Skunk Lessons

This morning I took my coffee mug to the front window and gazed outside in the pre-dawn light. A movement in the vicinity of the trash bags we’d piled at the edge of our driveway caught my eye. At first I thought a dog had gotten into the trash, but closer inspection showed a bushy black tail held high, the white stripe clearly visible in the glow of the street lamp. That was no dog. I’d seen a stripe like that before.

When I was about eight years old, I went for a weekend visit with my dad. He took me along on his normal ‘rounds,’ which included a trip to the liquor store. (I guess this isn’t a CBA-appropriate story, is it?) Now, this particular establishment was a drive-up liquor store (which, in itself, deserves a few comments. But I digress.) with a very small space inside about the size of a couple of office cubicles. A group of my father’s friends were in the custom of congregating there, and Daddy told me he wanted to run inside and chat with the guys for a minute. I, of course, was not allowed, so I had to amuse myself in the car.

When something moved on the hillside behind the store, I became curious. I got out of the car to investigate, and was delighted to find three tiny little black kittens, just big enough to sit adorably in the palm of my hand. I played with them for a few minutes before I realized that these weren’t kittens after all. Identical white stripes ran down the center of each little back. Their little black-and-white tails were scraggly and not completely grown in yet, and their pointed noses didn’t look like any kittens I’d ever seen. They were skunks, but they were still adorable and playful. I figured the busy road running in front of the liquor store must have left them orphaned, which touched my heart. They obviously needed someone to take care of them, and I was up for the challenge.

I picked up one sweet little creature and, cradling it in my hands, and went to show my father. I tapped on the glass door to get his attention, and the half-dozen or so men crowded into the tiny space inside turned toward me. My father opened the door and, still standing inside, asked, “Whatcha got there, Gin?”

I marched inside, my prize still in my hands. When I stood on the carpet in the center of the circle of men, I held up my new pet. Eyes grew round. Someone said, “Myron, your kid’s got a skunk!” They all started backing away from me, but of course they couldn’t back very far because the store was so small. Someone else suggested, “It’s pretty young. Maybe the glands haven’t developed yet.”

“She’s just a baby,” I told them. “She won’t hurt you. See?” I ran a finger down her back. “She likes me. Can I keep her, Daddy?”

I don’t know why my father chose this moment to instruct me in the art of skunk-handling. Maybe he figured it was his job to teach me things, and thought we were having one of those father-daughter moments that I would remember forever. Well, he was right.

Daddy said, “Here, you’re holding it wrong. Let me show you. You’ve got to hold the tail down, like this.”

He reached out and grabbed the baby skunk. Unfortunately, the skunk didn’t like Daddy as much as she liked me. She proved to everyone that her glands had, indeed, developed to full maturity.

The liquor store was closed for renovations for almost a week. I’m told the carpet had to be ripped out and replaced. And Daddy was never welcome there again.

I remembered that incident this morning as I watched the skunk rummage through my garbage. Now, I admit, I was tempted to see if maybe I still have a trace of whatever skunk attraction I possessed at age eight. But I definitely don’t have the same amount of bravado. And the memory of my father’s horrified face—and the stench that lingered on him for the rest of the weekend no matter how many times he showered—was vivid in my memory. So I contented myself with flipping on the porch light. Turns out, it was a wise move. That bushy tail shot straight up as the skunk ran away.

Phew! What a shame driveways aren’t as easy to replace as carpets.

The moral to the story is this: our children learn from us. Maybe not the lessons we intend to teach, but they do learn and grow wise from seeing our mistakes. (And if that holds true, my kids are going to be as wise as Solomon!)

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