Whenever we walk through the cemetery, I make my way to this particular headstone. The inscription intrigues me. I can understand the willow tree, but I wonder what prompted Jacob’s parents—assuming they chose the inscription—to be so specific about the cause of the boy’s death.
Did Captain and Mrs. Rice, in their grieving, turn the event over and over in their minds until it just seemed natural to put it on their son’s gravestone? If this were the case, I would expect there to be more examples of specific gravestones, especially for children.
Could they have placed it there as a kind of public service announcement, a caution to other parents? Perhaps not; I suspect that parents in nineteenth-century New England were well acquainted with the dangers of agrarian life.
Maybe the dung fork was improperly stored by a neighbor, employee, or relative, and this inscription is there as a public reminder of this person’s negligence and its tragic results. Anyone who walked by the churchyard stone in the years that followed would know the story and wouldn’t need to see the name of the person to know about whom this message referred. It would be a quiet but very public shaming.
This last possibility feels particularly New England to me, but I don’t know if it’s the true story. The vital records available online record only that Jacob Rice died “of a wound in the head” at age 8 years 8 months and 11 days. It’s possible I could learn more about this incident if I went through town or church records (which I suppose at that time were the same thing), but for now I’m content to speculate.
I’m not as big a poetry person as I think I ought to be, but sometimes I come across a poem that just speaks to me. Who knew Robert Frost felt this way, too?
by Robert Frost
For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns—
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with, hand and mind
And heart, if need be, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.
This poem appears to have been first published in 1928 in the collection West-Running Brook.
My third-grade teacher, Miss Kowalik, let me stay inside at recess and sort mimeographs and read instead of facing the chaos of the playground. She introduced me to creative writing and taught me how to lose and find myself by filling a white page with words. Every morning I looked forward to seeing her smiling eyes and salt-and-pepper bobbed hair.
As a child who had known very few grown-up, unmarried women, I found the “miss” in front of her name intriguing. I imagined her at the end of the day going home to her own apartment or house, a tidy, quiet place for which she’d bought all of the furniture and decorations for herself with her own money. A cat would greet her at the door, and she could cook whatever she wanted for dinner. What a romantic life Miss Kowalik must lead!
My friend Nicole and I asked her one day how old she was, and after that, age thirty-eight became synonymous with independence, poise, warmth, and creative discovery. I looked forward to the faraway day when I would be thirty-eight.
And now here I am. Thirty-eight. That romantic age.
Did thirty-eight seem like a romantic age to Miss Kowalik, or did regrets and thoughts of aging haunt her as she realized how quickly the years had passed? Did she know how beautiful she seemed to me?
I don’t know how she felt, and I don’t know where she is now to ask her, but I’m not sure it matters. It might even be dangerous to find out, if I want to keep the illusion of thirty-eight that I formed when I was eight. The way I remember Miss Kowalik and the excitement I felt about one day being thirty-eight is what I want to hold onto this year, as I do creative writing lessons with my daughter and watch in the mirror as the salt gradually overtakes the pepper.
The vet’s estimate was that Maurice had two to four months. Two weeks later I sat with my cat on my lap, sobbing and hugging my crying daughter with my free arm, and whispered in his ear that it was okay to let go, that I loved him and would miss him, but that we would be okay. It was more for me than for him—a mean little voice in my head accused me of anthropomorphizing—but maybe he understood. After more than two hours I finally admitted to myself that I was just imagining that I felt his purr.
On his eighteenth birthday, he had been able to jump up on his favorite chair for the first time in more than a week, and the next day, he ate and purred and seemed almost like the old Moe-man before his last day. When it happened, it happened very much as I’d hoped it would, with Maurice dying at home surrounded by his family.
For all of this, I’m grateful.
In the days since, he seems just around the corner. I reach for his medications and his special food before I remember that he doesn’t need them anymore. I see him curled on our bed in the morning before I realize it’s just a fold of the quilt. I hear his mew before I can remind myself that he’s not here.
I miss the smell of his fur and the way he half-closed his eyes when I would scratch that super-soft spot of fur below his ear. I miss seeing my kids asleep on the bed with Maurice sleeping between them.
A few days ago, my post about my brother Josh was featured on Freshly Pressed. Many of you know this because, best I can tell, many of you are here as a direct result of its appearance there.
I’ve been feeling a little bad about not responding to all of the lovely comments you’ve left. I’ve read them all and started several times to write replies, but it never seems to go anywhere. This post came from a different place than many of my other posts, and I feel almost like I haven’t even processed the fact that I posted it much less that so many people have read it. It’s a little overwhelming, in a good way.
I’m just not sure what to say in response to all of the comments except, thank you.
Thank you to Krista, the WordPress editor who selected “Origins” for Freshly Pressed. Thank you to all of you who’ve read the post. Thank you to those who’ve commented and who enjoyed the post enough to follow Imperfect Happiness.
To all of you who are new here: Welcome! I hope you continue to enjoy the posts you find here.
This is the time of year when I have trouble remembering all of the very good reasons that I don’t live in California anymore. To distract myself from California dreaming, I’m trying to focus on the pleasant things winter in New England has to offer, like…
Snow sparkles. (They don’t photograph well, but they’re probably my favorite thing about winter.)
Meta-gingerbread house in the Festival of Trees gingerbread house competition. (I love tiny things and meta-things and baked things, and this hits all three.)
Self-portrait. (I have an affinity for photographing my reflection in glass balls. Christmas provides many opportunities to act on this affinity.)
Suburban sunrise. (In the summertime, I rarely get up early enough to see the sunrise.)
Squirrel tracks. (I love cute little mammal tracks, and I’m such a poor tracker, I can only identify them if the animal making the tracks is making them in my presence or if the tracks are in a thin layer of snow. Even then, I want so badly to see skunk tracks that I think every set of tracks I see are skunk tracks until I get home and look them up. Squirrel feet are cute, too.)
And those tempted to point out that sunrises, Christmas balls, and even gingerbread houses happen in California, too, please just hush; it’s a long time until spring.
My friend Linda shared with me two TED talks by Brené Brown, one about vulnerability and one about shame. I listened to both while my daughter read in her room and my son pretended to nap and I baked cookies and prepared a casserole for a church potluck tonight.
Both talks are excellent and filled with great insights, but this piece from the one about shame really hit home for me:
“As much as I was frustrated about not being able to get my work out to the world, there was a part of me that was working very hard to engineer staying small, staying right under the radar.”
I was talking to another friend on the phone recently, and I said that as much as I’d like to be known and respected as a writer, I’m not sure I really want to be that well known because I don’t really want to feel like I’m in the public eye. I don’t want my face out there. I don’t want that fame or that scrutiny.
And—because she’s a very good friend—my friend said, “Yeah, I’m not going to let you go with that. I’m not going to let you use that excuse.”
I don’t have much more to say about this right now. I just like the talks and thought I’d share them and what was percolating for me (as a person who blogs under a pseudonym) and see what you all think about them.
If you’ve seen these TED talks, what struck you about them? What role do shame and vulnerability play in your life? Do you avoid vulnerability or do you lean into it? (Or do you do a little of each?)
If you haven’t seen the talks, I’ve included links to them in the first sentence of this post, and here they are again:
For Christmas, my children got a toy store gift card from their great-aunt and great-uncle. After wandering slack-jawed around the enormous store for an hour, dazed by the abundance of colors and characters and videos about Legos, and astounded by the kid-sized Camaro they got to pretend to drive, they’d finally selected their $25 each of toys, and we made a beeline for the checkout before they could change their minds. My son chose a medical kit (which he insisted upon calling a “magical kit”) and three weirdly squishy animal toys—an ankylosaurus, a spider, and a frog, all of which were roughly the same size. My daughter came home with a set of double-nine dominoes, a bead loom, and visions of all of the beautiful bracelets and rings she would create.
That afternoon we set up the bead loom, thinking I could get her started and then she could bead while I cooked dinner. After spending an hour scrutinizing the instructions and having our blood pressure and heartbeat checked repeatedly by my son, I could barely figure it out. We were both becoming frustrated, and I still hadn’t started dinner. So we left the bead loom on the table, all set up with seven strands of thread secured across the loom and one two-inch beading needle threaded with a twelve-foot piece of thread ready for us to add beads after supper.
But after we ate, we could find only about four of the twelve feet of thread and no needle. We searched high and low. We tried to remember everything that everyone had done both before and after we broke for dinner. All four of us swept and crawled and cursed (okay, it was mostly me who cursed). Eventually, I just replaced the thread and found a shorter needle in my sewing kit that was fine enough for the tiny seed beads. My daughter and I strung three rows of beads and then set the loom aside. I hoped that, when we found the needle, it wouldn’t be with our feet, and promptly forgot about the needle and thread.
Last Thursday, nearly a week after we’d last worked on the bead loom, I was awakened by children yelling and Maurice, our sixteen-year-old cat, meowing just outside my bedroom door. I rolled out of bed and briefly considered putting my workout clothes on right away so I could exercise before I had a chance to reconsider, but instead just padded out of the bedroom in my bathrobe and slippers.
I noticed right away that something stunk. I set about trying to locate the origins of the smell and quickly determined it was emanating from the cat who was weaving about my legs and meowing. Sometimes our cats have trouble with personal hygiene, and I figured this was what was going on with Maurice.
Here, I will interrupt myself. I know that it’s vivid details that really bring a story to life; however, some stories are better left to the imagination. So, to the conclusion:
Eight feet of string and a two-inch beading needle passed all the way through my elderly cat’s digestive tract without causing him any apparent damage.
I’ve waited a couple of days to tell this story because I was afraid that he would start passing blood or would exhibit signs of shock, something I just learned about last month in my pediatric first aid course and which I hoped I could recognize in its feline form. But he seriously seems fine. He’s eating well, has as much energy as usual, is using the litter box fine, all of which I just can’t quite believe given how royally I screwed up my kitty-parent duties.
Screw-up #1: I should never, ever, ever have left twelve feet of thread unattended, with or without a needle. If swallowed, thread alone can kill a cat, much less that much thread attached to a two-inch needle.
Screw-up #2: I never seriously considered that my cat could have swallowed eight feet of string and a beading needle. This screw-up, however, might have saved his life in this case. Had I thought he’d swallowed it, I’d have taken him to the emergency vet and they’d have done x-rays and surgery and who knows if my geriatric cat would have survived anesthesia. I would not advise just waiting for a needle and eight feet of thread to show up at the other end of your cat, but in this one individual instance, it might have been the better course of action, albeit accidental.
Screw-up #3: I should not have (avert your eyes if you’re squeamish) pulled on the thread hanging out of my cat’s bum. I had no idea that there was a needle on that thread (nor did I really understand how much thread it was), but I could have injured him quite seriously—even fatally—needle or no. He didn’t cry or anything while I extracted the thread, so I was pretty sure I wasn’t causing him pain. I actually didn’t realize that there was a needle on that thread until I went to take out the smelly garbage about a half-hour later.
I think that’s all the major screw-ups for this time around. I hope it’s all the major screw-ups. I suppose another couple might become apparent, and it’s possible our vet will scold me when she returns to her office on Tuesday and gets my message, but for now I (knock on wood) think we’re in the clear.
The only thing I’m still not sure about: how on earth could that string and that needle have spent a week inside my cat and made their way out via the usual path and caused no serious damage?
And how is it Maurice will spend his remaining eight lives?