Friday, April 3, 2015

Rabbit Tales

I am in my car alone.  I want to be alone right now. The funeral service for my Grandpa has just ended -- shovels full of dirt in the deep hole that will be his last earthly home. I am sad for the lessons that now have stopped. His passing leaves a hole in my heart and my life that's as big and deep as his grave.

I loved my Grandpa, though there was a time when I hated him. Not for long, but it was intense when it came to the surface.This was just one the many lessons he taught me: Love and hate are often very close.

From the time I came home from the hospital in a tiny pink outfit with rabbits hopping from the toes to the top, he called me "Bunny." Oh, he called me "Sylvia" too, and sometimes "Sylvie," but in our most endearing moments it was always "Bunny." It seems that traditionally grandfathers have been partial to their grandsons on account of the fact they'd be the ones carrying the family name forward into the future. Nowadays it doesn't matter as much since so many women keep their own last names when they marry -- but that's a different story for another time. My grandpa was partial to me.  We shared so much: deep sapphire eyes, an easy smile and a sunny disposition. When he looked at me, I knew he saw himself in the way that children just know those things.

Now Grandpa was a great hunter and loved the Vermont hills from which which he would procure venison and wild turkey for the family table. I knew that and I accepted that, even from a very young age, the same way farm kids know that hamburger comes from those bucolic-looking cows grazing so calmly in the lush green meadows.

What I didn't know about were the rabbits -- those endearing, charming, long-eared bunnies that inhabited my bedtime stories and provided the touchstone of our relationship. Often, when Grandpa went hunting he'd bring me back the soft white and brindle tails of rabbits. I loved them. They were a special gift and I used them as pretend powder puffs or ornaments for my hair. They were tucked every where in my room -- some beside my lamp, others in the corner of my mirror, and still others scented with Mother's perfume and squirreled away in my dresser drawers. Mother always had to check my pockets before she did the wash as most often a tiny bunny tail was hidden there, a soft and tactile reminder of my protector's love, a tangible wish for my good fortune.

This went on from the time I was four or five until I was eight. I was just starting third grade when we had a show-and-tell time where each student could bring something that they wanted to share with the rest of the class. One by one they would stand in front of the whole class and tell what it was and explain why they had chosen to bring it to school.

I brought in four of the fluffiest rabbit tails in my supply. Swallowing hard to get up the nerve to address my classmates, I went to the front of the room and charged, full speed ahead, with the story: My Grandpa was such a good hunter, you see, he could shoot the tails right off the rabbits in the woods-- without even harming them!

The silence was deafening. I had fully expected my classmates to cheer his obvious skill -- not to mention be envious of my treasures. Instead, what greeted me -- after the long silence -- was an unbelievable snickering.  We were, after all, a community of hunters and even at their young age, many of the boys in my class had already been hunting. Then one particularly grubby boy stood up.

"That there weren't no way that can happen," the boy said. "Them rabbits was in the stew you et.-- and you didn't even know it!"

My face reddened in response and tears sprung to my eyes as I realized that this was most likely true. The teacher, having seen the look of horror and betrayal cross my face, quickly came to my side and gently ushered me out of the classroom. Though teachers must be prepared for anything at "show and tell,"she clearly had not been prepared to witness my moment of truth or to deal with the resulting emotional fallout.

Young as I was, this was my first true awareness that all is not as it seems. A year before I had given up Santa Claus with barely a ripple. He was the spirit of giving, after all, and I still believed in that wholeheartedly. But to have Grandpa revealed in public as a liar and, even worse, someone who used my adoration and trust to perpetuate a falsehood, was more than I could bear.

After an hour in the nurse's office, my mother came to get me. My stomach ached and my eyes were red and swollen. I could not tell her what her father had done to me. I could not tell her how hurtful it was that he had slaughtered Peter Cottontail, defiled the Velveteen Rabbit and made the sweet characters of Beatrix Potter forever sour in my mouth. Truth had been revealed and it was such a bitter pill that my eight-year-old mind, body and soul could not digest it. But the teacher had told her what had happened. To Mother's credit, she remained silent, waiting patiently for me to speak. But I could not.When Grandpa came for supper that night I remained in my room. I could not face him. I hated him.

The class quickly moved on to other things, forgetting my "show and tell" in favor of papier mache globes and volcanoes, double-dutch jump rope, and the intricacies of math. They forgot, but I did not. I had been happy in my ignorance, my head in the sand like a grade-school ostrich, not seeing what I did not want to see. I longed for the hand-holding walks in the woods where Grandpa would point out the edible cinnamon ferns and help me gather the miniature wild strawberries. But I did not know how to go forward.

This lesson I later came to identify with the concept of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." Was I willing to give up everything because of a single betrayal?  Grandpa had been told what happened and his sadness cast a pall over the entire household. He told my mother that he'd never said that he didn't kill the rabbits. Upon later reflection, I guess he hadn't. This I later came to identify with another concept: That there are sins of omission as well as sins of commission.

The bunny tails disappeared from my room and Grandpa never called me "Bunny" ever again. Eventually we established an uneasy truce. It happened while I was trying to ignore him at the supper table one night and he got caught slipping a bit of fried liver off his plate to the family dog who was forbidden table food. He blushed and laughed and then started laughing harder when he saw that I was laughing with him.  His merriment (or perhaps relief) was so great that tears sprung to his eyes and the moment rolled on, both of us laughing as the terrible past started to recede into the past. (Another lesson I learned through all this is the healing power of laughter.)

So, life went on. The shine of my hero may have been tarnished, but he was still my hero, my teacher, my mentor and my kin. In the kind of linguistic shorthand peculiar to families, we began to identify these kinds of half truths that abound in life as "rabbit tales."

We shared much in the next 19 years until, like in The Velveteen Rabbit, he was worn and frail having lived too much and loved too much.  So, today I just want to be alone and remember and think of all the times his lessons held me in good stead.

Nobody is perfect. And to expect that they are is probably the biggest rabbit tale of the all. My hate was fleeting but my love for him -- and his for me -- did not end with his death.

Just let me be alone for awhile.

Related Stories:
Mind Your Manners
In the Still of the Night

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