Today we have an excerpt from "Spin the Plate," by Donna Anastasi, currently on tour with Walker Author Tours. Here the heroine of the story, Jo, reflects on a childhood memory that shaped her as she grew up. Enjoy, and don't forget to pick up your copy of "Spin the Plate"!
There was a time, before the episodes, or at least before they’d gotten very bad, when her parents took her on family vacations to a cabin in Maine. She and her mother stayed a whole month, with her father joining them on the weekends. The two of them would spend endless hours of mother-daughter time together pressing flowers into a scrapbook, drawing a picture next to each in colored pencils, and carefully printing both the scientific and common names. Using a guidebook on native plants and animals like a treasure map, they’d take long walks looking for new flowers to paste into the scrapbook.
One Saturday her mom shook her awake at dawn for one of their early morning nature walks, sneaking out of the cabin while her father was still asleep. Everything was grayish and the air was misty. It was quiet except for the soft cooing calls of mourning doves. They’d been traveling a dirt road for only about ten minutes when they came across a cat-sized silvery gray animal that had been hit by a car.
As soon as she caught sight of it, Jo remembered turning her head upwards and away from the ground. Gazing into the face of her mother, she could see the woman glancing down at the road in a detached sort of way, then curious. She was surprised to see her mother take a gardening glove from the front pocket of the flower-gathering tote she carried. “Oh the poor things,” her mother murmured, as she slipped on the glove.
Her curiosity outweighing her revulsion, the young girl peered down to see the tips of tiny tails twitching atop the soft-looking light gray belly fur of the dead animal on the road. The woman gave each tail a slow, steady tug as though she were pulling baby carrots from the ground. And with each tug out came a wriggling mouse-like animal that her mom tucked into her bag.
As mother and daughter turned around and headed back to the cabin, the woman explained that opossums are marsupials, which means the mothers carry their babies with them in a built-in pouch wherever they go.
Once home, they put the litter of four babies in box lined with an old cloth, then put a heating pad underneath the box on one side. The babies had coats of velvety fuzz and pink hairless tails that curled a bit at the end. The first day there were purplish bumps where the eyes should have been, but throughout the next day, one by one dark slits appeared and grew in size until the babies blinked and stared with shiny black eyes.
She helped her mother feed them a mixture of evaporated milk with molasses using an eyedropper. Each baby, when it was his turn, grasped tightly to the eyedropper with front paws that looked like tiny hands. As a baby possum licked at the glass tapered tip, a thin layer of foamy milk formed at the lips.
Then, after three days, the babies started to lose weight, dying, one by one. She couldn’t remember all their names, but “Peter” was the one to make it the longest: a full five days. Her mother’s words had comforted her then, “Isn’t it better that they pass away sleeping on a soft towel snug inside a dark, quiet shoebox with a belly full of warm milk, rather than starving by the roadside?”