Me

Cat People

I’ve always considered myself a horse and dog person.

Not a cat person. Or a kid person, either.

Yet we have 3 kids and 5 cats.

Better than 5 kids and 3 cats, I guess.

Still, Maisie ranks above the cat population. So do the horses. (Please, don’t ask me to rank the kids.)

I could have lived a cat-free existence, were it not for the farm. With a barn and grain and sloppy horses, they are a necessity.

But I didn’t feel much affection or affinity for them until Mel and Frog came around. They changed my views.

Many years ago, after Old Kitty — an ancient, skeletal feline conveyance — finally keeled over, Martin and I realized that our supply was running low. With only Drippy, a lazy, drooling cat, we contacted a crazy cat lady and agreed to take two kittens.

We selected Tippy, a tiger-tabby with a tail dipped generously in White-Out. For color contrast, we chose his scrawny littermate named “Cool,” a Creamsicle orange-and-vanilla kitten with runny eyes.

Frog was an afterthought — a spare heir — scooped up last minute.

It was fall 2004. I’ll never forget, because my father had just been diagnosed with dementia. And I was emotionally wrung out…. hence my willingness to deposit a third kitten into our cardboard box.

Frog, Tippy and Mel (formerly “Cool”), two years later

Fast forward a few years. Tippy, unfortunately, disappeared around 2007; I believe he fell victim to local wildlife. (All three cats display a visceral aversion to cars, but roam to hunt.)

For more than a decade, Frog lived a relatively normal existence, even as our cat colony grew. She proved a top mouser and all was harmonious until a young upstart — Toulouse — rose in the ranks, and toppled the monarchy.

Mel (formerly Cool) gave Toulouse little thought. But the black panther intimidated Frog and last year, she was driven into exile. Her condition declined and she might’ve perished had she not snuck back into the kingdom.

The solution? Frog lives underground, in 5-foot-deep hole in the paddock: all that remains of the old outhouse. It sounds undignified but the dwelling suits her. It’s heavily-fortified by horse fencing, wire mesh and hot-wire. Coyote proof. And the broken wood cover allows her entry and protection from the weather. She is quite content and is the only feline who dispatches with mice on command.

As for Mel? Most of the time, he lives up to his “mellow” moniker, but he also reminds me of our old dog, Corrie.

While Maisie is the typical hardwired, workaholic Border Collie, she isn’t as nutty about walks as her predecessor. When Martin and I bought our first house — an old Victorian in Rockville with floor-to-ceiling windows — Corrie would stare us down after work. We’d collapse on the couch to veg out and Corrie would gaze fixedly through the wavy glass, her eyes boring into us, saying, “Hey! You’re not going to sit there, are you? After being gone all day? Hey! Get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up….

It was impossible to ignore.

Mel has inherited Corrie’s commitment to the daily perambulation. He’s always enjoyed walking and will abandon food for a stroll, but as he’s matured, he has become more insistent about the daily routine. There are evenings when Maisie is snoozing in bed, while Mel sits at attention by the mudroom door…. staring. Waiting to walk.

In a calendar year, I’d wager that he misses 15 walks, tops. He more consistent than the postal service.

On these winter evenings, as we walk up the drive bathed in moonlight, or stumble along in the dark, Maisie jogs ahead, bouncing and barking. Meanwhile, Mel trots reliably behind us, pausing to purr and hurl himself into the grass for a roll. We are so accustomed to him, it’s odd when he’s missing.

Maisie is now 11 years old and Mel and Frog are 13. I hate to say that they are slowing down, but the signs are there. Nowadays, as we head home in the dark, I pause to call Mel to catch up. He’s not a cellar-dweller like his sister, the spare heir. And I don’t want him to become coyote bait.

I wait for him to catch up.

I guess that makes me a cat person.

With Drippy, Mel and Corrie, 2005

 

A cat and kid person.

Hadley and Drippy, 2009

Moving on and looking back

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After living for 40-plus years on the same street, my mom recently sold her house. In a few weeks, she’ll settle into smaller digs.

I can’t speak for my mom, but I have no sentimental attachment to that house — I grew up two doors down. The house she’s leaving is just a structure of steel, brick and cement.

It’s the innards that matter. Memories glued to everything. Not just photos from family trips, but the dishes that we dined on for decades, furnishings that adorned both houses, trinkets scattered along Mom’s bookshelves, and Dad’s roll-top desk, the cubbies stocked with the same supplies for as long as I can remember.

Back in August, I rode the heart-wrenching roller coaster of sorting through my father’s stuff. With so much to tackle on a tight deadline, we had little time to reflect or review; I boxed anything sentimental — family records, photos and files — for future perusal.

I tried to be practical and efficient, unaffected by emotion. It worked for a while, even as I boxed framed family photos and my parents’ wedding pictures. But then I found Dad’s old telephoto lens, tucked in its case.

On family trips, that stupid lens was my responsibility…. perpetually slung over me like a bandolier. I lugged that thing all over Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and so on, year after year. I couldn’t stand carrying it and my only reprieve was when Dad would pop the 35 mm off his camera and say, “Gunga Din! Bring me my telephoto lens!”

me

I hadn’t set eyes on that thing in 20 or 30 years. But there it was, in a drawer, in an old wardrobe in the basement. I burst into tears. After that, it was impossible to be emotionally detached.

I spent an exhausting two days boxing and packing, but it wasn’t all tearful. Lots of my grandmother’s things had been shuttled to the basement and I was reunited with oodles of photos and records.

Snapshots of my father as a toddler, my grandmother, out-skiing her family members before the war, and joyful images of my grandparents after years of living in DP camps, happily settled in the US.

1951

I also found a treasure trove of old family photos — unknown relatives, who apparently, were album-worthy. I discovered 200-year-old books, and mysterious ledgers and records from the early 1800s. All of those are in Hungarian — some printed, but others, barely-decipherable in early 19th-century scrawl.

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One of many mystery men

But all that was months ago, and those boxes have migrated to my attic.

Last week, Mom and I pawed through the remaining practical items — stuff that she won’t need, but we can repurpose. Dad’s chainsaw, gardening tools, extra sheets, beach towels, fireplace tongs, reading lamps… totally random stuff.

Maisie got a lifetime supply of tennis balls. When she comes in the house, she likes to stare at her stash.

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As I made a final pass through Mom’s house before unwanted items are sold, I thumbed through the books in the basement once more. And I found one that I’d missed: a long-forgotten children’s novel. One that I’d read a million times as a kid.

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The Good Master is a story set on the Hungarian plains (the “puszta”) and it follows a head-strong, tomboy named Kate, and her adventures with her cousin Jancsi and his family on their ranch.

My copy is tattered and worn — it’s a 1935 edition, the first year it was printed, and it contains the author’s original illustrations.

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I did not add The Good Master to the boxes in the attic. It’s in the kids’ room and we’ve been reading it every night. Aside from the adventurous plot line, the book’s prevailing theme is about the superiority of country life over urban life.

Of course, that resonates with Cayden, Had and Brynn, and further solidifies their notions about clueless city folk and hardy, resourceful country folk.

Out of curiosity, I googled The Good Master and — go figure — it has a wikipedia page. There I learned that it was never translated into Hungarian. But I also discovered that the author published a sequel, The Singing Tree, in 1939.

I found an original copy of The Singing Tree on Ebay. The kids and I split the cost. It’s on the way.

So I know what happened to my family in Hungary.

And in a few days, the kids and I will find out what happened to Kate and Jancsi, too.

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Waking to a New State of Being

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In our house there’s no morning rush, but a manic marathon to get out the door on time.

Or just a little bit late.

Fortunately, Hadley’s an early riser. By the time I stumble downstairs, she’s eaten breakfast, packed the lunches and is finishing her homework, stitching a dress or darning doll clothes.

What a slacker.

Cayden and Brynn share the other end of the spectrum. They sleep late, rise reluctantly and function at a tortoise pace. They must be nagged, dragged and threatened to dress, eat and gather their backpacks, which often spew papers, books and art projects from the night before.

Then it’s time to wage World War III: wrestling Brynn into her vest for airway clearance. The treatment takes 30 minutes but we allow an hour for resistance, arguments and a meltdown (or as my Mom called my childhood tantrums, “the dying chicken act”). Factor in errant shoes and missing permission slips and it’s a dash to beat the school bell.

A few weeks ago I started sleeping in the guest bedroom, so my insomnia-fueled tossing wouldn’t sabotage Martin’s slumber, and his snoring wouldn’t trouble me. But recently I’ve slept well. Like a normal human being.

So last night I decamped and reclaimed my side of the bed. And this morning I awoke to two revelations: wow, I slept great! followed by, oh crap, it’s already 8.

Eight o’clock is late. Too late for WW III, and we’d have to scrap chess club, which is twice weekly before school.

“Hadley!” I bellowed while reaching for yesterday’s jeans. “I need your help up here!”

Brynn awoke relatively quickly and offered to roust her brother. She scaled Cayden’s top bunk and straddled his chest while screaming, “Wake Up!” and bouncing on him like a bronco buster.

This wasn’t as traumatic as the time that Hadley woke Cayden by dragging him from bed by his feet. (Cayden stayed asleep until the free-fall, when his head struck the rungs of the ladder and he landed in a heap on the floor.)

While not as painful, Brynn’s bronc-riding wasn’t well received.

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Note: falling from bed doesn’t guarantee consciousness.

I dished up a condensed version of the manic marathon and shoved them out the door at 8:55. Dirty dishes and food littered the kitchen. We left a trail of shoes, jackets, school papers and overdue library books in our wake.

As we sped to school, I lectured Cayden about his fidgeting and sluggish eating habits. And I lit into Brynn about — well — everything. “Hadley, we have got to get these kids up earlier. Much earlier. I’m sick of you all missing chess club.”

Tires screeching, we arrived at school. So late, there wasn’t a bus in sight. “Out, out out!” I yelled. “Hurry up!”

Brynn buzzed to have the door unlocked and chagrined, we filed in. I prepared to sign the late sheet, they awaited notes for class. I glanced at the wall where the clock should be. “Where’s the clock?” I asked.

“Chess club uses it,” the school secretary replied.

I shrugged and ducked out the door, relieved to avoid a finger-wagging reprimand about timeliness.

I thought I was home free, til I spotted Cayden’s lunch sitting shotgun in the car.

That kid, always forgetting something…

I buzzed the office once again. All three kids were perched on a bench.

“Cayden, here’s your lunch. Why are you all still here? Are you in trouble?”

“They’re in chess club, right?” the school secretary asked.

“Yea, when they get to school on time.” Did I miss something? Were they late for some special chess club meeting?

“Why are they sitting here?”

“Chess club doesn’t start until 8:25.”

“So,” I said, glancing for the missing clock. “Shouldn’t they be in class? What time is it?”

“It’s 8:05.”

Silence blanketed the room. Hadley and I exchanged stunned expressions. Cayden appeared indifferent. Brynn was oblivious — she can’t tell time.

“I told you to look at the kitchen clock,” Cayden finally said.

“I thought you were pointing out that it’s a few minutes slow. It’s 9:05… right?” The office staff erupted in laughter.

“It’s 8:05,” someone sputtered between laughs.

I felt my wrist, then my back pocket, but my watch and phone were at home.

“Well, it feels like 9:05,” I said, mentally reviewing the morning routine. “The clock beside my bed…. I guess it’s still an hour ahead.”

“So is mine,” Hadley admitted. “But I wake up with the sun.”

“It’s really 8:05? Well Cayden, I’m sorry that I made you bolt your eggs. And you can forget that lecture in the car.”

The staff was still laughing as I wandered out, mulling over my bonus hour. I glanced back at the kids. They were wedged together on the bench, wide-eyed and silent, undoubtedly pondering the situation.

This new, uncharted territory: being early.