When My Father Calls

Sometimes peanuts and patience can help a heart mend. Such was the case when Everdeen, a tiny chipmunk, came into my father’s life.

By Emily Bradley

Mar 17 2014

Everdeen | When My Father Calls

Friendly persuasion: Thanks to gentle persistence, Emily’s dad made friends with a chipmunk he named Everdeen

Everdeen | When My Father Calls
Everdeen | When My Father Calls
Photo Credit : Robert Crawford

My father keeps an aluminum can of peanuts on a wood-slab shelf in our basement. The can has a clear lid with a metal spit, like the mouth of a Ball jar. Two rooms away, in the stenciled cabinets of my childhood kitchen, there are several back-up bags of the same peanuts, in case the can goes empty while Everdeen is still hungry. Winters are long in New Hampshire.

Every Sunday my father drives over the Cornish–Windsor covered bridge and along the Connecticut River to pick up his mother from the nursing home. In the seven miles between his tan farmhouse and her pink walls, he thinks of things to say, and in this small yet distant space reminds himself that happiness is a state of mind.

When she’s not visiting my father’s house, my grandmother calls to ask why no one ever visits or why no one told her that my grandfather had died. The calls come daily over the last few years, after I moved 100 miles south in the state to marry my husband. I know this because when I’m home, visiting, I hear my father rehearse the script after the caller ID announces, “Cedar Hill Nursing Home.”

“Hi, Mom … Yes, don’t worry, I know where you are … I had a great time with you on Sunday. Remember we had a fried-chicken picnic and you fed Everdeen? … Do you want me to come pick you up again next weekend for a visit? … Okay, great, but remember that it’s only Tuesday, Mom. If you forget when I’m coming, just look at your calendar. I’ve written everything down on it … Yes, I’ll be there Sunday. I’ll have peanuts ready for your visit … Love you, too, Mom. Bye.”

Everdeen waits for my father to arrive, too. She’s a chipmunk the size of a fat mouse, her chestnut fur striped with two white and two black streaks that run to the tip of her tail. Her eyes, which become small, round circles when she puffs up her cheeks with seed, are the color of bittersweet chocolate. One day, at the beginning of my father’s arrangement with Everdeen, he told me to sit on the patio with him so that I could see his new pastime. It was July, a couple of years ago. I was home for the town’s Fourth of July parade, and we’d spent the morning watching 4-H kids ride decorated bicycles over the faded yellow lines of Main Street. My grandmother was asleep on the couch.

We sat on wicker patio furniture, my father whittling a walking stick with the wood-sided pocket knife my mother had given him for one of their anniversaries before she died in 2006. “Hand me a nut,” he said. “Watch.” He lowered his hand down to his side, flattening it under the peanut I’d fished out of the can. I was 7 again in that moment, not 27, and I thought of the many Christmas Eves that I’d lain silent in my parents’ bed waiting to hear reindeer bells. But it was spring, 20 years later: My younger brother, Nick, had a job in North Carolina; my mother existed only in our memories, before the cancer took her; my father’s short beard was completely gray. There were more lines on his forehead, and his hands were callused from trying to make everything perfect.

Everdeen | When My Father Calls
Emily’s parents, Jeff and Patti Robbins, at a friend’s wedding in 1977.

“Just carry on like you don’t know she’s there,” he told me, brushing the wood chips from the small shelf of his belly. We looked over the row of red impatiens he’d planted along the edge of the patio and toward the garden in the upper lot, where my father had bent and tied saplings into a teepee so that his beans could grow upward without tangling. On our periphery, we watched my father’s chipmunk bob between hostas. I watched my father’s face, steady and concentrated, and tried to seem oblivious as he watched for Everdeen.

“She’s timid,” he said as he peeled a piece of green wood from the sliver he’d just made. “And she’s still trying to figure me out. If you stare at her, she’ll turn and run.” As he talked, I tried to make out Everdeen’s shadow by moving only my eyes. “Patience,” he said, not looking up.

Then, quick as she came, Everdeen darted toward my father’s hand, stuffed the peanut in her cheek, turned on her haunches, and ran. My father’s face came alive, his cheeks bunching as he smiled, and his shoulders lifting as he spoke: “Isn’t she darling?” The phrase made me think about my mom and how she would have loved to be here, watching us feed a tiny chipmunk outside the house that had been her home before she died at 53. It made my father think of her, too. I know this because his eyes went pink.

When I was 8 or so, my father found a mouse nest in one of the air vents of my mother’s maroon Subaru. The tiny rodents were the size of chess pawns, all bald and pink, with their eyes closed.

“They won’t survive if we move them,” he told me as I peered into the cavity. “They’re too young to disrupt their natural environment at this stage in their development.”

My mother, standing beside me, pierced him with a look as though he’d scarred my innocence. “But we can try,” she said, pulling her blue fleece bathrobe tighter around her waist. “Come on, let’s go get a tissue box and make them a cozy little nest and find a bottle cap to put some water in so they can drink.”

“But they’ll die,” I said, looking at my dad.

“They won’t survive in here, though,” my dad said as he redirected my attention to the mice. “I bet you never thought mice would nest in a car.”

My mother was already inside, rummaging for a suitable home in which to raise the litter into strong mice. She was likely thinking of what to name each of them or boiling oatmeal to hand-feed the tiny creatures. The mice died, of course, but not before my father had gently lifted the nest from the dashboard and into the small Tupperware container my mother had lined with soft dishtowels and strips of Puffs tissues.

For a few years before my mother died, my grandmother lived with us. In the mornings, before filling out my father’s crossword puzzle, my grandmother would stare out the window, watching the squirrels and chipmunks quarrel over the corn my father had thrown for them and listening to the nasal calls of the nuthatches. After a few months of this, she named one of the chipmunks that she saw regularly: “Tippy,” because he had only half a tail. My father joked, only to me, about how there were hundreds of Tippys—a breed, or family, whose tails were cut short. It was when she started calling the chipmunk by different names that we realized that her memory loss was dementia. And then, when my grandmother forgot to take her insulin one too many times, my father promised her that there would be chipmunks at the nursing home.

My dad never took to Tippy because he spent most of his time taking care of my mother after my grandmother had moved out. For the six months that hospice helped us nurse her, my father arranged for a hospital bed to be put in the family room, where my mom could look out the sliding glass door and onto the patio. He staged garden gnomes and ceramic hedgehogs throughout the annual garden because he knew that she loved to imagine they were real. He put out birdfeeders so that she could watch the chickadees, her favorite, and he baited Tippy with ears of dry corn that he hung from a shepherd’s hook. He would sit with my mother in the mornings after he brought her coffee with cream and two Splendas. He would hold her hand while she dozed and think of other ways he could make her happy.

The day I told my father, two years later, that I was going to move in with the man who would become my husband, his eyes welled with tears. “The house will be so different without estrogen,” he said. “Even though you’re going to get married, you’ll still be my little girl, right?”

It was after I married that my father adopted Everdeen. He would watch her gnaw on the sunflower seeds that had spilled from his carefully placed birdfeeders. He watched her patterns, replicating the sound of sunflower seeds falling from the feeder in order to lure her to the patio, where he’d toss a few seeds at a time. Two weeks later she was eating out of his hand.

Everdeen | When My Father Calls
Emily with her father on her wedding day in 2010.

“There’s a new woman in my life,” he called to tell me one recent summer. “Her name is Everdeen.”

One of Everdeen’s kin had babies the next spring, my father told me the day we sat on the patio: “You cannot believe how cute they are. Not as cute as Everdeen, but still cute.”

“How do you know they’re related to Everdeen?” I handed him another peanut out of the jar.

“Because that’s what Mom would say.” We both laughed. “No, I know because Everdeen and her kinfolk all exit the same series of tunnels. They wouldn’t allow other chipmunks in their territory.” He set the sapling he was whittling against the glass table and sipped from his Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi. “Hand me the sandpaper, will you?” And then, “You know, I’m ready for a grandbaby.”

My dad refers to her—my as-yet-not-conceived child—by her name: Caroline. He talks about how she’ll be a country girl; he’ll buy her a pony, and even if it’s blind in one eye the way mine was, she’ll ride it like the wind. And, of course, she’ll love visiting him, because where else can you feed a chipmunk out of your hand?

“I’ll teach little Caroline that it takes time,” he said, lifting his white handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his brow. “To train a chipmunk, that is.”

“What if I have a boy?”

“Boys can train chipmunks, too,” he said. “And it’s worth the time it takes, because they keep coming back.”

It occurred to me one day that Everdeen might not be a female; the Peterson field guide my father gave me for my 24th birthday says that you have to hold a chipmunk upside down and look at the bumps under its tail to determine its sex. I decided not to ask him why he thinks Everdeen is an Everdeen, after he drove two hours south one Sunday just to eat omelets with me and tell me about how he’d successfully made her jump for a nut the previous week. He’s always known the things that I have to ask: Clydesdale or Percheron? Poison ivy or Virginia creeper? Beech or aspen? Male or female?

“It’s endless entertainment for Gram,” he called to tell me after he’d gotten home from breakfast. “She just plops down on the patio, feeds Everdeen, and is as happy as a clam.” I reminded him of the photo he had on his computer, showing that Everdeen doesn’t run now—that she’ll sit on her hindquarters shelling the peanuts, tucking away the fruit and starting over again after depositing her stash in the hole. We laughed the way you laugh when there’s nothing else to do.

Everdeen | When My Father Calls
Friendly persuasion: Thanks to gentle persistence, Emily’s dad made friends with a chipmunk he named Everdeen

“Hey, thanks for coming to breakfast,” I said.

“Sure thing,” he said. I could hear the spring in his brown recliner pop forward with a getting-up motion.

“I’m going to think of more things to tell you on the way to pick up Gram.”

“Okay. I love you, Dad.”

“Love you, too, hon. Need any advice?”

“About training chipmunks?”

“Okay, okay, we can go now. But first, one more thing.” I could hear him open the sliding glass door to the patio. “Everdeen comes when I call her now.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yep. I just have to stand at the screen door and cluck to her and she’ll run right up to me.”

I sat down on one of my kitchen chairs and brushed a loose strand of hair from my cheek so that it wouldn’t stick to the wetness.

“I guess I’ll have to come home to see that, huh?” I said.

Next weekend, I told my father. Next weekend I’d come when he called to tell me what was for breakfast.