Monday, September 10, 2012

The Oldest Solace

           (From The Way-Back Files -- laJoie, Spring 2009.)

They had stumbled, by chance, upon the oldest solace for the oldest of mankind’s sorrows -- the decent laying away of the beloved dead.

                              -- Norah Lofts, The Concubine

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          That late September afternoon saw us burying Solstice, my beloved Abyssinian cat, in the little family pet cemetery by the edge of the field.  Well, my brother Marc was digging, and I was standing there, nursing my broken ankle.  Yet somehow, despite my sadness -- Solstice had been my second self -- I felt a kind of peacefulness settle into my soul as I looked out over the old hayfield where I’d played as a child.  It was, I thought, a good place for kitty ghosts to wander when they got too restless for their graves.  Solstice would be happy here.

          I had been burying our pets at my mother’s ever since my son Zeke and I had moved from our old house.  I loved our new home with all its trees and gardens.  But the soil was, thanks to the trees, extremely root-bound:  bulbs and bushes could go in relatively easily, but your standard animal casket (i. e., a carefully sealed cardboard box) could not, as Marc and I had found when we’d tried to bury one of our rabbits there.  The soil at Mom’s place, once part of our grandfather’s farm, was a tad more amenable to shovels.

          In the next few years, Solstice was followed by fellow felines Celtie, Derv Sr., and Rory, their little markers encircling the Harry Lauder walking-stick tree that my other brother, Craig, had planted there.  Blackberry, the last of our Bunny Brigade, was laid to rest further down by the split-rail fence where my dad’s vegetable garden had once flourished:  Zeke and I felt that Blackberry, a timid old gent, wouldn't appreciate being buried alongside a slew of cats and Mom’s Springer spaniel, Katie.  And, of course, there were other pet graves from years gone by scattered all along the property, some marked, some not.  But I knew pretty much where most of them were, and I would visit them whenever a reminiscent mood hit me.

          Early last year, Mom had a severe stroke and had to go into a convalescent home.  The house, which was in my name, became a rental property.  On the realtor’s advice, I had the pet cemetery fenced in so that the tenant’s children wouldn’t get hurt tripping over the stones.

          But there’s a problem, as a writer once said, about having your sacred place where someone else is living.  My tenant didn’t like its being there, although she’d initially told me that she was fine with it; and, obviously, I couldn’t stop by and visit with my old friends as easily.

          Then Zorro, my old con artist cat, died that spring.  I had no doubt that his spirit was bounding about, terrorizing chipmunks (his favorite snack food in this life) wandering unwarily through the woods.  The question was what to do with the rest of him.  Should I bury him with Solstice & Co.?  Or should his final resting place be here with us?  Fortunately, our vets had a freezer to store his worn-out cat suit in while I wrestled with my dilemma.

          And I had plenty of company on this one, I found.  Anyone who loves animals understands that “the decent laying away of the beloved dead” doesn’t pertain just to humans.  An old family friend told me that when her dog, Max, dies, she plans to have him cremated; then, when her time comes, she wants his ashes interred with hers.  One of the techs at my vets’ wants the same thing done with all her critters; another tech keeps her pets’ ashes in her sewing room so that she can feel their presence around her while she works.

          My artist friend Laura has always chosen cremation for her cats, but she‘s having a change of heart now, she writes.  Next time around, she “may just dig a hole and bury them in the garden.  That way I know they are still with me.”  She’s also thinking about doing the same with the cats whose ashes are currently on her bookshelf:  “I would have a separate section for each cat (I have over 10 little bags) like tiny memorial gardens.  Who knows, perhaps it will produce a pretty bunch of flowers or help me organize the garden better.”

          Personally, I’d always favored burial -- partly because of my upbringing (Jews do not traditionally cremate) and partly because the gardener in me sees it as a gentler, more natural alternative.   And in the end, I chose to bring Zorro home…to this home.

         Craig volunteered to hack through the octopus-like roots on the little hillside at the edge of the woods in our backyard.  (I have great brothers.)  “They always used to put cemeteries on a hill,” observed Craig, a history major.  Afterwards, we dragged a heavy tin tub that I was using as a planter up said hill and placed it atop the grave.  “I don’t want to see the thing that could drag that off,” Craig observed matter-of-factly.  I placed a simple river-stone marker and a lion cub garden statue in front of the planter…remembering with a smile the days when Kitten Zorro used to drag Mr. Lion, his very best favorite stuffed animal, all over the house with him.

          (A word about markers:  you can place them on the graves or do what my friend Michele did.  She buried her elderly cat, Sophie, in the backyard and ordered a marker similar to Zorro’s…only to end up putting it in what had been Sophie’s favorite spot in her bedroom.)

          Gradually, I moved all the pet markers from Mom’s, placing them all around my gardens.  Before the summer was out, the cemetery fence had followed; for by this time, I had made up my mind to sell the old family homestead.

          One afternoon, before it went on the market, Zeke and I were wandering around the yard.  “It’s the only part that still feels like ours,” he observed a little sadly.  I knew what he meant.

          We walked back to the car.  I started to open the door, then paused, my gaze sweeping over the pet cemetery.  The stones were all gone, of course, but each grave was all artistically camouflaged with a plant that somehow fit the beloved animal lying underneath:  vivid flowers for Celtie and Rory, lavender for Solstice, and so on.  And the Harry Lauder tree still stood guard over them in all its quirky twisted glory.

          “C’mon, everybody!”  I called out, seeing in my mind’s eye a procession of well-loved cats and dogs rising from their graves -- with Blackberry, of course, trailing cautiously behind them.  “Party at Zorro’s!”  And we drove off, taking our ghosts with us.



Anne Beggs said...

This is so touching. The eternal dilemma. Thank you for sharing how most of us feel and how some cope. I especially love the ending, "Party's at Zorro's".

Tears, smiles and chuckles.


T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Anne. I wrote this piece both for my own sake and because I believe it's an important one for those of us who share our lives with animals.

Samantha Mozart said...

This is beautiful, T.J. So touching in more ways than one.

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Samantha. Having to leave those little graves behind when I sold my mom's house was very hard, and it got me thinking about the subject. Btw, my mom's old friend -- who has, sadly, recently lost her dog Max -- tells me that there are more animals tucked away in our center cemetery than people realize. I like that.