Craig normally worked on Saturdays, but today Becky was away, and with the kids home on summer break he decided to make other plans. He sipped his orange juice and picked up the newspaper. He glanced at the headlines, then the sports. He checked the obits “to make sure he wasn’t there,” and then turned to the classifieds. He took a pen from his shirt pocket and started circling.
When the kids walked to the kitchen table rubbing their eyes and pouring their cereal, Craig stood up and poured four small glasses of orange juice. As they were munching on Raisin Bran, Craig told them that when they got dressed, they’d be going for a drive. The kids quietly nodded their agreement. Only the youngest had the nerve and foolishness to ask where they were going. To which Craig replied, “You’ll find out when you’re dressed.”
As promised, after breakfast the kids piled into Craig’s work truck—a red banged-up Ford 150. All of the kids would have fit in the cab because they were still young, but the two oldest kids jumped into the bed of the truck. Craig allowed it as long as they sat down; he turned the key in the ignition.
Craig looked at the first address he had circled in the classified section, then backed the truck down the driveway. The kids did not ask where they were going, but chatted amongst themselves or looked out the window. They pulled up in an unfamiliar driveway and Craig opened the door. The kids knew to stay in the truck. Kids always stayed in the car when the parents went to do their tasks. Kids would stay in the car at the A & P while the mom went in to get groceries, and make faces at other kids staying in other cars in the A & P parking lot. Only one time did the middle daughter remember her mom letting her get out of the car, and that was when the mom had to take something to Mrs. Nivens’ house, and Mrs. Nivens was a talker! So, that day, mom told the middle daughter she could come to the door as a way to cut the conversation short. That is why, parked in this strange driveway, the kids didn’t even ask their dad if they could get out of the truck; they just peered out of the windows looking for clues to the mystery.
The kids watched as Craig walked around back of the stranger’s house, and a few minutes later return with a wooden cage and a squeaky animal inside. Craig set the cage in the bed of the truck and started the ignition. Instead of heading toward home, Craig steered the truck in the other direction. Minutes later he pulled into another driveway and walked out of that house with another cage and this time two squeaky animals inside. When they did eventually head home, the kids all gleefully unloaded cage after cage and a dozen guinea pigs. The middle daughter later would study a library book about the different breeds of guinea pigs, and then she would carefully document each animal on an index card, listing name, lineage, breed, and description. The day that they got the guinea pigs, Craig built a large pen for them in the garage, and when they learned that males of the breed got aggressive with other males, Craig built a more elaborate cage system with separate sections and doors that latched. All of the kids collaborated and came up with clever names for the pets. That became the summer of the guinea pigs, with the kids playing with them in the yard where the grass grew long down by the river.
That was my recollection of the summer of the guinea pigs in the house that Dad/Craig built for us on Black River in Port Huron, Michigan. On my walk this morning before work, I tried to shake off the lingering awfulness of a bad dream that I had about Dad’s death and funeral. I recalled my therapist’s suggestion to substitute bad memories with ordinary good memories, and so I thought about how dad consistently thought up glorious things for the kids to do, completely equipped us, and then left us alone to make our own memories. Our childhood had memories of sailing and visiting cousins and racquetball and riding bikes. And pets such as guinea pigs and chickens. And trick-or-treating and eating candy glutinously with Dad. Another thought came to mind this morning: Where was Mom that Saturday? The mom whose main job and main joy was being mom to us four kids. I wonder whether she was visiting her father in jail? That thought took my breath away, and I had to put my hands on my knees and wait a moment to process. The thought of Dad once again protecting the innocence of his children by circling every single “free guinea pig to a good home” ad in the paper, and never, ever letting us know where our grandpa was, or where our mom was that day. He shielded us from the ugliness of some adults and equipped us with happy childhood play. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I knew that my grandpa had been arrested and served time. My biggest worry that summer was an inflamed foot on Moptop, the black and white long haired female guinea pig. I had loaded her up in the basket of my bike and pedaled to the veterinarian office–being ten years old and ignorant to the knowledge of calling ahead or making appointments. Moptop had a sore foot, and I had seen a sign that said “veterinarian,” so that was where I needed to take her. The vet gave me some ointment for Moptop and sent me on my way. I was given a smile in lieu of an invoice. Thank you Dad and Mom for the legacy of childish worries, and not adult worries, being all that I had to deal with when I was a child.