Possums are so chillingly detestable to me that I cannot bear to look at them. As road kill, it is hard to decipher what is outer and inner, so grotesque is their skin. A mother and babies at her teats under the car in the driveway, pink and gray, look like squirming aliens. One moves across the pavement and disgusts me with its slow, seeming blindness. Its hideous nose relentlessly pulls its hideous body and worm of a tail, dull and useless.
On a rapturous summer morning in a week of them while my seventeen-month-old grandson visits, I pull him to the meadow in our ritual of sunrise, wind and birdtalk. He holds the sides of the wagon, and occasionally I brush mosquitoes from his temples. He looks serious while we encounter a golden cosmos flower, a few blue dianthus, tall grasses and sumac. Bending poplars whisper and wave. Wrens and sparrows leap in the trees around the perimeter of the meadow bowl. We don’t speak, or if we do it is hushed, hoping not to disturb all this. It is a pretense, and I sense in my gut that we don’t belong. Yet there is no resistance to our being here.
We reach the tree swing, and he grins, waves his arms and points, preparing for me to pick him up. I wrap my right arm and hand around his waist, set him firmly in my lap, take hold of the rope with my left hand and balance us trickily on the wide wooden board while my feet run backward steps on the ground to start our descent from as high an arc point as possible. And release. Wind. Celestial wind. My chin on his head, his hair fine as spider silk blowing across my lips. The branch is high, so the pendulum swings long and slow. In silent appreciation we feel part of this grace, this cool wind and shade in hot summer, these creatures driven to survive.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a possum, big and fat. He is crawling slowly in our tree’s shade, in the mown circle with us, at the edge of the tall grasses, so slowly that he doesn’t seem to be moving. I have a decision to make: Welcome him, ignore him, or wish him away. I whisper to James, “Look, a possum.”
“Der,” he says. (“There.”) Enthralled, we watch this animal be with us, watch us. We keep swinging, with my periodic ground steps to restart the pendulum. For a full ten minutes we watch each other without another word. Possum's eyes are huge, aware. He walks slowly away, into the grasses. James lifts his hands in his gesture of “where is it?” and I whisper, “he’s going to sleep in the grass.” We swing a while longer, and he asks a few more times in the same way, “where is possum?”
For once I know the possum, a little. I see him in my mind’s eye. He is not ugly (this one, at least, is not ugly). I doubt he will ever be ugly to James. The possum lives in “our” meadow. He welcomes us. He shows me what is ugly in myself and changes me.