This is how I've spent at least a part of each day for precisely the past 10 years. This is Cocobop (as in "Shimmy, shimmy"), and he is a "wool sucker," only the "wool" is me. (And, once and to his shame, the wool was a tech support guy in the same chair.) Supposedly, wool-sucking is a misdirected nursing behavior; the cat kneads and derives some presumed psychic "milk" from soft surfaces like blankets or sweaters. Coco likes certain velour throws and especially, a hot-pink fuzzy bathrobe, but mostly he likes my neck. Around here we just call it "neck-sucking." It involves a lot of purring and tenderizing with claws, and I have learned to tolerate it and even be oddly honored by it.
I also have endured it because Coco is a foolish and simple cat who has never asked for much besides bottomless food dishes and prodigious amounts of sleep, plus the occasional sunbeam. At my desk, our dance would begin with a plucking of my arm; there would be that owlish face, all needy eyes and glossy grey fur. He is the original "50 shades of grey," from mauve-tinted dove to deep slate; his fur seems to refract light, especially blue. Put him near something blue and he becomes blue.
Next would come the stomp across the keyboard and up my chest. The first time we laid eyes on him, at the chaotic grim shelter of the CACC in East New York, he was a youngster of 5 months or so; he shot out of the cage and fastened on my neck and nursed for dear life. I handed him to Daughter, who was 7, and he did the same to her; the bond was sealed. No other kitten had a chance. I called them "Lilo and Stitch."
Neck-sucking isn't Coco's only passion; he enjoys destroying table legs and leather goods to wear down his fine, opalescent claws. He loves a good 8-hour power nap. And he has been an affectionate "sibling" to Lexi, the portly diva, and Charlie, the feisty baby of the pride. But it has always come back to cat-on-human contact. With Daughter, it was a delicate lick on the face or hairline when she'd come home from school; with me, the neck thing. I love the fact that Coco responds physically to verbal endearments; if I would call him "Pretty Cocobop," with a gentle puff on the Ps and Bs, he would audibly intensify his purr and knead harder.
Four days ago, his golden eyes filled up with gunk and he suddenly stopped eating. I figured, virus; the kind folks at Hope Veterinary found a golfball-sized mass, probably lymphoma. Cat chemo can buy you 6 more months or so, but Cocobop has turned inward and shut down on us. We have lost many cats to cancer over the years, and whether the end comes suddenly or slowly, it always comes with dignity. They tell you when it's time.
A week ago, suffering from a back spasm, I slept in our upstairs guest room for its firmer mattress. As I lay face-down, seeking the fragile spaces without pain, Coco (still seemingly in perfect health) walked onto my back and began to knead. Cat-shiatsu: the delicate claw-pricks seemed to draw energy away from the lumbar storm. And then he curled up next to my face and kept vigil, thrilled that I had joined him in one of his favorite haunts. I felt suffused with unearned grace.
Last night, when he finally emerged from his carrier, sedated after a needle-aspiration biopsy, he skulked upstairs to the same bed to snooze in the dark. I slipped in beside him, very quietly; he started to leave, then resignedly lay back down, then drew closer. No neck-sucking, but he had some intense moments with the plush blanket I pulled around me as the night grew chill. I whispered, "Pretty Cocobop," hitting the p's and b's, and heard the purr tick up a notch. One vigil deserves another.
Tonight, one more vigil: Lilo is in there now with Stitch. They are asleep together in a curl of kitten and girl that began the spring of her First Communion and now draws to a close as she prepares for college. Cocobop is uneasy but not yet in obvious pain, nor will we let him get there. Foolish cat, you pain in the neck, it is time to say goodbye.
Here comes the Rose Post...and it's not even June. This year, I'm struck by how many of my plants are somehow gifts. This "New Dawn" climber was a gift from...me. Meaning, I actually propagated it from the original bush across the garden. My dad taught me propagation, among so many other things, so it's also sort of a gift from him. The fragrance is that of absolute innocence.
"Climbing Don Juan" gives the gift of transformation...to a corner that stood bare and ugly for years. He's exuberantly covering up the set built by NBC for a "Law & Order" episode about a Mad Bomber, a.k.a. our garage.
"Perle D'Or" was dug up from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Cranford Rose Garden and handed to me by their legendary rosarian, Stephen Scanniello. The garden was about to be renovated, and the bushes were being handed out to staff and volunteers. The buds really do look like golden pearls.
The gift of this lavender miniature rose: surviving from year to year in a dilapidated planter box, thus defying my abysmal track record for wintering over roses that are (a) miniature and (b) lavender.
"Maiden's Blush" is easy: fragrance. The scent is ur-rose, the intoxicating attar that every phony "rose" room-spray in the world tries to pimp out (with woeful, cloying results). It blooms only once a year; the rest of the year, I wrestle with its 6-foot canes.
The foxgloves are gifts from themselves. They have self-seeded year after year.
And then there are Plants from Friends. Here are some spunky hosta divisions generously given from the native shade garden of Flatbush Gardener before his departure on a honeymoon with the lovely gent he gently dubs "Blog Widow." They, and the hostas, seem to be flourishing.
Just past the halfway mark in May, and I finally remembered to do a May Altar! This picture is loaded with Crazy Stable significance.
The Flowers. From left to right: a golden rose whose name I'm unsure of; Climbing Don Juan (red); a lavender miniature rose; a columbine; and sage blossoms, plus some of the wildly invasive ferns.
The Stuff. The statue, charmingly amputated by a long-ago bout of over-vigorous dusting, came from the guest room of my Aunt Rosemary, my mother's amazingly Catholic sister and my godmother. The painting came from my Uncle Don, my father's brother. Their side of the family were either morbidly fascinated and appalled by Catholicism, or drawn into the faith as converts. (Don, the exception, viewed it with the same childlike delight he expressed for all faiths.)
The Issues. As a child in St. Anastasia School in Douglaston, I yearned feverishly every year to be chosen to decorate the classroom "May Altar." This was often a flimsy box or frame, which would be lavishly appointed with crepe paper and artificial blossoms; Mary would then be "crowned" with flowers during her month, in a procession with a floral coronet. The boys could've cared less, but the girls--aspiring Martha Stewarts, some of us--keenly craved decorating duty. Every year, it seemed, the clueless sister or lay teacher would assign this juicy task to...one or two of the most jock-like, loutish girls in the class. Girls who frankly could've cared less. They would do, of course, what I perceived as a wretched and perfunctory job, while I fumed in silent frustrated artistry.
NOT ANY MORE!!! This baby's all mine! Mine, I tell you! (Yes, another Catholic tradition that imbued me with lifelong charity and humility...)
NEXT-DAY UPDATE: Some wretched, impious klutz of a cat knocked over the statue and decapitated Baby Jesus, and spilled one of the vases. Remarkably, no vases were shattered, but the most suspect cat was rapped sharply on the skull by Spouse with the walnut-sized marble head of Our Saviour. The tradition of May Altar Agony continues...
The song par excellence for May Crownings is "Flowers of the Rarest." To this day, it brings up in me a swelling tide of vicious jealousy and the desire to ram crepe paper down the throat of a stocky ginger-haired softball champion. Here is a wonderfully insipid version by Canadian tenor John McDermott, followed by the lyrics.
Bring Flowers of the Rarest
Bring flow'rs of the fairest, Bring flow'rs of the rarest,
From garden and woodland And hillside and vale;
Our full hearts are swelling, Our glad voices telling
The praise of the loveliest Rose of the vale.
O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May,
O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.
Our voices ascending, In harmony blending,
Oh! Thus may our hearts turn Dear Mother, to thee;
Oh! Thus shall we prove thee How truly we love thee,
How dark without Mary Life's journey would be. [Chorus]
O Virgin most tender, Our homage we render,
Thy love and protection, Sweet Mother, to win;
In danger defend us, In sorrow befriend us,
And shield our hearts From contagion and sin. [Chorus]
Of Mothers the dearest, Oh, wilt thou be nearest,
When life with temptation Is darkly replete?
Forsake us, O never! Our hearts be they ever
As pure as the lilies We lay at thy feet.
Meet the great-great-great-grandparents. This is Erastus Granger, and his gloomy visage, in its battered frame, has reigned over the front hallway of the Crazy Stable for ages. I first propped him up there as a Lemony-Snickety Hallowe'en goof. I also confess to a shameful whiff of preppie pride at having such an obviously ancient glowering ancestor, and one who was Protestant and English to boot. (He's from my Dad's side, long before popery spread like wildfire through the clan via my Irish-American mother.)
Over the weekend, however, an artist friend in a rush of generosity gave me this beautiful painting. Karen Friedland, its creator, is an accomplished painter whose work hangs in collectors' homes, galleries and, now, here. (Well, it will be hung.) On a whim, I swapped out this flamboyant acrylic bouquet for old Erastus, and lo, the hallway was transfigured. The painting serendipitously echoed the faux Easter posies I'd tossed in the dough-bowl thingie. It bounced light around instead of sucking it into a gothic abyss. The brushstrokes even manage to party happily with the rather ghastly colors we painted the hall and its trim (respectively, peach and a hue I've dubbed "Shrimp Bisque Bordello." This photo doesn't show the walls' true color, for which you should be grateful.)
A gift of art from a friend is magical on many levels. Creativity is an absolute mystery, and it's a share of that mystery. Karen's work ranges from riotously color-drenched landscapes to vibrant abstractions, but all of them spring straight from her vision; thus, in a sense, they are all gifts. To see more of them (along with nifty homes), come this weekend to the Flatbush Artists Spring Studio Tour, which Karen founded to showcase, not just her own work, but that of many other talented artists in our neck of the woods. It's this weekend, May 19 and 20, from noon to 6 p.m., and it's free. Like a gift.
It was an Ash Wednesday at my all-girls' Catholic high school. The Sisters of St. Joseph, who ran the school, had devised a Lenten service in the cafeteria. Or maybe it was a "retreat." Anyway, we all inflated balloons and wrote our sins on them. Then we prayerfully popped the balloons. One of our feistier friends refused, and went around all day carrying a balloon with "LUST" written on it.
That was sometime between 1972 and 1975. We did more conventional Catholic things as well--the actual sacrament of Penance, for instance, or Mass. Being teenage girls, we were not prone toward taking much of anything seriously, but we took the Religion Department less seriously than most. Even then, the sisters tended toward do-it-yourself liturgies and social-justice crusades that did little to capture our imaginations. We dutifully created collages of multiracial faces for class projects and boycotted grapes and lettuce for the farmworkers. But in a time of convulsive societal change, the convent held no mystery or fascination for us. Not surprisingly, the numbers of women entering religious life began to plummet in those very years. Several sisters in our school left the order before we graduated.
All this has weighed on my mind throughout the furiously partisan reporting of the latest dust-up between the Vatican and America's "progressive" religious orders of sisters (incorrectly called nuns, by the way--nuns are cloistered). My own experience was much richer and more complex than the current media caricatures on either side. The sisters' greatest gifts to us, I will admit, had little direct connection to Catholic doctrine and practice. Rather, they were powerful witnesses to "sisters doing it for themselves," in the best sense of the term. Here were administrators, scholars, teachers and counselors who lived in a world that seemed utterly removed from male domination. Some of them were quirky and a few were downright dotty, but most were tough-minded and able, and some were unforgettable in their brilliance, caring, humor or strength.
Many of the sisters who taught me are still alive, and some are still teaching. Much of their ministry now centers on taking care of their own aging membership, which they do with compassion and heroism. To think of their being hurt, after a lifetime of selfless service, by the recent firestorm is painful to contemplate. But so is the reality that the leadership of many of these orders has wandered into some strange theological and ideological places, some of them barely recognizable as Catholic or even Christian. And now the male leadership of the Church, having set its own sterling example in the clergy abuse crisis, has called the sisters' leaders to account, setting the stage for yet more division and discord.
The whole mess gives me a headache, because after kidding fondly for years about administrative and liturgical "nun follies" (yes, I know, not technically nuns), I now find myself feeling very defensive about the sisters and distressed about the way they're being handled. More thoughts to come.