Rabbits are my spirit animal, and that’s how my great-grandchildren will likely know me

Rabbits are my spirit animal, and that’s how my great-grandchildren will likely know me

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

I was pregnant with twins and living in Yellowknife when my then-husband brought me a handmade gift from the far north to celebrate. It was a rabbit made out of duffle, wearing an Inuit amauti with two baby rabbits tucked into its hood.

I already had an affinity for bunnies so it was a fitting gift, but looking back I saw that it could also be the genesis of Spirit Rabbit, who has come to play a central role in our family mythology. She has been with us for so long I barely remember how she began.

Books were part of it. I read to my children before they could speak and on through their childhood. Their books were full of rabbits. in miffy, a picture book by Dick Bruna, a little cherub taps on the window of Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit’s home one night and declares, “A baby rabbit is on her way to you.” Miffy is born soon afterwards. She is white with long ears and a whiff of the divine. Small children, including my girls at the time, accepted this miracle without question.

Miffy was followed by a mute, unnamed bunny in striped pajamas who appeared in their beloved bedtime story Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. The same bunny appeared in Brown’s Runaway Bunny, but by then he could talk. He insists that he is running away but is reassured by his rabbit mother that no matter where he might go, she will always be there. Spirit Rabbit was starting to take shape. She became a byword for protection.

Everywhere I looked there were rabbits to consider, each with unique qualities that might illuminate the nature of the evolving Spirit Rabbit: Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit; Rabbit of Winnie the Pooh fame; the Velveteen Rabbit, made real through love; the White Rabbit who leads Alice into the magical realm of Wonderland. “Rabbits Forever” became a family password with a secret wave of the fingers that resembled bunny ears.

Against this lineup of fully formed characters the ubiquitous Easter Bunny seemed as hollow as the chocolate rabbits in cellophane packaging. When my children were seven, they donned their new bunny backpacks and their winter boots to trek through banks of spring snow to find the entry to the chocolate factory that opened up at the base of a tree.

Their expedition was inspired by the description of a secret subterranean world in a storybook put out by a chocolate company with the obvious intent of turning ordinary Easter eggs into something a little more beguiling. But they weren’t searching for the Easter Bunny. They were looking for Spirit Rabbit’s base of operations and their hunt occurred on International Rabbit’s Day, a high holiday for rabbits that I declared, celebrated alongside Easter.

Like Easter, Christmas – the devotee of religion in our family – had become an odd tribute to consumerism. At some point Spirit Rabbit also began delivering presents, sharing the spotlight with Santa. By now she had become a familiar figure in our family affairs and little by little she grew up as the embodiment of our own traditions and stories.

When I was married for a second time, some 26 years after I first married in a ceremony that felt generic and prescribed, I wanted something a little more personal. The hall, otherwise booked, had an opening on International Rabbit’s Day. It seemed like a sign. The wedding party all wore discreet rabbit brooches. My mother placed rabbits on our wedding cake. We didn’t explain it to anyone but marrying in the company of my adult daughters and Spirit Rabbit felt just about right.

My children were grown and gone by the time Spirit Rabbit became the patron saint of a camp I bought on a northern lake. I named it Waabooz, Ojibway for rabbit, to acknowledge the traditional lands it sits on. My daughter created a sign at the entrance to the driveway that depicts a triangle of three rabbits surrounding a bear, my good-natured and playful husband’s own totem. It is the place where I welcome my young nephews and nephews. They know it is the home of Spirit Rabbit.

She shows up in unexpected ways from time to time. The rabbit sculptures in the garden rearrange themselves in the night. Small gifts are left in the woods. Sometimes she leaves messages in invisible ink. Even my siblings sometimes press Spirit Rabbit into service when needed. Once when my niece lost a tooth, her parents – presumably without the necessary monetary gift – left a treat and a note that said Spirit Rabbit was pinch-hitting for a busy tooth fairy.

Almost three decades on, Spirit Rabbit remains our whimsical muse. Where once she was Easter Bunny and Santa – only better – she is now a guardian spirit, a purveyor of luck and safe travels, a spot of magic in an otherwise mundane world, and a reminder of the innocence of childhood. Our mythological universe inhabited by an omniscient and gentle rabbit is some of what binds us.

The screen saver on my iPhone depicts three rabbits forming a circle, their long ears entwined: my daughters and I bound for eternity. Today we text one another on ‘The Three Bunnies’ channel. My husband talks about the possibility some day of the arrival of grand-bunnies.

When we were together recently my daughter asked me what I wanted to be called if I am ever a grandmother. Grand-Rabbit, I said. I’ve been thinking about this. I may be lucky enough to know my grandchildren, but my great-grandchildren will very likely know me only in spirit.

Suesan Saville lives in Westport, Ont.