Feeding Cats

IMG_6757House cats are docile, nervous pets who are pampered and talked to in hushed baby talk voices.  They are good for warming laps and napping in the sun.  Barn cats, on the other hand, are murderous working animals who are stealthy and wise but pets just the same.  In college, I had a house cat who quietly sneaked into an open closet and was shut up for a school day in there.  I came home to a shrieking howl and opened the door to find she had ripped open a new bag of cat food with her claws and survived the wilderness of the closet for an entire three-hour class period.

I grew up with barn cats on a pig farm.  These cats were true survivalists.  They lived in the rafters of the barn through blizzards and thunderstorms and tornadoes.  They gave birth to kittens alongside pigs and chickens.  They ate scraps and killed mice and birds and bugs.  Still, they found time to snuggle with my brother and sister and me under the shade of the Elm tree in the grass of our front yard when summer rolled around.

When I was growing up, we brought table scraps out to feed the cats, hollering here kitty, kitty into the wind.  The cats responded in a hoard and it was best to just step back and let them fight it out amongst themselves.  The sound of deep-throated growling under nom, nom, nom was often heard.

Today, my cats don’t actually live in a barn but in the potting shed.  There is a heat lamp and straw and a couple large self-feeders for the dry food.  Every third day or so in the winter, when the cats need to maintain some extra body fat, I open pop tab cans of wet food to supplement their diet.  We drive long metal spikes into the 12 foot posts where the Bluebirds nest to keep the murderous cats at bay.

At feeding time, I walk out the laundry room door onto the back porch and at least four cats show up to escort me to the shed.  The calicos run ahead looking back as if to say, “Hurry up.  Come on, it’s this way.”  Nurse Meow-mers our old-timer weaves expertly in figure eights between my ankles while keeping pace with my steps to avoid tripping me.  Bear, our loveable but odd, neutered tom, trundles toward me and at the last moment veers off to the right leaning in with his spine and tail in a way that almost causes him to fall over.

I flip the latch on the shed door as the calicoes rush through the worn hole at the bottom of the wood plank door just big enough for an adult cat to get inside.  Two feral kittens, one yellow and one black scramble up the wall and into the rafters as I step down onto the dust-covered concrete floor.  I reach to my left to switch on the heat lamp for the night.  The calicoes glide over one another investigating the empty cans left on the floor from the last feeding.  I hear a rattle behind the dusty chicken feed can and see two beady, close-set eyes reflect the light from overhead.  A sharp black nose with twitching whiskers points back at me.  An opossum has joined my clowder of cats for feeding.

The cats, my resident predators, have let the enemy in.  They completely ignore the intruder as I open cans one by one to the tune of “Grrrr, nom, nom, nom.”  The offending opossum looks young and terrified, frozen behind the chicken feed can.  I take pity on him.  I leave it up to the cats to share their food or not as I latch the potting shed door for the night.

Unexpected Pig

Not so cute.
Not so cute.

I heard the crunch of tires on gravel as mom and dad pulled out of the driveway in our copper-colored Pinto wagon.  I had a list of chores to complete in exchange for permission to stay home alone.  Letting me stay home by myself was a probationary test and babysitting my brother and sister would be the reward if I avoided burning the house down while they were gone.  Being in charge of my brother and sister wasn’t enticing but the idea of being treated more like an adult was so I agreed to the tradeoff.

To avoid starting the dishes, I wandered outside to pet my marmalade cat Fred.  Fred was fat and looked like Morris in the cat food commercials.  I spotted him in a lawn chair just out the front door so l thoughtlessly walked through the door in shoeless, sock covered feet.  Fred purred from deep down in his belly as I picked him up from the chair like a limp dishtowel.  He didn’t resist at all as I flipped him over on his back to cradle him like a baby and stroke the soft peach colored fur on his belly.

Fred was nearly asleep in my arms when I felt his whole body harden in a posture of alertness.  His purr transformed into a low quiet howl and then he scrambled out of my grasp leaving me bleeding with scratches from his claws on the un-freckled flesh of my wrists.  He ran across the lawn with a yowl and bounded up the ancient Elm tree near the road.

Distracted by arms that felt on fire, I didn’t give a second thought to what had caused Fred to turn on me.  Cats in general are untrustworthy and given to mood swings so I shrugged off Fred’s betrayal until I heard a sound behind me.  Around the corner of the house came a strong expulsion of breath followed by a deep grunt and then I saw her snout.  Arabella, my dad’s farrowing sow was out of the fence.  I could just see her glistening nostrils and the ring piercing her septum to keep her from rooting too deep in the ground as she continued to sniff and grunt.  I knew she could tell I was there around the corner.  I had been in the barn when Arabella gave birth to a litter and saw her challenge my dad when he reached in to check on a tiny piglet.  I’ve heard people talk about mother bears protecting their cubs but for me a mother pig is just as terrifying.

I froze for a second until the pounding of my heart made my ears ring like an alarm clock and then I ran.  With tender soles, I ran across the gravel drive and through the grass to our blue metal swing set.  I imagined feeling her rough bristled forehead pressing into my back as she tossed me off my feet.  I saw in my mind her mud covered hooves slicing through my skin as her 350 pound body plowed over me.  I imagined her squeal as she tore into my flesh with her crushing teeth and I started to cry.  I ran with tears streaming and I was gasping and hiccupping for breath.

I hit the hot metal of the slide and gripped the sides.  I was too big but I started to climb.  My filthy socks, wet from the evening dew slipped on the smooth surface of the slide with each panicked step.  I could hear her snorting as she lumbered toward me and the swing set.  Around the tractor tire sandbox she came.  Her shoulders as high as the fourth rung of the slide’s ladder.  She stopped and turned her snout up to me, sniffed twice and then she turned to root in the dirt around the sandbox.

I don’t remember how long I sat at the top of the slide.  The sky had turned dusky when mom and dad arrived home to find me trapped at the top of the slide and Arabella calmly grazing in the yard.  Dad turned off the engine and got out of the car grabbing a downed branch under the Elm tree.  He approached Arabella with his arms out from his sides and the branch in his right hand like a weapon.  “Heyaw!” he yelled, and Arabella started in surprise.  “Heyaw!” he yelled again and Arabella turned away from him and lumbered unimpressed away from the play yard.  Slowly, Dad guided her back to the barn and Mom came to me on the slide.  She asked what happened and after I told my tale she asked why I had been outside without my shoes and then she chided me for my ruined socks.

I still had chores to do but I had a good story to tell.  The first time I was allowed to babysit, Dad laid down the law that I was in charge and as an afterthought called back on his way out the door,  “You all better just stay in the house.”

The River

Ohio River near Golconda, Illinois 2008
Ohio River near Golconda, Illinois 2008

Tom Sawyer’s River full of history, commerce, and danger is my river too.  From a different time and place, the clay river mud pushes up through my naked toes and refuses to wash away without a good scrub.  Bright sun bakes water polished stones along the sandy bank while the lapping wake washes in the stink of rotting grass and fish and motor oil.  Impossibly enormous turkey buzzards circle the island sky in kettles of three and four and it crosses my mind that one might be able to carry away the tiny Chihuahua yapping up and down the shore. Summers floating along in a flat-bottomed boat blur together like a single memory, everything the same, but the nights stand out, singular.

The screen door drags along the lower track making a scratching sound as I step from the warm light of the kitchen into the shadows of the upper deck.  The river reflects only moonlight in a rippling puddle from the West.  I can hear the water gently strike the stony shore rhythmically again and again as cicadas whir in the hickory tree growing behind the cabin along the bluff.  I take a seat among them, the story telling has already begun.  He hands me a dripping can of beer from the ice chest beside his lawn chair without a pause in the tale.

The Mason jar of moonshine sits on the table beside the smoking citronella candle, blood-red pickled cherries float in the clear pink tinged fluid.  He reaches out with a hand that reveals a slight tremble and with swollen knobby knuckles opens the lid of the jar to pluck out a single “cherry bomb” with his fingers.  The slur of his words tells me this sample is one of many tonight.  He chews and swallows with a, “Mmmm,” and looks up through his unruly eyebrows with a smile.  Light from the candle glints in his eyes and reflects off the strands of silver in his beard.

“Boys, let me tell you this,” he calls out in a gravelly voice to the grandchildren sitting enthralled at his side, “there is nothing to fear in these here woods.” His face is serious and in the silence the boys stare back in rapt attention.  He chuckles deep in the back of his throat until it bubbles into a roar of laughter ending with a hacking cough from years of unfiltered cigarettes and inhaling smoke from a welder.

“Well, there was this one time though,” he starts when the coughing subsides.  “I’d been sittin’ in a deer stand all mornin’ and hadn’t seen a damn thing move all day…and on the way back to my truck I found a trail of blood and followed it to a big ol Burr Oak tree.  Up in that tree was the corpse of a pony, draped over a big thick limb and gutted from top to bottom just dripping blood all over the ground.  Boys, the idea of a mountain lion big enough to drag a damned pony up a tree about made me piss my pants right there.  But, you don’t have to worry about that none.  Now get yourselves to bed if you’re gonna check the trot-line with me in the mornin’.”

With that command, he lowers his beard to his chest and after a minute of silence begins to snore.

Waiting for the Other Shoe


There was a shoe again this morning on the sidewalk on the east side of Congress Avenue.  It was just past the landscaping border in front of the Statesman Apartments.  You know the one, there just before the grilled cheese truck and the juice cart.

The shoe was gray canvas this time with white rubber around the sole.  It was a lefty and on its side facing the street.  I’m not sure what that means but the laces were untied and loose unlike the shoe I found just before John’s accident.

John was struck on a Tuesday.  All the items in his cart were scattered along the storm gutter. His paperback novels with torn covers and dog-eared pages identified him to me.  It was a blue Nike with a white swoosh that I’d seen that morning over near the ice cream shop.

There was a brown sandal with a broken heel strap the month before John’s accident, in the mulch in front of the San Jose Hotel. The day after I saw it, I read in the newspaper about the homeless women named Rose.   She just stepped from the curb into rushing traffic nowhere near the cross-walk, so they say.

I wonder if they’ve done it yet.  You know the ones who wait for the shoe to appear and give them a signal.  Could I move the gray shoe and change someone’s fate?  What if the shoe is meant for me?

Brown Paper Packages

taco picSo, Sean and I started our Saturday morning by walking down to Jo’s Coffee shop on South Congress as we often do.  We ordered our coffees and as I was feeling pretty hungry I ordered two Pappas, Egg and Cheese tacos to match Sean’s order.  We said hello to our new friend Nichole who was once again sporting her red silk kimono and joined her at the large community table to eat our breakfast.  After finishing my first taco, I decided I’d been overzealous in my ordering and wrapped up the remaining taco in a brown paper bag and shoved it down in my backpack to bring home to Al.

I read a little and did some writing warm-ups while Sean sketched various people from around the shop.  Jo’s has a different vibe on Saturdays.  The regulars are there, but there are more families and small children and impolite dogs who bark, bark, bark.  At first the energy is inspirational but eventually we feel the itch to move on and today we have errands to run anyway. So, we packed up our stuff and continued up the hill.

I wanted to make Mexican Wedding Cakes and forgot the vanilla last time I was at the grocery store so we headed to the Farm to Market store which is too expensive to go to on a regular basis but I was willing to splurge to save the time of dragging Al’s big truck out of the garage to go to the HEB.  I spent ten dollars on a bottle of organic vanilla and even the cashier double checked the outrageous price but I was being lazy and I paid for it.  The cashier asked if I wanted a bag. I considered just throwing the bottle in my purse but worried it might leak so I said yes and she wrapped the bottle in small brown paper sack.  I shoved the sack down in my purse not realizing that brown paper sacks would cause problems in my near future.

Sean needed to go to the bank so we walked further up the hill than usual.  Beyond the bank there is a middle school and some barber shops but the shops become more spread out and less appealing so the bank was to be our last stop before heading back to the apartment down the hill.  On our way to the bank, we approached an elderly man with a bushy gray beard in a wheelchair.  He had a cardboard sign in his lap and the words written in Sharpie marker said something about needing any kind of help anyone could offer.  I remembered my leftover taco and said hello to the man and his friend standing next to him.  I told him I didn’t have any cash, which I didn’t, but that I had a taco in my purse and would he like to have it.  He said he would, so I opened my purse and took out the brown paper sack and handed it to him.  We exchanged God Bless You with Have a Nice Day and Sean and I crossed the street to the bank.

As we left the bank, I noticed the man and his friend were gone.  I mentioned to Sean that this was the first time I had ever uttered the phrase, “I have a taco in my purse,” to anyone.  We laughed.

At home, I tidied up the kitchen and started chopping pecans for my cookie dough.  I followed the recipe until I got to the line that read, “Whip butter and sugar together and add vanilla.”  I went to my purse to retrieve the vanilla and dug around past the sunglasses and Kleenex and various pens and pencils. There was no brown bag.  A realization started to dawn and so I checked my backpack and there it was, wrapped in brown paper… the taco I thought I had given to the wheelchair bound man.  “Oh no!” I shouted to Sean with wide eyes while slapping both palms to my cheeks.  “I gave the vanilla to the homeless man!”  “What is he going to do with ten dollars’ worth of pure organic vanilla?” Then, I mimed tipping back a bottle and taking a drink and planted my face in my palm while Sean laughed.

All Around the Mulberry Bush

Heart Shaped Mulberry Leaf
Heart Shaped Mulberry Leaf

Shane taught me to climb the old Mulberry tree behind Grandpa’s barn where Grandpa worked on his lawn mower and hung fish heads from nails as trophies of the summer.  Shane knelt down like a soldier about to be knighted and I used his thigh as a step stool to reach the lowest branch.  Our knees and elbows stung from brushing against the rough bark of the tree but it was worth it to taste those watery purple berries.  We turned our shirt tails inside-out to catch fruit from the branches above and the perfectly ripe berries dropped from the branches with just a gentle shake.

Visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s house was a regular summer event.  It was a time when cousins from different school districts got to know one another again.  It was the richest place I knew even though they lived in a mobile home on rented land.  There were fruit trees everywhere, and a pond full of frogs.  We saw snakes and chickens and just down the road, a hog wallow brimming with salamanders and dragonflies.

Shane and I filled our shirt tails with berries and leaned back against the trunk of the tree on our respective branches to enjoy our plunder.  From our perch, we heard Grandma working in the garden pulling weeds.  She hollered at Roscoe, the beagle to, “quit that digging,” and though we couldn’t see her from behind the barn, we knew she was wearing her straw hat and picking worms from the tomato leaves with her glove-covered hands then pitching the bugs to the chickens.  This was a ritual we had witnessed before and we respected her diligence.  We stared at the clouds through the shady filter of green while savoring our snack with purple fingers and lips.  And then we heard her say it, under her breath, “Lord, I hate Mulberry trees.”  Shane and I stopped chewing our berries and stared at one another wide-eyed.  Shane spit a mulberry stem from between his teeth to the ground, a skill I had not yet acquired.  “Why does she hate Mulberry Trees?”  I whispered to Shane.  He was older than me by two years and so by default the wise one.  He stared back at me silently, as was his way, and then shrugged his shoulders.  He tossed a Mulberry up in the air and caught it on his tongue and the conversation was over.  It was a mystery.

Yesterday, I poured a bottle of vinegar over a tree stump that just keeps coming back in my garden.  A stubborn tree seed has taken hold in my garden’s fence row and though I cut it back each spring is now forcing the pickets to fall off my fence.  I read somewhere that vinegar would take care of it and figure it’s worth a try.  As I pour the acrid liquid over the exposed roots,  I whisper under my breath, “Uh, I hate mulberry trees.”  And just like that, the mystery is solved.


Read to Me

kid booksI loved reading my kids bedtime stories.   We snuggled up in Jacob’s bed in his small teddy bear infested room or Sean’s blue nautical bed with Buzz Lightyear peeking over the edge of the toy box and read a story of either boy’s choosing every night.  Sometimes they picked one of my favorites and sometimes they picked a book with awkward sentences and repetitive dialog but I read whatever they chose.  Leaning back against the headboard, smelling their freshly shampoo’d little heads, I opened a book cover and Jake pointed at pictures on the page.  It’s one of those things that happen every night of their lives until it doesn’t.

I read Cyndy Szeckeres’s board book Puppy Too Small to Sean and Jacob more times than I can remember.  Each time they asked to hear my own story of how Sean was born too early and how small he was and how my college friend Sharyn had given us that book when Sean was born.  And, then they would ask me to read it again.

We read Tumble Bumble and Frog and Toad and then the books got bigger.  We read Because of Winn Dixie, and I cried.  We read all the Series of Unfortunate Events and somewhere along the way we started the Harry Potter Series.  Sean was a few years younger than Harry when we first began our Hogwarts adventure.  I mispronounced the character’s names and stumbled over the spells but all three of us loved the story.  By the time Harry was entering his fifth year at Hogwarts, Sean was reading it on his own but still joined us for out-loud reading at bedtime, though he sat at the foot of the bed now.  When the final book in the series was released, Jacob was ready to read on his own, too, so I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in my own bed, without moving my lips at all.  The bedtime story ritual was over before we had time to notice and today, I miss it terribly.

Last night, Jacob, who is now almost 18, asked me to run lines with him for a play he’ll be appearing in soon.  We sat on the couch and went through the script page after highlighted page making sure that he had his cues and was reciting the words as scripted.  The play is a musical and we reached the place where Jacob is required to sing a solo.  He started just talking through it then stopped and shook his head.

“No, I’ve got to sing it,” he said.

And so he did, and I cried.

“I’m never going to make it through this play,” I laughed with tears in my eyes.

We read through a scene he’d been struggling with, a heated dialog with another character with lots of interrupting and overlapping lines.  We read it over and over with Jacob’s voice taking on the timber of an agitated adult man.  I choked up.  I couldn’t read the lines.  I was so moved by the energy and passion he was putting into the practice.  I was moved that he was openly allowing me to be a part and a witness.  He laughed at me and asked, “Why are you crying?”

“I’m just so proud of you,” I said.

Tonight before going to bed, I knocked on Jacob’s bedroom door.

“Thanks for letting me read lines with you tonight, Buddy,” I said.  “It reminded me of our old bedtime stories and I miss that.”

“Me too,” he said.  “You were doing the voices and you didn’t even know it, just like you used to.”

“I used to do voices?” I asked.

“You did.  And you used to cry at the sad parts too.”

Read to your kids, people.  Read to them every day until you don’t.  And then read to them some more.

Back Here Again

15 Bean Soup at Strange Brew Coffee House

The tension is there but it’s obscured by menial tasks and busyness.  I finally sit down after months and months of avoiding it and making excuses.  Months ago, I shut the door to my creative mind, the part that strings words together for no one but me.  I stacked boxes in front of that door, boxes full of dusty phrases like, “I can’t,”  “I need to focus elsewhere,” and “first I need to take care of these things…then I will write.”  It seems noble to deny what makes me happy to take care of everything else first.  In fact, I start to believe that I don’t even want to write, that it’s too much work and I don’t have time to get into my own head right now.

I can press a 25 pound kettle bell over my head with one hand but sometimes the weight of a pen seems like too much trouble.

I got past it today, for today.  I had to leave my house and go to my favorite coffee shop and let Toni make me soup, but I got past it.  After about 300 words I felt something crack in my chest.  Something opened up that had been locked for a very long time.  I struggled not to let tears flow because I was in a public place and I would look crazy sitting there with my laptop crying in my soup.  But that’s how it felt to write again after all this time.

A bug’s life.

Fennel frond
Ants on sunflower
Kale worm

Yes.  I am sharing my kale with worms.

Central Indiana is having a terrible drought and a stint of above 100 degree weather.  Our well has faithfully provided us with water, a true test to its depth.  We are blessed.

I’ve noticed how the wild animals in our yard are being resourceful.  I saw a female cardinal sticking her beak deep inside the water sprinkler in our garden to glean a tiny drop that had yet to evaporate.  I notice butterflies flock to flowers I have recently watered to drink from the drops still hanging on leaves and petals.  My friend has watched squirrels steal green tomatoes from her garden, I assume, for the moisture they contain.  Thirst is a common denominator of late.

So, I’m sharing my kale with worms.

“And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”  Hebrews 13:16 (NIV)