My white squirrel died.
Of course it wasn’t my white squirrel. It belonged to the neighborhood. And oddly enough, it wasn’t even the first white squirrel—there was another one before it.
I live in an 1892 brownstone apartment building in one of the older neighborhoods in St. Paul. When I moved here four years ago, one of the things that charmed me the most was the white squirrel who lived in the ash trees in front of my building. Every time I spotted that bobbing bit of white, I felt that good things were on the way.
There’s a deck at the back of my building, and even though the light isn’t ideal, I’ve had moderate success growing container plants in my little bit of outdoor space. Maybe because they have to try harder, the cherry tomatoes are especially flavorful. The white squirrel must have thought so, too, because I once caught it sitting on the rail, helping itself to my tomatoes as if they were its birthright.
One day, heading home from a walk, I saw two white blurs ahead of me. The white squirrel sometimes looked like a plastic bag from a distance, so I assumed there were either two plastic bags blowing around or else the white blurs were my squirrel and one bag. I got closer and realized there were actually two white squirrels. Double the luck!
The second squirrel started hanging around more often, and if I got close enough I could tell them apart. The original squirrel seemed older, a bit more bedraggled. And soon I didn’t need to be close to tell them apart. The first squirrel showed up one day with half its tail missing. Whenever I saw it, I tried to maintain eye contact. You’re a scrappy one, I thought at it. Good for you.
In early spring this year, I got a glimpse of the half-tailed squirrel and was relieved to see that it had made it through the winter. But that one glimpse was all I got. The squirrel never showed up again. I hope it at least got the chance to enjoy a little spring sunshine on its fur.
The second squirrel now became the resident squirrel. And occasionally another white squirrel I recognized from my walks dropped by. This third white squirrel had a bristly tail that looked almost like a toilet brush. Its eyes were darker and it wasn’t as shy.
the third white squirrel
I began seeing the resident squirrel more often—in the tree branches in front of my window, along the fenceline across the street, in the shady alcove next to the steps. Sometimes it was in the parking lot. Its flat-footed hop seemed different from that of other squirrels, as if its feet were flippers better suited to water than land.
My mom loved the white squirrels as much as I did. I regularly reported my sightings to her and sent her pictures. When she visited, she stood by my window and watched for white. This past August, I went for a short walk while she waited for me on the bench in front of my building. When I came back, the white squirrel was out and about, giving my mom her own close-up encounter.
Probably because I always stopped to watch it, the squirrel usually paused for a bit to look back at me. I imagined that it recognized me, that it knew I was a friend. In mid-November, on a Thursday afternoon, I returned from a walk and there was the squirrel, just a few feet away. We held each other’s gazes longer than we ever had.
The following Sunday morning I saw something white and still beneath the ash tree. I knew it wasn’t a plastic bag.
My heart sank and I went to the tree with trepidation, not wanting to see what I knew was there. The squirrel didn’t have any visible signs of injury. Its pink eyes were open. It didn’t look particularly peaceful, nor did it look like it had struggled. It just looked gone.
I couldn’t bear the thought of the squirrel being carried away by animals, or remaining there and slowly deteriorating, an object of curiosity and revulsion for passersby. I couldn’t bear the thought of putting it in the dumpster in the alley. I wanted to bury it, but where? I thought about burying it next to the building, but I didn’t have a spade, just a flimsy trowel; and truth be told, I didn’t want my neighbors to wonder about me. And I had to work in the afternoon, so I didn’t have a lot of time to figure this out.
My kindhearted friend Sandra gave me my answer. She lives ten minutes away from me and has a house with a yard. She also has a soft spot for animals and has buried a few wild creatures herself. She said I could bury the squirrel beneath her tree. I found a box the right size and lined it with paper towels. With plastic bags on my hands, I placed the squirrel into the box. Its body was already stiff.
Sandra had the spade ready and a spot picked out when I arrived. We dug the hole, then opened the box to say goodbye and to give the squirrel a parting gift of cornflakes and pistachios. We placed the box into the ground, covered it with dirt, and marked the spot with pieces of blue pottery. I went on with my day.
Six weeks have now passed, and every time I leave my building, I am still keenly aware of the white squirrel’s absence. Those glimmers of delight that punctuated my comings and goings are gone. I keep hoping that the third white squirrel will move into my neighborhood, but so far I’ve only seen it once, blocks away.
I’ve been trying to figure out why these white squirrels have meant so much to me. I haven't come up with an answer. All I know is that they did.
For Christmas this year, I bought my mom and me tiny figurines of a white squirrel. I placed mine by a pair of Christmas tree candles that my mom made years ago. The figurines are a bit too cute to convey the spirit of the squirrels, but at least they will provide us with a reminder. We will remember that upwelling of gladness that we experienced so often during these past few years. And we will feel lucky.
is a children's book author, editor, tutor, mom of two adult children and one feisty cat, and collector of weird things.
My Reading Corps Service
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A Blue Ribbon Day
A Kind Neighbor, a Beaded Tree