When traveling home for the holidays, you expect certain things. You expect flight delays and cranky airline personnel. You expect to be bludgeoned by Christmas cookies and family drama the second you walk in the door. And you expect everyone to puke at least once and still pretend to have a good time.

But one thing you don’t expect is a rat. Or at least I don’t. My parents live in a townhouse in the heart of Chicago. Houses there are made of stone and feel like small fortresses, impenetrable to invaders. They are not.

For a long time, my mom complained about the rats on her street. A neighbor built a bird sanctuary and left great buckets of bird feed out in the open. My mom saw rats digging in her garden and once, even found their scat in her basement.

My mom is of the hardy New England variety—she helped her family build their house growing up and delivered all four of her children without pain medication, two of them without her husband. Yet when it comes to rodents, she is petrified. She often calls rodent patrol. She asks her handy man to set traps. In short, she does whatever she can to avoid the whole idea that rats may be lurking close by.

Despite this, I’m not thinking “rat” when I enter my parents’ kitchen on a recent visit home during the holidays. Honestly, I’d written off my mom’s fears as just that, fears not reality. It is 2AM and surprise, surprise my whole family has indeed been throwing up. I need a glass of wine. I need to write. I need to feel like myself again. I’m reaching for a glass, ready to relax, when I see it. My brain is so scrambled that it takes many seconds to compute what I’m looking at: a rat perched on my parent’s kitchen counter. He and I both look at each other with the same look in each others’ eyes: “What the f*** are you doing here?!”

The rat runs into the corner, and I do what any modern woman, who’s spent time traveling alone in Africa would do, I scream and run upstairs to grab my boy scout husband.

“Andy!” I whisper, shaking him in the dark. Why I’m whispering when my whole goal is to wake him is beyond me. “Andy!” I say a little more sharply. “How do you kill a rat?”

“What?” he asks. He leaps out of bed and throws on a shirt, amazing me that he neither doubts what I’ve seen nor is annoyed at being awakened. We spend the next ten minutes searching for the rat, pulling out bookcases and the trash. All the while, I clutch a large magnum flashlight, ready to smash that rat when he appears again. I’ve never killed a rat before but all at once, I want to be a hero. I want to be the tough girl again that traveled to the Sudan border many years ago. I want to show my mom the rat I killed for her while she was asleep.

But alas, the chance to do that was the moment I screamed rat and called for my husband. The rat is long gone. And so is the tough girl. I head up to bed and curl up in my husband’s arms, half horrified and half chuckling with the news that I’ll have to tell my parents tomorrow. This is my life. I no longer do anything very adventurous. I clean up puke off my kids’ sheet five nights in a row. Cook a duck for 18 people. Try and fail to kill a rat. It’s the holidays with family; I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.

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