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The squirrel monkey my father won in a poker game haunts me still

lindsay campbell The Globe and Mail

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My two-year-old granddaughter is obsessed with monkeys. She has a monkey mask that she requires adult family members to wear while she leads them about on a rope. At other times, wearing a crocodile mask and nothing else, she chases her hapless monkey victim through the house. (Once the mask goes on, she can be very convincing.)

Of course, the great thing about being two is that the storyline is fluid. I have some great video footage, which I am saving for blackmail material, of my son-in-law bounding down the hall after her, making monkey noises while she runs away and screams in delight. I have promised not to post it on YouTube. Yet.

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Grandmothers get a gentler treatment. On a recent visit I was required to be Sick Monkey, which involved lying on the couch with the mask while she tenderly wrapped me in bandages and examined me with her doctor kit. Dressed in a crocodile mask and nothing else, the doctor's bedside manner was a bit unorthodox, but the patient was co-operative, and appears to have made a complete recovery.

This preoccupation with primates began with Curious George, who, as everyone knows, was a good little monkey, but curious. Since I remember reading about George and his friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat, when I was a child, I became curious myself just how long this story has been around. According to my rudimentary research, Hans Augusto Rey and Margret Rey, fled Paris in 1940, carrying the Curious George manuscript with them. The books have been in print continuously for six decades. That's impressive longevity, even for a monkey!

When my granddaughter is a bit older, I will tell her about the squirrel monkey my dad won in a poker game and brought home to his awestruck family. The four of us kids crowded around the cage to gaze in fascination at his tiny hands and his ugly little face permanently creased in a sorrowful expression, like a sad clown. For reasons that are unclear to me even now, we christened him "Toivo." Our status among the neighbourhood kids immediately shot up by at least 10 points.

He was not, it turned out, very curious. In fact, Toivo was a terrible pet. Mean, spiteful and vindictive, he would fly at my younger brother in a rage and bite his face whenever he got the chance. Not that I didn't often feel the same impulse myself, but my parents took a dim view of that sort of thing in our pets. He did take a kind of liking to my older brother, which meant that he bit him less often.

Toivo wasn't completely incapable of affection. He often crept toward my mother when she was sitting on the couch and nestled onto her shoulder. She would be touched by this display, until she felt a dampness trickling down her arm.

On another occasion a friend of my father's came to visit with his pet Weimaraner. In case you've never seen one, a Weimaraner is a variety of hunting dog that is as big as a house. The dog was wild with curiosity about the strange little creature in a cage, and was sniffing in a not-unfriendly way when a skinny little arm reached through the bars and grabbed him by the nose. According to my father, the dog "leaped 10 feet in the air."

The rest is a blur of memories: pictures of my parents chasing Toivo up and down the stairs (we knew better than to laugh), memories of us crying hysterically when my father in an expression of rage-fuelled hyperbole threatened to flush the monkey down the toilet. The day Toivo stepped in my little brother's tomato soup and ran across the kitchen table, leaving a trail of tiny red footprints and a crying preschooler. The time the monkey ate my other brother's school project, resulting in tears from another sibling. The numerous times he escaped the house, raising the cry among the neighbour kids, "The Hamilton's monkey is loose again!" The usual stuff.

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On a trip to Mexico a few years ago, I saw a man with a squirrel monkey. I hadn't seen one since Toivo. I felt awash in nostalgic affection, and had to have my picture taken with the tiny creature.

Posing for the picture, I realized how much times have changed. Nowadays we know that trying to make pets of wild animals is unfair to the animals. George and his friend the Man in the Yellow Hat belong between the covers of a book, where children can enjoy their fantasy world to their hearts' content.

Marianne Jones lives in Thunder Bay.

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