Saturday, November 28, 2009

What I See in His Blue Eyes

No lectures, please, about going overboard during the holidays. I won't listen. I'm not going on a spending binge. But there are times to live large. And this is one of them.

Growing up, the moods brightened at my house perceptibly around Thanksgiving. My father, initials JC, took off work at least a month at the end of the year to spend time with family and to go quail hunting. Except for Sundays, he would be gone by the time we got up.

I remember hovering near the back door, watching for a glimpse of his green-clad figure as the shadows grew from gray to black in the woods behind the house. Then profound relief, as warm as the sun, would claim me when I heard his pointers rustling and barking. JC had whistled and waved them home. And in a few minutes he was there too, game bags full of Christmas quail.

JC was happiest out in the wilds. He was born on a large farm in a remote section of Tennessee, part of a big extended family living along a river bend that still bears our last name.

The parents lived in the "big house," the grown children and their families in smaller homes scattered nearby. They were prosperous farmers who celebrated holidays together, gathered for a main meal around a large table. On these days, the matriarch, Miss Becky they called her, brought out a bottle of whiskey and poured shots for her sons to enjoy, a reward for their hard work. This horrified my grandmother, a hard-line Methodist not used to these ways.

Then, tragedy struck. A horse threw my grandfather, a handsome man with thick, coal black hair and big, luminous blue eyes. He started being plagued by seizures. One day, at home alone with his little blue-eyed middle child, my father, he began to seize. It was over quickly. My grandfather, W., was dead. He left three little boys and a wife, who quickly packed up and whisked her boys away from the river to live with her own family.

These were kind people, stalwarts, profoundly religious. They were also poor and fiercely proud. The large, festive holiday celebrations were over. Holidays, in fact, were very simple. The boys were loved and taken care of, JC had nothing but good things to say about this side of his family. But I know now his days faded from bright to gray after his father died.

Yet, life goes on. He grew up and went to war in Europe, where he survived terrible things. He married and became a father. His wife was a teetotaller, too, so the holiday toasts he had revived for a short time as a grownup ended again. But still, with JC, holidays were times of celebrations.

On the Saturday before Easter, for example, he would disappear for hours. Then he would return, proud of himself, producing a box from the car with a flourish. Inside were exquisite corsages. I remember perfectly formed, quivering orchids for Mother. For my sister and me, tiny red roses clustered in dainty, artistic nests of greenery, secured by long pearled hat pins.

We tried to imagine the florist who made such inspired treasures in the middle of the Alabama sticks where we lived. These were not ordinary corsages. JC was mysterious. "Oh, a friend of mine makes these," he would say, mentioning a community by the river near my hometown. Mother's Day yielded similar surprises.

JC cared little for furnishings, accessories, trappings, embellishments. He wanted to be gardening if he couldn't be out hunting, trudging through woods and fields with those sleek bird dogs he raised and trained with chickens bartered from farmers with promises of quail.

But as Christmas approached, he rummaged through boxes in storage and pulled out lights, stringing them over bushes in front of our house back when they were costly and easily broken, before decorating in this way was popular.

Then, on Christmas Eve, he would vanish again. Through dinner and the opening of presents, JC was the happiest person at the table, especially when the grandchildren started arriving. Then, with the evening over, JC would finish the boiled custard he asked Mother to make every year, his mother's recipe. And this normally tight-fisted man would fish out a bank envelope and distribute $100 bills. To everyone, little children included. Even Mother got one.

One Christmas Eve something even more amazing happened. I was quite small. I heard sleigh bells ringing outside my bedroom window. I got up and looked, but couldn't see anything. I wasn't asleep, I had just gone to bed. No one heard the bells but me, or claimed them, which was unusual. Mother didn't believe in "telling lies" to children, Santa and the tooth fairy included. So anything along the lines had to originate with JC.

I can see him now. Hidden behind the bushes, dressed in hunting camouflage after a long day in the wilds with the dogs, crouched low, knees brushing the browning grass, shaking a rack of sleigh bells borrowed from a farmer over by the river.

Ringing sleigh bells, steaming dishes of Christmas quail, colored lights gleaming on a dark night. Trembling orchids and roses that left us speechless. Golden custard from an old recipe and $100 bills, all of it, held in hands that bequeathed not just material goods but layers of wonder, mystery, peals of laughter.

Because in the giving JC opened an airway for life's breath, which flowed into cold, dark shadows that had been still and silent around a large table for nearly half a century.

So don't pity me the tangled lights, the cinnamon roll baking, the wrapping and mailings, the long drive I insist we make through Virginia and Tennessee into Alabama, which is still home to me after 30 years of living elsewhere. The endless details that exhaust me to the point that sometimes I have to take a nap halfway through the Christmas Eve celebration.

And when I rouse myself long enough to hand over a $100 bill to my son, after all the gifts have been opened and put away, I see more than just his luminous blue eyes.

Because the holidays give us permission to celebrate life with all the surprise and wonder it deserves. We should throw everything we have at it, energy-wise anyway. Because I am not just doing this for myself, for presents, or for my immediate family. I am recovering what was lost, long ago. Filling those blue eyes with light again. I am living for the many, around that big table, JC right in the middle of them.

This one's for you, especially, all month long. Merry Christmas, Daddy.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Just Living

(For S.B. -- "cat hoarder")

Some of the posts about my childhood have been called gothic. B. at is mainly the one who says that. But the tall Texan loves a scary story no matter how much he pretends otherwise.

However, nothing in this blog is as gothic as the first weeks of life endured by an odd, fascinating creature I still know in Alabama. And I often think about the lesson he brought to me.

I'm not an animal person, really. I admire them from afar. Too many early heartaches with the cats in my life and then with dogs a mixed bag of that and the toddler experience of being dragged by a collie who did not understand that its leash had gotten caught around my neck and that is why people were chasing and screaming at him. Then there was the cocker that bit me in the face when I bent down to say hello.

But this story is about Buddy the cat.

We had made the long drive from northern Virginia to Alabama for Christmas. The stress of urban life falls from me in distinct layers with every 25 miles or so covered. Once we cross the border of Tennessee into Alabama, I am always struck by the utter darkness, penetrated only by distant Christmas lights, that time of year.

And then finally I'm home.

Within minutes my sister generally comes through my mother's back door. And that year she held something in her arms. It was Buddy. My son went straight for him. Then my husband started arguing for a "turn" holding the cat. They bickered. I was in my cat ignoring mode as usual, trying to best him at his game.

This was Buddy's story.

Buddy and several siblings had been owned by a woman who had a dog, a Jack Russell terrier. Maybe several dogs. But pretty quickly the Jack Russell killed a couple of her cat's new kittens. The owner had the animals separated, the cats in the fenced back yard and the dogs inside the house. But the Jack Russell was determined. He was, after all, a terrier. He kept getting out. Eventually, he had killed the mother and most of the kittens.

My niece, who was doing her medical residency at a hospital, had heard about the first killings. She was the dog owner's neighbor. She was working long hours and had a dog of her own. When she found out the back yard next door had continued to be a killing field, she had had all she could take.

She asked for the remaining kittens. She had no idea how she was going to save them, she couldn't keep them, her resident manager had made an exception for her dog and anyway he was not the kind of animal to accept tiny kittens either.

She arranged time off, swapped, cajoled, begged. She got the two kittens, put them in her car and headed for north Alabama after a long shift caring for humans. She had precious little time. She called her family, asking for mercy for these kittens. She would not take no for an answer. Two of her aunts couldn't say no either, after hearing the story.

My sister took a look at them. The little gray and white one crouched down low, staring at her. His eyes appeared to be crossed. Was he traumatized by all he had been through? Would he be difficult and hard to handle? She moved a bit closer. He jumped at her, held up a tiny paw and swatted her gently, eager to play. She picked him up and he cuddled, purred loudly and fell asleep in her arms.

This was the one. Perfect.

He behaved the same way with everyone he met. He mesmerized and charmed. He was the most curious cat I've ever seen, even for a cat. My sister's other cat would snarl and beat him up and Buddy would enjoy it, come back for more. It was as though he was happy for the attention, any attention, as long as he made it through alive.

My husband fell hard for him too:

My mother even fell for him. My mother doesn't even like animals. She would go to my sister's house "to see what Buddy is doing."

I did my best to ignore him. Someone recorded how well I succeeded.

He's all grown up now. But he acts like a wild thing, not really a domestic. He's huge. He lurks and sneaks around the house and ambushes anything that moves. But then you grab him and the purring starts and he's asleep on a lap, out cold, soft and warm.

He's one of a kind. He just got on with it. He lives life fully, hard, to the max, without as much as a glance back at those horrible times. I think about that. I remember that. He is telling us all something.

And yes, those eyes look to definitely be crossed.