Thursday, October 27, 2011


One year at Halloween, my mother found herself low on time and money but high in creativity. And so, 30 minutes before trick-or-treat time, she threw together a gypsy costume that made me feel less like a tramp and thief and more like a princess.

It was a great lesson in how to make something out of nothing with just a little imagination.

The plan had been, since my father was on strike from GM that year and money was more than tight, to recycle an old surgeon's costume my older sister had worn to a raucous work party the year before when she still hung out at home. But we didn't check the logistics out until late that afternoon, and I could have cried when I tried it on: the surgical coverall was way too long and dragged the ground. The little mirror that was supposed to go above my eye and look like a surgical light had a broken strap, and the stethoscope was so warped and twisted it looked more like an errant hangman's noose. 15 minutes of fussing, fidgeting, and pulling did nothing to make me look acceptable to go out in public.

I pulled the costume off, grabbed one of the "Cricket in Times Square" books I'd been devouring, and crawled into bed so I wouldn't hear all my friends knocking on the door and having fun.

"So, you're not going out? You could just go out in your normal clothes. No one would care. Put on your overalls and say you're a farmer."

"I don't want to be a farmer. I already have to wear those ugly overalls to school. I don't want to wear them as a costume. I guess I'm not trick-or-treating this year." And I sighed as only a very put-upon 3rd-grader can. I had been hit hard by the cracks in the family foundation that fall; my sister had just met the boy she was going to marry a year later, and between work and him she was never home. She had always taken me out for tricks and treats, but this year, if I was going at all, I had to go with my friend's parents and little brother, which felt like tagging along. I missed my sister, I missed having enough disposable income to have my own Halloween costume, and wished, for the millionth time in my young life, that I had a mother with a sewing machine instead of a portable hard-hat hair dryer.

"Suit yourself, then." And Mom disappeared to clean up the remains of the Campbell's chicken noodle I had slurped down for dinner. I felt very sorry for myself as I tried to focus on Chester, Tucker Mouse, and Harry Cat while trying to tune out my envy of all the kids in the neighborhood with store-bought or hand-sewn costumes about to bring home pillowcases full of fun-size Snickers bars.

Wordlessly, mom ran back into the room we shared. She began opening dresser drawers, tossing some objects she found aside and putting others into a little pile on the dresser. She was smiling, and I stopped reading.

"What are you doing?"

"I have an idea. Give me a minute."

She went through her jewelry box, pulling out  old rings, earrings, necklaces. She went to her closet and produced a long red, ruffled skirt and her favorite winter leather boots, which had a rubber high heel. Heaven forbid my mother not wear a heel, even in a blizzard.

"How about you go as a gypsy? You can wear my skirt and your frilly white blouse from last Easter with my boots. We'll put 2 or 3 pairs of socks on you and stuff something in the toes so that they'll fit good enough. I've got a red scarf for your hair, and you can wear my gold hoop earrings and my big mood ring. What do you think? Hurry now, we don't have much time."

It was the ultimate 15-minute makeover. Mom wrapped the red scarf around my head and tied it in a jaunty little side knot. I slipped into her clothes and slid my feet into her shoes; it was a better fit than I thought possible. Her treasured real-gold giant hoops dangled from my ears and jingled pleasantly against my face when I shook my head. She decided that gypsies wear a lot of makeup, so I was slathered in blue eyeshadow, a generous swipe of blush, and bright red lipstick. Every finger was covered by a ring, and every toy bracelet I'd ever gotten as a prize at a birthday party or school carnival lined one arm. I suspect some of the adults I saw wondered why on earth anyone would dress their 8-year-old like a hooker. And by today's standards of political correctness, I was pretty offensive to the real gypsies of the world. But I felt gorgeous.

When I joined my adopted trick-or-treat family, they all loved my costume. At most of the houses on our street, our neighbors commented on the cute little gypsy girl (though one person thought I was a pirate, and I used this as inspiration years later when I wore many of these same items to my senior-year costume party as a pirate wench.) No one knew that it had been pulled together from bits and pieces just minutes before the witching hour.

I did not bring home a pillowcase full of candy that year (it was the Tylenol Killer Halloween, and everyone gave Frisch's coupons and pennies instead) but I did bring home a sense of pride. My mother, who didn't sew or knit or crochet or glue-gun and relied on plastic masks for Halloween disguises, a woman who usually didn't even have to put down her cigarette to get me ready for trick-or-treat, saved the holiday with a creative home-made costume. And taught me the power of makeup and accessories to boot.

Friday, October 14, 2011


When I was two, my dad made my believe I could fly.

In one of my earliest memories, I am soaring above my parents and my sister. My arms and legs are outstretched, and there is nothing holding me up. I am flying, weightless, looking down on the family I spent so much time looking up to. I feel free, I feel adored, I feel special. After all, in this memory, I can fly.

I learned the truth as I got older and gained wisdom but lost magic. I wasn't really flying. My father was holding me up with one strong, invisible hand around my tiny toddler waist. One of my favorite pictures of my father shows him holding my sister up  in a similar way when she was an infant. As a parent, it terrifies me a little. But there is a look of absolute joy on both their faces.

My mother caught me staring at this picture when we were sorting through the family album after my father died.

"He loved to hold you girls up that way," she said. "It scared me to death, but you both laughed and laughed when he did it."

Of course we did. It was a great illusion. We never felt like we were being held, we just felt...aloft.

"Hold me up, Daddy," I used to say. "Make me fly!"

"You're getting too big now," he'd say. There's a very brief period in our lives when our parents are able to hold us above their heads.

The years passed, and as they did, my relationship with my father changed. At best, we ignored each other. At worst, we engaged in verbal wars that included name calling and cruel accusations. Some children of alcoholics play the role of mediator and try to make peace in the family; I was not that child. I instigated arguments as much as possible, thinking some day I would get through. I didn't. By the time I left for college, I gave up. I did not respect my father, he did not respect me. He did not support me when I was in plays, musicals, or in my very brief tenure as a student athlete. He showed up to my high-school graduation and watched as I gave a speech to my classmates, but I didn't truly feel his presence. I had spent a good chunk of my life seeking his approval, but had grown convinced it would never come. I chose to go away to school in part to have as little to do with my dad for the next 4 years as possible.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college found me working harder than I ever had in my life. Dad had just enough seniority and just enough overtime in the year prior that our family income had crept out of poverty level and into solid lower-middle-class territory. My financial aid package reflected this, and it was uncertain whether or not I could afford to stay. I had to come up with a startling amount of money that summer if I were to return to Centre College the next year. So I worked two jobs: one filling orders for The Nature Company and lifting heavy boxes over my head, one standing in a walk-in refrigerator in the Kroger produce department cutting up lettuce for the salad bar and lifting heavy boxes over my head. I worked at least 60 hours a week, often going right from a blazing hot warehouse to a freezing cold storage room. I was constantly dirty and hungry and my feet were always tired. On the other hand, my shoulders have never looked so fabulously sculpted.

I did not see my parents much that summer. What little free time I had I spent with my boyfriend. Dad was sober that summer, but I had learned that sobriety was short-lived and I tried not to get used to it. I did this by avoiding him as much as possible.

My last day of work, when I had met my summer earning quota as best I could, my father stopped me on the way out the door.

"Today your last day?"

"Yeah. One more shift at Kroger and then that's it. I'm meeting Jason after so I'll be home late."

"Listen," he said. And I stopped, thinking I was going to get one of his morality lectures about running around with boys late at night, even if said boy was probably the guy I was going to marry.

"I want you to know that I know you worked real hard this summer. To make sure you could go back to school. And I'm proud of you for that."

His voice quivered at the end, and he had tears in his eyes. He was sober, and the sentiment was genuine. My father was proud of me.

And all of a sudden, I felt like I could fly.

I've held on to that moment in the years since. After Dad died and we had said everything to each other that needed to be said, I would still revisit those words and know how wrong I had been about my father's feelings for me growing up. My father was hard to please, and knowing that I made him proud makes me proud. In dark moments where I feel like there's not much in this world I'm good at doing, I remember.

So last week when my own daughter and I had a bad day, I seized the moment. She had been forgetful and unfocused, failing to turn in a couple of homework assignments and running late for school, for guitar, for swimming. She had not made me happy, and I had let her know. Like my father, I am not so easy to please.

One morning, I took her face in my hands and looked into her eyes.

"Listen. You are smart. You are beautiful. You are talented. And you make me proud every day."

From the look on her face, I knew. She's way too big now for me to lift up.

But I just made her fly.

Monday, October 10, 2011


For most of the late 80s, we had a sign in our living room that said, "Warning! An Attack Cat Lives Here." I found it in a drug store one day with other signs meant to be displayed as jokes. In our house, though, it was  not a joke. It was a warning to all who entered that the green-eyed creature with the pretty white fur, who ruled over all from the back of the recliner, was not to be tampered with. Unless you happened to not enjoy having both of your eyes.

Katie, aka Snowflake, aka Bitchcat, was the meanest thing I've ever seen anybody keep as a pet. And we kept her, inexplicably, for 11 years.

"Why do we keep her?" I asked my mom once, while she was bandaging up my leg after a particularly gruesome tangle with the battle cat. "She doesn't use the litter box, she attacks us, and she won't even let me pet her."

"Well," Mom said, "She's mean, but she can't help it. I can't just turn her loose on the street."

"Would you keep me if I peed all over the family room, bit you, and puked hairballs in the hallway?"

She said she would, but there was a longer pause than there should have been.

Katie wasn't always mean. When she first showed up on our doorstep, a scrawny, bedraggled stray, she was quite the sweetheart. Her seemingly gentle personality, along with the fact that she walked right into our house when we opened the door to get a better view of her, convinced us to make her our very first indoor cat. Our last cat, a misplaced Siamese named Pood-Pood, lived his 9th life with us exclusively outside, and with Interstate 75 right over the fence, it didn't end well. Katie seemed like a poor little rich cat down on her luck. Like Scarlett O'Hara, starving on the inside but holding on to her dignity and wearing a dress made of velvet curtains. Once bathed, fed, declawed, and spayed, her dark green eyes stood out from her long, white fur and made me think she was aristocratic and so very hoity-toity. Like the cat from the Fancy Feast commercials.

The first time she stalked me, I changed my opinion. I could see her at the end of the hallway, crouched, pupils dilated and huge, her rear end wiggling to better ready her pounce.

"Don't you dare!" I ran past her in fear, which she could smell like day-old tuna salad. She leapt, and I felt clawless front paws wrap around my leg, and definitively un-declawed rear paws digging into my calf for balance. She bit, and it wasn't kitten teeth. Three of her fangs dug into my leg, and when she let go and cowered under the bed, I was left scratched, welted, bruised, and bleeding.

Hydrogen peroxide was poured into my wounds, Band-Aids applied, and Mom did not believe that I had done nothing to provoke the cat (who we called Snowflake at the time). Cats don't just attack people, she said. Was I playing with her, was I teasing her, was I being mean to her?

No, I swore. I was just, you know, walking.

It wasn't long after that when Mom got attacked while walking past the cat with a basket of laundry. A sock had been dangling over the edge of the basket, and as we learned, nothing quite got Katie going like a waving or walking sock. "Snowflake" was in a chair, and when she leaped to get Mom, she got her good, right below the hip. Mom cussed for five solid minutes. And then chased the cat around the house with a rolled up Dixie News for emphasis.

It took little time for us to realize that the newest member of the family was no Snowflake. We avoided calling her anything, lest we draw attention to ourselves and have her hunt us down like the Terminator. One night Dad, while listening to our stories about the various ways we'd been stalked, chased, bitten, clawed, clamped, and nibbled that day, looked at our tormentor and called out, "Kat--eeee! Katie ol' cat!" And so she became. We found "Katie" to roll off our tongues so much nicer in the heat of anger.

Her namer was the one person she did not bite. Ever. She and Dad had a grudging respect and love for each other that Katie did not share with the rest of us. When Mom and Dad separated for one year, Katie and Dad were the sole occupants of my house. We heard from my sister and granny, who visited during that time, that Dad would go out and get Katie food and make sure she had water when he was barely physically able to do the same for himself. He's also the one who realized that, in spite of her being declawed, Katie was meant to be an outdoor cat. She preferred the carport-turned-family-room shag over her litter box, so Dad started letting her out, dog-like, whenever she pawed the door to go do her business. We were certain she'd get eaten by something; sure, she had great teeth and a strong bite, but how could a declawed, snow-white cat possibly fend for herself in the big outdoors? Very well, actually. And over the years we had quite the collection of dead birds and vermin left on our front stoop to prove it.

My wounds from Katie attacks were numerous and epic. She favored the fleshy upper leg, but I was also bitten in my back and head. The back bite was the worst; I had come in from swimming with a bare back and a ponytail, and it was too much for Kaite to resist. While I was sitting in the floor on my towel watching TV, she came up behind me, wrapped her front paws around my neck, and took a hunk out of my upper back. I thought that was the worst, until a few years later when she decided she and only she should ever be able to sit in the recliner, and jumped up to the back of it and sicced my head. Scalp wounds bleed a lot.

I didn't realize the hold Katie had over us all until I went away from home the first time to be a Governor's Scholar. In the dorm, I found myself looking over my shoulder every time my feet hit the floor, looking for a flash of white bounding out from nowhere. It took a week to realize I could get all the way down the hallway to the communal bathroom without getting bitten by something. Ah, bliss.

By the time I got out of high-school, I had taken to calling Katie "Bitchcat" and wanted nothing to do with her. There's only so much stalking one can take.

"How's Bitchcat?" I would say when I called home from college.

"Oh, she's not a bitchcat. She's mellowing out. She hasn't bitten me in months."

But we both bore the scars from pounces past.

Christmas break of my sophomore year, I noticed that Katie looked frail. She was bony, and her beautiful fur wasn't as well-kept as it usually was. She snuggled next to me on the couch, which was unusual, and didn't bite my toes under the aghan, which was even more so. I snapped a picture of her with my camera, not sure why I wanted to get it, but nagged by the notion that it might be the last time I saw her. Sadly, I was right.

A call came in January that Katie had a cancerous tumor on her spine.

"We're trying chemo," Mom told me over the phone. "And she's on valium to help calm her down, and it's made her really sweet."

"Are you crazy?" I asked, because I was 19 and had all the answers. "Chemo? Valium? For THAT cat?"

"THAT cat," Mom said, her voice breaking, "has been all I've had since you went away. With your Dad working so much and drinking when he's not, and you gone, she's been company to me. I love that cat." And she hung up on me.

A month later, my roomate entered the common room of my dorm where we had just gathered to spend a cold, snowy Wednesday night watching the beautiful people of Melrose Place and 9021-Ho.

"Your mom's on the phone."

Weeknight phone calls from home were almost always bad news. It had been snowing terrifically all over Kentucky that February, leaving roads icy and dangerous. I feared the worst. But I didn't expect the news I received.

"Katie's dead."

Mom was upset, not so much that Katie was gone, but the way it happened. Just after the heavy snow started falling the night before, Katie suddenly became paralyzed. She was in pain, crying out, unable to move. Despite the weather, our vet agreed to meet my parents at his office to put her down. Six inches of snow covered the ground as Mom and Dad set out with our family pet. At midnight, she was put to sleep. They waited to tell me mostly because they had spent the day too exhausted to talk about it. The drive home had been long and awful; the snow mixed with ice, and their drive home from the vet had taken over an hour, Mom crying most of that time. Phone lines had also been down, leaving my parents cut off and grieving their loss alone.

"Are you okay?" Mom asked.

"Yeah, I'm okay. I know you loved her, but she never was really my cat."

But when my dorm mates asked me if everything was okay when I came back downstairs, I lost it.

"Our family cat died." And for no reason I could think of, I wept.

Katie made my life miserable sometimes, what with making the whole house smell like cat urine (sorry, college roommates; I know when I rolled back to Centre from a trip home that I smelled like I had been marinated in cat-sprayed tobacco fields), attacking, biting, and being generally terrifying. But she was the closest thing to a younger sibling I had, and I felt better about leaving home knowing that Mom had her there. In her last years, she slept on Mom's bed (occasionally biting her feet through the covers), took care of the house's mouse problems, and gave my mother, who has to be caring for something or someone at all times, a warm, living creature to dote on in my absence. I would barely miss her, but I knew my mother would. And my father, too. Before hanging up, Mom had whispered into the phone that she had caught Dad with red eyes amd a runny nose the morning after Katie had been put to sleep.

"Chuck, you okay?"

"Yeah. Allergies." But then he gave a weak smile that admitted the truth: he would miss his Katie more than anyone else would. They were cut from the same cloth: sometimes mean, but mellowing with age. And kind when it counted.

She was the meanest cat in the world. But she was our mean cat. And, for better or for worse, there would never be another quite like her.