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Just Martha

2014 September 2
by Rachel Turiel

I am so sorry to report that not one rat baby survived. They faded out in painfully protracted waves. First one died, then five more while we were at the kids’ shared school* open house, then two more, and then the very, absolute last baby was found lifeless inside its pink, translucent skin.

When the first baby rat died, it seemed such a singular anomaly that Col asked if he could dissect its body at the kitchen table. “No!” I said at first, then remembered that we’re a hunting, butchering, home-schooling family who encourages children to take their education into their own hands. So Col opened up the little ones belly, and the tiniest coil of intestines spooled out.

Even after two babies were gone, I imagined the furry, plump futures of the remaining seven; imagined handing them off to Rose’s friends, being able to visit Martha’s offspring with all the nostalgia of a great-grandma. Even after seven were gone, I nurtured a small seed of hope. That emotion, hope, is a trickster. It feels almost productive (I’m busy hoping), though it carries the burden of expectation, of wanting things to be different, things that are out of our control. The day after all the babies were gone, I was contemplating rat orphanages, rodent assisted reproductive technology, or something to bring rat babies back into our house.

Rose, however, has led the family with wisdom and heart. She’s finding the wobbly balance between engagement and acceptance. She observed and reported regularly on Martha and her babies (“They’re nursing!”  “She’s sleeping on top of them!”) and when only two were left, Rose said, bravely, “It’s probably OK because now Martha can focus on keeping only two alive.”

When the very last baby rat died, Rose carried it to the compost and announced, “It would have been better if either she had never had babies, or if they all survived.” Indeed. We all like the happy endings best. After that, Rose got on with things, like squealing over Martha every couple hours. “Marteees!” she calls out, flinging her cage open.

After my sadness passed, I felt tremendous empathy for Martha. Imagine! One day you’re a mom; five days later, you’re not. “Do you think she’s sad?” Rose asks. Mostly she just seems exceptionally tired. The conventional wisdom is that Martha was too young for motherhood, not yet full grown herself. Maybe she didn’t make enough milk. Maybe there was disease. Maybe it was that one day, the babies’ second day alive, that Martha spent partying in her tube as if she didn’t have a pile of nine wriggly, hungry, needy young stashed under newspaper bedding.

It’s funny how you can get attached to something you never actually wanted or expected, like nine bitty, unformed rat babies with stumpy little paws and unopened eyes. But, now we’re back where we started, just Martha. Rose picks her up, dances with her and says in her squeakiest voice, “Oh Martees, you were just too young to be a Mama.”

martha3

This is Martha, “smiling,” according to Rose.martha2

* Shared school: partnership between homeschoolers and public school, whereby my kids can attend public school for homeschoolers 2 days/week, AKA how I can homeschool and work, AKA how I can homeschool and not become the kind of mother who eats her young, AKA a lovely program with friends and music and art and Spanish and excellent teachers for which I am extremely grateful.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Ellen permalink
    September 2, 2014

    Such a sweet and poignant lesson on life and death, hope and acceptance. Who would have ever thought that rats could smile so sweetly?

  2. mollie permalink
    September 2, 2014

    Rat smiles! Who knew?

  3. September 2, 2014

    Om Mani Padme Hung….

  4. Andrea permalink
    September 3, 2014

    I just returned from the mountains to learn that (gasp) you are a great grandmother.

    Life and Death on the homestead.
    Always happening.

    Remind Rose that although Martha is not currently with her young, she has been and always will be a mother.

    So much fun binge reading the happenings at 6512.

  5. Heather permalink
    September 5, 2014

    Sympathy for the lost babies and all, but- Shared School??!! Tell more! It sounds freakin’ awesome. Does it really work? New program or old? How/why would a public school agree to such a thing? The circle of life will continue but this is news worthy stuff. Please share details at some point when harvesting/storing has slowed down.

  6. September 5, 2014

    I’m sorry to hear about the rat babies.

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