Write bravely

Today concludes the thirty-one-day Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. Today I cross the finish line with many fellow Slicers, having written a post each day.

But the writing doesn’t end here.

Nor does the challenge …

That’s the thing. Now, more than ever before in our lives, is a time to write.

The photo above is of a pocket notebook a friend and mentor gave as a parting gift to all who attended her retirement celebration years ago. Her love of writing and advocacy for teachers as writers inspires me to this day. She also passed the torch of facilitating district writing workshop training to me … until this year, when it is no longer offered. But I carry the notebook with me everywhere I go, just to remind me …

Teachers, students, families, friends, citizens of the world, all … today I offer the same to you, in the ongoing composition of life: Write bravely.

*******

write your stories

share your glories

write bravely

write for healing

name the feeling

write bravely

write all your rages

fill all your pages

write bravely

write through your tears

conquer your fears

write bravely

write of the past

save it at last

write bravely

write of your sorrows

and your tomorrows

write bravely

write them for you

and for me, too

write bravely

write bravely

write bravely

Puppy therapy

Seems like a couple of weeks into stay-at-home orders and physical separation is an ideal time for some puppy therapy.

So I brought you a tiny puppy to hold awhile. In your heart, anyway, if not in your hands.

You’ll want to know the story, I suspect …

Last December, my son and I went to pick up his new puppy.

We wanted a mini dachshund, as we had one for sixteen years, from the time my boy was four until he was almost twenty-one. Dachshunds love to snuggle. They’re full of affection and whimsy. And mischief … and stubbornness … but their devotion outweighs all else.

When we got to the breeders, as paperwork was being completed, I noticed a movement under some blankets in one of the kennels.

“Oh, something’s in there!” I remarked. “It looked empty except for the blankets.”

“Yes,” said the breeder-lady. “A mother and her baby. She only had one, born yesterday.”

And then the lady did the unthinkable.

She reached under the blankets, scooped the newborn out, and placed it in my hands.

I could hardly breathe.

Tiny. So fragile. So beautifully formed, utterly perfect in every way. The sheen of its gorgeous coat, solid chocolate. Teeny little ears. Nails so miniscule they could barely be seen … awe isn’t adequate for the suspended moment of wonder at this bit of life in my hands.

The puppy’s mother, a long-haired red dapple, hovered at my feet, her big brown eyes fixed on me as I held her baby.

“Here, ” I said to my son, “hold it for just a second and we’ll give it back to its mother. She’s anxious.”

I placed the puppy in my son’s hands and took took a picture with my phone. With a fingertip, I stroked its satiny head, just once.

“It’s so beautiful,” whispered my son. Very carefully, he slid the tiny creature back into the breeder-lady’s hands and she deftly returned it to its blanketed kennel.

The mother darted in. She went right to work on her baby, licking away all of our human smell from its fur.

I don’t know why I wanted to cry just then.

Maybe it was the mother’s impeccable care of her one baby. We’d worried her, made extra work for her. The puppy squirmed against its bath but quickly settled back to blissful neonate-sleep.

Perhaps it was the fragility of new life that twisted my heart, its precariousness and preciousness, the struggle of being alive and helpless and dependent. Or the convicting knowledge that the human touch is not always a kind or good thing. Or maybe the pang was simply because life is beautiful and because I love dogs.

“Okay, you’re set,” smiled the breeder-lady, handing us the paperwork. “He’s all yours.”

No, of course not the tiny day-old chocolate puppy. That was just a gift of the moment. The breeders hadn’t yet determined if it was a boy or a girl. I did fantasize about returning in two months to get it, however, and what I’d name it … right now, as I write this post while watching Citizen Kane, I am considering “Rosebud” …

No.

I just felt you might need a moment with the tiniest puppy I ever held.

THIS is what we went for, and what we carried home:

Our Dennis.

He’s like a furry worry stone … while holding him and rubbing him (he now rolls over for belly rubs, his favorite) it’s impossible to feel sad or worried or anything but peace and gladness to be alive.

So I give him to you for a minute, to hold with your eyes. And maybe with your heart. He’ll steal it—trust me.

Just a little puppy therapy for your day.

Signs of the times

A friend wanted to know if my family would like some face masks.

She is making them.

She sent us pictures of the fabric—she has bolts of it—for us to choose the prints.

Yesterday she and her husband pulled up in our driveway to drop off the masks. My husband and I went out to meet our friends, offering our thanks only in words, no hand-grasps or hugs … a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing … a few weeks back, we were all sitting around the dining room table here in the house, laughing and telling stories after a lasagna dinner. It seems long ago.

When will we be able to do so comfortably, again?

When I look at these masks, I see all that they represent. Shields in time of trouble. A friend channeling inertia into something productive, a practical means of battling an unseen enemy. Self-care spreading out like a blanket to cover others. Homemade love. Colorful patterns against the dark backdrop of our days.

These masks are artifacts of our times. Symbols of our story as we live it. And nothing connects humanity as much as story.

As I walked out to the driveway to receive these gifts, my grandmother’s voice echoed from across the years:

You won’t believe it, but where these woods are now used to be houses and farms, up and down this little road … when the Spanish flu came, it hit all but a couple of them … twelve people died in one week … Mama made pots of soup and Papa would carry it to their doors. He wouldn’t go in, of course …

Grandma wouldn’t have had living memory of this. When the influenza pandemic began in January 1918, she was only two. But she knew the stories. If my own memory serves me correctly, as I walked the tiny country cemeteries surrounding her homeplace, listening to her narratives of the people resting there—for she knew all their stories, and how they were connected— there was an unexpected commonality.

A death year. 1917.

That was before the Spanish flu.

Grandma nodded. There was a sickness before: They called it hemorrhagic fever. People would bruise and bleed from their noses and ears and eyes … a lot of people who tried to take care of the sick caught it and died, too …

She was hardly more than a baby then, a girl born and raised in a hard place in hard times, but here she stood, by the weather-worn stones under a cloudless blue sky, telling the stories seven decades later.

Because of story, these events are lodged in my memory a hundred years after they happened.

My father was Grandma’s first child, born during the Great Depression. Flour companies made their sacks with patterns and bright colors so people could make clothes out of them … look at my handmade face masks and tell me they aren’t reminiscent. A second child, my aunt, arrived with the war. Granddaddy moved the family from North Carolina to Virginia; he found work in the shipyard, where production increased to the point of cranking out ships in less than a third of the time it normally took. How can one not compare that to the scramble for mass production of ventilators today …

Grandma said: It was so hot that summer. I was miserable, being pregnant. I’d sit by the upstairs window and watch the iceman delivering blocks of ice to grocers … companies stopped making refrigerators … everything went into the war effort. I just cried. I’d have given anything for some of that ice … then we had ration cards and could only get certain things at certain times … once my sister Jack and her husband pooled their gas ration cards with ours and we all went on a trip to Massachusetts … it was so beautiful and so cool there …

I look at these masks and that is what I see.

The story of overcoming. Of determination. Of resourcefulness in time of scarcity. Of finding a means to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a real and present help in time of need, even if from a safe distance. Sharing so that everyone has enough. Acts of service, gifts of love. Sacrifice.

The story of surviving.

It’s a collective one.

Carry on

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows where …

—”He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” B. Scott/B. Russell

Dear Son,

I think this may be my favorite picture of you. For several reasons. I like to see you in such a peaceful setting, walking that country path beside lush green fields, under the blue summer sky. You were walking with a friend, so you weren’t alone. You told me that her puppy followed youI still can’t believe that’s just a puppy; he’s massive!and he got tired, so you picked him up and carried him the rest of the way.

That is why I love the photo so much. It captures the essence of who you are.

Quietly bearing your burdens, no matter how heavy. There have been many in these past few years. Ever how burdened you were, ever how twisted and dark the path became, you kept on walking.

No one knows better than I what a long, long road it’s been, from the day you started college to now. Graduation being canceled, just when the end is in sight, feels like a coup de grâce.

It all started off on such a high note, didn’t it? Getting that phone call two weeks after you finished high school, a church looking for a music director. Your childhood dream. I still have your kindergarten “All About Me” book with the prompt ‘When I grow up, I want to be’ … where you drew yourself as a choir director in crayon. You attained it at seventeen, before your formal training even began.

That summer was glorious and brief.

That fall you started college and almost instantly the shadows came.

Your father‘s diagnosis of ocular melanoma, the loss of his eye, the weeks waiting for pathology to reveal no cancer cells had spread. Despite your new job and your courseload, you stepped up to help him readjust.

On the heels of his healing came Ma-Ma’s stroke, the beginning of her slow decline over the rest of that year. She knew how much you loved her. She treasured every minute with you; she savored every long phone call you made from the time you were little. She couldn’t keep from crying whenever you played the piano and sangremember how she organized for you to come play at her nursing home, near the last? I will never forget her wet, shining face. She was inordinately proud of you. She loved you fiercely.

How grateful I am that you and your dad were there, holding her hands, when she died.

And so you bore her loss on top of an unexpected one.

I know you’re marking the date. Three years ago today, the accident that took your friend. Your little childhood playmate who sang with you in preschool choir, your high school band mate, the organizer of the Sunday-nights-at-Bojangles gatherings. As I write, I hear her pure, high voice echoing in the church to your harmony and piano accompaniment. Her going left all of us reeling—a swift, severe, deep cut to the heart, a knotty scar we’ll bear forever. And yet you play on. You still sing. You stand by her family in their remembrances, your presence the only comfort that’s in your power to give. She would be graduating, too, this spring … but no one is graduating this spring …

It’s one of the hardest things in life, losing people, and not only to death. People will come and go because they choose to, no matter how much we wish they’d stay. You endured this, too, with uncommon grace, never lashing out, just walking on with your invisible pain. I knew it was there. I could feel the weight of it.

Seems we were due a respite, and if there was one, it was those few weeks of vacation last summer before your dad’s heart attack. You and I had just come home from walking when the officer arrived in the driveway to say your dad’s truck had run off the road and hit a tree, it might have been a medical event, maybe a seizure, no, he wasn’t sure what condition your father was in, EMS was working on him when he left, and did we have a way to get to the hospital? With your big brother too distraught to drive, you did it. Calmly, carefully, you drove us to the emergency room where the nurse met us at the door. You were beside me when she ushered us to the little room where the doctor met us to say your father had been resuscitated and was being prepped for heart surgery.

You were there with me that first night of sleeping on the waiting room chairs, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. You were there with me throughout that long week of his hospitalization, until your dad came home, battered, bruised, trying to recover his memory. You got his prescriptions so that I wouldn’t have to leave him … and when I took him back to the ER with chest pains a couple of weeks later, you met us there. Another hospital stay. Another heart surgery. Two more weeks of sleeping in the hospital. Do you remember the surreality of it all? How we felt like it would never end, like we were caught in the web of the wrong story, a movie with a terrible plot twist we didn’t see coming? How could this be?

Somehow you managed to keep your studies up, only leaving for your classes and your church services, making the music and leading the worship for others.

So here we are, at last. Your dad, recovered and restored … able to drive me back and forth to work with my broken foot … until this tiny pathogen bent on world domination closed the schools. Here you are, completing your final weeks of college online, being denied the walk to receive the reward of all your labors … it is unthinkable.

I think about the whole of your young adult life. How your road has been so long, with many a winding turn, through many a dark shadow. I watched how you went around, through, or over every obstacle on this arduous journey. You’ve endured what might have caused others to quit college, others who might have actually enjoyed their studies; I know you never loved the “game” of school and that for you it’s been a test of endurance, in itself. But the end is in sight—despite a pandemic. A plague. Who’d have ever believed, in our time …

You have come this far, bearing every heavy load. You’ve carried on. Often you, the baby of the family, carried the rest of us. You’ve fought internal battles for your own wellness more than anyone else knows; in this spiritual war, you’ve earned a Medal of Honor for exceptional valor. I know it and God knows it, Son. I stand in awe of your heart, full of love and mercy, so self-sacrificial, so willing to lighten others’ burdens as your own grew heavier. Like carrying a giant puppy during a long walk on a hot summer’s day, because it got tired.

That is why I love this picture. It is your story.

There are no words for how much I love you.

Keep walking, Son. Carry on. You are strong.

I am stronger because of you. Soon my foot will be well enough to walk with you again.

When we come through this present ominous shadow, college will be over, we’ll find ourselves in a whole new chapter in our lives, and we’ll celebrate all of it. Just a little farther alongI know that in your quiet way, you’ve already made your peace with it. I can almost hear you singing:

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right
...

All my love, my always-little darling,

Your forever proud, grateful Mom

Global heart map

Yesterday I read about LitWorld’s Global Heart Map Project.

I’ve created heart maps before with students, for staff development, and for workshops on teachers as writers. I have, and love, Georgia Heard’s book: Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing.

But this global project literally caught my heart.

In the words of LitWorld: “Heart Maps allow us to connect with each other by sharing the ideas and feelings that define us in the most elemental of ways —and in these uncertain times, that connection is more important than ever.

Their call is for submissions of heart maps as a means of inspiring hope and strength around the world. For me, at the moment, it’s about the collective story of humanity, uniting now in time of great need. This is something children of all ages can do to express their fears, concerns, gratitude, and love. And, with distance learning in full force by necessity, I cannot think of a better way for teachers and students to connect, combine, and contribute to the world.

The directions on the site about how to submit are simple, as is the invitation to create the heart map: “Inside the heart, draw or write about the ideas, the feelings, and the things that are most important to you at this time.”

And so I did.

Up until now, I’ve only written words on my heart maps. This global one, in these times, seemed to call for something more … so I drew what’s in my heart today.

I’ll supply you with a key, in case.

In the center of my heart: Faith. I have never been more grateful for it. This is where my map begins.

At the bottom of the map: Hope, as the rising sun; I see everything else in its light.

The rays of Hope are shining on a clouded world. If you look closely, all around the rim of the world are the words The Earth is upside down. The Earth is upside down … the compass directions of N and W are there but the map must be turned upside down to see them as they should be.

On the left, Friends, above it, Family, and between them, Books; this wasn’t intentional but it occurs to me that books ARE my friends and my family, too … there’s clearly some subconscious stuff coming to the surface here…

Beneath Books: The American flag. My country, ’tis of thee, my home sweet home … how my concern increases daily for your well-being … for our well-being … Old Glory touches Faith. Behind the flag is is a chain; on each link, a tiny letter, spelling Technology. How grateful I am to be living in a time when isolation is only physical and that technology exists to keep us connected to one another.

Looming rather large at the top through the middle: A rose. It developed of its own accord out of the swirls around Family. I found myself just drawing it out. Why should a rose appear here in my heart map? What does it mean? Maybe it’s again representing my country; the rose is the national flower of the United States. And of course a rose stands for love. I think it may be a memorial flower, for those who’ve already died in the ravage of COVID-19. Most interesting to me … the words sub rosa, “under the rose,” mean secrecy and confidentiality … if you look, you’ll see the bottom of my rose is connected to Writing. I don’t know why I connected the rose to Writing. I just knew the rose should spring from the end of the word. I don’t know the secret yet. I’ll probably have to write to find out. Even further sub rosa are tiny music notes; at the edge of the upside down world, in light of Hope, a song remains in my heart.

Beside the pencil for Writing is a teardrop for losses and sacrifices made in this pandemic, and a caduceus representing the medical profession, fighting hard on behalf of us all.

Note that entire upper right corner is cracking. My heart breaks for Italy today; their losses, the horror. It’s staggering. That’s the Italian flag there behind the praying hands, encircled with the word PRAY repeated over and over: PRAY PRAY PRAY for the tide to turn in Italy …

Oh, World.

Today you are my heart.

Self-care offering

During the month-long Slice of Life Story Challenge on Two Writing Teachers, fellow Slicer Leigh Anne Eck decided to host a virtual Spring Fling party. The price of attending: Three of your best self-care tips for enduring this time of sequestering (my word of choice, as I am already weary of “social distance” and “quarantine,” even “shelter in place”… more on that later …).

Thanks for the invitation, Leigh Anne! Here’s my tripartite offering.

Self-Care Tip One: Remember, revisit, relive.

Think back on the happy moments of your life. Maybe in childhood. Maybe connected to a place you love. A person you love. The moments don’t have to be major ones like weddings and personal victories; they can be simple, really happy moments. A time you felt safe, secure, at peace; it may be laced with laughter or wonder. Then go back. Recall the setting—the lighting, the season, details of the surroundings, smells, objects, who was there, motions, words, thoughts, and why you felt happy. If you stay there a while, the scene will fade in clearer and clearer. Write it. Write your memory. Bring it out of the attic of your mind. Dust it off. Let it breathe. Write it in present tense, because you are actually there, living it; the moment is now.

Self-Care Tip Two: Write a letter of gratitude.

Think of someone who’s been a guiding influence or great inspiration in your life. Maybe someone who believed in you when you needed it most, or someone who’s encouraged you. Write a letter to this person to say “thank you” for impacting your life for the better. It could be a person who’s been part of your life for a long time, or one who appeared for a short but important while. Tell this person why you’re so grateful for what he or she has given you. Then … call this person and read the letter. Or send it in written form. And, if your person should happen not to be living now: Light a candle this evening and read your letter aloud. Or find a favorite place outside to read your letter aloud; maybe take a gratitude walk at your favorite time of day and read it aloud.

Variation: This could even be a letter to a favorite pet. Or to God.

Self-Care Tip Three: Abide.

I can’t take long walks at present because of a broken foot, but when it’s healed, I’ll resume walking around the churchyard with my youngest son. Many times we talked and I got to hear the innermost workings of his mind and heart. Other times we walked in silence, and I absorbed the images around me. The gardenias budding and the waft of their sweet perfume (impressions come with images). The sparkle of quartz in the little rocks scattered along the pavement, the tiny wild violet growing in a crack. The long limbs of the weeping willow, whispering and dancing in the breeze, the setting sun turning the white steeple to fiery rose-gold … you get the picture.

Just walk. Abide in nature, in silence. Take a notebook to capture what it shows you. Write what you see. These are abiding images. Listen to their whisperings, stirrings, songs. Write (and sketch or photograph) what comes to you, and abide.

Bonus Hostess Gift: Leigh Anne, I’d have brought the precious request of your heart—toilet paper—but as you know, alas, “there’s not a square to spare.” Instead I bring the board games of my childhood: Parcheesi, Monopoly, Life, Chinese Checkers, Backgammon/Acey-deucey, as well as Yahtzee and jacks … jacks! Do kids know what jacks are anymore? Give me a while and I’ll remember all those cool tricks I once knew…

Enjoy this rare time with your families, my friends.

Take good care.

Child’s play

My granddaughter, age four, has a touch of cold. She told her dad (my son): “I think I have a little bit of coronavirus.” Yesterday she told the family that that her new Barbie bakery had to close down because “people in her town got coronavirus.”

Her understanding of such stark realities pierces my heart. Her comments also take me back to something I learned in my final high school English class, where I sat horror-struck, riveted, as my teacher painted a verbal image of London in the bubonic plague (which also originated in China):

This was the second and worst wave … people were superstitious about a catastrophic event occuring in 1666, with the Biblical symbolism of three sixes together, but the plague struck the year before, 1665 … spread by fleas on black rats … First you must understand the condition of London at the time. The characteristic fog was mingled with black smoke from factories and the coal-fires of a terribly overcrowded city. There was no sanitation; people dumped their waste from windows—that’s where the phrase “Gardy-loo!” originated, from the French “garde a l’eau!”—”watch out for the water!” It’s what people shouted to warn those walking on the street below, so they could jump out of the way when the buckets and chamber pots were dumped. Raw sewage ran in the streets … human and animal … just imagine what was on people’s shoes, on the hems of ladies’ long dresses … and during the plague, bodies also lay in the streets, where people fell dead… this sparked the children to invent a new game: Ring-Around-the-Rosie …

—What?

Ring-Around-the Rosie? It’s a silly, giddy game. How many times had I played it as a child, with neighborhood kids or schoolmates, trying to pull each other around the circle of our joined hands faster and faster, until we deliberately made ourselves fall?

“Ring-Around-the-Rosie” was originally “Ring a ring of roses,” funeral wreaths for the dead. “Pocket full of posie” was a reference to the nosegays people carried when they had to walk in the streets—flowers held to the nose to counteract the stench, or a handkerchief doused with cologne, if they were wealthy enough to have it. “Ashes, ashes”—at the time, it was “rashes, rashes,” indicating the discoloration of the skin from bursting lymph nodes, or “buboes,” hence the name “bubonic plague.” And “we all fall down” … that’s self-explanatory. It’s what the children saw…

That’s an indelible image: Children joining hands in the streets, chanting, whirling around faster and faster— laughing—against that ghastly backdrop. It’s how they interpreted and internalized events, how they coped with their world—through play.

The game remains with us centuries afterward. In our time, it’s indicative of the carefree joy of childhood; the darkness is long forgotten.

That’s what play does: defeats the demons, diminishes fear, turns the dark into light. It’s the way children communicate their learning about the world. It’s release, acceptance, solace, safety. It’s the bright, creationary force in a child’s domain: play is within the child’s control when nothing else is.

Its value, inestimable.

Barbie’s bakery will re-open, I am sure, for our businesses will. Our times are grim at present, but we know what causes disease to spread. We understand (most of us, let’s hope) that for now we have to keep our physical distance, for our greater good. We know the value of hygiene. We shall have to join hands—figuratively— in many different ways; we shall be pulled, and strained, but as long as we don’t succumb to panic, and if we submit to wisdom, we shall not fall.

And our children?

They’ll keep on playing.

And watching.

“We should respect with humility the bright holiness of childhood.”

-Janusz Korczak

Photo: “Circle of Peace” bronze sculpture by Gary Lee Price (children playing Ring-Around-the-Rosie). Blake Bolinger. CC BY.

The kitten’s song

My favorite teaching moments are those when classroom teachers have invited me in to model the writing process. This occurs a lot less than it used to, as writing workshop in my district has been replaced by a curriculum with embedded writing. I’ve been remembering those moments lately. I miss walking in with a list of ideas for students to choose from. I miss drafting and revising in front of them while they ask questions and make suggestions regarding artistic or stylistic choices. I miss hearing the flood of their own ideas, their own experiences … and sharing mine with them through writing. Perhaps that’s what led me to go back and reread those mentor texts.

The writing of this one was, to me, the most memorable. I wrote it over several days for a fifth-grade class studying memoir. I explained that one way to make memoir come alive is to pick a moment of strong emotion and pull the readers in so that they feel it, too. I asked if they wanted me to write about a moment from my life when I was happy, sad, embarrassed, angry, or afraid.

They were tough. They said: “A time when you were sad. Make us cry.”

Okay …

They chose, from the topics I gave them, ‘the sick kitten.’

And so I walked back into my memory, and wrote.

Here’s “The Kitten’s Song,” with a bit more polish at every writing (for revision is never really over, is it).

*******

Free kittens – take one.

I saw the sign propped on a chair at the entrance of my college cafeteria. A disheveled guy—another student, I guessed—stood there holding a cardboard box. I hurried over to look inside:

One dark little ball of fur.

“Is that the last kitten you have?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “No one wants her because of her tail.”

“What’s wrong with her tail?”

The guy scooped up the kitten and showed me her backside. She didn’t really have a tail. Just a stump.

“What happened to her?”

“She was born this way. The only one in the litter like this.”

The tiny black creature sat looking up at me with big yellow eyes. She meowed.

Poor little unwanted baby.

There was, of course, only one thing to do:

“I’ll take her!”

I named her Moriah after a magical black cat in a wizard story, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

When she was nine months old, Moriah had seven kittens. Some were solid black, like her; the others had gray and white stripes. The three boys had long tails but the four girls had stumps like their mother.

All of the kittens were beautiful to me. The day after they were born, my mother and I were admiring them when we realized something was wrong.

In the bed I’d made out of a low box lined with a soft blanket, Moriah lay nursing her babies. The smallest kitten, the runt, had been pushed away by her bigger brothers and sisters. This tiny ball of gray and white fuzz rested at the side of the box by herself. When I picked her up, I saw a big open sore where her tail was supposed to be.

“Mom!” I cried, showing her the raw place. “Look at this! What happened?” A horrible thought entered my mind. “Do you think something did this to her? Did Moriah —would Moriah — bite her kitten’s tail off?”

Mom shook her head. “Gracious, no. I think the kitten was just born like this and we didn’t notice until now. Looks like her tail never finished forming. Could be spina bifida. It happens to human babies sometimes, when their spines don’t seal all the way. It’s probably because of Moriah’s tail defect, as she’s passed on to her daughters.”

“Will it it heal?”

“It might. We’ll have to keep an eye on it.”

“Poor little thing,” I mourned, stroking the kitten’s head with one finger.

I tried to help. I put the kitten in the pile of her brothers and sisters so she could get to the milk. They still pushed her away. I moved the biggest kitten, who loudly complained, and put the runt kitten in his place, but she didn’t try to nurse.

“What are we going to do, Mom? If she doesn’t get any milk, she’ll die.”

Mom said, “Bring her to the kitchen. I’ll get a medicine dropper.”

I came to the kitchen and sat at the table, holding the kitten. She weighed no more than an egg, just a soft warm spot in my hand. Her day-old eyes were still closed. Mom washed the medicine dropper we used when we had earaches, then she took some milk from the refrigerator and warmed it in a pan on the stove.

The kitten purred in my hand, a pleasant little vibration, and I suddenly felt that she needed a name.

If I name her, maybe she’ll get well and strong.

I was trying to think of a name when Mom handed me the dropper filled with milk.

“Feed your baby,” she said.

The dropper seemed too big for the kitten. When she opened her pink mouth, my heart leaped with hope, but she only made a cry, the tiniest cry I have ever heard in my life, so small that it was hardly a sound at all.

“Mom, I can’t do it.” By now my hands were shaking.

“Give her to me,” said Mom.

My mom could fix anything. Once she rewired our oven all by herself. She made a lot of our clothes and took in sewing for other people. She could mark patterns on fabric, cut it to precision, and every piece turned out exactly right. As I watched that tiny gray-and-white kitten in my mother’s capable hand, I was sure Mom could get her to take the milk.

I remembered a song then, from a movie I watched with Mom when I was little. The movie was her favorite, The Sound of Music, and this the song I loved best:

 Edelweiss, edelweiss,

every morning you greet me.

Small and white, clean and bright

You look happy to me.

Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow,

bloom and grow forever …

It’s about a little flower that grows on the Alps of Austria where the movie is set, but for me, in that moment, the kitten became Edelweiss. It was a perfect fit. As Mom tried to get the kitten to drink from the dropper, I sang the song over and over in my mind like a prayer:

Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow,

bloom and grow forever …

The milk only ran down the sides of the kitten’s face. When I looked at Mom, her mouth was set in a straight line. A tear rolled down her cheeks like the beads of milk on the kitten’s.

After a minute, my mother said, “She’s already gone.”

“NOOOOO!” I wailed. “Keep trying!”

“It wasn’t meant to be, honey. She was too sick.”

We held her for a moment and cried.

I wrapped Edelweiss in one of Daddy’s white handkerchiefs and buried her in the backyard. I found a nice rock in the yard with a flat surface and painted a little white flower on it. I put it on the grave and cried there a long time, for Edelweiss, for everything that has to die. Moriah came to sit on the ground beside me, a warmth at my side, purring deep and strong. She looked up at me with winking yellow eyes and all I can imagine is that she was saying Thank you.


Many years later, I wonder about that rock, if still sits in its special place, if the sun and rain have erased my painted flower. In my memory, the kitten named Edelweiss hasn’t faded. She stirs whenever I start thinking life’s not fair. I remember how she purred. You look happy to me … I don’t know if that is strange or not. I just know that Edelweiss, who only lived a day, is somehow part of me, always.

Whenever I hear her song, I remember.

*******

Photo: Kittens 001. Bryan Price. CC BY-SA

Dear Boy

A good dog is one of life’s greatest gifts. Today’s post is dedicated to Rin, my husband’s childhood pet.

Dear Boy,

It is late. I am thinking about you sleeping upstairs. I wish I could get up there like I used to; I feel I should be near you tonight.

But I content myself with knowing that you are here and safe.

I think about the first time I saw you.

There you came with your mom and dad, looking at all my brothers and sisters at the place where we were born. As soon as I saw you, I knew: That is my Boy. That is my Boy. I ran straight to you, your arms went around me, and that was the moment we began. How excited you were to give me my name. Rin Tin Tin, you said. He was famous and you look just like him!

I was just happy because you were happy.

Do you remember taking me to classes? I do. How proud I was to learn what you wanted, to make you so pleased with me.

I’d do anything for you, my Boy. I hope you know.

I remember that bad time when I was still a very young dog and you were so sad. When your dad left for work and never came back. I knew you were hurting and afraid; that’s why I stayed so close. I gave you all the comfort I knew how, the warmth of my body, the occasional lick for reassurance. I watched you while you slept in case you woke and needed me.

You’re my everything, Boy. You always were.

Remember how you’d throw a stick for me to fetch, over and over and over, because I never got tired of it? How I miss that! I will still fetch for you, Boy, if you would only let me. That’s why I keep finding sticks and bringing them to you even though I understand you don’t want me to run. I know I am slow and yes, it hurts my old hip—but it is what we do. It is what we always did. So much fun, so much joy. If I could have fit your basketball in my mouth all those hours and days and weeks and years you were out on the backyard court, I’d have played that with you, too. But it was enough for me just to run beside you.

Perhaps tonight I will dream of those days, when we ran and ran and you got tired but I never did. I am tired now. I want you to know that whatever comes, Boy, I would do it all again. Every bit of it.

You’re my life, Boy. I love you so.

Now I lay me down to sleep. I’ll wait for you in the morning.

Goodnight, Boy.

Rin

*******

On the morning after the Boy and I got married, his mother found Rin unresponsive. He’d had a stroke. He died later that day at the vet’s office.

He was thirteen.

I’ve always believed you knew that you finished your job, Rin. You saw the Boy safely off to his adult life on the last day of your own. Thank you, Rin Tin Tin, good and faithful servant, for giving him your all.

The Boy loves you still.

From ashes of auld lang syne

 

embers

New Year’s Eve. The wind gusts in the night beyond the bedroom window. I sit at my scarred old vanity, watching a tiny hand-me-down television. I am fifteen, this room is my inner sanctum, so I am surprised when Daddy brings me a slice of frozen pizza that Mom heated up for a late snack. “Something to munch on while we wait for midnight,” he says, and departs. My heart is stirred by this gesture. I don’t know why. I can’t even say if it’s a pang of happiness or sadness.  I take a tentative bite of the pizza and resume watching the movie Come Back, Little Sheba. I am safe and warm, the pizza is unexpectedly tasty, yet I shiver. The desolation of the characters and their story pierces me. How could things be so wrong? Would Sheba—a missing dog—ever come back home?

The wind moans under the eaves; I can’t stop this seeping inner chill.

Midnight arrives. I should say something to my parents.

I go down the hall to the living room, where they are turning off the big TV. “Happy New Year,” I say. 

They are stretching, yawning: “Happy New Year, Sugar. Good night.”

We head for our beds.

The ringing of the phone wakes me from a deep sleep.

I sit straight up. A phone call at this time of night—morning, rather—can’t be good news.

I wait in the dark, pulling the blankets around me, as my father’s footsteps hurry down the hardwood hallway to the kitchen. He answers the phone, hurries back down the hall to get my mother.

I hear her crying.

Heart pounding, halfway not wanting to know but also realizing I’ll have to face whatever it is sooner or later, I get up and go to the kitchen.

Mom is hanging up the phone, tears streaming.

“Grannie’s house caught fire. They all got out but the house is gone.”

I am suddenly weak. I need to sit down. I do, right there on the kitchen floor.

How did this happen? I want to know but can’t bring myself to ask.

My grandparents have been sent to the hospital for monitoring; within a couple of hours, my aunt arrives to stay with us. She is weeping, nearly incoherent, her clothes reeking of smoke. A charred, overpowering smell. 

The smoke woke me up, she sobs. Thank God for the phone in the bedroom. She tells us that when she picked it up to dial 911—the brand-new emergency number—the receiver was almost too hot to  touch. Coughing, knowing she had to get out, she opened her bedroom window and crawled through to the porch roof. There she found Grannie and Papa G. Within minutes, the fire trucks arrived, ladders went up, and my family was ushered to safety. As she speaks, I see hoses dousing orange flames that illuminate the icy black night.

Jenny was still in there, sobs my aunt.

Her beloved Siamese cat, twelve years old.

Three firemen held me back, she says, choking on her words, and I envision how hard my aunt fought to go back for Jenny. She’s a sizable woman; it probably took everything those three firemen had to restrain her until the fire was out and they could search. 

My aunt, middle-aged, unmarried, never having had children, dissolves in anguish: They found her body under my bedroom window.

Jenny, she sobs over and over in my mother’s arms. I am sorry, Jenny.

I am now as cold as ice, shaking uncontrollably.

—Come back, little Sheba.

*******

The question we all had: How did the fire start?

It was an old two-story house, drafty, with a curious assortment of doors and rooms. A chimney stood in the wall between the living room and Papa G’s little dressing room on the ground floor. As that New Year’s Eve was excessively cold and windy, my grandparents burned logs in the living room fireplace. They extinguished the fire before they went to bed but the wind gusted hot embers back down the chimney with enough force to blow the old plate off the wall at its back. The embers landed on the dressing room rug, directly under the room where my grandparents lay sleeping.

On that long-ago New Year’s Day, extended family gathered to survey the damage. Wooden doors on the ground floor were burnt completely through their middles but still held onto their glass knobs, like ravaged ladies saving their diamonds at all costs. The pantry where I stood so often as a young child, opening all of Grannie’s stopper spice bottles to smell the contents—cloves were my favorite—was destroyed by soot and water. The avocado-green telephone in the kitchen had melted down the wall like something out of a Dali painting. 

That phone, more than anything, sent my fifteen-year-old mind reeling. The horror of that much heat. That much danger, the near escape. The ruin of it all, the losses. Jenny. There would be no going back. No coming back.

The old house, the old year, a portion of my childhood lay in ashes. 

But my predecessors were survivors. They left a legacy of rising above, of carrying on. They knew, well before that night, how to bring something new from the old, something beautiful out of desolation. To my astonishment, the house was restored and refurbished more elegantly than before; my grandparents and my aunt lived there for many more years. 

We don’t go back, no. We can’t.

But we go on. 

It’s a long time since I was fifteen, straddling the transition from childhood to adulthood, coping with the temporal nature of life and its losses, but I believe that New Year’s fire marked the true beginning of my resilience, faith, courage, and, when needed, my fighting spirit. My inheritance. It’s carried me through every year since, even this last, in the greatest crisis of my adult life. Once again, my family survives, only this time I’m the older generation. We recoup, we go on to whatever this new year holds for us.

Perhaps it’s overcoming that sparks the memory. 

It’s auld lang syne, my dears, auld lang syne, beyond the darkest night, the ashes of what was. And not forgotten.

I rise and walk into the new carrying you with me, always.

Photo: Embers. Brian Douglass. CC BY