When I was seven years old, my sister entered me in a beauty contest for first graders. That’s me on the left in one of the few photos I have of me from my childhood, dressed kind of like I do today, flowered dress and tights, hair cut with bangs and curly wavy long in back; some things never change. I did not win, and I don’t know who did. I guess it wasn’t important enough to remember.
I do remember that 1968, the year I went from first to second grade, was a very frightening year, and I remember the things that happened that year as I moved out into the world; I can picture me at that time, and remember. Two very public and very respected people were killed in public places. People cried in public. Riots happened and we saw cities burning like something from a scary movie, except it was real life, and people were hurt and killed, real people, like people I knew, and they lost everything they owned.
We heard about the Viet Nam war on every radio news cast and saw it every night on TV. Those people were being shot at and shooting at others in places with strange names, but it was difficult to determine who was who, and what was right and what was wrong, and the news didn’t really make that clear. A plane was hijacked to Cuba, people taken hostage, big words for a first-grader but I knew what they meant, and I knew it meant those people hadn’t done anything wrong, yet they were taken to a place they were frightened of and could be killed.
And black people, like the few I knew at my Catholic school, were also fighting, and being killed, like the people who had lost their homes in the riots. My black friends seemed safe, but from what some people were saying around me I really wasn’t sure.
It seemed like people were being killed everywhere, and that this country, and the world, were not a safe place to be as I emerged from my suburban neighborhood and went to Catholic School. My world was small. I thought these things happened in downtown Pittsburgh, six miles away, and in the tree-covered hills around us in Western Pennsylvania.
We called him Martin Luther King then, no Reverend, no Doctor, no Junior, and I realize now, not allowing him the respect he deserved. But when he was shot and killed, and time stopped as adults held their breath wondering what would happen, I remember hearing about the dream, and freedom and wondered why some people couldn’t have it like I did. In my simplistic first-grader reasoning I thought they should live like me and had no idea why things were as they were.
I remember the word “service”, and how we needed to help each other, no doubt echoing what I was also learning in Catholic school, which was very much about public service and reaching out to people with less than we had and sharing, making sacrifices.
And I remember hearing that we needed to do this in a hurry, we could not wait because…people were suffering, and they were dying, because they did not have the same rights as others, as I did. And other people didn’t want them to have those rights, either.
Children often feel they are responsible for needs in their environment. I wanted to do something, but had no idea what I could do, or when, or how. I looked to adults for answers, but they all seemed to be waiting for something to happen, looking for answer just like me.
I decided I would just be nice to everyone.
A decade later, after witnessing the strife and changes from 1968 to 1978, I read Letter From a Birmingham Jail, which speaks much of time, and there it was, …”the time is always ripe to do right.” That concept of not waiting for the right moment, the “fierce urgency of now” would appear in many of what I read of Dr. King’s writings. And it answered the question I’d had a decade before.
The time is always right to do what is right.
Yet for many people conditions have not changed from what they were in 1968. The time is now.
“Aurora Borealis”, a sketch I did for an illustration for a book about two polar bears who…I don’t remember the story line, but I do remember checking my voice mail at home while I was at work that last autumn I was at my day job, and listened to the message from the small press publisher who’d found my art online. He had an idea for a book that incorporated text and art, and he liked the style of my pastels and how I treated animals in my paintings, and he also saw that I was a graphic designer and freelanced as a book designer. He wanted me to illustrate and design the book.
That one call was “it”. I had been freelancing full time nights and weekends as well as carrying a schedule of new paintings and art exhibits monthly and was still working full time, but knew the time was near. I could live on what I made from the book publishers and the other customers I had at the time, one of them a home builder who had me create artist’s renderings of his house plans, then flyers including those. The art sales were gravy. My office was set up, my car was paid off and the only other debt was my mortgage, money in the bank, health insurance and retirement set up. But was I really ready? I only needed one good nudge. That call was it.
In fact, I suddenly felt a little panic. Had I waited too long? Should I be home right now? Was I missing calls? That was why I checked my voice mail during lunch, but without caller ID, how would I know if someone had called and not left a message? I had to be at home!
January 1 is the anniversary of the day I began working at home and it’s very easy to remember what year I’m celebrating because that day was January 1, 2000. I still remember that first day, going to sit at my desk in the room downstairs even though it wasn’t really a work day. I’d been freelancing and working at that desk in that corner for several years already, and looking out the two big windows to watch birds at the feeders and observe the neighborhood, my desk and the windowsills lined with my family of felines, happy I’d be sitting still for a while so they could get in a good bath and nap on me and my papers.
I had done the sketch during the evenings while still working, but photographed it to send a print to the publisher on pretty much my first day working at home, along with photographing some other artwork, and some other photos on that same roll, reference photos that later became award-winning works.
Look somewhat familiar? Yes, it’s the reference photo for the art that’s in the header for my blog The Creative Cat, “Warm Winter Sun”. Only in January does the light stream all the way into the kitchen like that, not even in December is the light that color. And another photo next to that one…
That’s Moses sleeping in about the same spot as Namir in the other photo, but she had been there earlier. The sun is a little higher on the bookshelf. I remember debating between the two and I had intended to paint both, but only painted Namir. All these years later I can’t tell you why, but I do know that one of my goals was to focus on photography generally, photograph my cats more often with my fully manual Pentax K-1000 film camera so I had lots of reference photos, and get around to painting them way sooner than before, like paint them as soon as I got the photos back. And so I did, because instead of waiting a decade as I had with other photos I entered the painting of Namir and won Best Pastel in South Hills Art League’s 2000 Annual Juried Show.
I’ve sold framed prints of the photo of Moses. In 2015 I decided that spring I would paint from the photo and see what 15 years of experience in painting has done to my style. Four years later, well…
Another photo on that roll…
Yes, Cookie really did lie about on her back like this, and I decided to take her photo. The image stayed with me, and a little later that year I suddenly visualized the hand-colored block print, “The Goddess”. I decided making a block print, something I could reproduce but was still an “original”, would be ideal for donating to shelter events and to sell at animals events I attended, and so it was. I didn’t get to do it right away but waited until 2001 when I had the time and the idea for a set including “The Roundest Eyes”.
A change in plans
And also because my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in April 2000 and became my responsibility as he moved through his recovery, and then my mother developed lung cancer and had surgery and barely recovered, both of them incapacitated with multiple medical conditions and in care for the next decade as I was legal guardian for my mother and POA and representative for my brother. We never know what will happen to change our plans, and those two medical emergencies certainly changed the business plan and list of objectives I had spent a decade determining.
But my felines were there for me, unconditionally, at the end of a long day at the computer; below, my desk in summer 2006 featuring Stanley curled next to Sophie, Kelly bathing, Namir and Cookie curled in front of me and Peaches having a good scratch on the file cabinet, six cats….
…or an all night project, or when I came home from a long day at one hospital or another, or a day of doctor appointments.
Over the years my customers and work projects have evolved as has my family of felines, though lying all over my desk never went out of style, even in the wee hours when I was up with a project as in the photo above from 2010 with Peaches on a box, Mimi on the windowsill, Dickie on my desk, Cookie having a good bath on my paperwork, and Giuseppe being vigilant. It really was 3:00 a.m.—there were plenty of times in my mother’s last years that I was off at a hospital unexpectedly for hours to see to her care that I just worked whenever I could, and my cats took it all in stride.
And yes, Stanley and Moses and Cookie and Sophie and Namir and Kelly and Nikka were very glad I just quit going to work one day, and we’ve never looked back. I’m so glad I was home for their last years.
Last autumn, after many repairs, the keyboard shelf on this desk finally broke in a way I can’t repair and I remembered that, including the time I’d spent freelancing in the 1990s, I’d been working in this same corner of the room for 28 years and at this desk for 21, and as much as I love the views out the windows, the convenience to the kitchen and outdoors and all the memories, I was really tired of that spot! About three years ago when my keyboard shelf first fell off my desk, rendering it unusable for me because of where I need to have my keyboard positioned to avoid repetitive motion strain injuries, I temporarily abandoned the desk and set up shop in my studio, and currently split my work between the two places, design as well as art. I resisted a computer in my studio for years because I would repeatedly check my email and other electronic things, but now I’m pleased to have two computers networked and two equally suited workstations.
Most of all I also enjoyed the change in scenery and found the room conducive to writing as well, and began moving more and more of my writing up to my studio. As my work has included more fine art, writing and creating gift items and less commercial graphic design, I’ve been spending more time in the studio and enjoying every minute. For many years it was the “spare kitty room”, holding many memories of sitting in that room and looking out that window while trying to tame or comfort or treat a rescued cat, and may still serve that purpose again if it’s ever necessary, but I think I’ve moved that operation to the bathroom for now. I think my family of felines appreciates the change in scenery too, or they just like to make sure I am properly supervised as you see Jelly Bean, Mewsette, Giuseppe, Sunshine and Cookie on the chair.
Many things have changed in my commercial art life each year for the past four or five, the printers I use, the projects I work on, the amount of design work I have. Things changed in my art life too as I’ve loosened up and feel much more free in my work through the practice of my daily sketches, and I’m looking for more opportunities to market and sell my art and merchandise. I’ve also continued to find more places to publish my articles and stories, so I’m deriving more and more of my income away from graphic design.
When I talk to students about being self-employed I tell them two things I’m sure they don’t listen to: learning to run a business is more important than performing your skill, and expect everything to change on a regular basis.
My personal tribute to veterans everywhere, beginning with my father, veteran of WWII.
This is a small portion of the flag I fly on appropriate holidays, and sometimes when I just feel like it. It’s the flag that was presented to my mother at my father’s funeral, he a veteran of the U.S. Army and deserving of the honors at the death of a veteran. He’d been cremated so there was no coffin to drape, no taps or honor guard, just a few of his Army buddies were there but in the end it was the funeral director who handed the folded flag to my mother, not quite protocol, but the recognition was appreciated.
My mother gave the flag to me; she had a nylon flag that had flown over the White House that our congressperson had given her and she found it much easier to raise on the flag pole. I could see why—this flag is about 5′ x 8′ and sewn from heavy cotton bunting, and once when it was caught in a heavy downpour it was so heavy it nearly knocked me down as I pulled it from the pole and tried to pile it in my arms; I don’t think anyone would find it an act of disrespect to have tossed it in the dryer, and it did not shrink one inch.
Extremely well-made, and in the USA no less, the individual strips of fabric that make the stripes are stitched together with flat felled seams that fold in all the edges and stitch two seams across the bulk to ensure strength, and this stitched in the same way to the blue field for the stars. Each star is thickly embroidered onto the blue field, raised above the surface on both sides with the thickness of the threads. The hems, binding and grommets are likewise quality materials and stitching. Of all the other fabric items I handle every day, this flag always feels very different to me as I carefully unfold it and attach it to the special pole I have to ensure it doesn’t touch the ground when hanging. Instead of flapping in the breeze or wind, it waves gracefully as if under its own strength. It has a dignity all its own. I am glad I have this flag and will always take care of it in honor of my father who served in World War II.
Alfons J Kazmarski, Army of the United States Technician Fourth Grade, 115th Quartermaster Bakery Company, Asiatic Pacific Theater, India, enlisted 11 May 1942, discharged 21 Mar 1946.
Like so many others in this huge group of baby boomers, my father served in WWII, and like so many who served returned with untold stories and unhealed wounds; it’s actually presumed that the Parkinson Syndrome that shortened his life took hold of him as he fought the fevers of some tropical illness when serving in India.
But because of his service and my mother’s memories, I always felt like WWII was my war too, for better and for worse. But the war was not done when they came home. It changed their lives, and so it changed ours too. At their return, by their industry, the United States was transformed from an impoverished nation of immigrants to a wealthy and productive nation of members who would all win their place at the table, though for some the struggle continues.
And possibly because of the service of my parents’ generation I am a grateful daughter, and I fly my father’s flag with pride, especially on Veteran’s Day.
I always enjoy visiting the printer where this poster is on the wall at the front desk because I love reading each section of this poster as a reminder. It’s business-oriented, about working with customers, but the lesson of listening itself is universal and applies to us all in whatever circumstance we come face to face.
We humans come equipped with this magical ability to take our experiences and turn them into words to share with each other the important things we take away from daily life. Because each of us is unique, we all have different things to say, and of course we will rarely fully agree with one another.
Each of us has something to say which is important to us, and we say it so that others hear and understand how we feel. But if we don’t actually listen to each other, how does anyone know who we are, or what we need? We drive each other farther apart by not actually hearing each other. We just end up yelling at each other, and insulting each others’ ideas. Insults are not derived from listening, and they certainly don’t foster discussion.
We expect others to listen to us, but what if we don’t give the time and attention to what others have to say? You may find what another says false, despicable, even criminal, but it’s their view just as strongly held as yours. If you want to counter another’s view, if you want to try to change their mind, how do you create a convincing reply, start a discussion, find a reasonable middle ground, if you don’t actually listen to the words they use to describe how they feel?
And even still, the best we can chiefly accomplish is a compromise. Getting one’s way, forcing your views on someone, may seem like a win, but it’s a superficial win. But humans also have another remarkable ability: negotiation. Discussing the details with full understanding and finding areas where we can give and receive to find a middle ground is truly the winning position.
I have some strongly-held views and opinions, there are some lines I will not cross, and there are also views and actions which I feel are so wrong they need to be stopped. Finding that middle ground is only achieved by listening.
Twenty-eight years ago today I signed the mortgage on my home and got the keys, came back and stood on the front porch completely surprised it had actually happened.
Single women in their late 20s didn’t buy houses too often in the late 80s, especially not fixer-uppers. I was regularly asked where my husband was, what he thought and why I didn’t wait until I had one. I was also told, literally told, that I didn’t want a “house” because I was a girl and it would be so much easier to buy a condo because then there would be someone around to fix things and take care of the yardwork–I might not know what I was getting into and I should be careful.
I chose this house specifically because it was a fixer-upper, so I could turn it into what I wanted without having to pay for a bunch of things other people thought were improvements, like new wall-to-wall carpet and fresh paint. I never cared for wall-to-wall, and I can apply my own paint, thank you. And I’d been taking care of my parent’s house for years, inside and out, and rented a house for five years where I learned all the ways an old house needs love.
That house was due to be updated by the owners and I had to move out. Rent was so expensive in the late 80s and felt like a waste of money when a mortgage payment was less for more. I also had six rescued cats and wasn’t about to give up any of them for anyone’s lease. In fact, I wasn’t going to have anyone tell me how I was going to live. I’d paid my way through college, always worked full-time plus at least one part-time job, paid off my parents’ mortgage, paid to put my father in a nursing home, bought my mother a car, I didn’t feel I could continue with my master’s and any other degrees so I was at least going to have a house.
I had a savings and was easily approved for an FHA loan for no more than $30,000, and after looking for several months and finding a realtor who actually helped me look for the house I wanted instead of one more expensive because “you’ll be making more in a few years” or “you’ll get married and be able to sell”, I looked at just a few serious, good houses and found this one, and knew this was it. The house was small, but I walked into the back yard with all the trees around and the deck and felt right at home. The seller just didn’t know it yet, and still wanted $39,000.
A few weeks after I’d seen it I drove my mother to see it. As we drove up the street I saw fire trucks and people milling in the street. “I think that’s near the house,” I said. “In fact, it’s at the house!” The owners had moved out nearly a year before and the tile in the basement was picking up so the realtor had advised removing it and painting the floor because it looked bad and wasn’t going to stick anyway. The man attempted lifting up the glue with gasoline, with the hot water tank still lit. He survived with serious burns to his hands, and the house survived too. He quickly agreed to my offer. I spent some time with FHA issues like lead paint and leaks, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. The basement was professionally cleaned and repaired and there was a brand new coat of plain white paint on the walls for the smoke damage.
I spent my first year or so undoing some of his other good ideas, like the gray smoke warped and stained wallboard and amber light fixtures in the bathroom, and the metal casement windows that had been painted and sealed shut with homemade plexiglas storm windows that completely covered the window openings and bolted to the wall. Between that and the unkempt back yard, I knew these people seriously did not want the outdoors to come in. I tossed open all the windows and doors when I’d been working on the FHA compliance and let the air inside.
I have heard by anecdote and small bits of proof that this little place was originally a two-story addition to another house on the corner. My realtor had told me this, a few older neighbors, and a customer service rep a the electric company who had grown up across the fence from this house. He was very young when they built the foundation and took the two-story sunroom off the wood-sided mansard-roofed Victorian on the corner and set this house on it; there is a two-story porch there now that is exactly the size of my house. My house is 15 ft x 22 ft, the joists run the short way as if they had attached to a house, it was clearly two rooms up and down because the walls don’t match upstairs and downstairs, and the pipes go up to the bathroom in a square bump-out in the corner of the kitchen. The roof does not have a soffit and fascia. The back wall sags a bit, and I presume that was the side attached to the house.
It was intended to be a starter home, inexpensive, easy for me to do a few repairs myself to save money, then pay for a few updates then sell it for a larger house where I could stay and run my business and do my artwork. I guessed I’d be here about 10 years. But the stress on my hands from all the fixups I did early on worsened the tendonitis and other damage in my hands from setting type and working on computers, and I decided to turn toward my art career instead.
My mortgage was sold through three corrupt mortgage companies from 2003 to 2009 and it’s been difficult to keep up with their bizarre requirements. I’ve been involved in a class action suit as well as gone to court and had several modifications. Finally in 2014 I was moved to a very nice mortgage company who lowered my payment as soon as possible, then offered me a settlement after reviewing my history with the other companies, and I managed to pay it off two years go.
It’s my little place. It’s a little small for all the things I want to do, but some days the world is too small for all the things I want to do. I’m happy to celebrate. It’s one of my early accomplishments, and it’s an anniversary I always remember, just by enjoying my home. I took a hiatus from improvements when I decided to focus on starting my business, and that was extended by caring for my mother for a decade. Now it’s time to get back to business.
Here’s the first photo I saw, and what my house looked like the year before I bought it. We’ve come a long way.
Thank you, whoever was the person who made the autumn decoration I purchased in the Family Dollar this week. Out of all the piles of things scrambled in displays as I headed for a roll of tape it completely caught my eye through the blinders I usually wear in stores like that, made me stop and focus on this display of little sprays of autumn leaves and ornaments, and I immediately wanted one.
I don’t usually purchase this sort of imported item, made cheaply and sold for next to nothing. I don’t like to support that cycle of enslaving people in foreign countries to fulfill our need to have stuff, not that my lack of purchasing on its own really makes a whole lot of difference, but I don’t want to give any energy to it, and don’t want it in my life, and I want you to have a job that keeps your health and safety in mind and pays you a living wage. I rarely shop in these types of discount stores too because they make this cycle of cheapness and enslavement necessary, and don’t necessarily treat their own employees very well. I do my best to protest this cycle financially, socially and politically. But for just a quick roll of tape on a busy day, one place is about the same as any other.
But perhaps I was meant to be charmed by your skill and talent in this little bit of decoration, as it truly is lovely and well made. I make things myself so I know what goes into them, and most often with these decorative items the workmanship is barely sufficient for the thing to hold together until you get it home, let alone through a season to be kept for future years as used to be a tradition. Now we anticipate that we’ll throw something away and get a new thing the next time we need one, filling up landfills with cheap stuff, and if it doesn’t last the season, well, we didn’t waste more than a dollar and change.
Your skills, though only Impressed me after the little things caught my eye, and of all the stuff I passed walking quickly through the aisles your creation made me stop, look, visualize, and consider making something similar. I picked up each one of the dozen little flower picks and decided, of all things, that I would buy two and add them to the autumn entrance to my home I’d been imagining in place of the ribbon I’d been considering shopping for.
I juggled all 12 for several minutes and chose two with bright autumn yellow and rich harvest orange and carefully paid for them along with my tape and carried them home. I wrapped the wire stems, carefully wrapped in dark green floral tape, around the top rung of the salvaged wooden chairs I decorate for the seasons, adding flowers as they mature or I find them in my favorite greenhouses, but I haven’t done much, sometimes nothing at all, for the past few years. Your ornaments gave me the incentive to follow through with putting my own small mums from cuttings into pots and fluffing up all the plants I keep from year to year, tired now after the summer, and visiting the family-owned businesses to find their own hand-grown bargain chrysanthemums, the ones they’d started from cuttings and fed and watered and trimmed all summer to be perfectly shaped and covered with buds that would bloom over several weeks.
Mostly, though, I was impressed with your talent at composing colors and shapes and textures with this limited choice of inexpensive materials, to make something beautiful. I know it’s unlikely you have the opportunity to use your talent as your career, or even to make other beautiful things when you choose to do so, as I do. I doubt you have the opportunities and choices I do, but I wish you did. I can’t imagine myself in your place, the frustration and unhappiness I would feel. I have given up many things to serve my creative efforts but that is my choice and my life is not deprived; you have had these conveniences and niceties taken away from you, or simply never had them.
So I don’t think my purchase has changed your life, but I hope the energy I send you in truly admiring your work will put some ripples of change into the universe. I think of you each time I look at these little ornaments, and I send love and support your way, that maybe someday you will have the opportunities I have, and your life will be different, and you will be able to fulfill your potential as an artist.
In my life as a commercial artist I’ve worked hard to find customers whose work I support and believe in. One of my happiest finds has been my own public library, Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie PA. This is the one I’ve been going to all my life, and my mother and her generation before me; there are even deeper connections as well. In 2016 the executive director who also became a good friend, Maggie Forbes, asked me to write up the story with a liberal spread of some of the many, many photos I’ve taken of the place for one of the newsletters we put together.
September is “Love Your Library Month”, but any month of the year is a good time to love your library.
Fine artist, poet, photographer, graphic designer and Carnegie resident Bernadette Kazmarski has been the ACFL&MH’s “secret weapon” as her artistry has helped tell and document the Library & Music Hall’s story over the last ten years…though her love affair with the ACFL&MH began much earlier.
Though some of my earliest memories are of bi-weekly visits to the Library with my parents, my relationship with the Library reaches back to before I was born. My mother and her brothers and sister attended Carnegie High School; the connection between the Library & Music Hall and students from the high school at the bottom of the hill was fond and deep. At family gatherings the siblings would exchange stories of stopping at the Library after school to study, and the fear of turning a page too loudly and receiving the stern glare of the librarian. My mother often mentioned how happy she was to sing in the chorus of high school musicals that were performed in the Music Hall, and commencement ceremonies were staged in the Music Hall as well.
But I’ll take a step even farther back. My mother’s parents emigrated here in 1912 as very young teenagers. Both were orphans, and both were illiterate in their native language, Ukrainian, and knew no English. Relatives who were here had already found them work and taught them enough English to get started. My grandmother cleaned houses and my grandfather worked at Union Electric Steel and learned to speak English well enough, though not to read and write. But during the Depression their scholarly daughter, my mother’s older sister, taught them to read in the Reading Room of the Library, using newspapers and books that no one could afford to have at home. Their experience confirmed Andrew Carnegie’s vision of the public library giving the working class opportunity for advancement. My grandfather became a shift manager at Union Electric Steel.
When I graduated from college in 1983 I found an apartment two doors down from the Library, and began visiting all over again after a four-year hiatus. I found books in the collection to refine some fine art and crafting interests that have become part of my professional life.
I also bought my first camera in 1983. One of my first subjects was Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall and views around Carnegie. I was practicing with black and white film and the ACFL&MH’s massive, elegant building surrounded by tall trees was a feast for my eyes. I read every book on photography I could find in the stacks. I also began wandering into as many rooms as I could gain access to, peeking into the darkness of the Music Hall, imagining myself on the stage and remembering my mother’s stories.
As the years passed and I developed as a visual artist, I discovered recorded books, listening to stories as I worked. I also discovered Stage 62’s performances in the Music Hall. What a thrill to have a theater within walking distance of my home!
In 2001, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and was housebound. I remembered her love of reading, now lost to cataracts and macular degeneration, and introduced her to recorded books as well. Later I brought her to the Music Hall to enjoy opera performances in new comfortable seats. She and I remembered the sad days of the ACFL&MH’s decline. When she died in 2011 I asked family and friends to donate to the Library & Music Hall in order to “purchase” one of the new seats in the Music Hall with her name on it.
New leadership arrived at ACFL&MH in 2003. Renovations began and I became as involved as I could be, all the while wishing I could add the Library & Music Hall to my list of clients for my commercial art business as well as all the other things I enjoyed about the place. In 2006 Executive Director Maggie Forbes asked me to design the ACFL&MH newsletter. As events and activities at the place became more frequent I undertook more and more design projects to promote the events and began photographing them on my own as well. These projects give me great satisfaction.
In February 2006 I held an annual solo exhibit featuring wildlife and nature artwork in the Reception Hall (now the Lincoln Gallery). In December, 2006, two of my poems were chosen to be published on a section of the Prairie Home Companion website entitled “Stories From Home/First Person”, submissions about the place we feel most familiar. Maggie invited me to read those poems and others and display my art as well. February 2007 was the first of five annual poetry reading/art exhibits at ACFL&MH.
The Library has always been part of my life, but even today looking at the shelves of books interspersed with the tall Corinthian-topped columns, I can remember feeling very small standing in the quiet of the big room and thinking it was the grandest place that could ever exist.
Aside from being in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, I am nowhere near New York or Washington DC. I am, however, barely an hour away from Shanksville. On the hot sunny morning of September 11, 2001 I was just finishing early morning work in my garden and yard when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Thinking it was an unfortunate accident I continued listening to the radio for details and shortly thereafter heard that a second plane had hit the South Tower and knew instinctively, as I’m sure we all did, that it was no accident.
My radar for tragedy was sensitized; just a few months before my mother had unexpectedly nearly died after lung cancer surgery, held on for six weeks then miraculously awakened from a near-coma one day and gone on to recover, rehabilitate and return home. The previous year my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident. I was integral to their recoveries and care, and my carefully-planned self-employment was unraveling.
When I heard the news just before 9:00 a.m. that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, I was out on my garden patio by the basement door, putting another coat of paint on some vintage wooden chairs I used on my deck before winter would peel the last of it off. I always worked in my garden and did small projects early in the day to make sure they got done before I hit my computer, and to make sure I didn’t hit the computer as soon as I got up and stayed on it all day long. It was a hot, sticky late summer morning, my verdant garden a green jungle, birds twittering everywhere stocking up for migration and winter, and work waiting for me indoors. The first report was that it was likely an accident, planes had hit buildings in the past. Then the second plane hit the other tower, and even though we had no proof it seems we all knew it was intentional. Everyone in the area was looking at the towers at that point and saw the direction, the turn, the increase in speed prior to hitting the tower, and suddenly a perfect morning had turned unreal.
After the plane hit the Pentagon, I put Moses, my garden cat, inside the basement, much to her consternation, as if she needed to be protected from what might be happening, and as the story grew I thought of my mother and brother and if I should get them and put them somewhere just to make sure they were safe too. Everything seemed suddenly slightly askew.
Jets fly overhead all the time. I have lived in the flight path for Pittsburgh International Airport all my life and close enough to an Air Force base and not only do they fly overhead, they circle and slow down and make noise and fly at crazy angles as they come in for a landing. A noisy plane flying low overhead is something I didn’t even notice. But two planes had just hit the two towers of the World Trade Center and a third had hit the Pentagon. I suddenly noticed that the sky was very quiet for that time of the morning.
Then in the growing quiet, in that empty perfect clear blue September sky, a single plane went overhead and my hackles rose, a cold tingle running to my fingers on that warm morning as I watched it seeming to struggle through the sky overhead. Shortly thereafter we heard about the crash in Shanksville and I imagined the comforting familiarity of perfect green rolling hills of my Western Pennsylvania home bathed in morning sun, now wrenched open and strewn with the wreckage of violence.
I hurried inside, no longer feeling safe under that warm blue sky. I thought of my mother in her home about a mile and a half away, just back from several months in various hospitals after lung cancer surgery that unexpectedly nearly killed her. She was still weak and needed daily assistance for most activities, many prescriptions and home oxygen. If all this was suddenly disrupted, what would I do? Should I go to her house now? Should I try to get her to a more secure place, like a hospital?
And my brother was in a nursing home 30 miles north of me, continuing his recovery from a traumatic brain injury the previous year, also requiring a lot of daily care, medications and supervision. Should I try to move him closer? What if I couldn’t get to him?
And my sister a few miles away with her younger daughter and grandchild? And my niece and her three babies, one of them just six days old, a few miles in the other direction? Should we all find a place to go?
Anyone else would have run for the television, but I didn’t have one then, and I don’t have one now, so I never got to see the very first images that showed up on CNN that morning, heard the fear in the newscasters’ voices. I listened to the familiar voices of the local and NPR reporters describing the events on my radio, feeling calmer listening to their words and being able to move around my house than I would have being trapped in front of a television.
Did any of us know what to do in those first hours and days, even those of us so far from the terrible scenes of death and destruction more horrible than we could imagine?
It wasn’t until the gentle, perfect beauty of September 12 that the effects of what had happened became reality. I live very near Pittsburgh International Airport and at the intersection of two interstates right outside of Pittsburgh, and hear the noises of all this traffic every day, especially in the morning. The next day, with travel restricted on land and in the air, was so eerily quiet. The beauty of the warm sun and clear blue sky, the peaceful twitters of birds and hum of bees we could rarely hear with traffic and daily noises, the clear views of the tree-covered hills made the morning seem like paradise at first but became unnerving as the hours of daylight passed and we had no more of our questions answered, nor know the extent of the damage and death as it was still unfolding in all three areas.
Perhaps those perfect September days were given to calm us before we learned how our lives had changed.
Today looks no different from yesterday but forever against the backdrop of a blue September sky we will now remember the loss of our innocence.
September 11 was a blur of images and fears and unknowns, and for me it wasn’t until September 12 dawned and brightened into another seemingly perfect September day, blue sky and all, that what had happened, and the permanent change it brought, really settled in.
I was in K-Mart the other day, just a quick run for a fan they had on sale, one item, intentionally going near closing time so I’d be in and out. I walked in the store and stopped to get my bearings, trying to remember the department the fans would be in and the quickest way to get there.
I walked right into the thick of sleeveless summer tops in gingham with white collars, striped tank tops, colorful crinkle cotton capri pants with an elastic waistband in the women’s clothing department right by the front door. Without taking a step toward them I assessed the style, the quality and the size, and my eye wandered over it all, putting outfits together for my mother.
Though she died in 2011, I still catch myself subconsciously shopping for her as I did for most of the decade she lived at home or in personal care after her lung cancer surgery, often too ill or unwilling to go out. I would take her shopping seasonally when she felt well enough, or we would stop at one store or another after a doctor appointment. Most of the time, though I am not a frequent shopper, I would pick up things for her as I saw them in my own shopping trips, like this one to K-Mart, drawn to a rack of clothes tailored a particular way. “Wow,” I still think to myself, “Mom would love that,” even if I walked nowhere near the clothes.
I knew my mother’s taste, very different from my own flowered skirts and bright colors and my inability to wear white or even solid colors for they’d quickly have some art materials or house paint or grass stains. My mother could wear all white without a spot, and preferred pants and more fitted and somewhat tailored clothes, kind of a business casual, sometimes with a bright accent color thrown in for effect. Even with fewer choices while living in personal care, her outfit would be just so, the hem on her capris rolled into a tiny cuff, the white collar on her orange and white gingham top standing up just a bit, and a white cardigan sweater draped just casually her shoulders, arms swinging free.
But when I visited she would not be wearing the outfit I had purchased, often in more than one size in case the first choice didn’t fit. There was always something wrong with the clothes I chose and took to her with such excitement. “Mom, look what I found!” just as I had done all through childhood with rocks and bugs and feathers and flowers and, of course, kittens.
Instead, I returned the things I’d bought, capris, tops, cardigans, socks, underwear, there was always something just not right about them. Or she would accept an item, then later tell me it wasn’t right, after I’d taken off all the tags and written her name inside the collar or waistband so that it would be identified if it ended up in the laundry, and couldn’t be returned. Yet I would often find her in a similar outfit that someone else had kindly purchased for her, one of the care workers who especially liked her.
However it happened, at least she had new clothes, and I would do my best to reimburse the person who’d bought them because often they refused. I had ideas but never figured out why the things I brought just weren’t right, and I don’t think my mother did either, though I think we both knew it didn’t have much to do with the clothes themselves. I tried to give my mother more than clothes, and she didn’t readily accept that either, yet I was the one she had turned to, even when I was a child. Through the years, the only gift I found that suited her was to purchase a flat of flowers and plant them for her for Mother’s Day each year.
Where the clothes were concerned, even though I knew she would likely decide the clothes didn’t suit her, I still bought them, and we would go through the same little drama each time. I simply could not go without making the effort; at the time I whined whenever I got the chance, but now, for the most part, I’ve forgotten the drama and only remember the excitement of finding something I thought she would like.
And here I am today, still putting outfits together for her. Still trying to please my mother? I think it had just become a habit, and somehow, even though she rarely accepted any of these findings from me, I knew underneath her difficult exterior she liked what I’d bought but found things hard to accept. As time went on and her eyesight gave in to macular degeneration and she could not see the stains and wear on her favorite clothes, she still dressed the same, or thought she did. The aides at the places she lived made sure to cajole her to wear something else when they knew we were going out.
My mother’s birthday is July 7, born in 1925. We often celebrated her birthday when we celebrated July 4, with a big cookout on her beloved in-ground gas grill and later watch the fireworks. We lived at the top of a hill and could see not only our own municipal fireworks from the park below but also other displays from many other communities around us. People would often come to our street to watch the fireworks, and cars would stop on the interstate on the other side of the valley to watch the display as well, and each year we would remark on how many cars we could see pulled over onto the berm to watch and how unfair it was as cars with flashing red and blue lights would move in and make them disperse.
On my way home from K-Mart, I drove that stretch of interstate and saw the fireworks display in progress, and I was one of those cars who pulled over. I’m not so interested in fireworks, but they added a grand finale to a day of memories.
My mother would have been 93 today, July 7, and we often celebrated her birthday along with the 4th of July.
The day was quiet and for some reason full of memories and contemplation as I worked in my garden and yard, and seeing a butterfly, which I’ve always associated with the spirits of loved ones, was not a surprise in those circumstances. Continuing the day to the clothing and the fireworks, I realized the butterfly, at least to me, represented my mother, who wore a cloak of personality to protect herself from perceived dangers, including me. I have my ideas why, but I am glad she is finally where she doesn’t need to protect herself anymore.
The re-emergence of life in my garden this spring is tinged with sadness as I picture two of my best friends, in spirit, wandering among the green and daffodils and last year’s leaves.
I have a whole household of cats and I never permit them outside to roam, although I take them outside with me while I work in the yard, retrieving them when they wander. Many years of finding and rescuing cats and kittens who have been abused, abandoned or injured makes me keep them inside except for these brief forays, but one of the things I love most about cats is just watching them be cats.
Last autumn, I lost two of them to cancer. The first was the love of my life, Kublai, a handsome, social and affectionate black cat who I met and fell in love with while was in college. More intelligent and sensitive than many people I know, he had enough love to give away and filled a void in my life while big-brothering every stray kitten and adult cat I had since brought into the house. The other was a big, quiet and gentle orange and white cat named Allegro who loved people and whose life was made complete by the presence and guidance of Kublai and me.
Kublai, tough as nails, held out against his cancer for a year with every treatment and remedy I could find for him. One of the best treatments was a trip into the yard more than once each day in my hope that the life in the garden and flower beds would help support him, but as my garden flourished I watched him decline. At the end of September, Allegro was diagnosed with a quick-moving internal cancer, Kublai died two days later, and Allegro followed him two weeks after that.
Now every spot in the yard has a memory of each of them. I have reinstated the bird bath top on the ground that Kublai used to drink out of every day right after I cleaned and filled it, and in the new columbine foliage I can almost see him lying in the shade under the trees. The new green garlic fronds remind me that I only had four more days with him and only suspicions of Allegro’s illness when I planted them. All the bulbs are up and ready in the little garden outside my dining room window that I arranged with Allegro, suddenly frail, at my side in the warm autumn sunshine just the day before he died. And as I rake up the leftover dry leaves I remember Allegro, just before I noticed any symptoms, chasing and trying to catch the first ones as they fell.
I cleaned up last year’s garden through a blur of tears and neglected many of the things I usually do and forgot things I had done, and I am almost surprised that anything is growing this year. After they died I had them cremated and sprinkled their ashes on the spots they loved best. I think it’s an expression that their love still exists that the iris, like Kublai nearly black with mahogany highlights, sprouted early and is thriving, and the carefree field poppy which is very orange, like Allegro, has already begun to spread and no doubt will bloom freely.
And in time I will forget the illnesses and in my garden I will picture Kublai lurking between the cornstalks and Allegro catching leaves with careless abandon.
I first published this essay on my cat-centric website The Creative Cat in 2013, though it was written for publication in 1988. Some of the references might be more clear in that context, but the sentiment is probably clear even without that knowledge. I included more photos of the subjects in the post on The Creative Cat if you want to see what everything looked like.
Years ago, while I was still working in my day job, I also did a fair amount of freelancing in design, art and writing. One place I’d had a few short pieces published was Organic Gardening Magazine in the late 80s and early 90s, mostly concerning gardening but also an essay. While sorting through old files I found this essay I’d written and submitted along with another they’d agreed to publish. It seemed as if the magazine’s readers and staff were all animal lovers and even gardening stories were full of cats and dogs and rabbits and chickens who were pets, and I’d read a few essays about the losses of pets as well. Though they accepted it this was not published; commentaries such as this were usually held to be used whenever there was a space for them. Magazine staff and format changed soon after this.
But it surprised me to find this story of my household from 1996 and my thoughts in March of 1997 which I’d forgotten I’d written; behind all the correspondence about an article that had been published I saw the title, “The Cats in My Garden”, and it all came back to me. Now, as I review photos from previous years and see all those of Cookie out there with me, and Cookie and Namir in my garden and how grand those years were, and how Kelly enjoyed her visits to the yard in her last few months, I think how my household has changed through the years. Now, beginning another gardening year, I read about another spring emerging after losing two of my cats, and I watch the daffodils, crocuses and squills I planted in 1996 under Allegro’s supervision sprouting and blooming now. Kublai and Allegro were my first two losses of the cats I adopted as an adult.
There have been so many since these two, and yet the flowers we planted and the yard we loved continue to flourish, and just as the flowers inspire me to photograph and paint each spring revisiting how I’d represented them in the past and still finding something new about them, so Kublai and Allegro and all the others continue to still inspire me to create with their image, and still finding things to learn about them.
The photo of Kublai and me, below, was taken by a friend who visited at my request and photographed him and me together using my camera. I wished I’d done it sooner considering his condition, but I’m glad I have the photos now, no matter how he looks. He didn’t actually have cancer unless it had been inflammatory bowel disease that might have turned cancerous, but this simplified it for the article; we never really did determine what caused him to waste away as he did, and I’m not sure even now we would be able to determine it. Allegro had lymphoma, and his loss was very sudden.
The columbine leaves and birdbath top mentioned in the story are in the background of this photo; this was also a favorite haunt of Cookie through the years. Kublai had both front legs shaved for IVs from various treatments, and was down to about six pounds from 12. I just love how he’s looking at me. He was my rock, and he knew it.
And just as an aside, you may be familiar with my curly red hair which is colored with henna. This photo shows my natural color, which is not terribly different.