Monday, December 10, 2007

The Little Cat


On Friday night after dinner, I sat in my kitchen and composed this piece... It wasn't meant to be posted, but it turns out, I hit the "publish" button instead of the "save", and so it appeared on my blog for a short time. When I realized my error, I took it down, but not before Emily had had a chance to read it!! Thank you, Emily, for your comment this morning-- I'm so glad you enjoyed hearing about Little Cat, and the baking. Here it is again, because I am so flattered that you asked.

***

This week, I finally found a few moments to myself, and sat down to take a look at the upcoming events on our family’s calendar.

It was more than a SLIGHT shock to my system, when I realized that Christmas is just about two weeks away.

AAAACCCCKKKKK!!

There’s still decorating to do!! Shopping to finish!!

And, BAKING TO START!!

So, I finally started: today was stollen day.

My family has our own special recipe for stollen bread... and I HAVE to say “bread” after I use the word stollen, because this is not exactly an authentic German stollen. It is a beautiful, light, fruit-riddled Christmas bread, that was undoubtedly inspired by German stollen. All throughout my childhood, my mother made it for us. And my grandmother made it for her… and my great-grandmother before her. I am so pleased and proud to carry on the tradition, and can’t even begin to tell you the immense waves of comfort that wash over me, when I smell the scent of a fresh slice, toasting in the oven, just waiting to be smothered in melted butter… People, to me, the smell of my family’s stollen bread means Christmas.

I haven’t always baked this bread for my own children… I confess, I relied on my mother to bake the yearly batches of stollen bread for our family, right up until about five years ago. I can time the date of my “stollen initiation” to the Christmas that Child Number Two was just one year old.

That Christmas, the last of our family’s Very Important Cats had fallen ill… and, according to the daily updates from “The Family Seat” in Stratford, it was going to be our beloved, elderly furry friend’s last struggle.

My father always referred to her as “The Little Cat”. The Little Cat had come to us as a tiny kitten, with her eyes barely open: painful evidence that she was far too young to be taken from her mother in the first place. But MY mother took one look at her in that pet store, and saw that she was suffering from mites and fleas and any other number of illnesses… and adopted the tiny little runty thing on the spot. Before long, The Little Cat had grown in all directions, and expanded to the size of a tabby-coloured football.

She had an absolutely delightful temperament, and was, for nearly two decades, my mother’s firm companion. They would sit together every afternoon, my mother and The Little Cat, each on their own chair at the kitchen table, “having tea”. Acutally, it was my MOTHER who was having tea and crackers-and-cheese, and The Little Cat was keeping her company. My mother would talk gently to her, and The Little Cat would “meow” her soft responses. Every now and then, she was given a tidbit of cheese… But, it was AFTER the “formal” tea that Little Cat would receive her treat. My mother would turn her back on the tea table, and Little Cat would reeeeeaaaach up (as soon as she was certain the coast was clear), delicately dip her paw into the tiny milk jug, then lick it clean. She was always discreet, always a “lady” about it, and rarely left any mess as evidence of her crime. When The Little Cat had had her fill, my mother would quietly sterilize the jug.

My father, of course, pretended to be above all of our cat “nonsense”. In spite of having grown up with cats himself, and having once entertained the idea of becoming a veterinarian, he loudly “disapproved” of his family’s cat-cuddling adoration. However, on more occasions than I care to mention here, I caught him talking to our cats and giving them loving pats on the head, when he thought no-one was looking. I understand from my mother that once we three kids left home, it was HIS lap that The Little Cat chose to settle down on, once the evening meal was over.

My parents have always been stiff-upper-lip kind of people. They are both intelligent, classy, generous to a fault, and compassionate. However, they have never been what I would call “overly-emotional”. They have both, in their own lives, weathered a few storms… But I think part of what got them through a lot of difficulties, was that they were able to somehow keep their feelings from spilling out into the open. They seemed to be able to achieve a kind of “distance” from whatever was troubling, and somehow managed to “rise above it”. Perhaps it was their medical training that helped to hone this skill. I’ve no doubt that they shared their feelings and leaned on one another, in times of great stress. However, they always appeared as Pillars of Strength for their children. Through the entire course of my childhood, I can never remember them ever wavering once—not even for a moment.

That Christmas that Little Cat was sick, I dressed my two little girls up in matching outfits, and my husband and I took them to have their photograph taken with Santa Claus. The local mall was crowded that night, and we were in the middle of a tremendously long lineup…

My cell phone rang, and when I saw that it was my parent’s phone number, I answered the call. When I heard my mother’s voice, I knew that the worst had happened.

“We took her to the vet,” she said, “and… and we decided it was best that she be put to sleep. We couldn’t let her suffer…”

And then, for the first time in my life, I heard my mother’s voice crack.

It was a terrible moment.

Once our very short conversation was over, I turned to my husband, and told him the news.

“I… I need to go Home.”

“We can’t go home. We're in a line up! The girlies want to see Santa!”

“Okay, right then, I’m going to take the kids, and go Home first thing tomorrow.”

“You can’t go tomorrow! We’re supposed to go to MY mother's place for dinner tomorrow!! What am I supposed to tell the folks???”

“Tell them… tell them that my mum’s best friend has just passed away, and that the kids and I need to be with her. You don’t need to tell them that her best friend was our Little Cat.”

The next day, my sister, who was heavily pregnant with her first child and extremely hormonal at the time, came north on the train to meet us. We met her at the station, and drove the rest of the way to Stratford together.

She squeezed into the front seat of my car, looked at me, and burst into tears:

“This is a Family Crisis, isn’t it?” she sobbed.

“Well, if it isn’t, I don’t want to see one,” I replied grimly.

My parents were in sore need of a visit that day, but we could tell that their minds were elsewhere, most of that morning. So, I decided to try and get them both “back on track” as quickly as possible. There was no sign of a Christmas tree in the house, and baking had yet to be started.

First, I announced that I would be going out to fetch a fresh tree, which we would then decorate. My father, ever the one to be In Control of things, began to dither about whether it wouldn’t just be BETTER to wait a bit, and perhaps drag out the old artificial tree they had in storage, closer to the day…

“Dad,” I said gently, “You can be an old phart about this if you want to, or you can come with me and help me choose. But you MAY NOT come with me, AND be a phart. Please, please put your coat on, and come.”

Once the tree was up, and the children and my sister were decorating it, I turned to my mother.

“Mum, we should bake the stollen,” I said, propelling her towards the kitchen. “Please, show me how.”

And so, we spent the rest of the afternoon together, carefully weighing all of the candied fruit and nuts, proofing yeast, mixing and kneading and pounding down dough… It takes quite a while to accomplish this bread, but once it’s out of the oven, and you are slathering the still-warm tops of the loaves with butter, then sprinkling them with drifts of sugar… Let me tell you, all of the effort becomes worth it. The slow-and-steady process, handed down through the generations of my family, was a tremendous comfort to all of us that day.

Tonight, my kitchen looks like a bit of a disaster area… There is a thick dusting of flour across all of the surfaces, and tiny squashed currants litter the floor… But my six loaves of stollen bread are puffing up into gigantic beauties over there, in the warmest corner of the counter, by the stove, and are nearly ready to be placed in the oven.
***

Late on Friday night, another beloved family pet passed away. I cuddled Cookie the guinea pig in my arms as she died, and later thought about how strange it was that I had been "thinking up" the Little Cat post in my head that afternoon, as I baked stollen bread.

It's been a difficult couple of days for the girlies and me. Lots of complicated questions asked, and many turbulent emotions to deal with. Death is never an easy thing, and this is a "first experience" for my children, and for me as a mother. It has been a hard lesson to learn, but it's an important one.

The wonderful experience of having pets, caring for them, and loving them, is something that every human should know. It enriches our lives so tremendously; it makes us better people. The joy that they bring us makes enduring the pain of having to say goodbye to them, when the time ultimately comes, worth it.

6 comments:

Leeann said...

*sob*

mrinz said...

Candy you write so beautifully, you can paint a picture for us all.

Pets and parents, and Christmas traditions, all have memories associated with them that last forever.

A wonderful post, thank you for sharing it with us.

shawn said...

Thank you for this my friend ... it is a truly beautiful piece of work ...

I have fond memories of your family's Very Important Cats ... they were THAT.

Thank you for sharing with all of us the affirmation of life that this posting,and the posting about Cookie both represent.

They might only be animals, but our treatment of our pets tells us quite alot about the beat of our heart ...

blessings to one and all ... I won't tell you to keep a stiff upper lip ... I know you too well!!

canape said...

CGF, this was beautiful.

painted maypole said...

pets are so much a part of a family, and they teach us about unconditional love... and grieving the dead

beautiful.

ewe are here said...

A beautiful story...

 
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