The silence of ice
hard-smooth glaringly mocking
a manufactured perfection
life, birth, spring
held captive in plain view
under a solid clear glaze
pale world strangely hushed
I tiptoe through
afraid to break the surface with my sound
but a snap, a crack, a drip, another
whispers return to life around me
once broken, the ice cannot hold its captives
dripping, pattering, babbling
life begins again
the stream torrent rushing
beneath the clear, fragile, broken cage of its captor.
My mother died on January 25, 2011, and each year around that date I remember her in a post and share the poem I wrote for her the day she died.
She had been ill for years, and this last time she’d gone to the hospital in congestive heart failure it was clear she would not recover. Kept comfortable by the hospital staff, we waited around her bed for her last breaths.
Later, after clearing out her room at the nursing home, all the necessary phone calls, a visit from a friend and more calls, I had my time alone and was up quite late. As I sat outside in the quiet of the January night watching the snow gently fill the air and fall whispering in a soft blanket on all around me, the poem came to me in nearly one complete piece. So that I would not distract myself from the flowing words in my head I carefully went inside and tiptoed to my desk for a tablet and pen, quietly went back outside to the swing and wrote it down slowly, line for line, all as if I was afraid I’d scare it away, all the beautiful words I’d been thinking, or maybe I’d break it, like a bubble. I changed very little in a rewrite.
I read this poem at her memorial. And I had decided I would go through with my poetry reading scheduled for just two days after my mother died, because it was an opportunity to share her with others and to read the new poem.
I could never encapsulate 86 years of a life into one blog post or one photo or one poem. The photo above is the one we placed in our mother’s casket, her wedding photo from 1946 when she was 21 years old. The little scrap of red in the lower left corner is the red blouse she wore, the one she loved best, and I knew she’d want to be remembered in it; our mother was one who could wear a red chiffon blouse in her casket and be proud.
About My Mother
Regardless of the many outstanding qualities any person may have
we are essentially remembered for only one of them.
In my mother, all would agree
this one would be her remarkable beauty.
All through her life the compliments trailed her
as she carefully maintained “the look”, her look, so glamorous,
from tailored suits to taffeta dresses to palazzo pants,
hair perfectly styled, nails manicured and painted
a collar set just so, cuffs casually turned back,
hair worn long, past the age of 50,
a dark, even tan and shorts into her 80s,
lipstick always perfectly applied,
and even at 84
people marveled on her perfect skin,
dark curly hair,
and big bright smile.
I see that smile
when I see my sister smile,
and I see my mother’s active, athletic bearing
when I look at my brother,
and her gray eyes are mine.
In each of her grandchildren
I see her round face,
graceful hands, pert nose,
proud upright posture
and a million other of her features and habits
and in all of us
her wild curly hair
is part of her legacy to us.
When we look at each other from now on
we will see the part of her she gave to each of us,
this little cluster of people who came from her
and who were her greatest treasure,
and when she looks at us from wherever she is
she will know that
she cannot be forgotten.
Startled, an unexpected
kitten before him, he
cautiously greets this unknown feline, offers
friendly gestures though it has no
true kitten attributes, no smell or sound. He
doesn’t know, of course, it is
himself he sees, for he
senses himself in a different way, the
horrors he endured before rescue
blurred in the distant darkness of his reflection,
and with trust he has found reaches out to
this hesitant, wide-eyed kitten with kindness
to share the lesson
he has learned.
I wrote this poem in early November 2014 when Basil, then named Smokie, was about six months old and still easily surprised and intimidated by unexpected things, like a kitty he didn’t know, even if the kitty was his own reflection in a mirror. I saw the moment coming and had the chance to photograph this encounter, and I was very moved that instead of acting aggressively, which was not his style, or running away, as would be expected from a kitten who’d suffered some unknown trauma and nearly been euthanized because he totally failed his temperament test, even after fostering, he reached out to the unknown kitten with an act of friendship. Yes, love can change these things, and it saves lives.
Smokie had just discovered a few new places, and one of them was the top of the wardrobe where so many cats have sat to watch the day and nap. It has a great view down the steps and into both upstairs rooms, and right next to the bathroom door a kitty can just look around the door frame to see what’s happening in there. It’s a favorite place, but not all that easy to get to unless a ninja shows you how to stand there, jump up onto the windowsill, carefully turn around and leap straight up onto the top of the wardrobe, where Smokie encountered…himself, or at least, another cat.
He has seen himself in the bathroom mirror, but in this case he was confronted by a whole cat, not just a face that disappeared when he drew back. He can still be easily frightened, and stood kind of frozen for a second or two, then tentatively reached out to tap the unknown kitty’s nose, his first gesture one of friendship, just as it was when Bella came to live here.
He’s gotten used to himself now, and totally owns the top of that wardrobe. It’s been fulfilling to watch him change and grow.
How many snowfalls have gently covered this ground,
How many summer sunsets flared against the rock of this cliff,
How many feet have trod this sacred spot, human and animal alike,
Stood on this outcropping as I do today
feeling history beneath my feet
in the remains of recent generations
and from the millennia.
The land, carved by the wiles of nature through the past,
stretches out before me, opening
into the hills and valleys of the future
and I wonder,
have all the watchers felt the same exhilaration
at the potential of the unknown
and, so moved, place their beloveds’ remains in this high cliff
so that they could still watch eternity unfold
beneath a comforting blanket of snow?
How many snowfalls have blanketed this site in Carnegie, white flakes silently falling all around and filling the valley seen from this cliff?
Currently, it’s Ross Colonial Cemetery, named so for the Ross family of settlers around the time of the Revolutionary War and it contains graves and headstones that date from that time as well as more recent ones.
But the site has been a lookout for millennia. One can stand on the cliff’s edge and see most of the valley containing Carnegie and the oxbow of Chartiers Creek as it enters and leaves town. My mother told me her brothers and others found Native American artifacts in this area.
Standing there in any weather, I can feel the history beneath my feet, the land unchanged by time, holding the memories of all the watchers, like me, looking off into the distance of the valley and of history.
The night’s eternal darkness shifts to a color less black
and time begins again,
cobalt to cerulean spreading across the sky to snuff out the stars
and a glowing edge on the horizon heralds the sun
rising quickly to sparkle on leaves and faces
infusing the dank pre-dawn mist with warm yellow sunbeams
and the world is fully alive again
a miracle equal to life itself.
Since before our existence
consistently every day the sun brings its gift
travels across the sky at the same pace regardless of our issues
bright afternoons of life and work
remembered in the quality of light on that day,
the weather on another,
do you remember that sunny morning, cold and frosty?
no, it was late in the afternoon that happened, during a thunderstorm
the sun now drifting, dropping toward the opposite horizon
its loving light mellowed with the toil of its task
the ancients watch in fear as the aurora of color
heralds the loss of their life-giving god
and soon all is again covered with a nestling blanket
and we may perish if it remains
but even the world, the busy life of this planet
must rest in darkness for part of the day
lest we destroy ourselves with our own productivity,
the sun must disappear
take the burden from its shoulders
loiter just out of sight
until you turn around to see
the change in the shade of black. Rest, another day will come.
I’ve been organizing my art exhibits on my gallery and merchandise website Portraits of Animals. I’d intended to also include my November 2017 poetry reading “Walking Around” but couldn’t decided exactly where to add it, on that site or this one. I’d also wanted to record myself during the reading so that I could share that too; failing that I wanted to record the poems and essays.
Well, I didn’t get to either one. But for the anniversary of the event I thought I’d at least share the art and words I shared on that night. The theme was the things I found just walking around in my familiar space; inspiration can be found anywhere. Also, so close to Veterans Day and Carnegie having delivered up so many residents to conflicts over the years, part of the theme was dedicated to veterans and where they are found just in everyday life.
Below is the introductory information for the event, and below that is a link to the exhibit Portraits of Animals including all the essays and poetry and galleries of images. Please enjoy reading through it.
Walking Around: Poetry, Photos and Paintings of Carnegie
November 2, 2017, 7:00 p.m.
Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall
Observations and findings from walks around Carnegie, finding insights in everyday things and events, the extraordinary in the ordinary, including a poetry reading and exhibit of photos and paintings.
It’s been a while since I had the chance to have a poetry reading, and I’ve always included my art and photography because all those inspirations come from the same place. The most amazing things and thoughts can be found just walking around in your own back yard, literally or metaphorically. I’m expanding the boundaries beyond Carnegie’s outline to the surrounding communities and areas along Chartiers Creek.
I read a couple of essays and a dozen poems, each one with a narrative about it, in a room where I’d hung art and photographs inspired by those walks. The poems I read were inspired by my neighborhood and neighborhoods around me, events, and details of daily life in a small town, and the thoughts I’m led to from that starting point. The essays and poetry below are followed by galleries of the artwork and photos, below…
I paddled the canoe around the bend,
and was faced with the effortless beauty of the panorama,
the trees in all their colors, the sky with changing clouds,
the water moving and reflecting simultaneously,
all perfectly arranged,
I realized that my creations are but raindrops in a puddle,
wisps of cloud that change and dissipate
my solitary accomplishments borne of great effort
would never equal this one solitary scene
or the one I would have seen the day before or the day after
evolved on its own, no one to frame it and display it and promote it
as it quietly exists through the day.
We humans sometimes get to think everything happens because of us
but these trees and grasses and hills arrange themselves
and create great beauty effortlessly
simply in the process of their everyday existence.
So I did a painting that can never match the original
so that I may remember my place.
Sloping hills blaze with autumn color at a rocky, rippled bend in Chartiers Creek, yet on the horizon deep gray-purple clouds hover; although the day was sunny I remember it being distinctly chilly with a sharpness to the breeze, especially on the water in a canoe, and winter is literally on the horizon.
For two reasons the scene was reminiscent and inspiring: first, that I rounded the bend to see this natural splendor in all its detail, brilliant color, fluttering leaves, rippling water, changing clouds, happening all on its own with no help from me or any other human ; and, second, it was an example of that “change of season” with the gray-purple clouds of winter arriving on the horizon, two seasons blending into one another. I needed to share this image, and it was so moving that the inspiration also became a poem, and the title for my third annual poetry reading and art show at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, Change of Season.
And again, no, I couldn’t paint while paddling, and my little digital photos didn’t do the scene justice, yet other than wading down the creek and setting up an easel in the middle of the water, there was no other way of painting this. To take the scene from the tiny digital image to the full-size painting took a good bit of memory and visualization; it’s a good thing I’m very familiar with scenes like this. I don’t often work at this level of detail, especially at this size, but in order to share what I took from this moment, I found myself worker ever deeper into the minutiae of the scene so that others, viewing it, could hear the light lapping of the water, watch the clouds move, feel the warm sun on your back but the chill wind on your face, and the glory of those tree-covered hills.
You really have to get into “the zone”, though, while working at that level on the painting, letting go of your space, yourself, to get back to that moment and all your perceptions from that time. I still go there when I look at the original, which was purchased and made a gift to Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall and hangs in the Reception Hall.
In the mini-ecosystem in the valley along Chartiers Creek, the color show begins a little later and the trees keep their leaves a little longer, perhaps because of the extra humidity along the water through the dry heat of late summer. The diversity of species is generally much greater in both the trees and the understory brush and grasses, which encourages a greater diversity of foliage color and shape. When the show begins, it’s absolutely breathtaking and it gets more stunning every day until a November storm rips the last of the leaves away.
This area of the creek is approximately below Rosslyn Farms, between Carnegie and Crafton. In this area, the creek’s channel was widened and dredged deeper and the banks made more sloping through the Fulton Flood Control Project, allowing all the runoff from upstream communities to flow ever faster down the valley to the Ohio River without overflowing the banks or backing up into Carnegie, as had happened prior to the Project. Also, many of the trees were removed from the banks up to a certain level. Still, even with that modification, the channel remains beautiful and inviting in this lovely and unseen area of Chartiers Creek.
I actually wrote a poem about the scene before I did the painting, so inspiring was that particular moment.
Bright yellow sunflowers are for sale in the grocery store.
A tiny woman bent over her cart can’t reach the cheese she wants on a shelf above her head. A middle-aged man in shorts and a tank top holding a loaf of bread veers off his course, easily reaches to get it, drops it in her cart, they smile and he continues on.
The clerk and her customer are trying out each others’ native languages mixed with their own and giggling at the outcome.
A very pregnant woman in a sari tries to lean over her cart to organize her groceries, her thick dark braid bound around with glittering gems; her daughter clutches the wire edge and her liquid brown eyes look up to search her mother’s face.
A young man tells the person behind him in line he’s happy with the toaster, he can afford it and carry it home to his new apartment on his bike.
An older man in shorts and a plaid shirt is assuring another man similarly dressed that if his wife sent him for naan, this was the stuff.
One late summer morning in the grocery store I was surrounded by peace and love, nothing historic, just the everyday interactions among strangers that are so beautiful. The photo of the sunflowers is the very one that I took that morning while standing in line, which inspired me to record it all and write a poem.
I read this at my poetry reading, “Walking Around”, last November. I just realized I never shared the entire reading anywhere, so I’ll hope to do that for the anniversary this year.
I thought Cookie
was being stubborn, contrary,
when she wandered away
into the overgrown garden
sauntering at her own pace beneath the stems
of fallen burdock and grasses
and through the forest
of tall goldenrod and asters
where I couldn’t follow.
She sat calmly among grasses and blooming beggar’s ticks
and when I arrived at her side, irritated,
skirt prickly with stickseed and burdock pods,
I reached to pick her up, bad girl,
and turned to see what she studied,
and saw my garden awash with sun
majestic tufts of goldenrod backlit by beams of light
humming with hungry bees finding
the sweetest autumn nectar for their final meal,
white poofs of sow thistle holy in their radiance,
and the first calico asters, my favorite
dappled with passing drops of sun
against the backdrop of dark silhouetted trees;
so much to love in a sweet autumn morning
so much I would have missed.
Cookie gave me many gifts in all the years she was with me, including the visual discoveries from this particular morning in September 2011 which led to a poem and insights beyond what I wrote that morning, and remembering that morning and other mornings I came to the end of a stage.
I have also recorded this poem with a slideshow of photos. You can listen and watch it here or on YouTube.
Memories From That Time
My sincerest wish as I remember Cookie is that all of you who read what I write, each of you who has a relationship with one or more animals, that your relationship is as deep, complex, satisfying and, if your species or breed allows it, as long-lasting as was Cookie’s and mine. I could never feel that I have any regrets, that Cookie and I “missed” anything but we lived as full a life as a human and cat could do. It depends on many things often beyond our control, but I wish those things for everyone who loves an animal, now and always.
I first published this poem on September 26, 2011, right after I wrote it, inspired by a morning much like today, and these September mornings with Mimi and her explorations have reminded me very much of those mornings with Cookie, when we knew her time was finite. We had been together at that time 19 years, and it was a wonderful 19 years of memories.
Shortly after I lost Cookie in February 2012, to honor her I followed through with my idea of recording some of my poems along with slideshows of photos and art. Below is the text I had included with this poem when I first published it with the recorded version.
The last weeks have been working through a series of “never agains” as I remember and let go of the unique things Cookie did—stepping into a warmed pasta bowl while my back was turned; quietly climbing her way into any spot in the house despite her disabilities; loving every cat who was in the house when she came here and all the ones who came after; greeting everyone at the door with sincerity and making them feel welcome.
I have also been resuming everyday activities I had been intentionally avoiding somewhat or completely, those that Cookie and I enjoyed together and I now do alone or without her—sitting in the kitchen after dinner to crochet or read with all the cats around, where you see so many photos of her interacting with my crochet materials; visiting the deck and back yard each morning regardless of weather to feed the birds, drink coffee and take photos; and gardening, from starting the seeds in the basement to getting dirty out in the soil.
Much to the joy of the household, I’ve begun to take a break after dinner again so everyone can walk on me and test my crochet projects. Until yesterday I totally avoided my deck except for the first few days in February when Mimi joined me, only filling the feeder outside my office window, and yesterday I spent my first full afternoon in the yard without a cat in many years.
And this morning I sat outside on my swing with coffee and crochet, a Sunday morning ritual whenever the weather was nice enough (nice to me and Cookie was anything above 40 degrees and no heavy precipitation) as I remembered all the years she had gone off to explore the yard then come back to climb up on my lap and have a nap, just Cookie and me doing things we enjoyed and each other, best friends.
I’ve been sharing daily photos and stories from previous years because so many more readers have found The Creative Cat in the past few months. We see a lot of Cookie from last year, including a number of photo essays of her adventures outdoors. I photographed her excessively all through the years, but the extra postings were intentional. I knew what was coming. I knew because Cookie knew, and let me know.
From January 2011, around the time my mother died when Cookie grew weak and lethargic for no apparent reason, we presumed it was because she, as usual, was carrying part of my stress. She recovered, but I saw in her expression a realization. She kept slipping back every month or so, losing a little ground in between and even having a few close calls with her kidneys, and we decided we’d treat every symptom we could and enjoy the rest of our time together.
She stole her last month, January 2012, right out of the jaws of death as after Christmas 2011 she was again lethargic and anorexic, and worst of all suddenly lost use of her hind legs, her body temperature kept dropping and her heart rate increased; her blood tests were frightening. That truly was to be the time but she fought it off, a little adjustment in medications helped but mostly it was her working very hard for just a little more time. We saw her in January looking and acting like Cookie, but I saw she had little control of her hind legs, her body temperature remained depressed, she had increasing difficulty breathing as her heart grew more enlarged and her heart rate slowly increased.
Cookie needed a little help getting started each day, but once she was going she was Cookie again, until that last day. The previous afternoon, warm for February 1, we went outside, a treat since that was usually reserved for mornings only during the week, perhaps we knew. She had no interest in exploring but got herself onto my lap as soon as I sat down, curled up and purred. We went in with the memory of that warm sunny afternoon. The next morning I had to carry her outside for the first time in her life, and as I sat with her on my lap she did not revive as usual, ready to explore even just a little, just remained curled on my lap purring.
Though it was still winter the birds were singing their spring songs, our friends the chickadees and cardinals and wrens who we’d fed and watched all winter. During a brief silence a song sparrow landed in the forsythia just a few feet away from us and sang its familiar three-note-then-warble melody several times, and I knew it was singing to us, and I knew what it meant. It was February 2, that magical cross-quarter day when winter finally begins to turn into spring, a time of transition where death falls away and new life begins. They were singing her home.
I am so grateful that I could just drop everything that day and spend her last hours with her, monitoring her condition and managing her discomfort with the advice and materials given to me by my veterinarian, sitting with her on my lap in the studio, our favorite room, ready to call my veterinarian or run her to the emergency clinic at a moment’s notice if the need arose. In the course of that last month there were many things I wanted to do for her but simply could not afford and tried not to be regretful in those last hours, thinking they would have made any difference or bought any more time; they were superfluous in her condition, and likely would only have made me feel better, not Cookie. What she wanted was me, and that I could give to her.
At 3:00 the next morning, February 3, lying next to me on the floor with all the other cats around, she opened her eyes and found my face, put her paw on my hand and held my gaze for several seconds, comforting me, thanking me and saying goodbye; she stopped breathing about an hour later.
Always with us
Loss is never made easier or less painful by any amount of experience or knowledge, but the long, slow goodbye of that last year was sweeter than words can describe. Relationships like Cookie’s and mine are rare but we who have experienced them know they never end, not even with death. Cookie has visited me in spirit, but she is always with me as well, just as she was for 19 happy years.
For two years I maintained a shop room in Carnegie Antiques owned by my friend Judi Stadler, and Cookie was my shop cat there. The shop was difficult to manage with other things at the time, and I was holding on to my shop in the last few months because of my memories there with Cookie while she was too ill to go with me, and then after she had died. On the day, at the moment, when, I regretfully and emotionally decided to close my shop and take it all home, the back door of the room lightly blew open and I felt Cookie enter, could see her hobbled little gait as she walked a circle around my feet, one of her lifetime habits, and her tilted face looking up at me half orange and half black, her green eyes with gold flecks; she was with me as I walked all around the building remembering all the places I’d seen and photographed her in the times she’d been there with me. As always, she appeared at just the right moment with her comforting and practical manner. I should only hope to meet a human with half as much wisdom and willing compassion as that little tortie cat.
We haven’t seen the last of Cookie. She will still show up in new postings of prior daily photos, and I’ve had a few paintings of or including her that I’ve been planning for a while. (And it’s true, I still feature her photos both old and ones I’ve since found in my archives, and I’ve created new merchandise with her images.)
And the passing of an animal companion like Cookie has always meant for me the coming of a time of transition and personal growth. Cookie led me to the door and opened it, it’s up to me to walk through and do something when I get there.
In the misty habit of a rainy afternoon
a single, ponderous drop of rainwater hangs tenuously from the curved tip of a leaf
holding within it the world turned upside down
and a moment later falls into eternity.