Among our dead, returned ashes-to-ashes back to the earth, are family, friends, neighbors, four dogs, and a silver-coated cat who was blessed with canine disposition.
The cat was a gift, delivered by silver Cadillac one summer afternoon, the last summer our checks came preprinted with 19___, when my tug-of-war between West and South hadn’t yet been decided. The silver Cadillac, driven by my stepmother Sara, dispensed nest-feathering gifts – porcelain bowls, silver trays, embroidered pillows, this darling kitten – to make staying South more alluring than flying West.
Silver kitty (soon cat) settled right in, and soon she had a predictable (quite happy) routine: out in the morning, back in at night. Her days were spent lounging in the sun, stalking birds and doing other cat-like things. At night she curled up on my bed, hip-to-hip with the dog, who slept hip-to-hip next to me. The three of us – cat, dog, woman – nestled together through winter, spring, and early summer, until the man wandered back South from the mountains and settled himself in, too.
One damp, chilly morning, as summer turned to fall, that sparkly feline went out (somewhat reluctantly, we’d later remember, and regret), and fell victim to a car, its driver hurrying to work and unable to see well in the dim morning light. We rushed to the emergency center and learned she was less injured than we’d feared, and that she might well recover. For three days she got stronger, and we held out hope. On the fourth day a pulmonary embolism changed our course. The dog held evening vigil by the front door, waiting for her companion to come in for the night, but to no avail.
On the eastern edge of our decaying screened-in porch, where I’d spent the spring drinking cosmopolitans with my neighbor and his boyfriend, we dug a hole, Bernard and I, in the small flower bed. We laid the cat to rest in between the fragrant rose (that came with the house) and the fragrant lilies (that came from my mother), marking the spot with a new rosebush that carried the name Sterling Silver and promised, come June, to bear plentiful dusky lavender blooms.
The rosebush, like the Oriental lilies, was also a gift from my mother, patron saint of dreams, who loved gardening, and romance, and improbability, and me. While I can’t say truthfully that she loved the cat (given that it was a gift from her nemesis and also that she didn’t really like cats), I know she thought the cat’s passing, and our resulting sorrow, worth a tangible sign of commemoration. My mother, who was dying, liked the Western man. She wanted something beautiful to take root, bear fruit, and carry on.
The Sterling Silver rose isn’t there anymore, I noticed recently, while riding past our old house with my now-16-year-old son at the wheel. Whether it met a mildewy end or was replaced by a landscape gardener I’ll never know, and it’s a mystery that doesn’t beg solving. Someone else lives there now, someone with stories and a mother (maybe even cats) of her own. What she buries or births belongs to her.
“That’s our old house, where you were born. Do you remember?” I ask my son, who looks like a blend of his father and mine.
“Honestly, not really; just from pictures of me helping Dad rebuild the porch with my yellow plastic hammer,” he says. I know exactly the picture, see in my mind the tiny blond boy, his striped pajamas, his John Deere tool belt,
It was my first house, just mine alone, and then where I married, and where our little family started, after we – your father and I – buried the cat, I consider saying.
“It was a good house,” I say instead. And then: “Turn right here, and left at the light. Blinker; don’t forget to use your blinker.”
“I know, Mom; I got it,” he says and readjusts in his seat, too tall to be comfortable in my car.
We drive past the church, the golf course, the small cemetery.
I am thinking, while we drive (while I am being driven), of all that’s been buried. Hatchets, most of all, but other things, too: regrets, promises, expectations, disappointments. My mother. Sara. Harriet. Peggy.
We drive by a friend’s house, around a bend, past the dry cleaners and the children’s museum. I am thinking, while watching the dotted lane-line, of all that’s taken root and blossomed: children, most notably, and a comfortable companionship. The deep understanding that peace (I’m often reminded) is an inside job. Acceptance that things begin, end, and begin again.
We take a roundabout way through our neighborhood, for extra practice, and drive by another church, where people are filing out after 6 p.m. services.
“Did you get your ashes today, Mom?” my driver asks.
“No,” I say. “I had a meeting at lunch and couldn’t go.”
“And tonight you had to pick me up so you missed the late one, too,” he adds.
“Yeah; but it’s ok. I’ve been before; I’ll go again.” It was such a strange, sad day, I think, but don’t say, because it is also Valentine’s Day, and we are together, and we are well and happy and fine, and that is a gift.
“Careful of the people crossing the street, love, because it’s dark and hard to see, and the streets are wet.”
“I know, Mom; I got it.”
We drive home.