, colors and all; and me dancing my one legged dance, or lifting my arms “way up to the sky” so she could put the shirt on with the name in the back; the right way.
The funny thing is that I don’t remember ever feeling uncomfortable in unlaced shoes, or back to front clothes, but I certainly felt better…inside and out…after Mama’s help.
I wasn’t much at trying to remember, of course. I wonder now I sometimes didn’t do it the “right way” on purpose so’s she would notice and call me over, bend and fix and love, all in graceful but purposeful moves. Mama never seemed to waste anything, even her moving from place to place. She was sure of where she was going, sure of what she was doing and sure of why it needed doing. But she moved as if she was dancing; always seeming to me like she was being moved by some spring breeze, or lifting and flying. I would catch Papa, who was solid and steady, glancing up from whatever he might be about when he was home, watching her dance about the house, moving from place to place like a hummingbird, or a fall of water. I like both of those things for the way they remind me of her
Papa was much older than Mama, a white topped mountain, like that picture of Mt. McKinley in an old magazine that I took from the table one day and moved into my own little corner; near enough to keep an eye on the rest of my world and far enough to be alone when I wanted to be alone. That wasn’t too often, but every once in a while, I’d notice Big Bear and Little Bear looking a bit sad and go over to sit down with them, and pat their heads and smile at them and give them a kiss. Truck never needed kissing, but I would take out the cows from his back and arrange them in a row, or I’d play a tune on my piano. This was often after Papa came home and had sat down in his chair.
Mama would bring him a glass of beer with the white foam on the top. he’d let me take a sip of the beer and chuckle when I got the foam on my upper lip like a mustache. “You’re on your way to being Santa Claus,” he’d say. Or, he’d call me is Mustache Mouse. Then he’d ask me if I learned any new tunes while he was away at work that day. Of course I always answered yes, and went over to my place to play my latest “oeuvre”. He’d smile from his chair, and tap his toe, keeping time. When I had finished he’d always applaud and say,”Bravo, Mouse. You are a young Beethoven.”
When I first heard him say that I answered, “I’m not a “bate hoven”. I’m Mouse.” He laughed out loud and beckoned me over. I got up and waddled his way until he picked me up and said, “Of course you’re Mouse. No one else could be. But you are also a lot of other things. You’re mama’s Mouse, and my Mouse. You’re our little child and my Sunshine.” Then he sang me the best song, the one that was mine,”You are my sun shine, my only sunshine…” and I forgot all about being upset at learning I was a “bate hoven”.
But, I wondered what a “bate hoven” might be, and thought it would be nice to be one if it made Papa happy.
One day, just after Mama had tied my shoes for me she said, “How do you feel, Mouse?” “Fine, Mama,” I answered, and smiled. “Except my belly stings.” “Well, let’s just be careful. Is it a sharp sting?” “No, maybe it isn’t even a sting. Maybe it’s an ache,” I answered. “Is it your whole belly, or just a bit of it?” “My whole belly, mama. It started after breakfast.” “OK, Mouse. You go and get Bear and we’ll go upstairs to bed. I want to take your temperature, too.”
We did all of that. And when I was back in bed with Bear she came with water and told me to stay in bed. “Am I sick?” “You have a slight fever, Mouse. I’m going to call the doctor’s office now. They may want me to bring you in. Then I’m going to call Papa’s office and tell him. Your job now is to rest. I’ll be just downstairs. You and Bear rest quietly.” Bear was good at resting I knew, so I told him he could rest. I would just lie there and wait to go to the doctor’s office. She came back to wake me up and tell me that we were going to go to the doctor’s office.
“Can Bear come, too,” I wanted to know. Bear very seldom stayed home with the others when I went out, but I do not think he had ever been to the doctor’s office before. “I know he’d like it,” I continued. Mama took a moment to think about that, and answered, “Well if you get him to promise he’ll be a good bear, and sit quietly in the car, and at the doctor’s office, he may come. But you must be responsible for his behavior. Will you promise?” I said yes, and Mama helped me get dressed to go to the doctor’s. Bear did not need to get dressed, I told her. His fur would keep him warm.
The doctor told Mama that I had a flu, and he told her to keep me home and in bed. I think this is what he told her, because I was not there when he asked her to come into his office and sent me with the nice lady who sits at the desk behind the glass to get a lolliepop. Mama gave me a really big hug when I came back, and the doctor patted me on the head. Then we left to go home. On the way mama stopped at Doc Portnoy’s and got some bottles of medicine the doctor said I should take to get better.
When we got home that is just what she did. She brought me upstairs and put me to bed with lots of toys around me. It was the first time that I was sick, and had to stay in bed. When Papa came home he came upstairs right away and told me he would miss me. He asked if he could come and visit me each morning before he went to work, and every evening when he came home. I wanted to know if he would tell me stories, make-up ones. I had Mama to read books, but Papa always made up his stories. After Mama had read the books one or two times I knew everything that would happen. Of course that was good, since if there was a scary part, you could allow yourself to get sacred and know it would get better.
But with Papa, everything was different. You never knew if a story was going to be scary, or happy or sad, or everything all jumbled up. The best thing was that they were all about someone with the name of Mouse, who had to be me. But, I was never sure, and that was the really good part. Mouse did things I would never think of doing, but he also did things I hoped I would grow up some day and do.
Papa said that he’d come back after his supper and tell me a story. I thanked him and sat back to wait. Bear was sleeping so I closed my eyes, too and began to be very quiet. I could hear Papa and Mama talking downstairs. She said, “I’m so worried about our little Mouse, dear. It’s such a dreadful thing to have. I hope it leaves this house soon, and leaves our Mouse with no harm done.” “Don’t worry, Dear,” Papa said in his soft voice that sounded like my snuggly blanket felt. “Mouse will come through this just fine. Tell me about your day.”
Up in my bed I settled down and listened, imagining Mama putting out her hand for Papa to hold just like they did whenever they told each other about “their day”. I listened to hear what she would tell him about our ride back and forth to the doctor’s office and how good I was to Bear while we waited. I listened for his voice saying, “Umm, hmm, and ‘Go on.’ ” But, instead all she said was, “Oh, goodness! I completely forgot to tell you your sister is coming. She’s accepted our offer to move in. She wants to visit first and discuss all the rest of the arrangements for her move. She’ll be here tonight!”
“Tonight?” Papa sounded like he was yelling, “Fire!”. I heard his chair scrape back and his heavy footsteps in the hallway. “You make sure the guest room downstairs is ready for her, Dear. I’m going out for cat food.” With that the door opened and closed and Papa’s car soon started up. He was going for the cat food. Papa’s sister was also my Aunty-K, my favorite. And, when she came she always stayed downstairs in the great big room in our basement where she could keep herself and her cat, Benedict, a big white cat who had a big white temper if he didn’t know you. Once he bit Papa on his leg when he came into Aunty-K’s room downstairs. He must have thought Papa was a burglar. And Papa was very angry with Benedict for biting him when he thought they were friends. At least that’s what Papa told me was the reason Aunty-K kept him down there on her visits
I think Papa was afraid of him, and that surprised me, because Papa wasn’t supposed to be afraid of anything. He was happy that Aunty-K kept Benedict downstairs on her visits. I know because I heard him tell Mama that he was sorry for that but he didn’t want Benedict biting me some day, too. I didn’t think he would, but Papa said he was also a little nervous that he might have to have words with his sister about Benedict if he ever got out and upstairs and bit me. I wondered what words he and Aunty-K would like to share if that happened.
Anyway, I loved Aunty-K. She had a hundred different voices that she used all the time. She could talk the way birds talk, and little animals and big ones. And she could be a little girl and talk like that; a fresh little girl. She loved to tell stories, and she loved to laugh. Most of all she loved to laugh at simple things that just kind of happened, a bird missing a branch, a squirrel who tried to get into one of the bird feeders, a little baby who played with his food. She would smile and laugh just like a kid at all of that stuff. She never giggled, either. She always just laughed out loud.
Well, with Papa gone, and Mama making noises way downstairs I didn’t think I would get any stories told to me, so I decided to go to sleep with Bear.
I think I heard the doorbell ring, and I think I heard Aunty-K’s voice saying hello. But, I’m not sure. There were other sounds, too, all over the house and all around it, but I’m not sure. Sometimes when noises happened in the night I would wake up and call for Mama. She’d bring me a glass of water, the noises would go away, and I would go back to sleep again. The last thing I would feel would be Mama’s hand touching the side of my face, or her kiss.
I opened my eyes and called, “Mama.” I called her again, but no one came from downstairs, and no one came from their room. But the noise had stopped, so I closed my eyes and hugged Bear. Then I heard someone call my name. “It’s Mama,” I thought and I opened them. But, someone else was there; not Mama but a pretty lady who was standing by my window in the soft light smiling at me. I looked at her and smiled, too. She was holding a big white cat in her arms. The cat looked at her, then at me. She put the cat down on my bed and he walked up to me and licked me on the hand I hand wrapped around Bear. He licked Bear, too. It tickled.
“Benedict isn’t supposed to be upstairs,” I whispered. I did not want anyone to hear because if they knew, Aunty-K and Papa would have their words, and Benedict might be in trouble. “It will be all right,” was all she said. “Benedict will be with you. Don’t be afraid.” “I’m not afraid,” I told her. “You will get better, soon. Remember me, and remember Benedict when you grow up. He is pure. Be like him and remember me.” She put out her hand and said, “Benedict stay with her.” He sat very still and wrinkled his brow, looking very serious. He nodded his head once and turned back to me.
Then I couldn’t see her anymore because Benedict laid down on my head and began to lick my eyebrows. Sometimes cats can be silly. When I sat up to get him off me, the lady was gone. Benedict settled back on my pillow and looked at me with his big golden eyes. Then he put his head between his paws and closed his eyes. Well, one of them. The other kept looking at me until I put my head down next to him. He put a paw on my neck, licked it and me, and we both went to sleep.
There were no more noises.
There were no more noises during the night, that is. There was noise in the morning though. I woke up to hear the doorbell ringing, and Mama and Papa both going downstairs. As I sat up in bed with Bear in my arms and Benedict still lying quietly on the pillow, I heard the door open and Mama and papa yell, “Aunty-K! Where have you been!” Then Mama said, “Are you all right?” And Papa said, “We were about to call the police. What on earth happened to you? You’re a mess.”
“Now don’t have a fit. I’m all right. I stopped on the way for a cup of coffee, and when I got back to the car, Benedict was gone. I think he’s gone for good, too. I looked all over that place for him, and even slid down a hill into a little creek. That’s why I look such a mess.” “Oh, poor Benedict,” said Mama. “That’s what’s got me most upset. I can’t understand it. I always lock the door, and he was in the carrier, too. Someone must have taken him,” Aunty Kay said, and everyone was quiet for a moment. Then she said,” I’m gonna miss that cat. I swear he knew right from wrong. But, I’m all right and I’ll be just fine after I sit down and have a cup of coffee.” said Aunty-K. I could hear Papa carrying her things through the door and putting them on the floor.
Mama said, “We had just awakened and I was on my way down to do that very thing when you rang the doorbell. Come into the kitchen.” There were footsteps and soon I heard cups and spoons clinking. I heard Papa’s voice in the kitchen, and decided I should go down and tell them about the lady. I was a bit worried about Benedict being upstairs, and wondered whether I should leave him or wake him up and bring him with me.
When I got to the kitchen they were all there, Mama, Papa and Aunty-K. She sat in a chair at the table while Mama and Papa stood patting her back and holding her hands. I heard her say, “I feel awful that you invite me to come and live with you, and the first thing I do is cause all of this upset with Mouse sick upstairs. Oh, I could just sit down and cry for a week.” “Now, this isn’t anything to get upset about. Someone will find Benedict and either give him a good home, or bring him back to us,” said Papa. I stood waiting for him to finish to tell them all that is just what happened.
“But, our little Mouse,” began Aunty-K, “I never knew..” She stopped speaking and started crying very hard. Mama turned to Papa and looked at him. That was when she saw me standing there watching and waiting. “Mouse,” she nearly screamed, and ran towards me. “You shouldn’t be out of bed, Dear. You are very, very sick.” She bent to pick me up as Papa and Aunty-K turned and came over to me, Aunty-K trying to smile through her tears and Papa looking very concerned.
“Here, Dear,” he said, holding out his arms for me, “I’ll take Mouse back to bed.” That was when I said, “No. I fell very good, everyone. I just came to say hello and to tell you something. Please put me down, Mama.” That surprised them I could see. For a moment everyone was silent. papa looked at Mama and Aunty-K. Mama looked at Papa and Aunty-K. Aunty-K looked at Mama and Papa. Then all of them looked at me. I smiled and wiggled to get down. Mama bent over and let me stand on the floor. Everything was quiet.
Just then from upstairs there was a very loud “MEOW!”
Benedict Listens to the Lady