by Tammy Tillotson

“We’re the Chipmunks,
We’re the Chipmunks,
Guaranteed to brighten your day!”
–Alvin & The Chipmunks

It was pretty simple how quickly Alvin, Simon, and Theodore became after-school icons for my two sisters and me. The three of us just assumed that we had been the inspiration behind these adorable characters. Though my older sister was short, round, and pudgy like Theodore, my younger sister and I fought a somewhat constant battle over which of us would be Alvin each afternoon. Fun and comical Alvin always got more attention than the somewhat geeky and brainy Simon. Yet collectively, the personalities of each balanced out the trio, and they learned to depend on each other and get along despite their differences, as did my sisters and I.

Cartoons and Characteristics
Though years have passed since cartoon chipmunks dictated my behaviors, I recently pondered the curious habits of this little rodent. The chipmunk lives underground, only emerges out of necessity, and much of its life is spent digging extensive burrow systems. The chipmunk creates either short tunnels for easy escapes and quick exits, or more complex and complicated tunnels that extend for great lengths. The chipmunk also climbs down head first from trees.

Considering these particular behaviors and habits, I decided that I am in some ways very much like a chipmunk. I prefer to stay to myself or remain lost in my own thoughts. Only when necessary, or when curiosity gets the better of me, do I venture out to observe and explore my surroundings. Whether my relationships with others are short tunnels that yield quick exits and entrances, or are deeply burrowed ones that extend for a lifetime, each is equally important and valuable to my personal growth, survival, and learning experiences. Also, more often than not, I feel like I’m climbing down head first out of some tall tree that I’m occasionally surprised by how high I climbed up there to begin with.

Coupled by fond memories from childhood cartoons, these personified evaluations formed a unique friendship and understanding between the little rodent and me. Yet interestingly enough, I had never actually seen a chipmunk until my recent move to Roanoke, Virginia.

The Real Chipmunks
At a time in my life when I was doubting where my endless burrowing was taking me, I felt like I was lost in my own tunnels and also like I was content hiding within them so I would not have to come out. I was uncertain about the move and I was even more uncertain about employment. The new apartment however, was nice and had an adorable little balcony facing a small wooded area. After an exhausting day of moving furniture and unpacking boxes, the balcony was certainly a welcoming sight. I stepped out for some fresh air, and as I was admiring the view I noticed movement along the edge of the woods. I was perfectly delighted when I realized that it was a tiny chipmunk scampering along a fallen tree trunk. My first real live chipmunk! A few moments later a second, then a third little chipmunk emerged from the same tree trunk. I watched the three chipmunks’ playful banter for a minute or so, and then just as quickly as they had appeared, they all disappeared back into the tree trunk.

Over the next few weeks, I often watched for the chipmunks, and I was fondly referring to as “Alvin, Simon, and Theodore.” It seemed that on the days I was having the most difficulty adjusting to the new environment, I would see these little guys and know that things would work themselves out if I was just a little more patient.

Learning Patience
A short while later, I found myself meandering through orientation at the Children’s Home in Salem, Virginia. I had submitted a resume for a Residential Counselor position, though I realized that a degree in Professional Communication was somewhat of a stretch from either the Social Work or Psychology fields. Since I have always enjoyed a challenge, and as the Children’s Home was willing to give me a chance, I was appreciative for the opportunity.

My first day was completely overwhelming. Everyone was friendly and helpful, but the entire campus was buzzing with activity, young people, and excitement that was simultaneously both organized, structured, and somewhat chaotic. Perhaps the setting was particularly magnified through the eyes and ears of a newcomer like myself who really had no idea what to expect from these surroundings.

I tried to simply be flexible and flow with the current. When a phone rang just out of someone else’s reach, I was asked to grab it and take a quick message. My quick message was a father calling his daughter from work to say he could not have lunch with her today. He told me to apologize for him, send his love, and then the phone clicked silent in my hand. It was ten minutes until lunchtime.

Answering Calls
Since I had taken the call, I felt a certain responsibility to relay the message. A few minutes later, an excited expectant face met mine when I introduced myself and asked if I could speak to her for a minute. Instantly the face fell as rapidly fired questions shot out. “Is it bad? Is it my father? He’s not coming is he?” The questions were immediately followed by the girl storming off to her room and slamming the door. I had yet to even open my mouth to say anything in reply.

I found myself questioning, how do I relay bad news and say it is not bad news when I know that to this child no matter what I say, it will be bad news? I truthfully did not have a clue what to say.

I had expected the kill the messenger anger and the harsh words that met me when I quietly knocked on the recently slammed door. I had even anticipated the, “no matter what you say it won’t help so don’t bother.” Yet I still went inside to relay the message. After being completely ignored, I was angrily asked to leave because I didn’t understand anything at all about this child’s situation.

As I turned and reached for the doorknob, I stopped and calmly added a few of my own thoughts. I softly said, “I think you’re wrong. I do understand. I understand that he remembered you and he cared enough to call. No, that probably doesn’t help, but it counts for something…even if it only makes it easier to forgive him. He didn’t have to remember and he didn’t have to call.”

A puzzled yet contemplative pair of eyes watched me exit, and they did not realize that I saw their tears begin to fall when I closed the door.

Having Lunch
As coincidence would have it, I ended up escorting this young lady to lunch by myself. Though I was far from being the person she had expected to have lunch with, and though she was far from not being angry anymore, lunch was somewhat of an awkward truce. She was angry, and beneath that she was hurting. I did not try to change that because sometimes a person has to just feel angry for a while before they can move past that and acknowledge the hurt. So, I found new topics for casual conversation.

Ready or Not
After lunch, she had to go back to school, and I had to walk across campus to a meeting. When I stepped outside, a rush of cold November air filled my lungs and I had not realized how confined I had felt by my uncertainty and nervousness throughout this entire situation. The temperature shock gave me new clarity and awareness, and as I breathed easier, I realized that for the first time all day I had a few quiet seconds to think. I replayed the phone conversation and how I had delivered the message. When I thought about the words the young lady had angrily spoken to me, I also remembered my own hurt and frustration from all the times I too had expected phone calls or visits that just never materialized. I did understand. In my own way, through talking to her, I had been forced to confront a reflection of myself that I thought had stopped hurting a long time ago.

I was not prepared for how this realization caught me off guard. My tears were frustrated and questioning ones as I thought there had been some big mistake, as I really did not think I was in the right place. I was certainly not sure about whether or not I could do what might be asked of me here. Because I was so consumed by my internal argument and by trying to get to my meeting without looking like I had been crying, I almost lost my balance when a little chipmunk ran nearly right under my feet.

I am not sure which of us was more surprised, but both of us stopped in our tracks, waiting to see what the other was going to do. I took a step, and then the chipmunk scurried a few steps ahead of me along the sidewalk. The little chipmunk looked, somewhat inquisitively at me, as if to say, “come on slow poke, what are you waiting for?” It then ran on in the direction of where I was going. I followed, and then watched the little creature hurry off into a clump of bushes. I started laughing through my tears, and realized I was exactly where I needed to be for at least a little while.

Though fathers will probably continue to let their daughters down, or forget to call on occasion, the phone ringing or not ringing is now of little importance to me. In moments of doubt and weakness, I am stronger than I think I am, and my Father does not need to use the phone. My Father calls me through children and chipmunks.