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Tulips and Guinea Pigs

The tulips are in the ground, waiting for spring. My mother loved to plant bulbs in the fall. She said it reminded her that the earth would come back to life again. It was for her, and now for me, a ritual of hope. This fall I think I need a good dose of hope.

Fall for me is a time for reflection, a time to think back on the events of the year, a time to give thanks for what we have, and a time to reevaluate our lives. When I planted bulbs last week, I thought of the last time I dug in the earth. It was to bury our dear pet guinea pig Glory. Today I have to write about Glory.

Nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon? A couple of years ago, you could have come to the Green-Stone household and watched the guinea pig races.

Our guinea pigs Ginger and Glory were brothers. They lived with us for five years. One year Ginger was the Grand Champion Guinea Pig of the Sterling Fair; Glory had a hard time placing. He was shy and kept facing the corner. The following year, the pigs didn't place at all. The judge said they were too old. They never went to the fair again. Althea, our daughter, said it was too stressful for them.

Saturdays were often the pigs' busy day. Baths. Grooming. Nail clipping. Getting dried by the hair drier. And a carrot as a reward. These were long-haired Peruvian pigs, the high-maintenance type.

The guinea pig races were always a special event. The races worked like this: You need a hot summer day. A lazy day. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. No people to meet. Guinea pig races take your full attention.

We would place the guinea pigs side by side in the center of the screened-in porch on the north side of the house. Then we'd put a carrot three feet in front of them. Glory and Ginger loved carrots! First pig to the carrot wins the race. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Not so. You see those pigs - Ginger and Glory - had always been together. They liked it that way. If one pig was out of sight of the other, they would both "gweep." (That's the sound they made: gweep, gweep, gweep.)

Okay. The pigs are in position, side by side, on the porch. The carrot is in place. First pig to the carrot wins. And they're off!

No one moves.

Maybe the carrot is too far away? The observers grow impatient. Someone moves the carrot closer to the pigs. First an inch. Then several inches. Then a half-inch. Finally one of us waves the carrot in front of the pigs' noses and places it a foot away from them. The pigs sit. Side by side. No one moves. We are now a half hour into the race.

Perhaps it's time for the race to end.

Althea picks up the carrot and sets it down three inches in front of the pigs. Glory makes a quick move and grabs it. Ginger, the larger of the two, is a close second; but being the stronger pig, he takes the carrot away from his brother and turns his back to him, gnawing and crunching. Someone breaks the carrot in two and gives Glory half.

Sometimes we use two little carrots. The race is basically unchanged, except that both pigs end up with a carrot as soon as the first pig makes a move.

I used to wonder if the race was really about which pig would be the first to get a carrot. Or were we involved in a different sort of contest altogether? If the pigs refused to move, how long would it take for the people to give them the carrots? Maybe this wasn't a race so much as a power struggle? I never did figure it out, but the guinea pig races were a regular form of entertainment at our house, a part of our family culture. This is what people do, we would tell ourselves - and any guests who may have joined us for a guinea pig race - without television.

Now the pigs are gone. Both succumbed to old age. The guinea pig books told us that guinea pigs usually die suddenly, that they don't get sick and need to go to a vet. Most people simply find their guinea pigs dead one day. But we knew when each of these pigs was going to leave us. We had time to visit each one, to stroke him gently and tell him what a good pig he was.

Ginger died a year ago, last fall. After Ginger died, Glory got more attention: I was worried that he was lonely. He was clearly a geriatric guinea pig, and it was winter. I had my family prepared for the inevitable. And I made us all a promise: "If the ground is frozen when Glory dies, I won't put him in the trash. He'll go in the freezer until spring."

But Glory didn't die that winter. He died in the spring, as soon as the snow melted and the earth was soft enough to receive him. I must admit that I had to encourage him to go. His last days, he couldn't move his hindquarters, and his welcoming gweeps had become wheezing whispers. I stroked his head and told him that he was a good pig and that he could leave us, that we would always remember him and Ginger and the joy that they brought into our family.

Pet funerals are an event at our house. We dig the hole and gently place the animal in it with a couple of choice objects and a little food for the journey. Then, although we never plan it, we sing a song of praise and tell stories about the creature we are giving to the earth. We've buried dogs, cats, chickens, guinea pigs, fish, and one bird that broke its neck hitting one of the windows.

Autumn is here again, the time for reflection. I love watching the faded leaves fly though the air. I give thanks for the beauty of the New England seasons. The cycles are a vivid reminder of the ways of the world. We come into the world, and we leave. While we're here, we try to live our lives fully: seeking balance, embracing struggle, taking joy in the world that surrounds us. That we exist at all is sacred, a precious mysterious gift.

Life is unpredictable. We don't always have the opportunity to say good-bye to our loved ones. Let us be mindful of the stories we are living everyday. Let us take time to tell and retell our stories.

Stories celebrate life and give us hope.


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