I Wonder If She’s Friendly

I lost a friend this month. She was sleek and elegant, undeniably gorgeous. Her eyes were sapphire blue, and for over ten years her beauty mesmerized me.

Her name was S’mese – la S’mese. Her cunning ways earned her many nicknames over time: Smeezer, Smeezerino, Smeezlet, Miss Priss, Gorgeous Girl, Pretty Little Girl. Smudge Face. She was a very present cat. Like most felines, she did what she pleased, but with such flair!

Lean and sinewy, she could stretch to twice her normal length or curl into the most perfect ball. She had the most delicate little paws – delicate deadly paws with razor claws. I often gently pressed her pads and marveled when she was purring in my lap. One of her most loving gestures was to stretch out that delicate paw and touch me ever so gently.

This fascinating creature sauntered into my life after I had lost an elderly grey tiger cat named Mosby. I had noticed occasional visits to the neighborhood of a beautiful blue point siamese. One evening my sweetie and I arrived back at my house and I saw her. “Oh look!” I exclaimed, there’s that siamese. I wonder if she’s friendly.” I opened the car door and instantly there was a siamese cat on my lap, purring insistently. How could I not be enchanted? By and by I tried to lift her so that I could go into the house and heard the first “rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr”–an important word in the siamese cat vocabulary, I soon discovered. Mostly, it means “no!”

That the siamese had strongly suggested I must take her in presented a dilemma, as I had already nearly made up my mind to adopt another stray, a friendly male who was a grey tiger overlaid with white. TWO kitties? I did not want the problems and the time involved to get them accustomed to each other; I really didn’t have rooms for isolation. Together they hatched a plan, and the next day I found them asleep in my garden, nestling against each other. All right, so be it. I called the spay-neuter clinic and set up an appointment for the next day, and swooped up the kitties.

S’mese dominated from the start, even though the other cat, dubbed Rumbles for his near constant purring, grew to be twice as large. She delighted in pouncing on him unexpectedly, undeterred by any swats or interference from me. As I said, she was very present. I gave up on keeping any dried flowers in reach, for I would find stems and leaves scattered about on the table that she knew very well she was not allowed to traverse. And she never did–when I was there to see her. If I was gone for any length of time, I would wonder as I inserted my key into the lock what evidence of new mischief I would discover. I learned I could not leave any small shiny loose things within reach of S’mese–and anything was in reach. I sometimes had kept a bowl of wrapped candies on the table, some of which I would later find on the basement steps where she had swatted them under the door. The dried stems sometimes ended up there as well.

For a small-boned feline who never exceeded seven pounds, S’mese was able to make a tremendous amount of noise in what I called her “thunderfoot” mode, when she galloped from one end of the house to the other. And yet this same creature could slide past me in complete silence and invisibility, leading me regularly to ponder how it was that she got from one side of the room to the other in a nanosecond without my hearing or seeing a thing.

Any remembrance of this beautiful creature must include her love of swinging, as if in her own personal amusement park ride. Many cats have a tendency to jump into a basket or box left lying on the floor. S’mese was no exception, and one day I found her in my laundry basket. I picked it up and she did not jump out. I began to swing the basket gently, and she looked at me with her big blue eyes (guaranteed to melt me) and wrapped her paws around the slats of the basket. I swung her more enthusiastically and she purred loudly her approval. From then on, I tried many variations of this game, swinging her in book bags and boxes. One box in particular won her approval. With typical cat behavior, S’mese would claim a box for a time, enter it regularly for a day or two and then ignore it, at which time I would put it away. But this box was different. It was a smaller-than-standard shoebox, and S’mese, like a feline Goldilocks, found that it was “just right.” If nowhere else–and this kitty knew how to hide–she was likely to be in her box, the Best Box Ever. I could not dream of removing it, but kept on a table beside my computer, where she would nestle in and watch me work, occasionally reaching out her paw to me. Or she would snuggle in for a snooze.

As I said, this kitty knew how to hide. If a severe storm was in the offing, she would disappear, surfacing when the danger was past. Even if the wind was still roaring and rain was pouring, I knew we were safe. If it began to rain and rumble and S’mese did not disappear, I knew the storm would be quick and mild. She never failed–a living barometer.

The kitties were growing old, but they both appeared to be in good health and as active as ever. I saw no evidence of the S’mese slowing down and her blue eyes remained intensely bright. I had begun to notice in the weeks leading up to Christmas that she seemed to be thinner, though she had always been lean. She certainly was well enough to resurrect one of her old tricks from her early years, swatting and chewing at the silver foil garlands that decorated the staircase. Just too much fun! During those years I kept buying new garlands at rummage sales because she destroyed several, but I ended up with a surplus after she stopped the practice for several Christmases. Apparently she was merely biding her time.

The week after New Year’s, she seemed to grow lethargic and I called the vet. I left her there for a barrage of tests and picked her up that evening; the test results would come back the next day. There was a range of possibilities, none good, but some more treatable than others. Once home, she was even more lethargic and uninterested in food. Always a seeker of warmth, her inevitable location in the winter was in a chair directly over a heat duct–or on the heat duct itself. I set her up in a nest of towels warmed with a heating pad and spent a worried night, which sadly turned out to be justified. The vet called me in the morning with the news that my kitty’s kidneys were failing. I had seen no signs, but when there is more than one cat in the household, it is difficult to know who is doing what.

Who knows until it happens what one will do in the face of such news? I am not generally in favor of heroic efforts, but it did seem that with the S’mese, as feisty a cat as one could ever find, there was a chance. I took her to the emergency veterinary clinic to see what 48 hours would do. It did not take quite that long for me to realize that it was in vain. I went to see her the next day, but just before I left the house, the veterinarian on duty, a compassionate lover of animals, frankly told me that the important numbers were not changing. They had placed her in an incubator–yes, an infant’s incubator–and so she was comfortable and warm, but she was dying. When I arrived at the clinic it seemed to take forever for them to bring her out to me, but that was because they were disconnecting and reconnecting everything so that she could stay warm in her incubator. When I saw her I stroked her lovely fur and knew I had to let her go. I was happy for her that her last moments were cozy–another of her pet names was “S’mese McGee” as in the character in the poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” who was delighted to find himself in a furnace where at last he could be warm. I stroked her and talked to her–and she reached out her lovely delicate paw to me one more time.

S’mese is buried in the Best Box Ever, not far from the still-remembered Mosby. Rumbles wanders the house confused and mournful, perhaps even on occasion wishing to be pounced upon just once more.

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White Christmas

A couple of weeks ago I wrote the following:

A postcard scene greeted me this morning–a lovely snow-covered streetscape, flakes clinging to the least little twig. For a brief moment this pure white blanket conceals the ugliness of life in the inner city and surrounds me with peace.
The birds–so far only sparrows–have discovered the feeders I filled last night. Their flutter and flurry delights me and excites my middle-aged cat, who himself erupts into bird-like noises.

Then all became chaos–Christmas rush even though I do not go to malls and avoid that madness at all costs. But there are people to visit, letters to write–you know, real letters, with paper and ink–folks to help, memories to contemplate. . . . And the lovely snow lingers.

My mother would have been 89 yesterday. Reminders of her are especially strong as I unwrap decades-old Christmas ornaments that she passed on to me, creating a “house full of sugarplums” just as she did every year. Yesterday I wrestled the old bottle-brush Christmas tree out of the garage and into the house. Living out in the northern Indiana countryside, we always had a real tree. One year, after I left home, they decided to get an artificial one–and this is it. Admittedly, it is rather tired and certainly not especially realistic, but draped in splendor with lights and ornaments and memories, it is a true Christmas tree. A few delicate ornaments of the thinnest glass from Germany, brought over by my grandmother’s family over a hundred years ago share space with homemade oddities from friends who had more art than money to give at Christmas, and how I cherish these! There is a marvelously-rendered fountain pen of cardboard given by a starving artist to a starving writer, a nicely crafted sled made of ice cream sticks from an older gentleman who helped me get started on some of the carpentry needed for the 110-year-old house I live in, an embroidered teapot commemorating my efforts to save the cherished L.S. Ayres Tea Room. . .

I close with a poem I wrote a long time ago:

Snow-covered city dripping sun-sparkles.
Comes the season
jolly season
beautiful season.
Rush rush the people
can’t see the pretty season
Too busy worrying about Aunt Martha and what will I give her–
not more than she gives me, how embarrassing.

Spirit flits about
opening hearts here and there.
Rush rush it must hit all it can.
Oh happiness
comes to those the spirit enters–
rush rush give all they can
‘cause it’s wonderful you know
and who cares if they get anything
back ‘cause they already did.
Smile at the frantic people ‘cause
sometimes they stop long enough
to think and then the spirit can hit them.

Ding ding go santas on corners
give and smile and feel good.
Eases your conscience doesn’t it.
It’s nice this season.
Don’t you wish it could last.

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“Those Nice Bright Colors”

Yesterday I sent off my last roll of Kodachrome to be developed to the last place in the country that does it––and which will cease doing this process the end of this month.  In truth I thought I had sent it all in a few months ago.  The results––eight rolls––were stunning!  But a ninth roll had slipped away from the corner of the desk where I was collecting them, and so, if I am to see what I photographed in all its brilliant color, I had to hurry and send it, along with a few rolls of Ektachrome and some color print film.  Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, does it all, but there will never be another wonder like Kodachrome with its richness, depth, and contrast.

Those last rolls I sent in included some great subjects.  Of course there are abundant shots of my beloved Lake Michigan and several Carnegie libraries around the state where I have been peddling my recent book on Indiana state parks.  But perhaps the most magnificent slides are those of Niagara Falls.   Serendipity brought me the opportunity to visit the Falls three times in the last two years.   Part of the Great Lakes system that sings to my soul, Niagara is to me one of the most spiritual places on earth.  I had the good fortune twice to visit during March, when few people are there to mill around the overlook and ask in ten languages “should I use my flash?”  (I was also there in August.  Niagara is a must-see for many foreign visitors.  Many.)  New York state expects these visitors to be sensible, and I am grateful.  No huge barriers obstruct the view.  From Goat Island one actually could wade right into the water atop the Falls (not recommended unless suicide is your goal.)   The roar, which one can hear several blocks away, is hypnotic.  The ground vibrates.  Looking at these slides, it appears I was hanging right over the Falls.  (Well, I was.)   What better subject for my last Kodachrome?  Some of these will be in my photography show at the Plainfield (Indiana) Public Library next June.

All these musings may be a mystery to many.  Film?  What, haven’t I gone digital yet?  No, and thanks to those good folks in Kansas, I can continue for some time to shoot real slides (although alas, not Kodachrome) that I will share by means of real projectors, so that the light shining through brings forth “those nice bright colors” that Paul Simon sang about so long ago.

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21st Century–My First Step

“So do you have a website?” friends and colleagues have asked.  “Do you have a blog?”    Well, I am a historian who does in fact live in the past at times.  “I see dead people”––no, not ghosts (perhaps a subject for another day), but I do see towns in their heyday from the remnants left behind, and I am there.  But, truth be told, I am more than a bit of a Luddite.  No dishwasher, no microwave––and I have a working dial telephone in my living room.

At birth I was blessed with a great gift––that of wonder. There is wonder in the wind and the stars and sandhill cranes flying overhead, and also in dandelions springing up through cracked concrete and old sad houses needing love and people with the eyes to see their beauty.

Once upon a time I wrote about these sorts of things and more, in “alternative” newspapers that popped up like toadstools after a rain and often disappeared just as quickly.  I wrote for Metro, The Indianapolis Weekly, The Indianapolis Citizen––and several others long forgotten.  These sorts of papers are gone, but in many ways, blogs have replaced them.  In the old days I wrote longhand with number 2 pencils on a yellow pad; now it’s on a keyboard, but in weeks and months to come I will write of old buildings and old towns (I do a lot of work in historic preservation); the earth and its songs, my wanderings, and throughout all, the wonder.

I begin this new adventure on the first of December, and my heart dances in the season’s first snowfall.

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