Salt, Pepper, and a Drop of Whiskey

A huge lesson comes in a small package

My brother Michael, six years my senior, was the first to witness our mother’s unconditional love for the tiniest member of our family. In the late 1950s, we had plenty of cats, six by my count. So, when Mom brought home two baby mice—one white and one black—a perfectly reasonable question to ask would be, why? After all, this was enemy territory and Salt & Pepper, nothing but easy yet tasty prey. However, our cats were well-behaved and, in fact, welcomed the fresh additions with open paws, as did Michael. And so began his love affair with these furry little creatures.

He could often be found with his nose pressed against the glass of Salt & Pepper’s cage, locking eyes with them. They seemed as curious about Michael as he was about them. Both mice were sociable but had distinct personalities—Salt being the more affectionate. They were neat, clean, and groomed themselves constantly. Industrious, too, they created comfy wonders with tissues and toilet paper rolls. Both loved to exercise, either by going nowhere on their mouse-propelled wheel or on the endless trek running from Michael’s one hand to the other. But since they were delicate, he learned to handle them with care.

Michael didn’t know Salt or Pepper’s gender, but after a few weeks the mating chase began and left no doubt. Round and around the cage they raced until Salt finally surrendered to Pepper’s charms. And after a few more weeks, Michael witnessed the miracle of birth. He watched in awe as Salt, in full control, licked clean each pink pup and made sure each took their first breath before the next arrived, and the next, and so on. And Pepper played his part as the doting father even though these pups looked nothing like mice: bald, translucent, eyes and ears closed. But it didn’t take long—just days—for them to open their eyes and ears and don their familiar fur coats. It also didn’t take long for a new chase to begin. Salt & Pepper became breeding machines, producing many mouse pups many times a year, which gave birth to a new and profitable business for Michael; selling mice to the Ye Towne Pet Shop for ten cents apiece. Big money back then. 

The lifespan of mice is short, maybe two years. So sadly, Salt & Pepper also taught Michael about death. But thanks to Mom that lesson was postponed. After many litters, Salt slowed down until one night she appeared ready to call it quits. Michael resigned himself to the inevitable, but not Mom. She made several attempts to revive Salt. First with cheese, then with water, using an eyedropper, but to no avail. She heated a hot water bottle and laid Salt on it. Still no change. But Mom didn’t give up. Michael drifted in and out of sleep while she stayed awake, determined to nurse that little mouse back to health.

Finally, in the wee hours and all out of options, Mom resorted to an old wives’ tale. She dashed off to the kitchen and returned with a bottle of whiskey—in itself, a miracle. Liquor was present in our house for one reason and one reason only: Mom’s Christmas Whiskey Balls. A blurry-eyed Michael watched Mom fill the eyedropper with the “water of life” and place a drop on Salt’s lips. That mouse perked right up, got back on her feet, and moved about like her young self. An old wives’ tale? As my dad would say, “Bunk.” Salt went on to live many more mouse years and produced many more pups which earned Michael many more dimes. Mom’s devotion to animals shouldn’t have come as a surprise. We kids witnessed it many times over the years. She always jumped in to give our pets the love and attention they deserved when ours waned. And she always took good care of them till the bitter end. But on that night, that long, long night, a young boy saw it for the first time and learned an indelible lesson. And even though that old wives’ tale played a role in plenty more pet revivals, Michael knew it was his mother’s love—more than the whiskey—that brought them back.

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Published by A Cup of Tea on the Commode, a memoir

The parent/child role reversal might not have been unique to me, but how I dealt with it was. "A Cup of Tea on the Commode" chronicles my multi-tasking adventures, filling my mother’s last years with love, laughter, and joy. Though not always successful, I came pretty damn close.

3 thoughts on “Salt, Pepper, and a Drop of Whiskey

  1. It all sounds too familiar…while in high school, my sister, France, had a mouse which we would let “loose” in our bedroom. A very sweet thing she was. Yet at night, she would keep us awake running more miles in her wheel, inside her cage. Bloody noisy that wheel too… Then many, many years later, my daughter received 3 mice on Three Kings’s Day (the exchange of presents is done on January 6, instead of at Christmas in Spain)…and they multiplied fast and furiously. All ended up being given away to the nearby pet store…bless them. Mice…once part of my life! As were rabbits, parakeets, guinea pigs, turtles, emus and dogs…naturally. Thanks for sharing your story of Salt & Pepper, Mark. I can totally relate to how your mom nurtured every living thing in her household. Marie-Noelle dB

  2. When I was maybe 4 or 5, I remember Michael letting me hold one of the mice. Probably the only time since the mouse bit my hand and he told me I killed it. Most likely not true but I’m sure I held it tighter than I should have so it wouldn’t run away.

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