I don’t remember mice in the house before I was 7 or 8. I’m sure they were there, but somehow they escaped my notice. The first time I remember seeing one, I was in the bathroom. Our farmhouse was a hastily constructed shack, built in the late 1800’s, by people not altogether sure this pioneer gig was for them, and always half-convinced they’d be going back to England. But 100 years later, we were the 3rd generation to live here. At one point, dad had stripped the walls back to those original boards, exposing huge gaps between boards, and no drywall. The wood had been cheap, and full of knotholes. As I lowered myself onto the toilet, a noise made me look up. Staring through one of those knotholes was a small gray mouse. He hadn’t been there a second before, and he scurried off before I could be sure what I had seen. I was scared. And unsettled.
I could hear them. They ran through the silverware drawer. They scratched at the piles of newspaper my father hoarded, their little feet clicked across the linoleum. I learned to identify the smell of mouse urine, garlicky, oniony, acrid, overwhelming due to their sheer numbers in the house. We didn’t pour a bowl of cereal without inspecting it carefully before adding milk and committing to eating it. I learned to step heavily, hopefully warning them to my arrival, and giving them ample time to vacate. It didn’t always work. When my brother was a baby, my mom laid him down on the couch to nap. A mouse that was either sick or evil (or both) crept up beside him, and bit him. When my mom got there, the mouse actually seemed to adopt an offensive posture, daring her to come after him, then slunk off in no hurry. I walked into the kitchen upon waking up one morning. My mom yelled at me to go get my dad. When he & I got there, she had filled the sink. She had found 4 of them in the sink, and had instinctively put the stopper in the drain, and was in the process of drowning them. But those little buggers can swim. While doing chores outside, there was always a designated “stomper”. Dad would lift the bales off the stack, cut the twine holding them together, then spread the hay a bit. Mice, sometimes 20 of them, would sprint out. And it was up to one of us kids to stomp them into oblivion. I couldn’t do it. Not because I didn’t want them dead. I just couldn’t get that close to them.
You would think that eventually you would get used to it, to them. I didn’t. The fear turned to phobia. I would have to set up new parameters in my mind just to get through the day. If I saw one in the living room, I would run upstairs to my room, telling myself they couldn’t climb. Or I would go off somewhere on the farm, convinced that in the vastness of the prairie, they wouldn’t find me. I got less and less rational when dealing with them. I ended up standing on my sleeping sister’s head one night, unaware of how I had ended up there, knowing only that I had to get away from the mouse. I vomited a half dozen times one afternoon, stopping only when my father promised, PROMISED that the next day when he went to town, he would pick up a new anti-rodent device a friend had told me about. One that we couldn’t afford, but I had to have, and had to believe would work.
Last fall, I volunteered to throw a baby shower for an old friend. The night before the shower, my husband and I were up late, finishing up half-done home improvement projects. Finally, at 3 a.m., I was laying in bed, eyes shut, waiting for him. He casually said, “Hey, guess what? I think we have a mouse…”. And he stopped. The look on his face told me what my face looked like. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry…”. I said I wouldn’t be sleeping, then dissolved into sobs.
“But you grew up on a farm. In a mouse-infested house. How are you still this scared?” my husband asked, after I started breathing again. Yes, I had lived in a mouse-infested house. And I had lived in abject terror the entire time. My husband dutifully ran out the next morning, bought three different types of traps, and within weeks, we’d caught two, and all signs of them were gone. I’d lulled myself into thinking that was it.
Two days ago, a mouse skittered between my couch and my love seat. I screamed. Loudly. I ran into the kitchen. I lobbed a shoe back into the living room, to let the little bastard know I meant business. My baby daughter didn’t know what the hell was going on. So she started to scream too. And the idea that I was planting the seeds of another generation of phobia made me shut my damn mouth mid-scream.
What is it all about? Why does a creature that is 1/200th my size make me lose control of my faculties? Lose the ability to be anything close to rational? If I sit and think, I can come up with all sorts of reasons. They move fast. They startle. The sight of something unexpected, especially in your “safe place” is unnerving. After I see one, I just wait for the next sighting, unable to turn it off. I feel invaded. Something I did not invite into my home is here, nonetheless. And I can’t just politely ask it to leave. Nor can I call the police, like I could for a human intruder. I’m on my own. I grew up poor, in a house that was constructed and maintained more poorly than most people’s garden sheds. Mice happened to poor, dirty people. I didn’t think of myself like that anymore. I didn’t want to be reminded of where I’d come from.
I’m trying very hard. To be OK. Because it’s not about me anymore. I feel like I have an opportunity not to pass on my own particular brand of crazy to my kids. But I’m still going to watch. And wait…