"You know he waited for me," Ty said as he cussed and chiseled at the cement-like red Georgia clay.
"He did," I answered in between sobs.
Thirty minutes later, the young man cradled the old man reverently into the top of his dog house and moved him next to Bear, another old soul that broke our hearts when he left. Even though Silas had lost weight, he was still hefty and he was going to make Ty work for it. Ty laid him into his space within sight of our front porch. We borrowed Bear's rock - just for a while, we assured Bear - and placed it on the broken dirt. "Grow old with me. The best is yet to be." Thank you for growing old with us, old sport.
Silas was about 13, at least that's what we think. The kids found him at Pet Smart in 2008 during one of their pet adoptions, and assured me, he was the one. They forced me to take a look, and when I saw him, I was afraid he would eat all of us. His pit-bull/boxer mouth was primed for force, and I wasn't sure. I caved, of course. He came home with us and never left our side, except for when he chewed up all my leather shoes within the span of one week. You can't do something like that in front of the world.
He was a happy chap, but it was obvious when you went to reach for him, that he had been hurt once upon a time. He would draw back as if he expected a slap. We tried to work through that but that reflex never left him.
We became a family of five when Silas came home with us that day. The three kids, me and a dog. All of us were broken, and miraculously, Silas mended all of us. Who says God doesn't send what you need when you need it?
Thank you for your extraordinary life. When I speak of the important people in my life, you'll be at the top. Companionship, loyalty and unconditional love sat on your mighty shoulders.
As Ty and I walked away, he turned, "No more animals. You got me?"
I nodded. They give you everything and then in one swoop, they take it all back.
No more, that is, until the next time I need mending.
You climb and climb, but do you ever get anywhere.
Meet Bob. He's a climber. He's also one of a multitude of cats that confuses Jack, the beast. That's Jack in the background, eating dinner. Everyday when I take my late afternoon walk to feed our multitude of animals, the cats walk with me. They tease the horses, running along the ground, zig-zagging underneath the feet of the 2,000 pound monsters. Would they really do that if they knew the possibilities? But, everyday, they move in the same fashion, hoping for what, I'm not sure. But, I would be willing to bet, it's fun.
I make my rounds, always in the same order. First the horses, mainly because I don't want to be chided by Lolly (Jack's companion) for being late. And yes, she stomps her right foot and screams at me for making her wait. She starts screaming when she hears the back door open. Being scolded by a horse doesn't quite sit well with me. Feed, water and hay, as the routine goes.
Then, the dogs. My twelve-year-old man Silas is turning gray these days, and like me, old age is bringing arthritis, achy joints and deaf ears. Still, he manages to secure the one bright sunny grassy spot in the yard, plops down and rolls with joy. That's my boy. Cody, the younger, is full of energy and runs at Silas when he sees the food coming, almost saying, "You can't have any." They play for about a second and retreat to their own corners to munch on kibble. Both rescues, the boys are always excited to see me, and for that, they deserve gold for dinner.
Cats are last because, well, they just are. "I feel the earth move under my feet" is more than just a song lyric by Carly Simon. They eat, we sit, and then we fellowship. Every night.
Routine is good. Expectations are good. These guys count on me to be there every day at the same time, and they know I'll be there. They climb, bark, snort, stomp, zig-zag and they do it over and over, day after day. And do they get anywhere different? Not really. But it's the showing up, the doing and the contentment from doing their perfect little thing that keeps them moving forward until the next time they climb, bark, snort, and zig-zag.
So although Bob never gets anywhere in his climb, he still climbs, simply for the joy. I write for the joy of recording my life in words. I photograph, not because you pay me, but because I find joy in capturing moments and doing something I thought I could never do. I make dinner, wash clothes and run errands, not for the joy it brings me (newsflash) but for the joy it brings you.
So keep climbing. Keep showing up. Even though it might be a drab routine day after day, try to find the joy and then think on it. Be grateful that there are horses, cats, dogs to feed. Be inspired to see dogs do cartwheels simply because you show up!
Remember in TV ads long ago in the 70s when product-makers would tout their "unconditional money-back guarantee" for their product that might work three days after receiving it. As a kid, I remember hearing those jumbled words, not really understanding its significance. However, if old age has taught me one thing, it's the price of unconditional and how its longevity factor is much more valued than any monetary replacement.
Yesterday, our cat died. Bear. I've known Bear as long as I've known my husband. In fact, Bear met me at the door before Len could get there. So, I guess I've know Bear the longest. My heart is broken. Len's heart is broken. Here's the way I look at this. Last week my ex-husband died. I didn't cry. I didn't mourn. He was a horrible man who treated his children and family as if we were trash. Not an unconditional fiber in his being. It was a very sad ending to life.
Today, I can't stop crying. I can't stop mourning. Bear was a companion who never judged or belittled or wandered; he simply loved his family the best way he could. And, he did. Until yesterday at 4:00 p.m. when he just couldn't handle it anymore.
He's simply a cat.
I mean, really. What we had to put up with!
I can have a white bed comforter. Yes, a beautiful, hotel-like, cushy-cottony comforter that will make our bedroom a beautiful place to relax. No worries of black hair being left on the foot of the bed or paw prints messing with its whiteness.
And, I can put away the towels that I used to cover all upholstery where he stretched out every day. The pad at the bottom of our bed or the chair in my office where he spent most of his days don't have to be covered anymore. The upholstery can now breathe.
Real flowers. I can have vases upon vases of real flowers on every table in the house. I don't have to put them 7 feet high in hopes that Bear won't climb and eat every last bloom. What do I buy first?
I can open doors again! I don't have to race in from the car, quickly closing the outside door before I open the kitchen door just so Bear won't escape. He did that one time, and luckily I found him. If not, I would have been the one that was homeless. I can take my time, leaving a door open a millisecond longer than before.
And, I won't have to say goodbye each time I leave the house or tell him when I'll return or to take care of Ty or to take a nap; I'll be right back. I can just walk out the door and be on my way.
No more paw prints on my floors. Less mopping to erase his steps and the floors will thank me.
No more litter box to clean. Can I get an Amen?
During the night, no more cat chases to wake us. We never knew what he was chasing, but when he settled down, we figured he caught it. Oh, and no more sweeps of the house after Len and I laid down. He always laid down with us and then immediately got up to check the house. Again, crazy cat in that nothing was every there. He just made noise.
I don't have to share my sweet peas with Bear anymore. I can keep them all to myself.
And don't get me started about the water. Leaving the water running in Len's sink for him to drink - he was insistent that it be running so he could get water. Never mind that he had a water bowl in the kitchen. It was never good enough.
What a nosey ghost. I couldn't go anywhere in the house with him following me. Now, I can do anything, all by myself.
Life is strange in that we think we know what we want. And when we have it, we want the complete opposite.
I look over my left shoulder to the chair that Bear occupied for close to eight years. It's empty. I can't read my work to him. No more meows for approval or a head tuck for disapproval. And when its time for a break, I'll not have a partner to accompany me to the kitchen for a cup of coffee or a guy to help me harass the outside cats through the glass door. And no one who races me to the bathroom. And no one to tell "good morning" or "let's go to bed."
And this is where the unconditional comes in. He was that. Bear defined that. For no matter what we needed - a head kiss or a cold nose on my arm - he always showed us that he was there. Even when I told him how annoying he was, he didn't care; he simply remained Bear. He had the longevity factor. Until the very end.
Lessons from a cat, I suppose. Constant. Remaining. Loving. Caring. Unconditional.
He leaves all those lessons behind and a family that became whole because he was there.
Who needs a white comforter and flowers? Not me.
"You're a travel writer?" she said with an elevated voice. "What an amazing job."
Yes, Nessa, it is.
When we get really lucky, we get to lay our heads at B & Bs. We dine at the breakfast table with strangers from who knows where and talk about mostly unknown things and more than likely, we'll never ever see them again. We have one moment to uncover a lifetime.
Nessa Pettyjohn and Nihshanka Debroy from Gwinnett County celebrated their one year anniversary, and at breakfast, we celebrated, complete with candle-topped banana bread. After an amazing casserole, intense coffee and our own slice of banana bread later, we discovered they were IT people. I could tell. It was like looking in a three way reflective mirror - Nessa, Nihshanka and Len. Triplets. I, on the other hand, was the elephant in the room, but that's alright. We learned about Nihshanka's love for rare books and Nessa's skill at preparing Indian food; we wanted to go home with them.
Hosts, or innkeepers, are rare breeds we are told. There are ones that are nice and do their job well. Then, there are those who could be your Aunt Sally or Uncle Frankie. Family, in other words. You hear it in their voice, see it in their eyes, in the little touches - like complimentary this-and-that, fresh baked cakes always available tempting and calling your name, exquisite "I never want to get out of bed" sheets, binoculars for bird watching, or smiles no matter the time of day. And if they accidentally lock you out of the Lodge at bedtime, you know deep down they really didn't mean to. And when they say, "Come back," they expect you to.
Janet and Ric came to Blue Ridge by way of Key Largo and Colorado. "This [Aska] makes us happy," Janet says with a visible sense of contentment radiating from her face. Calling them adventurists would be an understatement - climbing Mount Rainier and Mt. Hood, caving, scuba diving - and this little piece of heaven, satisfies their longing to be close to nature. They have even changed roles; Janet who once handled all the cooking now serves as sous chef for Ric and his morning masterpieces.
I have this daily ritual. not because I particularly like doing it (especially in 5 or 95 degree weather), but because Lolly is pacing. Our Appaloosa has this internal time clock (or growling stomach), and every afternoon about 4:30 p.m., she begins her pounding of earth at the the fence. Back and forth. back and forth. She's nailed the dirt down for years, and the others thank her for issuing my call every day. It's feeding time on Mayne Mill.
she is first at the fence. first to be tied. first with the bucket. it's the royal pecking order and i never deviate. all the others understand. and as speedy as she is, woody [pictured above right] is that slow. he towers above the others and takes twice as long to eat [well, ok, he does get twice the feed]. but i must wait, so the witchy [b] one [cheyenne] doesn't steal his food - which woody would give up in an instant because he's a hulking chicken. so i wait. and wait.
waiting allows me my time, the first of the day without pressures and deadlines. my alone time. and this waiting time begins my evening conversation with mama.
i'll usually tell her things she already knows, explain events she already understands, and finally, i'll inquire as to "what are you doing up there." i'll hear her move through the trees, see her in the animal's eyes, or just hear nothing, which mama would agree, is the best melody at the end of a long day. it must be amazing, i ponder, to live in the night sky surrounded by twinkle lights and the heavenly father, knowing all the why's and why not's. there are times i'm jealous of that. not that i want to leave earth, but i'm envious of the "no-pain, streets of gold, great companionship and all the answers" kind of existence. i think if we're all honest, we all would like that life - down here. but, as i've always heard, you can't have your cake and eat it, too.
my rambling continues, and i explain it's a new year, and we're knee deep in obamacare. "too much to explain now," i offer. "just know it's a bunch of hooey." i can't help but think if i'd only taken care of myself a little better, this wouldn't be as important an issue. having hundreds of dollars in prescription drugs wouldn't be a reality. or how I wouldn't have my own neurologist or cardiologist or gastroenterologist - more gist than i knew existed. who would have thought 54 would be this old?
"what's that, mom?" i ask.
"remember what i said?" she repeats.
i just look at lolly - all content with her bucket of sweet feed and heaping pile of hay - and realize mama, as usual, is pointing out the true horse's ass.
if i heard it once, i heard it a million times . . .
1. sitting that close to the tv will make you blind. or at the very least, a requirement of reader glasses in every room of the house, including all bathrooms.
2. eating too much creamed corn will make you fat - why do you think they feed hogs corn? yes, mama, i enjoyed every creamy bite, and you were right. it did make me fat.
3. go play outside and don't come home until it's dark. she should have thrown me out of the house more often, not just to go fetch a hickory.
4. you can eat at home. my incessant pleas to stop at the mcdonalds in commerce on the way to my uncle's house were annoying, and always, fell on deaf ears. you go, mom.
5. if you cross your eyes, they will stick. i think i win this one.
and these little gems went far past the health of it all, straight into living life . . .
6. if you swallow a watermelon seed, you'll grow a watermelon in your stomach. by mama's account, i should never go hungry again.
7. if a you hear a hoot owl cry three times, someone will die. i hear owls and i still wonder who will die during the night. my northern husband laughs at me.
8. if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. i should have listened to this one a little more closely.
9. you're going to grow up and have a daughter just like you. curse you, mama.
10. never wear dirty underwear. and i never will.
11. there's only one right way. and it was mama's way. who could have imagined the word right and mama could be interchangeable?
12. you'll always catch more flies with honey than vinegar. every single time.
13. i'm not going to tell you again. . . and she didn't. i knew the second time meant a visit to the front yard for that hickory switch.
14. life isn't fair. how did you know?
and probably my favorite of all . . .
15. you'll see. she was right. she was always right. god has a delightful sense of humor.
it's funny as you get older you remember all those things your mama told you when you pretended not to hear. and now, you'd give your right arm just to be able to listen to the cadence of her voice once more. even if she had to end the conversation with "you'll see", that would be fine and dandy.
and when you find yourself alone with just yourself, the horses and the sky, those long-ago words will return and keep you company. you'll see.
meet the [other] animals
in an effort to introduce ourselves to our new son-in-law on the other side of the globe, we continue these posts and hope that by the time we finally meet face-to-face, there will be little need for any introduction.
according to bear, the other animals are just that, other - an afterthought, just taking up space.
we let bear think that and love the others just as much. here's the rest of the family on mayne.
meet jack and lolly. jack - a blm mustang - (center and below) was once wild, born on the range in colorado. he was herded up by the bureau of land management and shipped east in hopes that he would find a home. there's a white freeze brand on his neck that tells his story, of where he came from and how old he is thought to be.
at auction, len fell for jack's childlike personality and won the final bid. the next day, he returned, loaded the scrawny thing in the trailer - along with cheyenne who they threw in for an extra $25 - and headed home. today, he's still the life of the party, helping len fix fences and entertaining the rest of the crew. he's len's best friend with an extraordinary shoulder.
riding him is still a challenge. jack goes backwards very well.
lolly [right with len] was once a hypotherapy horse - meaning she was trained to work with the physically challenged, to take care of them on rides, to be calm and reassuring. in other words, if len convinces me to ride, he puts me on lolly for she reads my fear and goes slowly. she's also the queen of the pasture. all the others goes where lolly says 'go' and moves when she says 'disappear'. she rules the roost and all the others fall in line accordingly.
she is always fed first, and she hates donkeys and cows.
meet woody [below]. he's a king ranch quarter horse that is magnificent in statute but a little timid when it comes to acting his size. he's mostly a loner and stands on the sidelines while the others determine the sequence of events. but, it seems like he's happy to do it. len enjoys riding woody but only after he's 'run the snot out of him' in the round pen first. one time, about three years ago, he didn't do the prerequisite, and woody had the last word.
he dumped len smack-dab on his tailbone which broke and len's been aching ever since.
and then there's cheyenne [below right]. you can't bridle her, you can't catch her, you can't worm her, you can't trim her feet. she just eats and bugs woody. that's all i have to say about her.
then, it's the boys. cody [left] and silas.
cody appeared september 1, 2011. he was starving and i threw him old hotdog buns. he scarfed them down. he hasn't left. he is part german shepherd - something else mix, and about six months old when he arrived. he had/has more energy than god. since then we've snip-snipped and were told that would calm him; that wasn't the case.
he can sit on command and is very protective of me and his food. we'll celebrate his third birthday in 2013.
he's a digger and when he rides, he barks at every car that passes like he will devour it completely.
needless to say, he doesn't ride much.
silas was a shelter dog. instead of us rescuing him, he rescued us in 2007.
silas was an inside dog and it took me a while to get the hang of living side-by-side with a dog that weighed almost as much as me. my leather shoes were his first victim, and i was his second for he stole my heart and hasn't given it back. now, he has learned to live with cody and share the backyard, but each does have his own house.
we celebrated his eighth birthday in may of this year.
silas sits and shakes when you say 'paw' - a trick taught by ty. silas is now teaching cody about 'paw'.
that's our tribe. bear, jack, lolly, woody, cheyenne, cody and silas. welcome to our party.
meet the cat
quite simply, bear is a cat.
a 21-pound black fur-ball that owns the house, the horses, the cars, the dogs, and the bed.
bear was a stray that len and his boys found, and the kitty was still a kitty.
they lived in the city and weren't quite sure they wanted a cat, so they took him to the animal shelter.
doing what kids do best, they changed their minds, begged their father to rescue 'their' cat and so he did.
some $400 later, bear was home with his new family. that was 10 years ago.
today, bear's life is exactly as he wants it. no more. no less.
his routine is simple. he rises in the morning when our light goes on.
len and i do the usual - hug, kiss, hold - and then, we hug, kiss and hold bear.
then, action moves to the kitchen where i get coffee for the humans while bear gets a snack to start his day.
this is as sure as rainbows follow rain.
he's obstinate. he wants to eat - and drink water from the bathroom faucet - when he wants to. he has graduated from the days of jumping from the floor to the sink to a series of steps which include toilet seat, back of bowl, cabinet.
if his bowl is not heaping [ala garfield], he gets mad. he will bug me until i do as he wants.
he rubs on my legs, yammers in a bothersome cry, and finally, if that doesn't work, he snips at my leg.
at this point, he has won.
he hates suitcases. they are an omen that he will be alone for a long time and he might starve.
he loves shoes, any shoes, but especially the size 13 tennis shoes that belong to ty.
he lounges on top of them when they are left behind on the kitchen floor. i think it's the smell, his connection to us.
he takes you to his food pail in the pantry, and says, "here" and then walks you to his bowl. he does have manners.
mostly, he shuffles on the hardwood floors, sliding from room to room. every now and then you can hear him gallop as his heavy feet pound the hardwood. that's when he's frisky, we've decided. he wants to play - just a bit.
he loves fresh air. he thinks he wants to go outside, but we know his feet would get wet and there's no faucets. for now, sitting in the windowsill will have to do.
he hates cody and silas (the dogs). even though they total 150 pounds, he could take them both. hands down.
bear sleeps in veta's chair [veta is len's mom]. he still feels her presence even though she has been gone for three years.
he loves ty. ty is his partner in crime and they pick at each other. bear usually wins when he whips out his claws.
bear misses michael and brian and veta and mari and logan.
when len and i first came together, he told me that bear had trouble with humans,
and that there were very few humans that bear liked.
bear never sat in a lap.
len says i'm bear's human. he's by my side all day, sitting, lounging just as close to me as he can get.
finally, i've found a writing buddy that will stick by my side - even if it's a sucky writing day.
bear is my buddy.
i sit at my computer and write, and bear is always just a few feet away,
looking out the window, on the look-out for boogers, dogs and birds.
Whether it is exploring this amazing world or being content on my own piece of real estate near Athens, Georgia, I'm spinning stories and fashioning tales from a Southern perspective. As an editor and writer, I get to meet incredible people and share their stories. As a photographer, I get to cement these moments in time. As a wife and mother, I'm always excited to see what's around the next corner, For it's anything but ordinary.