Favourite Parent by Jyl Barlow

When the husband goes away, all the damn animals in the forest come out to play. I used to wonder whether the wilds upped their game as they watched me settling into this life on the prairie. I wonder no more. Not since a possum’s failed attempt to enter our home via the pet door. Well, what do you expect if you have a pet door? I expect the fenced-in yard to serve as the first line of defense, our dogs to serve as the second, and the actual pet door to be above the level of difficulty that the wilds are accustomed to.

I moved here from Raleigh, North Carolina, where I never saw anything wilder than the beaver that lived in the manmade lake behind my townhouse paddling around on a warm day. But I have lived here in the sticks now for at least a decade, so perhaps I should know better. And I have gotten better – in some areas. Like moving small spiders out of the door unharmed. Or mostly unharmed. Apparently burning down the house is never an option.

It did not take much time for me to experience the wild after moving to my new Virginia home on the range, a home which, I’m told, is not actually in the sticks at all – though that’s all I seem to find when I walk outdoors. So maybe we are not quite the sticks, but we are further yonder than I’ve ever been and there are definitely times when I long for the landscape of sidewalks.

First wildlife encounter? Deer. Lots of Deer. Evidently, our home marked the path to a good night’s sleep, and I watched, terrified, as a small herd appeared each evening to stroll confidently through our front yard, around to our sideyard, and down through the backyard before bedding down in the old lakebed just beyond our unofficial lot line. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen deer, but they had seemed so much smaller viewed from inside a car.

In the name of establishing myself as a peaceful neighbor, I insisted that we head to the local farm store (yes, we had a local farm store) to pick up a salt lick and some deer feed. I then waited and watched each night from the safety of our second-floor screened porch to see if I’d sparked a friendship. It took less than a week for Jane and Henry Fawnda to make ‘let’s grab a snack’ part of their walk. I swear, Henry even winked at me on occasion. But this project was short-lived once the two alerted some friends. It was after Bo Deerick, Jayne Doe, Buck Lightyear, and Aunt Lerr arrived that Rich suggested maybe we not continue replenishing their pit stop.

My next encounter? Raccoons. When we’d moved to the house, we had brought with us our three cats. We added a dog shortly after and our yellow cat, Meowlynn, packed his belongings and moved to the garage. Fine. We realized that he had no intention of returning inside unless compelled, and that this compulsion would guarantee us lives as human pin cushions. Fine. We built him a small apartment on the shelves, including a dining area.

And then it happened.

Rich was away on a business trip (of course) and the kids were in bed. I was shutting down the house, as responsible adults do. I wiped down the kitchen, started the dishwasher, and went to the garage to push the button on the garage door so it would lower almost all the way down, leaving a gap for Meowlynn to slip under. I flung open the internal door to the garage and was confronted by the statue of a raccoon. Except it wasn’t a statue. It was, like I, frozen in terror, and right in the act of grabbing a handful of cat food. Did you know raccoons stand? They stand?

I shrieked. It shrieked (Did it? I don’t actually know). I fumbled to shut the door (Should I? What should I be doing?). I paced the living room for several minutes. I went back to the garage and bravely (bravely!) cracked the door about ¼ inch to peek out. The raccoon statue was gone. The realization dawned that we would have a cat food-addicted raccoon in our garage for the rest of Meowlynn’s life. I knew that this tiny Zorro would come back forever until the end of our garage cat’s time.

This too was something which also occurred while Rich was out of town. Yes, that same cat quite literally dropped dead in the driveway one night between the time I had sent the kids down to collect the mail and the time they started back from the box. Perhaps this would herald a slight reduction in the presence of other home invaders: snakes, rabbits, birds, voles, and skanks – all delivered inside the house by a proud cat or dog with the message: It’s alright. I see you. I will assist with dinner plans while the other hooman is missing.

A few weeks ago, Rich went on his first business trip in nearly two years. We relished this return to post-pandemic normalcy as he headed off to the airport early on a Sunday afternoon. In previous years, the kids and I had enjoyed a system when Rich was out of town that included dinner out, dessert, later bedtimes, and an extra hour of electronics, moments guaranteed to maintain my dominance in the category of “Favorite Parent”.

That Sunday night, after dinner and dessert and while video games were being played in the next room, I noticed that our dog, Kylo, had been outside longer than usual. It’s not uncommon for Kylo to lay out at length and enjoy the rain, snow, or freezing temperatures, so I was not unduly concerned by her absence. But when she eventually came in, she seemed distracted. She planted herself by the stairs to the basement, rather than on the couch, and ‘Lassie-ed’ me, beckoning me to come with her down into the basement. Eek. Kylo, the guiltiest of our animals when it came to bringing home friends, was not to be trusted.

“Kylo wants to show me something in the basement,” I said to my son, Zack, passing him on the way to the stairs, “so please be on high alert for a shriek.”

At the bottom of the stairs, I looked left. Nothing. I looked right. Nothing. Okay, maybe we’re good. Kylo had gone ahead of me out through the pet door. I looked out the top of the door and onto the porch. Nothing. I looked around the immediate yard. Nothing. I grabbed the door handle and bravely (bravely!) yanked open the door.

I almost stepped on a possum. And by “almost” I mean I somehow took an unplanned leap over this thing and onto the porch while shrieking and, miraculously, not hurting myself.

I waited for Zack to come rushing to my aid. Nothing. I shrieked again. Nothing. I snapped a picture on my phone and sent it to Rich in New York City. I hopped back over the possum, sprinted to the bottom of the stairs, and shrieked once more. Footsteps at last.

‘What’s going on?’ Zack said. I quickly explained the situation. ‘Wait now, what?’

Did this child really need me to explain it again? Apparently, he did.

Rich responded with: do not touch it, grab a shovel and toss it outside the fence.

For some reason, this triggered me to put on my beekeeper suit. I do not know why. I also grabbed a very large, clear plastic bin and placed it over the possum.

Zack, meanwhile, had left me alone as he strolled to get a shovel from the garage. I suspect that this is when he discovered that I had moved all the yard gear to our storage shed, as he was gone for basically ever.

And then I discovered that the possum was alive.

For one moment I considered dragging the lot, doormat, possum, and bin, all together toward the yard, taking the risk of it coming out of its nature-coma and flailing about. But then I then saw exactly how many teeth it had. Do you know then that when a possum plays dead it does so with its teeth bared to be more intimidating? I was intimidated.

I tagged out just as Zack reappeared with a shovel. The next moments were a blur, but Zack gently scooped up this not-dead-at-all possum and carried him to our side-yard for a mostly gentle release.

While he was doing that, I was inside removing my beekeeper suit and chatting with my box of wine. Just as I had settled onto the couch, I heard knocking. Can possums knock? I crept back down the stairs to the basement. It was quite hard to see out of the windows but there was definitely something peering in.

Was it the possum? A raccoon statue? Oh, right.

It was Zack. In my hasty retreat, I had locked my child outside. At night. With the wilds.

I have rescinded this year’s application for “Favorite Parent”.

Jyl Barlow is an American writer. Her debut ‘What to Expect When You Weren’t Expecting’, a memoir about her path as a (step)mom), was released in February 2023 and is available from Amazon. Jyl lives in Virginia, USA with her husband and two (step)children. Get to know her at jylbarlow.com and follow her stories on whichwaysup.blog.