Essay: The Cats in My Garden

Daffodils
Daffodils
Daffodils

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.

Kublai and me in August 1996.
Kublai and me in August 1996.

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Essay: What Stays With Us

Tiny Foxtail

As the seasons change I look to nature for familiar scenes and welcome details held dear from year to year especially in my garden, my little patch of toil for the 26 years I’ve lived here. Even though I’ve worked and planted and composted and  created raised beds and paths and the site holds probably all the memories I have from living here from all the time I’ve spent working and thinking there, I still find wonders, mostly in the spring when it all feels new again after a month or two of break, and sometimes intangible wonders as well.

This year I remembered a series of photos I’d taken in March one year which I called at the time “Winter Leftovers”, thinking of the ephemeral beauty of dried plants that seemed lifeless from afar but had so much character and detail when studied up close through the lens of my camera, natural sepia tones, tiny highlights, clouds of soft fluff and tiny spiky flowers, an entire universe in miniature.

The bright spring sun had shone at an angle from a faded blue sky in mid afternoon on a day just around the vernal equinox and I was late in planting for late snows and freezes. I leave the native plants standing in and around the vegetable garden for the residents of my backyard wildlife habitat to eat from, perch on, snuggle into, build tiny homes upon to weather the dark and cold season, but I was thinking of asparagus and potatoes and salad greens and ready to work it all down and get planting.

But I didn’t. As I leaned into my spading fork the angled sun caught a sparkle on a delicate spiderweb smaller than the palm of my hand. I walked over to investigate and found a spider no larger than a grain of sand shriveled in the center. She had died long before but continued to cling there all winter long. Her web held up against any number of storms. Her eggs would have been laid on the stem adjacent to her web, and when they hatched the little spiders could have their first meal of the insects caught in their mother’s last web and use her web as a launching pad to their new life. I found the whole idea that the children the spider would never know were provided for by what she had done before she died so moving that on that bright March afternoon I put down the spading fork and picked up my camera and went through my garden looking for other such images.

All the other native plants had left behind skeletons that told stories as well, the asters and chicory and goldenrod and dock, and the effect of these was haunting, like finding a ghost town or a lost world. I photographed each desolate construction with attention to extreme details to capture the intrinsic, transient beauty of these empty shells, capturing the sepia tones, letting them say their last goodbye before the flush of new growth pushed them out of the way.

What was most surprising to me when I went to review the photos this year was when I looked at the other photos in the folder for that day, and what else I’d done in the morning. I had photos from the 54th floor of an office building in downtown Pittsburgh, quite the different perspective from the afternoon’s warm spring sun and attention to the details of desiccated native plants in my backyard garden. I’d been there for a hearing to contest matters with my mortgage company, Countrywide Mortgage, which had acquired my tiny mortgage in 2005 and had forced me into bankruptcy protection to avoid one of their illegal foreclosures in 2006. Despite the fact they and the company that took over their mortgages, Bank of America, were charged with so much wrongdoing, they still insisted I owed them the legal fees related to my foreclosure and fines on those fees and my attorney and I never did figure out what else was included in the $16,000 they said I owed them. Just the foreclosure and bankruptcy, though I owed no other debts, had hit self-employed me hard and taken time and finances away from growing my business, and keeping house and the idea of paying another $16,000 wasn’t even something I ever fully grasped because I knew I’d never come up with it.

I did, though, just not all at once, and even more than that too. Through the years after that BOA continued working out devious ways to get more money out of me. Because of Countrywide’s illegal foreclosure, for which I received a check for $300 in a class-action lawsuit, BOA was not permitted to threaten me with foreclosure, but they threatened me with everything else they could until I was finally free of them in 2013 by moving to another mortgage company, and the mortgage itself in 2016.

It’s hard to say that a decade of financial struggle where phantom fees and charges were continually and unexpectedly added to my mortgage and my mortgage payment was a horrible thing because no one could really see it but me. Despite the financial issues I would not give up my home or my business and I paid everything they asked of me. Even if I had left this place I still would have owed the mortgage and would have had to settle it and also pay for a place to live, so I decided to stay here and just keep making a mortgage payment and somehow work it out. In the end I was offered a settlement by the new mortgage company that I could afford, and I own this house, though I paid far more than was ever planned.

But the more surprising thing was that, even though that situation lasted for a decade and really just ended last year, when I remembered the “winter leftovers” and that afternoon in the garden down to the details and the sun on my back and two cats who are still very dear to me, one who I would lose later that year who were out in the garden with me, I didn’t remember anything of the hearing with my mortgage company, nothing of the struggle and hardship and paperwork and hearings that lasted a decade. I must have ridden home on the bus and looked at the perfect sunny day and decided, instead of getting right back to work, I’d steal a little time for physical effort and something I loved to do, change my clothes, get my two cats and head outside and enjoy their exploration of the spring garden and work off the morning. I only remembered the poignant beauty of what was left in my garden and the beautiful story it had told me.

Aside from those who have “superior autobiographical memory”, we can’t possibly remember everything that happens in our lives. We do make choices, even if we don’t realize. Bad memories stay with us and letting them go is almost like grieving a loss, a loss of a part of our selves that was betrayed, traumatized, or somehow hurt and must heal. But somehow the beauty and inspiration of that day washed away the bad. I’ll carry that beauty forward, and build on it, and leave the bad behind.

Here is a link to a slideshow of the photos I took that day: Winter Leftovers.

And here is a poem this day also inspired: To Come Again in Spring.


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Poem in Progress: Rising Up to Meet You

Rising Up to Meet You
Rising Up to Meet You
Rising Up to Meet You

Still,
in midwinter,
I will rise to meet you
though my stem be bent and brittle
for where we touch
there will be spring.

poem copyright © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Just a draft of verse in contemplation of this weathered wildflower which blooms so fiery red in summer.

Or…

What strange sun is this
found in tatters of winter
holding memories of summer.

poem copyright © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

I like them both. Who says I can’t find two inspirations in one moment? So I have two new poems.

It’s an empty seed cluster from monarda, or bee balm, just happened to be touched by late afternoon sun while the snow beneath it was in shadow, its bent stem a blur beneath it. This is what it looks like in summer.

Bee Balm with Bee
Bee Balm with Bee

You can find these poems, together for the moment, in my Poetry Archive.

I also designed a graphic to share on social media. Feel free to download and share.


Read more:   Essays   ♦  Short Stories  ♦  Poetry

All Rights Reserved.   ♦   © Bernadette E. Kazmarski   ♦   PathsIHaveWalked.com

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