or, My Thought Evolution on the Most Embarrassing Room in My Childhood Home

We didn’t have a shower, but we did have a Dead Animal Room. So, you know, lose-lose.

It wasn’t always called the Dead Animal Room. I heard the words “the den” bandied about, but it was far less like my image of a den (dark wood, leather arm chair, books) than it was like an ingredient pantry for Macbeth’s witches.

“The Gun Room” was a much more commonly used moniker, owing to the fact that most of my dad’s 20 or so various guns were housed there. Some guns hung double on the rungs of a traditional gun rack (a huge no-no and one that would later result in a six-inch hole in the wall. Did you know that keeping loaded guns double stacked without the safety on is completely frowned upon? and is also fair cause for a teenage girl to cuss out her dad using the f-word without repercussion?). More guns were housed in the drawer under the replica buggy seat my dad had commissioned, and several rifles perched in the giant elk antlers mounted from one corner of the ceiling. One Christmas, my dad strung a garland of machine gun ammo in the elk’s rack, like popcorn strings in days of old. And there they stayed ad infinitum. Thank god we never had a house fire.

Closing my eyes and re-inhabiting my small, young body, I feel the thrum of conversation that one party might consider nagging and the other might consider a completely reasonable request to organize this motley assemblage of weapons, minerals, preserved bodies, and the thick layer of dust that often muted them, but which also felt appropriate to the objects beneath. I’m not sure the female party anticipated this room slowly morphing into Uncle Redneck’s Storage Depot, and I’m pretty sure the male party felt like this was the only part of the home representative of him, as various furnishings elsewhere in the house developed a nasty rash of stenciled mauve hearts. These exchanges were my first indication that this wasn’t an utterly ordinary interior-design approach, but by the time I introduced “the Dead Animal Room” into common household vocabulary, I was very, very sure that it wasn’t.

Much of my childhood was spent free range in the woods where my dad was working, or roaming the six acres anchored by our mustard-colored 1891 prairie farmhouse, like a yolk in the plat of my great grandparents’ homestead. So for much of my youth, the eagle and wild turkey feathers, giant conk mushroom, and chainsaw posters merely seemed a reflection of our daily playground.

In the shadow of the immense elk antlers were several smaller sets of deer antlers. Rattlesnake skins were tautly tacked to boards. There were owl talons on a leather cord that you could wear as a necklace. If only you knew where such an accessory would be appropriate.

There was a beaver skin attached to a tear-shaped wooden frame so that it looked like the biggest tick you ever saw, like a mad professor blew it up with radiation and it would wreak sci-fi havoc over the nearest town. There was a super-soft, winter-white weasel skin that my dad joked was one-third of a bikini he was harvesting for my mom. She was not enthused. Though I’m sure the weasel was even less thrilled.

A flying squirrel was suspended in mid glide, and on the wall behind it, a woodchuck fur (the thickest, so dreamy). A hawk stared beadily (literally) from its perch and a great blue heron hung from the ceiling flaunting an impressive wingspan. Touch him — or her? I’m not a heron sexer — and he/she would do surreal 360-degree spins, like it’d just done too many Jell-O shots at the lake birds’ weekly potluck. And if you had just done too many Jell-O shots, I wouldn’t recommend focusing on the spinning for too long.

Of course, it was illegal to shoot a hawk in Minnesota unless it was swooping down to gouge into the backs of your chickens to rip them apart and eat them, so that one was covered. It was also illegal to kill a blue heron, but my dad had found this one perfectly intact on the roadside after it apparently flew into a power line during a thunderstorm and was electrocuted (so the story goes). And, as I’m sure Jenny Lawson’s dad would agree, you can’t just let that go to waste.

Did I mention that the Dead Animal Room had burlap wallpaper? You read that correctly. I have yet to encounter burlap wallpaper elsewhere, but my grandmother was an interior designer with some serious connections. Once the word is (back) out, it’ll likely be in next year’s Crate and Barrel catalog (and you can shrug, unimpressed; “oh that; burlap wallpaper is so late-1900s! Haven’t you read “The Dead-Animal Room”?!).

Giant Polyphemus moths were nestled eternally in cotton-lined coffins, the grape-sized “eyes” on their wings staring out at all the other random crap my dad lugged home from his hunting travels and cross-country treks as a short-time surveyor. One notable souvenir was a high-heeled shoe, fancy metallic mesh embroidered with thicker metallic gold, and the whole shoe was starting to curl in on itself from old age, like the test run of the forces-of-good magic that took out the striped-sock feet of the Wicked Witch of the West. Dad found it near an old mine in Montana, saying it belonged to a lady who was “entertaining” the miners, if you will. I’m not surprised she lost it. You’re begging for trouble when you go hiking in the Rockies in heels.

Much of the flesh excavated from these carcass remnants was actually called “dinner.” We did eat elk, deer, and lots and lots of rabbits. The others were “special occasions” or “let’s see what this tastes like since we have it and it’s dead.” Squirrel and blackbird (don’t remember), snapping turtle (tastes like chicken, only slimier and stringier), rattlesnake (firm like swordfish or shark), bear (repressed memory? I’m guessing gamey). All this led to an eight-year stint as a vegetarian. My palate had paid its dues. I was recently talking to my dad around the holidays when he attempted one of his jokes where he is the only one who laughs: “What do homeless people eat on Christmas? … Spam on white bread. Get it? Instead of Christmas ham?”

Ha ha? “Oh, I thought you were going to say nutria,” I said, since we have lots of homeless people and lots of nutria here in temperate Oregon where I live, and also because Spam’s a lot more expensive than you’d think. (I’ll save my rants about how we’ve allowed so many people to fall into poverty and homelessness in this country for another time.) Fact: A nutria is large, invasive rodent, similar to a beaver with a rat tail, quite off-putting and one once stalked my daughter and her babysitter when they walked by with a PB and J. Granted, “nutria” sounds nutritious, but they look very, very gamey, like you’d have to choke them down, conjuring tales of kids tortuously downing cod liver oil. “Here, have some nutria; keeps the gout away.” (If you google them, you’ll see they are also called “coypu,” which sounds so much more delicious, like an exotic Japanese delicacy, elegantly displayed with a cucumber-peel flower.)

Anyway, whilst we discussed large rodentia, my dad waxed nostalgic: “do you remember when we ate that beaver meat? It was absolutely melt-in-your-mouth delicious.” I guess some memories must be jettisoned so your mind has room for information that makes you feel somewhat less abnormal. Which was a strong preoccupation for me from around age twelve and on. Prime wild-animal-eating years. Plus, I don’t know if I trust his food reviews. He used to love to ostentatiously suck plugs of marrow from bones at the table, primarily (primarrowly?) to gross us out. Of course, fancy-schmancy restaurants are now throwing marrow croutons on everything, so I guess he had the last (and first) laugh.

Time travel to the years of Aqua Net and claw bangs. The Dead Animal Room was not positioned for secrecy, as one might hope a Dead Animal Room might be when one is a teenage girl. When you entered the front door into our kitchen, the door to the Dead Animal Room was directly on your right. If one stood holding the front door open graciously for one’s guest, wearing one’s XL boxy T on her size-medium body (as was junior-high fashion in the late 80s in rural Minnesota), then one could hypothetically block much of the view into this creepy cavern. And then one prayed anxiously that said guest wouldn’t need to pee, since the bathroom was off this room for the love of all that’s holy.

Of course looking back from the present, it is so easy to see how the Dead Animal Room adds a vibrant fur-and-bones patch to the quilt of my life, but you might be surprised at how embarrassing it was growing up. (That was sarcasm.) A clash of worlds interrupted my life in seventh grade. I transferred from a two-room Lutheran schoolhouse to the public school, and became acutely aware of how many other opinions existed, and that there were lots of views of “normal” that didn’t include my daily environment (yes, even in late 80s, rural Minnesota). Next time the US is involved in an international conflict, I say we ship all the 13–16 year-old girls over. I can’t think of a cohort that is inherently more cruel (though now I know the outliers are mean enough to skew the data set).

A new school with its new people and their opinions wasn’t the only storm brewing. The shitty thing about puberty is that your mind, and thus your reality, is never the same again. Those hormones fuck up the world in so many ways, and irreparably. Insecurity drops on your head like an A-bomb and, for many of us, it takes decades to rebuild. Plus, the ability to be embarrassed can be hereditary. Half my genes are from my mom’s side (though sometimes I wish for more, as I think I got all-four-kids’-worth of the paternal mental-illness crud that could have been fairly distributed between my siblings and me). A funny game we liked to play went like this: “Mom, you’re blushing,” followed by us gleefully watching her face redden. What used to be normal to me (“the Gun Room”) got a new name (“the Dead Animal Room”) as an attempt to distance myself from the craziness through wry humor.

I also desperately tried to avoid the interaction of said guests with the curator of the collection, as my dad mirthfully sought to shock or gross out anyone he could, laughing heartily at their expense. In the early 90’s, we had the good fortune to host Nadja, a Swiss foreign-exchange student, and when I was doing an off-campus study program a few years later in England, my family used this opportunity to convene in Switzerland to visit her family. Want to impress your Swiss hosts, who do not speak any English? Bring them an unwieldy ping-pong paddle fashioned from a beaver tail. To my dad’s credit, this gift did bridge his interest in dead animals with their interest in ping pong, so essentially it was an international peace offering. But you have to wonder what gets lost in translation. We’ll never know, since we don’t speak Swiss German.

I’ve always hated it when my mom or one of my siblings tells me how much I am like my dad. We butted heads for most of my teen years. But as I’ve gotten to know myself, especially through becoming a parent, I recognize the deeper ways we are alike. And though he still drives me crazy sometimes, as his greatest familial enemy for many years, I likely also have the most empathy for him of anyone else in our brood. I think we share these attributes: wanting to be alone about ninety percent of the time, and feeling completely overwhelmed that there are people reliant on us for so, so much of that time instead. Gravitating toward a few drinks when people are around, because if we can’t be alone, then alcohol may at least soothe the edges frayed from exposure to others’ energy, opinions, and expectations. Depressive episodes. Chronic pain. I am certain there are hundreds of times he would have loved to climb onto that buggy seat, grab some reigns and just fly his Dead Animal Room right out of the house. Park it in the middle of the forest somewhere and just be a hermit for a few years. I know I feel that way far more often than feels mentally stable to me.

That room was a collage of what he used to be able to do before us. To me, it didn’t seem like he was giving as much as (or what) we needed all those years, but through addiction and mental illness he was likely giving as much as he could. I have vibrant memories embedded in the backpacking gear in my attic, concert ticket stubs, a canoe that hasn’t been launched in five years, a shot glass from London. And, as I write this, I have a daughter approaching five that makes those items feel far more inanimate and far more important simultaneously. Those rocks and animals and guns and high-heeled shoes were my dad’s adventures. And we inherited something from them as well.

From the middle of rural Minnesota, we got the visual imprint of this message from an early age: that there was a big, wide world out there, that you could do things that weren’t part of the daily grind, and that nature was a place to play, to be. (My dad requested, and was granted by my sister, a shirt that read I’d Rather be Outside, and would often quip “a house is a nice place to eat and sleep, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”)

For many years, the Dead Animal Room signaled how abnormal my life was, how abnormal I surely was. But with growth, the view backwards becomes both more nuanced and more cohesive. You translate the details differently, and at the same time, find the big-picture messages embedded in the embarrassment: there is no universal normal, be sure to have adventures and keep some reminders of them, and know that everyone has skeletons in their closets. Be thankful if yours aren’t human.

Writer for hire, for fun, and from the necessity of untangling my thoughts. The adage I cling to lately is "the first 40 years of childhood are the hardest."

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