Cat in an Empty Apartment

August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

You’re right. I stole that title from the poem of the same name by Wislawa Szymborska, which you can read here:

I heard this poem for the first time Tuesday, at our school’s Poetry Hour, at which faculty usually outnumber the students. It stunned me and made me think about my mother’s cat, Powder Puff (named after an air race, not the beauty tool). I know the poem is about our human sense of loss, our animal sense of loss, but for me, it is also literally about Powder Puff. The Internet’s full of cats and cat stories, so why not one more?

Powder Puff watched over my mother’s body as she lay face down, motionless on her living room floor. He didn’t tell anyone; how could he? But he cried and hid way under the bed in the back bedroom when we came to retrieve him. He didn’t want to leave. Jeff and Leigh Ann finally coaxed him out. Jeff wiggled on his belly under the bed to try to reach him. The cat was in shock, and that was shocking. He must have seen something awful. I had to wait in the car. The place smelled horrible, even though she was gone. Because she was gone. Who knows what he smelled? Can you smell what’s missing? Can cats really smell death coming? They have a sixth sense and nine lives; it’s all in the numbers. He should have called mine. Or she should have.

I have wondered many times what he knows. I have looked into his cat eyes and tried to discern the story of my mother’s death, but it never comes. Leigh Ann brought him home, and has mothered him, much as she mothered my mother. He will now come out from under her couch sometimes when I visit. He is not trusting, but why should he be? One minute, he was living with my mother, comforting her in her new widowhood, the next he was in a rented mini-van on the way to North Carolina. And we were talking about him and to him at the same time. Poor thing, we said to him in baby voices. He doesn’t understand what’s going on. Where is she? I don’t like driving in this car. I’m scared. We gave him all kinds of words, simple sentences we couldn’t say ourselves, but felt so deeply. He growled, a low painful moan, at least until we got out of West Virginia.

Maybe he was trying to tell us what we wanted to know, trying to explain what will never be explained. He contains those last moments, holds them in his tiny cat brain and heart. He’s adopted Leigh Ann, and he’s coming around with me, slowly, slowly, as time proves he is not going to be alone again. That smell is just a memory, even on days when it comes back strong and pungent.


Like Disaster

August 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

My mother was always on the lookout for disaster. She kept the TV news on a steady hum all day long, and would call me if anything happened in my general direction, or in the seven states nearest me.

“There’s a hurricane coming toward the Outer Banks,” she’d say.

“We’re about five hours from there,” I’d say.

“Looks like y’all will get a lot of rain. Be careful. People can’t drive. You never know.” She thrived on any type of disaster, though weather events were her favorite. She’d also call me at random to tell me that someone I barely knew had died.

“Dr. Jones died,” she’d say. Who needed to bother with hello?

“I don’t remember him, Mom,” I’d say.

“He used to live next door to us on Montavesta,” she’d say, as if that would clear things up. “You were friends with his daughter.” I was six when we moved away from Montavesta Drive. I did not remember. I had no idea why I needed this gloomy news in my life, but she couldn’t help sharing it. It was a compulsion. Maybe it was genetic.

Jeff always wonders why I always expect the worst, always qualify good news, why I can’t relax and believe the fantastic idea that “everything works out for the best.” Where I come from, to court disaster is to live. Not to acknowledge it is certain death. If my mom could have been a storm chaser, she would have. One of her best pilot friends, who reported the weather for local news from his helicopter, Captain Tag, had his ashes scattered into the eye of a storm. She loved that. I’m not sure whether that counts as conquering the storm, or giving in to its fury.

My parents were at my house on September 11, 2001. I had just walked Cole to kindergarten and was pushing Jack Henry, who was three months old, home in the stroller. They met me on the porch. “A plane flew into the World Trade Center!” my mom said. “Are you sure, I said? That’s happened before.”

“Stephanie, this is horrible,” she said.

“I’m sure it’ll be ok,” I said, positive she was overreacting. I had had no sleep in months, very few showers, and I needed to change the baby’s diaper. They had my TV cranked up, loud as it would go. “Can you turn that down?” I said. I looked toward the TV, just as the second plane hit. For once, she was right. I did need to be afraid. Our day was spent getting in touch with my sister, Katie, who lives in Manhattan, and her friends. We fielded calls for people who couldn’t get through. Somehow, calls from outside the area had a better chance of making it through. My mom was sparking with energy all day long.

From that point on, my mom would call Katie whenever she heard of the slightest disturbance in the tri-state area. We made jokes about this. “I’m fine,” Katie would say. So, my mom would call me. “Have you heard from Katie?” she would say. “She says she’s fine, but there was that plane went down in the river, right near her.”

Recently, there was a shooting at the Empire State Building. Katie called me. “I’m OK,” she said. “But it’s kind of weird mom didn’t call me.”  It is strange not to be warned of any impending doom. It seems like all her worrying did offer some odd protection. Now, nobody’s on the lookout; nobody’s got an eye on the storm. Now, anything could happen.


August 15, 2012 § 2 Comments

I think this is the beginning of the year. At least in my world it is. I am perpetually tied to semesters, and I love how they end, over and over, then start back up every three or four months. It seems like something new is happening, even though it isn’t. Maybe I will talk about different stories, different eras. Maybe not. Semi-colons, thank God, are constant. That must be what I love about grammar; it must be why I don’t understand why more people don’t care about it. It is as stunning as algebra, which, I learned the hard way, is beautifully symmetrical. The beginning and the end are equal. So, is it the end of the summer? The beginning of school? It seems like a pantoum. It could revolve forever. But maybe, poet friends, this is impossible? I don’t really know the form.

 More classes, more faces, more names. Some of those are new, but some recycle. I give myself two weeks each time to get my bearings, to know where I am supposed to be and who I am with.  Have I already told you this? I ask the third class of the day. I really don’t remember how many times I have talked about logos, pathos, ethos. Was that the last class? I ask the students to keep the same seats, so I can picture them there. I create memories of them, say, in the last chair on the right in the back of the room. Or, to the left of my desk. Iman sits there.

She is already a memory. She finished high school with me, maybe six years ago. I might have taught her Algebra. They let me do that then. It was so much like grammar. She finished high school after dropping out, so she is the dream girl, the one everyone talks about. Beautiful and dark, like her namesake. She could be a model. She is in my college argument class now, on her way to being a nurse. She will make it. She will argue. I’ve never had any doubt about that. She told me so.

 Something will happen, as long as I say the right words, as long as she comes to class, as long as she ignores the world around her as it focuses on her. Is this the beginning of the year?



Let Us Now Praise the Lunch Ladies

August 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

I admit, I have ridiculed lunch ladies in my day. I have even proposed to dress as a lunch lady for Halloween. The stereotypical arms, you see, the hanging, swinging flesh there, would be made of suntan panty hose, stuffed lumpy with sterile cotton. My son calls these “Bingo Wings.” You know, when an older lady raises her arms to say Bingo! this is the part that jiggles. As in, “Mom, you have Bingo wings.” That will make you do push ups with some regularity, I’ve found.

This summer I went to camp for about a month—the first two weeks as a teacher, the second two weeks as a student. What held these two experiences together for me, besides the fact that they both had to do with writing, was the lunch ladies. I could show up for a meal, swipe my card, and I was served something to eat. Then  my plate was taken away. This blew my mind. I like to cook , but let’s face it, day in, day out, I am the lunch lady. My husband and boys cook occasionally, but I am the go to, the person who answers the question ”what’s for dinner?” most often. If it were just me, I’d eat a lot more crackers and cereal.  At the beginning of each camp, I marveled at the magic of the institutional meal. It just happened. And then it was gone! Later, I bemoaned the lack of flavor, the high concentration of carbs, the faux  versions of the world’s cuisines, but I still ate it. There was comfort there. There was, as any toddler knows, more to the fact of being fed than to the flavor of the food itself.

My son, a teenaged runner, eats a lot. He’s learning to cook, but if I am around, he wants me to cook for him. I asked my neighbor about this. She has three sons, but one eats little food unless she makes it. She finally asked him, “Does it make you feel loved when I cook for you?” He didn’t talk much about such things, she said, but he answered the question, “yeah.”

So, here’s to the lunch ladies, hairnets or no. Here’s to their consistency, their supposed nutritional balance. Here’s to their willingness to stand behind steamy tables, spoon in hand, asking do I want another scoop, or on the periphery of the room, waiting for me to take the last bite. Here’s to having food served to you, then taken away, without even asking.


August 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

It’s raining and lunch doesn’t start for thirty minutes, so two friends and I stop in the beautiful cathedral at Sewanee. There’s a stained glass window made to immortalize the birth of the Sewanee Review, the oldest literary journal in the country. This is why we are here. But still, I expected to see the lives of the saints, not the lives of the writers.

We have all come here with prayers though, or at least hopes that the novel or book of poems or stories, or play that everyone supposedly has inside them will come out of us and be admired by the whole world. There is lots of reading and studying and adoration, though our nights are far from monkish. There is reverence for those who have come closest to the truth.

Jill McCorkle talks about remembering the dead where we left them, living in our imaginations. Alice McDermott tells us about the intersection of writing and faith, and the room almost whispers amen, even the atheists. This is what we hope for: the evidence of things unseen. The words hidden in our heads, struggling, sometimes for years to make it to the page–immortality.

We are in this church, where writers are as close to saints as they can be, not inside the sanctuary, but in the narthex, on the porch of the church.

We walk inside to look at the architecture, feel the space, when a woman’s soprano pipes up. We can’t see her, just hear her voice, a clear version of “Amazing Grace,” and then other women join in, but still we can’t see them. Where are they coming from? There are no bodies, just voices. It’s one of those moments that hits me out of nowhere and I begin to cry. I cry for my parents, for homesickness. I cry because it is beautiful and this song makes everyone cry. The more I try to stop, the bigger the tears seem to get until I leave the sanctuary and stand in the narthex, where I can still hear the music, but can’t be seen.

I’m not religious, but I can see so clearly what Alice and Jill were talking about, that in art and life, there has to be faith in finding what’s invisible, some brush with spirits, some belief in voices coming from nowhere.

Where Am I?

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