When I was very young but old enough to still retain the memory, one of my uncles or an older cousin on my mom’s side of the family came out of the woods one fine spring day in the head of Blair Branch during mulberry season with a baby groundhog no larger than a chipmunk.
This would have been early in the 1950s — probably ‘53 or ’54 — when it was still legal to hunt and shoot squirrels year round and said kinfolk were out and about with rifles looking for fresh game because we were tired of yellowed pork and the young chickens were not yet old enough or big enough to turn into fryers.
Squirrels were considered a delicacy by anyone lucky enough to shoot one and were usually cooked with thick cream gravy to be served on baked, then mashed sweet potatoes. To this day, I hold squirrel gravy among the top two or three dishes I have ever tasted. I just don’t have it in me anymore to shoot something as stupid as a modern squirrel. It is trouble enough to pick up the stinking carcasses that my dog drags in from the ones that got road killed within a hundred yards of my house. And since nobody locally seems to hunt them anymore, squirrel IQ, it seems to me, has gone from genius down to nearly zero.
It used to be, even in recent memory, that you really had to hunt and stalk squirrels in the woods there among the oaks and hickories in the big woods, and that cooking them up in the fryer or dumpling pot was a pretty big deal. It’s not like that anymore, but that’s another story. Suffice to say that, as of this writing, you could walk along any back road in Garrard County and take your limit with a slingshot.
Anyway, my cousin or uncle or whoever rescued this little groundhog (woodchuck) lost in the woods and brought it home to my mom, who was known for her ability to nurture baby birds fallen out of the nest as well as making sure that other abandoned baby critters of the wild had a shot at adult livelihood. And so, the baby groundhog was tendered to her care.
Mom named him Willie and she basically let him have the run of the house. She fed him veggies out of the garden because we had more than plenty, and he would run out the back doors to do his business in the yard. We picked him up and petted on him and basically treated him like a house cat.
We had a couple or three dogs that would spend all day barking and digging around a groundhog hole, but they paid no attention to Willie and even let him share the bounty there amongst them come feeding time.
Unlike baby birds, squirrels, rabbits and other critters that took wing or limb and departed Mom’s premises for the wild as soon as she thought they could fend for themselves, Willie hung around. And when the first frost of autumn hit on Blair Branch, he was like a house cat except he was much larger than a feline.
Groundhogs are supposed to hibernate during winter months, but Willie had it warm and cozy under the wood cookstove in Mom’s kitchen and while he may have slept most of his days away, I can vividly recall him being underfoot around the table come supper time all winter long.
And so the seasons came and went that year and spring rolled round again the next. I remember neighbors wondering if Willie had seen his shadow on Groundhog’s Day and Mom telling them that he probably did but it was from the lightbulb in her kitchen and that the sun did not shine beneath her stove.
By early April, Willie took to sitting upright on the back porch during the morning hours, front paws crossed on his chest and gazing into the woods behind our house. From time to time he’d shrilly whistle and he wanted no more of the petting and affection we had shown him. And then one morning he just took off . I suppose a prospective wife had whistled back but I don’t know much about groundhog courting rituals.