The Light of Day
Late August, I was in the Bay Area for my dad's birthday. While there, I kept hearing about aunts, uncles and friends of the family who weren't faring well. The list seemed overwhelming: cancer, a couple of strokes, heart palpitations, a semi-vegetative state and while boarding a plane one family friend somehow managed to slip between the gangway and the airplane's door, falling to the tarmac below. Still alive, but paralyzed.
Sunday morning, the kids ran into our bedroom screaming. (Michael insists it was 5:30. I tend to think it was 6:30. Daylights Savings Time really messes with your head and can cause family squabbles in the retelling of stories.) Whatever the time, the kids yelled, "There's a dead raccoon. There's a dead raccoon." This is not surprising at our house. Cosmo, our half husky/half possible wolf, is a card carrying critter killer. Doesn't matter if it's a bird, rat, opossum, squirrel, skunk or even house cat, any varmint that enters our yard Cosmo will strike with ferocity and precision. And although he's never killed a raccoon before, it seemed entirely likely that a raccoon kill would happen at some point. C'mon coyote, you're next.
Quite simply, our dog is a menace. Before we were aware of his psychotic tendencies, Cosmo would bark ruthlessly at any passers by, sometimes escaping and terrorizing the neighborhood. Cosmo has also sent two smaller dogs to the hospital at a great expense to us. (Oddly, he's a big, dopey love to humans and has never lifted a paw to children.) Once we knew we had a problem canine on our hands, we installed a side gate to keep him in the back yard. How then, did this procyonid (my husband would have taken offense had I called it a coon) get himself killed on our front patio, to which Cosmo should not have had access? My assumption was that the gardeners didn't securely latch said gate, which on closer inspection was indeed found ajar.
After settling the kids' down and convincing them that touching a dead raccoon was not a good idea, I needed to relax with the Sunday paper. I opened the front door, and like Dorothy's door opening onto Munchkinland, I too was met with a Technicolor eyeful. But instead of the stock and trade yellow bricks and ruby slippers, my alternate world was smeared with viscera and gore. The front steps were a battlefield. Tufts of feathers were glommed everywhere. We're not talking four or five out-of-place feathers. No. I could have stuffed a muff with the plumage stuck to my steps.
Even with the side gate open however, Cosmo could not have gotten to the bird(s) on the front stairs. Being a devoted Dexter fan, I was able to deduced the following scenario from the blood/feather spatter... The raccoon, needing a nosh, killed the fowl on the stairs, then climbed onto our patio, perhaps to recline on a chez lounge to relax and digest. But what our masked mammal could not have anticipated was that Cosmo happened to be lying in wait, most likely with a Jack Nicholson glint in his eye. "Heeeere's Johnny!"
Not even the "diabolical" Sudoku in the LA Times could keep me from thinking about Death and why it's insisting to seep into various corners of my life. Death seems to prefer to travel by night. It is only with the light of day when we make out the puddles of blood, when we receive the bad news. It was in the early hours when I received the telephone calls in October. Two of my uncles passed away. Both had failing health. Both were talked about at my father's birthday dinner in August. Both now gone.
I admit, I have guilt that they weren't more a part of my adult life. Both of them had moved to the East Coast, Uncle Ron to Atlanta, Uncle Bob to one of the Carolinas, I always forget which. I'm ashamed to admit I haven't seen nor talked to Uncle Bob for about sixteen years. My memories of my uncles are mostly childhood ones, awe mixed with respect, the naval Vietnam vet and the businessman who liked to tipple just a bit too much. My heart goes out to my cousins, now fatherless, and can only hope they are able to make peace, that their pain doesn't overwhelm.
Then, sometime after putting the raccoon in a plastic trash bag but before I had a chance to hose down the deck, my sister called me in tears, also with morning news. One of my favorite aunts was in such a bad way she was in need of hospice care.
Aunt Pat has always been a vital force in my life. When I was younger, I probably spent more time with her than any other woman aside from my mother. (Oddly, she and Mom share the same birthday.) My cousin, Mark, is my age and I slept over at their house quite often. I locked myself in her bedroom, flushed gum down her toilets and while sleepwalking peed in Aunt Pat's clothes hamper.
Over the years, she has sent me letters of support and encouragement during difficult times. And on a couple of opening nights she sent telegrams telling me to "break a leg."
The thing I associate most with Aunt Pat is Thanksgiving. When I was younger, she and Uncle T. Jack always hosted the family's Thanksgiving dinner. She would spend days preparing the meal. Our family was large and Aunt Pat would have to get two twenty pound birds to feed the lot of us. Coats and ties were mandatory, and the dining room would sparkle with impeccably good taste. The china on the table was exquisite, but we wouldn't eat off those plates. They would be removed by servants, never to be seen again the entire meal. Place cards would mark our seats, and on occasion I remember being honored by getting to sit next to Aunt Pat.
Every year I would listen to her talk about the preparations of this monstrous meal: what she did differently, which recipes worked, which didn't. One year, she found a turkey recipe where the oven temp was kept incredibly low, let's say 150. The turkey was cooked overnight, and to ensure moist breast meat, Aunt Pat would get up on the hour, throughout the night to baste the birds. I don't remember her looking haggard the next day, nor do I remember this technique making the turkey any more or less moist than previous years, but then, to me the food always tasted wonderful. Thanksgiving has a special place in my heart and I have Aunt Pat to thank for that.
Three mornings ago, I got the news that Aunt Pat passed away.
I started this post before she died, perhaps to question death but that doesn't seem important now. Certainly the raccoon doesn't seem important nor including a critique of The Lovely Bones, which I saw a couple of nights ago, a movie that articulates the futility of finding meaning in death. (Much too deep for where I am.) No, right now, I just want to remember a wonderful woman.
Three mornings ago, clouds billowed soft and white against a crisp blue sky.
I want to remember her style, her class. I want to remember her numerous jars of cosmetics and countless bottles of vitimins. I want to remember her sitting at her makeup table gluing on one eyelash at a time. I want to remember her wearing a peignoir to the communal bathroom in Yosemite. I want to remember her dancing cheek to cheek with Uncle T. Jack. I want to remember her intelligence, her beauty, her humor, her pecan pie, her laugh.
Three mornings ago, I went to my fridge and pulled out a turkey. I don't have any of Aunt Pat's recipes, but that didn't matter. I roasted a turkey and made stuffing. It wasn't as moist as hers but somehow it felt right.
I want to remember her stories, especially the one when she visited Venezuela in the middle of a coup (unintentionally of course) and found herself running from gunfire. I want to remember her generosity of spirit. When I was four, I desperately wanted the plastic cereal container shaped like Donald Duck. You could cut open the slit in the back to make it a piggy bank. Aunt Pat saw my four-year-old desire and over the protestations of my cousins gave Donald to me. Also, every year she would send my children Christmas presents, which is incredible considering the children from our collective families number into the thirties, maybe forties, and Aunt Pat wouldn't forget one of them. I also want to remember the comfortable times. The conversations around the breakfast table. Perhaps these most of all, when convention did not dictate the event, when we wore jeans, told stories and laughed.
Three mornings ago...