Travelling with Tiko

A recent article in the New York Times addresses the attractions of having pet cats, and challenges the misconceptions of women who do so. The piece was timely for me because I have been thinking of what a pleasure it has been for me to have my cat, Tiko, with me over the last few years. First when I sold my house and moved two miles away I was pleased that my outdoor cat could still access fresh air through a cat window that led to my third floor porch. During the last weeks as I have left New York and returned to Pittsburgh, I’ve realized how lovely it is to have a living creature that has been a constant during these transitions.

He is sweet, occasionally loud and very tolerant. When I go to bed, he burrows himself next to me and purrs so deeply that it sometimes feels like a relaxing ultrasound vibrating the tension from my stressed body. I am deeply fond of him and enjoy him not in an anthropomorphic way but precisely because he is a cat. He is soft, small and warm. He likes to sit on me as I read, wanting to be pet, but is just pleased not to be shooed away.

I would guess that most of my life I’ve lived with a cat. As a child we had a series of cats from the gorgeous and excellent mouser Panther to the sweet Puff. Their roles were to keep our house rodent free, a goal that went rather awry when my sister G had a hamster for a pet. Her short lived parakeet met his fate at the hands, or claws, of another of our felines. We also had pet turtles that had unfortunate tendencies to somehow escape their glass worlds; we found one months after it had gotten loose, its desiccated body shrunken into is soft shell. There were any number of gold fish and angel fish. I don’t remember any baby chicks at Easter, but do recall at least two rabbits that followed the example of the Velveteen Rabbit and ran off to join his wild peers; or so my mother claimed.

What was odd about some of these pets was the haphazard way that they came into our house. The beautiful Puff was a prize that my sister N won for her excellent artwork in a contest run by the local “educational TV” station. We sat at home and watched as she and Daddy marched across the set of the predecessor of Mr. Roger’s TV show to discover  that she won a kitten. I vaguely remember my mother muttering about this. The rabbits were gifts from a convent where one of our priestly uncles served as confessor. I firmly remember my mother’s irritation at this bit of generosity. Fish came from bazaars and a family a block away who sold them from their basement. As I got older, I remember wheedling my mum for a cat trying to wear her resistance down, until I was the only one left at home and spent most of my time “loafing” on street corners and I no longer cared. But many of these creatures arrived in our house without pre-approval.

I often joke that I and my sisters were nearly feral, that there were few limits imposed upon us either by custom or indifference. One of the wonderful aspects of this was the chaotic sense of life that this begat. Animals came and went. While there were strictures that were enforced at school and church, those at home were malleable if extant. In my own family’s life, I had tried to create a world that was steady and boring in its regularity and I failed. When I put my Tiko in this context, it is no wonder that I am grateful for his constancy.

Making headway

My apartment now looks as if someone is moving. That is good I suppose, if it is real evidence of progress being made. I’m not so sure that’s the case. If it is progress, it surely is accompanied by chaos. I’ve started with china and crystal, which coincides with the pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. That is apt: both foreshadow something happening soon but without any real indication of how things will turn out.

I am going through a remarkable amount of newspaper. I also have on hand the fun packing stuff: bubble wrap and bio-degradable peanuts. The latter are a wonder; they weigh nothing and dissolve in water. They will also disintegrate into a thousand tiny pieces when they land underfoot which they do with an annoying frequency. My dining room rug has small mounds of this white sand and my hope is that they don’t somehow bond with wool they way they do with water. Where is my son the materials engineer when I need him?

After packing medium-sized boxes with serving platters, bowls and other odd shapes, I started in on the upper reaches of the kitchen cabinets.  I really must never say again that I don’t have enough bowls.  Eight pie pans, is that sufficient for one person? If I ever host Thanksgiving again, will I make eight pies? I don’t think even I did that in my heyday. How about souffle dishes? I’m down to a mere three large ones and four small ones, leaving aside the eight tiny ones? What did I ever use them for? Olive pits, as I recall, but eight of them? Bear in mind this was after a terrible purge of things unused, unwanted, cracked or stained two years ago. I’m seeing I wasn’t a merciless as I thought I had been.

As the days get longer, my time gets shorter

One of the great joys of my apartment  has been watching the Hudson, especially the sunsets, for the last two years.  As both the month and the time for me to pack get shorter, it is nearly six o’clock and the sun is still lighting the sky.  It has dipped below the highlands across the river, but it has left a glorious peach hue on the horizon and blue, purple and golden tints on the ice-covered river.

My views are best without the trees’ leaves to interfere and I won’t get to see them leaf out this season. I should not be admiring the scenery. I should be packing and sorting. I did this just two years ago which will make this easier in many ways. But since I don’t move often the upcoming relocation is harder because it seems to me as if I just did this. I’m getting past seeing this as a disaster, rather, to use a current tech term it is a disruption. However, by both age and predisposition, I am disinclined to disruptions. When the kids were younger it was common parlance among parents to talk about a child’s ability to deal with transitions.  It was years before I recognized that it was I who had trouble with them.

After we had rented for a couple of years in our “wait-and-see” phase of suburban living it came time to buy. I said that we had to stay in same small school district because D had been in three schools in four years, and she shouldn’t have to go through that again.  She was eight. No, I admitted to myself, I didn’t want to start over. I was feeling at home, had friends whom I cared for.  I had a life that I wanted to keep. And so it went. We bought our house, watched our children grow and thrive. We watched them in their sports, attended an enormous number of concerts, plays and exhibits. We entertained, walked in the woods, celebrated many birthdays and holidays.

We endured financial difficulties, sent our oldest off to college and felt our marriage fraying. When our middle girl, M, was hit by a truck three weeks after she arrived at her college, she sustained a hideous traumatic brain injury (TBI) and nearly died. All five of our lives were irretrievably altered by that incident. Life since then has been a series of transitions. I would like to think that I have managed them better than I did those between vacation and back to school. It is absurd, of course, to put them into the same category. One of the advantages of having endured the days, months and years of M’s recovery is that most other upheavals seem insignificant.

I worked in unpleasant circumstances that drove colleagues mad and my attitude was, hey, nobody’s dying! I have been out of work for a  year and I’m getting a divorce (homeless,loveless and jobless), but I am satisfied with my life in general because the kids are all great. So here I sit watching the colors on the horizon deepen and the room in which I sit grow dark. However, the boxes that surround me are not packing themselves and the time I have to manage my next transition is slipping into the shadows.

The glass floor

It has become all but inevitable that I must leave New York where I have made my life for 40 years, about equally divided between Manhattan and Westchester County.  The latter is where I am beginning to dismantle the fragile structure of my remade life after the unraveling of my marriage and family.  I have fought the concept as I went through unemployment benefits and my small retirement funds. I am now faced with responsibilities that I must meet — car payments and insurance, phone, internet and utilities — for which I have no resources.  I also must begin the official end of my marriage which has been on the books for nearly 35 years, in addition to finding homes for some plants that predate that event and for belongings that have accumulated among the five lives that were once under one roof and now are in other emotional and physical states.

It is a daunting set of tasks, perhaps having been made more so by my inevitable optimism.  Over the last year of being out of work, I have found many jobs that have interested me and I, in turn, have created interest.  These multiple applications and interviews have kept my innately bright view of the world in place.  The times that a particularly well-fit job did not pan out left me — in sequence — disappointed, bereft, then disappointed again.  I cut my emotional losses and in the end and  I would feel abysmal for an hour or so, and after a cup of tea, better.  This last is a good example of how wanting to feel good can work as a very effective coping mechanism.  The fact that I allowed myself to misread my situation through the myopia of optimism for the last year is evidence of its darker side.

It seems, however, that now that I have come to grips with the truth of my situation, it is echoing back to me everywhere. The jobs I turned down for being too low-paying revisit me, begging for second guessing. The most recent answers to requests for information or help, are decidedly stand-offish, “I’ll keep this in mind;” from a man with whom I have worked and even served on his Board at his request, “no interviews yet, Erin.  We’ll be in touch if/when we want to talk to you.”  Yes, no need to read these tea leaves.  Less reason to think that I can make my financial obligations with no income.

I have looked for part time work, explored “gigs” on Craigslist, signed up for consumer field work, borrowed money from friends and family, applied for and received food stamps and applied for and rejected for “emergency assistance” [welfare as we know it post-Clinton] because my rent was “too high”.  I enrolled in Obama care, and am pending a review for renewal because I cannot provide pay stubs.  I fear another trip to Social Services is in my future in order to get Medicaid.

My financial mess has had a painful effect on my children, who have already suffered through so much.  My youngest, and only dependent, cannot depend upon me financially.  I have had the excruciating experience of borrowing and accepting gifts of money from my daughters.

Most of my life I have said that I am free of embarrassment, and that remains true. Standing in line at the supermarket and having one of my purchases rejected on my “food stamps” card (EBT) had no personal affect on me.  Spending fruitless hours at Social Services made me only more empathetic towards the millions who are faced with the same circumstances every day.  Not being able to take care of my family has left me riven.

Let us all understand that to “take care of” means, almost primarily, taking financial care. There is so much that flows from that: roof overhead, food on the table, emotional stability.  Without a sound fiscal floor, the house of cards begins to teeter and fall. Because of my confidence in a good outcome in most things, I continued to say that I would take care of things and assure myself and others that my station was temporary.  As weeks and months wore on, I  can’t imagine what those assurances felt like to my kids. The idea that I dealt them empty promises haunts me. Worse case, the fact that my youngest’s return for winter break brought him face to face with my perilous situation and made him anxious, the feeling I refused to make my own.  It is much worse reflected to you from your child.


I have been visiting a place where I had spent years, but had never seen in quite this way.  I recently returned from the cave of my former spouse’s mind.  I was surprised how easily I remembered its labyrinths.  When I lived there I couldn’t always find my way out and I was inured to the scent of the wet dust of nursed resentments and the angry eddies in its cold streams.  These often led to lovely open caverns where the unnatural light bathed us in its glow; I tried to prolong the visits to these welcome spaces.  Too often, I was led off, following willingly through the treacherous, darkened passages that were familiar, but ever-changing.  They showed few exits.  Occasionally sunlight would pierce this world through narrow openings I would claw against these hollows seeking a way for us both to get out.

That work took often took too long and I would find myself outside, alone.

Homeward Found

The idea of home is usually freighted by many divergent and personal responses.  This is especially true as I am discussing a recent return to the neighborhood in which I grew up.  The idea that I consider the place that I spent 17 of my 62 years as home seems ludicrous.  Surely those were the most basic, formative years; but where does that place my four years in college, or several more as a single working woman living in Manhattan?  What about my life as a wife and mother for the last 30 plus years and where we raised our children?

I think that maybe this visit, as the many before, merely confirmed what it knew: that my family, combined with those years in my working-class, ethnic Catholic neighborhood have formed how I have reacted to everything since.  I think, too, that this is not unique, nor is it always inspired by good behavior.  There were plenty of bad habits of mind and otherwise in my home.

What is particularly wonderful about this is that my close friends from fifty years ago and I can greet each other in ways that are both the same and different.  One woman’s “hey girl, where have you been”, is another’s “oh my God, I can’t believe what my mother just said. Sorry, how are you?”  They translate the same.  “I know you, we are safe with each other and we are going to have a good time.”

There are a half dozen of us, not always at the same time.  We have a couple of outliers for whom we see it as our duty to bring back to the fold.  If we can make contact, we promise no recriminations, only hilarity and fun and stories never completed that are not always hilarious.  We run the gamut of adult difficulties, but our shared experiences are not really about commiseration or direct support.  We tell stories we want each other to hear because we will all agree, or they know e-x-a-c-t-l-y what it’s like, or because we know that no one else will get the humor, no matter what the circumstances,  the way we do.

I recently read a review of a biography of John Updike which reported that Updike, after living in Ipswich, MA for many years kept few of his friendships after he moved. On the other hand, Updike maintained lifetime friends in Shillington, PA, outside of Reading, where he grew up.  He felt Harvard robbed him of some of what was essential to him according to the author.  I was not in such lofty precincts at Penn State, and I do remember some breaches, mostly healed, among my small, beloved group; but I will forever acknowledge and deeply enjoy the pleasures of my dear, long-held friendships as I continue to call Mt. Washington in Pittsburgh home.

I have a dining room

In the years since I started setting up my own households, I have always wanted a dining room.  Living in Manhattan, the way we lived in Manhattan, made that an impossibility.  What I did have for most of my years in the city were fireplaces, which I actually wanted and enjoyed more than I would have a dining room because they were exotic and luxurious.  I learned early in entertaining as long as the food was good, the people fun, the alcohol abundant that people will stand, sit on the floor or even dance while eating.  It could be uncomfortable to find hors d’oeuvres plates in your bedroom, but ca va.

We had a massive eat-in kitchen in the City when we were having all our babies, which is rarer than a dining room.  We bought an inexpensive moderately taste-free table and chair set. Our first suburban rental house, did have a dining room, that was mostly open to the living room.  It held our cheap kitchenette table and chairs, which did accommodate six in the most elemental way: side tables, trips to the kitchen for anything other than what each person was served.  It was mostly the five of us so it was fine, but it really wasn’t a dining room.

When we bought our house there were only two non negotiables:  fireplace and two bathrooms.  It came with many other benefits: river views hid behind neglected evergreens; sour cherry, ornamental cherry, magnolia and magnificent oak trees; lilac and rhododendron bushes of many characters.  No dining room.  Built the same year I was born, our mid-century ranch had a dining area, with two steps down to a large, beautifully lit living room.

After scraping floors, removing unwanted flora, painting; we were able to move on to furniture.  After having used the moldy furniture that had been left in the basement by the sellers — an entire other entry — my mum paid for a sofa and chair, and as things do, the house filled up.  I started adding colors to the linen white walls,

The same kitchenette set sat in the dining area.  It fit well, the normal oblong dining table I had wanted would not.   I began to pine for a round dining room table.  We could go to 52″ no more without sacrificing one of the children to an occasional  backward plunge into the living room.  Yes, round was the way to go.  But there were so many other ways the money had to go: new heating and cooling system, new range, renovate the basement.  As with most things, if this had been that important to me, it would have happened.  My original kitchen was functional until it came to the cabinets, which required spelunking skills to find the rarely used pan.

However, that kitchenette set started to undo me with its damned longevity.  If the cheesy piece of pressed wood would fall apart, then, well yes!  Things would happen.  No, it just got grimy and I would take it out onto the porch to do my best to make it look respectable to anyone who hadn’t lived with it for decades.  But I hated it: its style; that I saw its twin in every furniture catalogue that I allowed myself to pursue; that its top could not really be sanded, but scrubbed mercilessly with baking soda.  Even as I nearly always topped with a table cloth, there were those awful chairs, which were falling apart along with my patience.

Several other things happened that made that ugly set of furniture completely insignificant.  When we sold the house, and I found my beautiful rental. I finally abandon it.  My apartment again had an eat-in-kitchen, surely no oddity in Westchester, and I brought with me a booth from a diner that had closed years ago in Irvington.  It had sat downstairs in the family room since we got it and it is adorable.  What it is not is comfortable.  But I was happy to have three bedrooms so my younger two could each have their space when not in school.

After M moved to the city I was left without a bed in her bedroom, or much else aside from the things you think you want to keep when you’ve just graduated (read text books.) Shortly afterwards a dear friend was clearing out his house, including a dining room set.  A real one with leaves and six substantial chairs!  He graciously gave it to me, along with massive sofa to M whose furniture until then consisted of her massive bed.  Into the former bedroom went the living room furniture, providing me with the smallest, but completely lovely, living room in Westchester.  The larger living room is now outfitted with the china cabinet, which was always there,  a trestle table that holds many plants and my new beautiful table and chairs.  A couple of weeks ago to mark the death of the last of my dad’s siblings I moved his mother’s buffet table from the storage room and into the Dining Room!

I like to think it isn’t odd that I get such pleasure from this, having wanted it for so long.  After all, I live alone and eat alone much of the time.  But I set the table for myself (and my kids or anyone else who is here with me) and eat the dinner that I nearly always prepare and  I look at the river, look at my kids’ art and the plants, or read.  I love that Grandma’s buffet, which spent my entire life in one of two basements, shares my space with me.  In the chair that I have chosen as my own it sits behind me and I feel as if she literally has my back.