Back to Nature (Published on - July 27, 2005)
When the roses smell like mothballs
Photo by Rick Tremmel
Momma Raccoon forages breakfast for her young ones.
She’s famous for her roses and camellias. As cars pass in front of the homestead, drivers can barely resist slowing down to gawk at the flamboyant pinks, reds, orange and white blossoms festooned along dark green, leafy branches.

The sidewalk leading up to the two-story, pastel yellow house is lushly lined with fuchsia and violet verbenas spreading without inhibitions onto the lawn on either side.

At each corner of the three-quarter acre property Buddleia cascades in blues, pinks and purples anchoring the corners of this oasis my mother has gingerly tended for more than 20 years to bring it to this extravagance.

There’s bird houses in the apple and pear trees. There’s a large, hand-built bird feeder in the dogwood right outside the kitchen window. There’s pegs for corncobs for the squirrels. And if this is not enough Momma hand-dug and built her own fish pond several years back as the focal point for her personal version of Oz and stocked it with a school of goldfish that are now the size of the palm of your hand.

Momma does things big. There’s figs so large they’re bending the branches. There’s a quarter of an acre of vegetable garden that gets so out of hand that she opens the gate in mid summer for the neighbors to come pick their share.

So why is Momma surprised that the occasional raccoon might saunter in for just a wee bite?

“If I catch him he’s gonna be my new coonskin cap,” she grumbled and giggled at the same time, as she snipped the half eaten tomatoes and corn to discard in her basket. Momma sharply hushed up my suggestion, “How bout we set up a raccoon feeding station at the back end.”

All I was thinking was this might satisfy the little varmints and discourage them from other damage.

“What? That’d be like sending them an invitation, girl. Where there’s one raccoon there’s bound to be dozens of others.”

That night Momma must have contemplated her own words, imagining those pesky critters munching on the peas, delighting on the pineapples, or worse – heaven forbid – salivating over the roses.

Next morning as I greeted the rising sun from my bedroom’s French windows I saw Momma out in the garden, wheelbarrow loaded with boxes. She was shaking something around the perimeter of the garden beds. Thinking she’s probably fertilizing again, and she has her own way about that, I picked up my towel and headed for the shower.

Now, Momma has her traditions, homemade breakfast being one of them. But the aroma of hot coffee, bacon frying or biscuits in the oven was missing from this morning and so was Momma. I went out to the garden to investigate. As was customary, as I passed the roses I leaned to take in the perfume, but to my surprise my nostrils cringed and my eyes began to water.

The roses smelled like mothballs. The camellias smelled like mothballs. Along the path the bouquet of mothballs met my senses. There, bent over the wheelbarrow next to the grapevines I found Momma shaking out mothball flakes.

“Momma, what on earth have you done?” I exclaimed. As she stood up sweat ran from her brow and down her reddened cheeks. Her gloved hands were covered in white powder and she smelled like a 100-year-old mink coat that had just been released from storage. She had that determined look upon her face that no man or child challenged.

I took a step back and asked gently, “Need any help?”

Her eyes flared. “Those varmints got into my fish pond last night and nearly ate every one of my fishes. I’ll teach them to mess with my garden.”

She grumbled then turned back to her duties. I walked to the pond and sure enough there were goldfish parts laying about upon stones and fresh raccoon tracks in the soft soil. I cleaned up what I could and brushed the tracks so that the visual reminders of the previous night’s larceny and massacre would seem less painful to Momma. I worried a little over whether or not these odiferous methods of momma’s would squelch the pilfering habits of our four legged neighbors but also knew well enough to keep my silence and go make breakfast.

The next morning brought to light another kill. Momma was nearly beside herself in grief.

Then out of the corner of my eye I detected a small movement. I touched Momma’s arm gently. We sat motionless and then watched a mother and four babies scurry to the other side of the fence and quickly disappear. We laid a net above the water and anchored it with stones to preserve the surviving fish. Then Momma surprised me saying, “Karen, go and get the hammer, saw and some nails and I’ll bring some wood. If you can’t beat them join ’em,” she said, but without defeat. At the far back of the property we fashioned a feeding station out of wood and an aluminum tray.

From that day on, Momma placed any bruised or unsatisfactory vegetables, fruit, nuts, handfuls of bird seed and berries upon the tray. She strung a light above the table so she could observe the curious and amusing raccoon antics. The lines seemed to be drawn and both sides understood their limits.

Eventually the rains came returning rose perfume and camellia bouquet, while the raccoons honored their place in Momma’s garden, in peace and alliance, back to nature.

Karen can be reached at

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