Salad Days

It’s been a weird Spring.  Warm, then wintery cold, some sun again, a bunch of rain.  All over the meteorological map. 

The seedlings are very confused.

Some plants are behind schedule, like our peas, which are short and haven’t offered up any blossoms yet so who knows if we’ll even get any this spring.

Others seem to be thriving.  The garlic we planted last fall is huge – thick stalks that look more like leeks than garlic.  Cilantro is springing up everywhere – we can’t keep up with it. 

Fortunately, we have the Guinea Pigs.

Cookie and Cloudy LOVE cilantro.

They squeal with delight when we bring them fresh stalks of it from the garden (Bill had to pull some to make space for other plants that were going in). 

Cookie is especially fond of cilantro.  And watermelon.  And broccoli stalks.  I was roasting some broccoli florets the other night and I’d trimmed them off so there was just this central stalk left.  Bill brought it to the guinea pigs and Cookie promptly snatched it and backed away from us, huge chunk of green in his little teeth, into one of their little huts so he could feast privately.

Yesterday, just as I was about to leave Dad’s house, Julia sent me this picture:


The guinea pigs. 

In one of our raised beds.

Nibbling happily on red leaf lettuce and baby New Zealand spinach.

That’s Bill’s leg in the bottom left. 

Now, in time I realized they weren’t going to suddenly bolt for a chance at freedom and disappear into one of the neighbors’ yards where they would be snatched up by hawks or coyotes before I could drive the half hour from Dad’s to our home to save them.

But my immediate response was


So I called Bill and tensely demanded to know if he was in his right mind.  “I think so.” he said, after some consideration – or, more likely, some eye-rolling and face-making at the phone in his hand.  He told me everything was fine, and that Cookie and Cloudy were having a great time.

We got off the phone.

Naturally, I did not believe him.

Well, I believed that Cookie and Cloudy were enjoying the all-you-can-eat buffet in our back yard, but I did not believe that everything was fine.  I did not believe that the guinea pigs were safe, or that they wouldn’t take it into their little heads to make a dash for the forest of Lily-of-the-Valley in the corner of the yard below two Lilac trees.

I did not believe they were safe, because I wasn’t there to save them.

It’s not a healthy trait, but it’s one I’ve had as long as I can remember.

I’ve felt – no, believed – that it was my job to save.  To protect.  To fix.

I remember this one time when my sister and I were little kids – elementary school age, but I can’t get any more precise than that.

We were in the kitchen – the “old” kitchen, before the north wall was knocked down to enlarge the space.  We were at the round table on the dining half of the room, and I was sitting in my chair by the window, and Mere was to my left.  Mom was standing, leaning back against the counter beneath the white metal cupboards.

We had candy.  Fancy candy.  From New York.  Bloomingdale’s.  Aunt Audrey – Mom’s best friend from childhood, our godmother – had brought it for us on her latest visit with her husband, our godfather, Uncle Bob.  They made me think of Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, sort of.  Anyway, they’d brought fancy candy for us kids and now we were at the table, probably after dinner, staring at the the colorful packages.  I’m not sure where Dad was – maybe it was bowling night.

Anyway, one package contained colorful candy sticks – like candy canes only without the curve.  Different colors – white and green, white and yellow, white and red, white and pink, white and orange – all glowing and shiny in cellophane. 

The other package was a little plastic box with a few different compartments, each containing a different type of candy.  I don’t remember them all.  I do remember these lumpy red things that resembled raspberries.  They were kind of hard, but not too hard, on the outside, with a raspberry jelly on the inside.  I think the other candies were red, too.  Maybe all this took place in February, around Valentine’s day.  That might explain why I remember it as dark outside, even though I don’t see windows in my memory.

Now, we had rules in our house.  One of them was we cleaned our plates at meals.  And we didn’t leave the table at dinner time until we’d eaten everything.  Ev-er-y-thing.  Even salad.  Salad in these wooden bowls that seemed enormous and were filled with lettuces and tomatoes and a homemade herbed vinaigrette. My mother, as I’ve said here before, was a great cook, very much a foodie, though I don’t think the term had been coined back in the 70’s.  Now, as an adult, I admire all the effort she put into making our meals delicious and healthy, but at the time, all those chopped herbs and vinegar on top of boring lettuce was pretty gross.  I remember there were plenty of nights where my parents were finished and had moved into the living room to watch tv while my sister and I sat in our chairs and picked at leaves and made faces and came up with games and imaginary animal companions to make the time go by as we worked up the intestinal fortitude to eat our green torture food.  Because we couldn’t leave the table until we were done.  That was the rule.

I don’t remember, but I’m guessing that shiny packaged candy was an incentive to eat our salads quickly. 

And when we were given the opportunity to have a piece of the fancy candy from Bloomingdale’s in New York, things got weird. 

My mother suddenly, eerily, terrifyingly, lost her mind.

She said we could go ahead and have some candy.

“Go ahead,” she encouraged us.  “Have as much as you want!”

Immediately air raid sirens and flashing lights went off in my brain.  Something was wrong, something was very, very wrong.  I didn’t know what had happened, but this was not something our mother – our real mother – would say.  We didn’t have as much as we wanted in this house!  We had a serving.  A portion.  A slice.  We did not gorge ourselves.

My younger sister, untroubled by the sirens and lights in my head, dug in with joy.  Candy was WAY better than the salad we had suffered through!  As much candy as we wanted was EVEN BETTER!

The world had suddenly tilted off it’s axis and I WAS THE ONLY ONE WHO NOTICED! 

In great panic, I knew I had to save my baby sister from this madness. 

“No!” I said urgently.  “Don’t eat it ALL!  Just have one or two pieces!” 

She looked at me like I was nuts.  What was my problem?  UNLIMITED CANDY!!!

And I remember being very adamant about showing restraint, about only having a piece or two, a portion, not the whole package. 

And my mother, as I remember, watched this little drama unfold, and she just stood there, watching, and smiling.  She appeared…entertained.


I brought this up not too long ago with Meredith, and she remembered it too, and speculated that Mom was drunk at the time.  That this was a fun little psych 101 experiment for her.

It’s certainly possible.  We were not aware of drunk vs. sober.  We had nothing to compare our family to.  This was our world.  This was our Mom.  A great mother in a lot of ways, but she was not perfect and had her own demons to face or evade, as we all do. 

So I can’t really comment on her behavior that night, other than to say that it freaked me out.  And that I had to save my sister from whatever craziness was – or might be – happening.

That’s how I roll.


Over the years this facet of my personality has manifested itself in all sorts of ways.  I spent years feeling it was my role to defend my sister from my parents – not that were abusive or anything, it was more a lawyerly kind of defense whenever she did something wrong or needed to speak up for herself and I felt she was taking too much time to state her case.  I would just jump right in and take over.  She didn’t ask me to – I just took it upon myself. 

And, even later, I thought – no, I believed – that I should and could and, if I tried hard enough – would get my mother to stop drinking.  In my inexperience, my naiveté, my ignorance, my desperate desire for things to be okay and for everyone to be safe, I thought I could fix this problem by getting my mother to open up about what was upsetting her so much.  I wanted her to know that I would understand, that I could understand, despite that she had “been around a few more years” than I had.  I wanted her to understand that I could help her, she could talk to me, she could tell me what was wrong and just the act of talking about it would surely help her get better.  Wouldn’t it?  I firmly, fervently believed it.  I spent years and years believing it, serving that belief, running in circles trying to say JUST the right thing to her that would flip a switch somewhere in her mind or heart and she would no longer be so sad, and no longer need to drink.

Turns out my sister really didn’t need me to talk for her, and I was never able to fix my mother. 


But I haven’t entirely learned my lesson, and while I might not try to fix everything and everyone all the time, I still worry.  About everyone.

And by everyone I mean the guinea pigs, too.

A month or so ago I was home, everyone else was at work/school, and I noticed that Cookie was breathing faster than normal.  I grabbed my phone and looked up “guinea pig respiratory issues” or something like that and filled my head with all the things that could be going wrong and I counted Cookie’s breaths and stared at him intensely and worried with purpose.


And for a moment, I saw myself.  I saw myself as a whacko, actually.  Not just content with all the legitimate things (people) I worried about regularly, I also had to grab and NEW things to worry about. 

Because, you know, if I didn’t actively worry, something bad could happen.

And that brings me back to yesterday.

When Bill and Julia took the guinea pigs outside – WITHOUT ME TO STAND GUARD – and let Cookie and Cloudy discover the joys of foraging.

They didn’t run away, in case you were wondering.

They were not eaten by hawks or coyotes.

No, they stuffed their little bellies with fresh greens and would have kept eating until they popped if Bill and Julia hadn’t brought them back into the house.

They were not interested in racing to freedom – they just wanted to eat.  And eat.

I did not need to race home to save anyone or any thing.


But, of course, if I hadn’t actively and intensely worried for that whole half hour as I drove home as fast as I dared, the hawks and coyotes would surely have appeared, and so it’s a really good thing I worry the way I do.


I kept those guinea pigs safe – with my crazy frantic save-the-day mind.

One thought on “Salad Days

  1. Your tale of Cookie and Cloudy reminded me so much of my youth (in Germany). I’m not sure how but we got a guinea pig and loved (her, it turned out later to be). She lived in a very nice, clean box in our kitchen. The room was huge. Mom kept the box near her wringer/washing machine. We kids loved our little girl and loved to find dandelions for her to eat as well as salad scraps. One day a friend of mine brought over his guinea pig to visit ours and you guessed it. I don’t know the gestation time of a female guinea pig but one morning we awoke and when we looked at our girl, there was a baby guinea pig. Being so young yet, we couldn’t imagine how that happened so we named it “Impossible”, “Imp” for short. When my friend’s family left to return to the States, you know who inherited his guinea pig and you can remember what happened before. And soon we inherited more gp’s from more friends and soon we had a huge amount of gp’s. When we left to go back to the States my father contacted a farmer who agreed to take all of our little pets and he said he was going to start a guinea pig farm.
    But that’s not the end of my guinea pig tale. When our children were little we got them various guinea pigs and they all lived a wonderful life in our home. Eventually they passed on. I don’t remember how they died but it must have been very traumatic for our kids and myself. So we stopped having them…….but only for a while.
    One day I was in a pet shop (must’ve been buying something for our fish) when I heard a loud whistle coming from the store’s back room. Curious as I am, I asked the owner what was that noise? I’d thought it was some kind of magnificent bird but it turned out to be…..you guessed it, a beautiful smooth-coated black and white gp. When we came into the room behind the curtain, he gave out the loudest whistle I’ve ever heard, and not one, but many, one after the other. He was so excited to see us. I asked about him and the owner said he was for sale; he just didn’t have a place to put the poor thing out front. And you know that I didn’t walk away empty handed from that store. No, sirree! That was the beginning of the adventures of our family with “Howard Cosell”. Yup, I named him after a famous sportscaster (probably way before you young’uns time). The real Howard was, as Wikipedia describes him through his very own description”American sports journalist who was widely known for his blustery, cocksure personality.[1] Cosell said of himself, “Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff.” Well, it turns out so was our guinea pig in some ways. He was loud, to say the least, reminding me and my husband of the famous Howard Cosell.
    Our Howard became famous in his own way. By this time our two daughters and son were much older and we had lots of visits by all their friends. And to this day, some 30 years later, some of their friends remember Howard.
    I remember one time we were going away (I believe for Christmas with family in Ohio) but didn’t know what to do with Howard. Our car wouldn’t fit all five of us and a guinea pig in a large aquarium. But my wonderful neighbor said she would love to keep Howard for us and that her girls would also love it. Well, love it they did. When we came home we found out that not only had they taught Howard to ring a little bell they’d dangled over his “home” but that he had also gone on a trip with them to visit their family and that everyone had loved Howard. People couldn’t get over what a lovable character he was.
    Well, Howard lived a very, very long time and died peacefully one day. Thankfully the kids were all at school when it happened and I couldn’t bear to tell them. So I wrote them a note, signed by Howard, thanking them for being such wonderful children to love and care for him as they did. I don’t remember what all it said but it made the children feel better. We’ve moved to a new home in another state but I do believe that somewhere in my paper files I have a copy of that letter. Now our Howard and the real Howard Cosell can talk together all they want.

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