It's nearly Thanksgiving and I've been thinking of my family a lot lately. Of my Mom, who didn’t get to see my children become adults and my grandparents who never met them or held them, but whose wisdom, humor and love touch their lives every day through me.
When my mom divorced in her 50s, in the 90s, a cat soon showed up at her little house on Divorce Road. It wasn't officially named that but I am from a tiny town and her road had 7 houses and 6 were owned by divorced women.
Affordable and safe little homes on the road's unpaved end on the edge of town. No stinky gov to condemn them for roofs that only mostly held out rain. No homelessness in our town. No crime really either.
It's anachronistic; a factory town post NAFTA. Although there is a WalMart at the edge of town, somehow Main Street has remained essentially the same. It still has independent, family owned stores that bear the years that the stores were built and often, it was over a hundred years ago. The factory tried to leave in the 1990’s, but they make food products and nobody with cheap labor has better water. So, reluctantly, they stayed and our town survived better than most because we had work.
Riding the school bus, when I was in high school, children could smell what foods their parents were making each day because the smell of exotic bananas or homey peaches would fill the cold, snowflake swirling darkness and the scent would seep through the school bus windows as we passed the factory parking lot on winter mornings.
Sometimes the sky would be streaked with the brilliant oranges and pinks of a midwestern, mid-winter sunrise peeking through the black silhouetted trees on the hill behind the factory.
I can still see the chrome frames around the bus windows, gleaming from the street lights against the darkness of the early morning.
Most of us trying to wake up, listening to soft rock from a station in the nearest city, a good hour away, on the bus radio, as we sat quietly, mentally preparing for our school day or trying to finish homework, scribbling in the darkness.
We were one of the new buses that had a radio and there were no individual devices, except, some of us had calculators. They were early communication electronics; If we were very clever, we could make them read "hello" by typing "07734" and turning it upside down.
We were all together, snugly warm with occasional blasts of arctic air as the bus stopped at a house. Maybe, closer to town, we would see a mom and a dog or cat on the back of the couch, looking out the softly lit window to wave goodbye..
My dog used to wait with me until I had to get on the bus and then my mom would call and he would run back to the house, then they would head out to the barn to do chores together.
My parents didn't work in town; their farm provided food to the factory, until I was grown up and they divorced and Mom moved to town. Leaving all the animals behind with Dad. But there weren't many left by then and the new owners kindly took them with the house and barns.
On our farm, barn cats stayed in the barn. They worked and were needed; they protected the food supplies for the other animals from mice and other critters. Dogs sounded the alarm if anyone came, herded animals and followed us like a summer shadow.
But, every year, kittens would be found in a safe corner, tucked away with a Mama cat and sometimes one would find its way into our house or Grandma's or a cousin's. We had a casual relationship with cats. They came and went and were fed from a big bag of cat kibble bought at the local feed store and fresh milk twice a day at milking time and all the mice they could catch and eat.
Mama cat used to come to the house but she had a fondness for freshly picked vegetables and she was sneaky. More than once she was thrown out of the house for helping herself to dinner before it was cooked. She would tear right through unhusked corn on the cob to get to the sweet, succulent kernels waiting to become fried corn.
Animals: pets, livestock and wild, were intertwined with our lives. They protected us, helped us, investigated suspicious noises or problems with us, sometimes created problems (Cows only get out on cold, dark nights and sows only give birth at 1a.m. or so it seemed when I was growing up, and what stupid hen decides that the top bale in a hay loft is a good place to hatch a dozen chicks?).
They entertained us and comforted us. They were our vocation, our job, our lives. We fed them, cared for them and at times, it seemed as though we, animals and family, understood each other so well that we had a common language.
When Mom lived a few blocks away from the town's factory, on her tidy street, sometimes the fragrance wafted to the edge of her lawn. Her corner house backed up to a ravine that had a creek along the bottom, winding its way through town detrious and woods, a strange but common combination in small towns.
Snakes would come up from the darkness and damp of the ravine to sun themselves but her lawn was guarded by Mac; her cat. I watched him kill one once while I was painting her bedroom upstairs. He jumped over it and grabbed it and threw it down, then turned around and did it again.
She told me about how cats killed snakes when I was a child. It was, for us, because snakes were enemies, fascinating. Now, my daughter would save it because she doesn't have a chicken coop and likes snakes.
Snakes crawl into chicken nests and eat eggs. Your first job as a child on a farm is to feed chickens and collect eggs. You aren’t always tall enough to seen into the nests so reaching in and finding snake instead of eggs in the dusty, feathery, poopy hen house is shocking and terrifying.
Any snake found was quickly dispatched; we didn't share and they didn't either. They bit.
Granddad always had cats and hounds in the barn next to the coop. Grandma had dogs, not hounds, in the house. The kids had whatever critters they found or bartered; fox and raccoon were common pets as well as horses, dogs (hounds don't make good pets, they hunt) and cats.
When our children were in preschool, I wanted to get them pets. I wanted them to have the same experiences with animals that I had. I wanted to pass on the art and instincts of being able to communicate with animals that I had been given by my Mom and grandparents.
I wanted them to understand that the world was more than them; pets do that, they make you live outside yourself. And they protect us; from snakes, spiders, unwary mail carriers and selfishness and loneliness.
Mom made me take two feral kittens from my brother; Cuddles and his sister. Tom wanted a dog, so we got a black lab named Boomer who walked Pete to the bus on his first day of kindergarten.
Our pets are an integral part of our lives. Its what we have in common with our friends and our relatives; if you disagree with someone about politics, you certainly can talk about how great your pets are and how much you enjoy their antics when you are at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
Today, we have 3 cats and 2 dogs that follow me around all day. I feel bad if I leave my glasses downstairs after lunch because all 6 of us traipse down the stairs to get them, then back up again to my room where they all surround me while I work. My sentries. When I miss my family, I look up and I feel my mom and grandpa in those furry bodies softly dreaming while I work.
So, when I was thinking about granddad and his barn, my mom and her tidy house and me with my beloved sentries, I was thinking about our children too. Our children will always have pets because they have learned the lessons that were so important to me long ago: that the world is bigger than ourselves and our pets make sure that we understand that.
When we are afraid or alone, a warm furry body with a pokey nose can console us. When the world seems cold and the winds are harsh, they can also persuade you to get up in the morning because no matter how lousy you feel, animals need to go poo and they always need to be fed. Somehow, once you start putting one foot in front of the other, the world doesn’t seem so bad, or unconquerable.; It isn’t, when you have a good friend.