Teddy, The-adorable Cat

Our college graduate returned home with her furniture she could not sell on Craig’s list and her tan-colored, alpha-male cat, a rescue from a local shelter. We welcomed Samantha and Teddy with open arms, but it has not been easy. Our other rescue kitty, Jade, courtesy of another rebound daughter, has resided here longer and has made it clear that Teddy is unwelcome. It is payback time as we experience what my brothers, sister, and I did to our parents. Mom and Dad retained our stray dogs, cats, birds, turtles, rabbits that we collected (mostly illegally) in dorm rooms or apartments because pets, after all, are extended family.

Sam has returned for an extended stay-cation before graduate school to which she intends on carting Teddy in a cat carrier for the nine-hour trek to Boston University. It will not be simple, but worthwhile ventures seldom are. Teddy with his two beds (one is insufficient for the spoiled), blankets, toys, litter boxes moved in; Jade responded with prolonged hisses, bared teeth, bristled fur, and swishing tail; animal language for “Leave now and don’t come back.” Teddy responded with a saunter in her direction, no comment, no teeth bared, no fur up, and no swishing tail; animal language for “I am bigger, I am stronger; therefore, this is my house now.” Totally passive-aggressive behavior, if you ask me.  Moreover, he was supposed to stay inside for at least a week. God help us.

After one complete fur-flying, cat-scratching, howling out-and-out brawl, we consulted the internet about introducing cats. We were doing it all wrong, i.e. putting the two in the same room–at the same time. Now, Teddy resides in the back bedroom until Jade finishes eating and leaves the building. With Jade gone, Teddy visits the rest of the house then devours Jade’s food, and then they switch. After a week of this tacit avoidance, Teddy learned to take a wide berth of Jade. She, too, no longer over-reacts, although remains on high alert, hissing as a reminder, “We are not friends and never will be.” We have this system down. It may take months to get these cats acclimated, but by then, Sammy and Teddy may be flying to Boston.

In Memory of Matilda

I have not written in weeks—no time, no energy, no desire until this morning. My first period entered loudly as they always do, most of them slurping Monster for breakfast, and those who do not suck up Starbucks espresso. I have a cup of coffee to match their energy, but today was a little different. Adrien was gone all of last week at the Salinas County Fair and he returned solemn as though he lost his best friend. I get it. Fifteen-year-old Adrien raised a pig and sold it on Sunday. I asked if he said his goodbyes and he started to tear up and then I started to tear up and then the entire class hushed to hear our stories.

Me: I remember our family’s first pig. The night before we sold Brutus (appropriate as we are studying Julius Caesar), I cried. Our children did not cry until after the auction, when the truck pulled up and the pigs were marked with spray paint to determine their final destination, but I cried the night before. It was just as well, since I had serious consoling to do after the auction.

Adrian: (tears in his eyes, but thankfully, not on his cheeks) She was a great pig. I called her Matilda. She ran around, barked, and barked whenever she saw me. I fed her the last meal, and when I turned to walk away, she barked some more. She never did that before. (Now, the tears were on his cheeks.)

Me: I am sorry. I completely understand. Pigs are amazing creatures—so intelligent, certainly much smarter than sheep (hoping to get a smile).

Adrien: Yeah, she knew me. We had great times together. I tattooed her name on my arm so I will always remember her.

Adrian unveiled the scripted, black inked Matilda on his forearm. Priceless.

Okay, time to get to studies like Julius Caesar. I love this class. I am going to miss them. We bonded in the same way Adrian did with his Matilda (not that I should compare a class of sophomores to a pen of pigs—well, maybe). I am going to miss the way we seamlessly move from a sob story to laughter to somber discussion. This seldom happens, but when it happens, it is as indelible as a tattoo on the mind or heart.

Mom and Dad

I haven’t written a word, except for work, in weeks or so it seems.  I hear words and stories all the time in my head, but my heart and hands are unwilling to type. My parents are fading away like a brilliant sunset that turns silently into the dark night. Together yet apart. One in assisted living, one in nursing care. What tears our family apart is that they cannot be together. I should be writing about my 15th year (of my 31 years of marriage), but I don’t care to. My marriage will never be a strong and vibrant as what my parents have, despite their weakening hearts. Their devotion is not unlike the couple in The Notebook, where the wife has Alzheimer’s and the husband has heart disease.

Dad has his litany of ailments and Mom is a “loon,” most of the time. Ironically, it is during Mom’s lucid moments when she complains, “Take me home, Jack. I want to go home” that Dad suffers the most. He feels her pain, tears well in his eyes. Dad needs assistance, not as much as Mom.  He changes the oxygen tank which he drags wherever he goes; for the most part, he is tethered now to a machine. I see him wearing down, running out of air and time. He dresses himself, pays his bills on time, and walks the long walk up the two flights of stairs to fetch Mom. What he cannot do or struggles with are daily showers and laundry and cooking, so he is on the assisted living side in the same retirement community, which Dad refers to as the “institution.”

Meanwhile, Mom resides in the nursing side of their retirement complex/institution, refuses to walk, prefers to be pushed in the wheelchair, and wants to sit near Dad as she watches Fox News. Dad is as sharp as any SNL comedian; he would rather watch CNN, anything but Fox Network, but he defers to Mom, as he has for years. The rest of us know his true thoughts as he withholds little from us. Mom has no idea of the time or day or year or what she had for breakfast or what happened five minutes ago, and considering how she gets her current news, it is no wonder she is confused all the time. Sometimes our family changes the station to Comedy Central and Mom is happy because Steven Colbert is as “patriotic” as anyone on Fox. What Mom knows is family and that she is not home and that she wants to go home.

I have no doubt that my parents will go home together–probably within hours of each other. They cling to each other exclusively as do swans or turtle doves or wolves or gibbons or loons, other animals that also mate for life.

31 Years of Memories–Year 14, Part 2

Second Half of a Duck’s Life 1996 – 1997

Registration forms for the Monterey County Fair were due in July. Meg and Allie, who were showing rabbits and pigs, suggested showing Quackers in the poultry division. We agreed that Quackers could join us at the fair, but no one had any desire to hold him. Quackers would be strictly “shown for judging,” but not in the “showmanship” event. No one in the family, or in the entire 4H club for that matter, wanted to participate in showmanship competition with that duck. Far too dangerous.

In showmanship, the 4H member demonstrates how to handle the animal, such as a sheep, pig, cow, or a duck. The competitor’s job is to present the animal to the judge and to demonstrate how easily he/she commands the animal. As an example, in pig showmanship, 4Hrs use canes for physical prodding to maneuver pigs around the corral. Come “fair time,” it is apparent which kids exercised their pigs and which kids did not. Pigs that dart while barking like dogs and that run down other pigs or small children or elderly are pigs that received inadequate exercise by their 4H member. Other pigs that stroll along with gentle encouragement by a cane to reveal their well-developed ham-hocks or muscular shoulders are pigs that received regular exercise. Poultry showmanship involved holding the animal and there was no way any of us could handle this unruly duck. The duck could compete, but not in showmanship.

The morning of the fair, we lined the familiar orange crate with a bedding of hay to drive the 20 miles with Quackers’s head peering out of the crate. He squawked the entire way as though giving us directions, as though he knew where he was going. At check in, the poultry division leader immediately called for the largest cage available—likely one used by Macaws, Iguanas, or something even larger. The leaders banded Quackers, checked him for disease, and pronounced him “a healthy, prime specimen.” Quackers attempted to bite their hands, but these seasoned professionals knew exactly how to handle this difficult bird.

The first day of the fair was children’s day, where processions of schoolchildren marched through the animal exhibits. Most of these kids lived in the city and only saw farm animals at fair time. The poultry barn was the first barn in the livestock area, so the children’s’ energy and enthusiasm for the day was at a peak of excitement. Posted at each entry to the barn, above each block of cages, on every post were signs cautioning people NOT to put fingers in the cages. Beneath the warning, in smaller print, was an explanation that this disturbs the fragile birds. Young children do not read signs, so teachers, chaperones, and poultry leaders cautioned children to look, but not to touch the cages. For some, of course, this was not a warning, but an invitation. Quackers was at the far end of the block, near the back, waiting. Kids ran their fingers along the cages just as they would run a stick along a picket fence, enjoying the thud-thud-thud and resulting flap-flap-flap as the birds freaked and flew to the back of the tiny cage for safety. Except when they arrived at Quakers.

Quackers squatted at the edge of his cage, ready to bolt for freedom, ready to reclaim his yard, ready to bite whoever dared approach. One crying, screaming child after another learned a lesson that day, and the poultry leaders loved that bird even more. At the end of judging, Quackers won Best of Water Fowl, Best of Show, and $14.

Quackers earned family respect and admiration by winning the titles of Monterey County Fair Champion Water Fowl and Best of Show in Poultry Division awards. He gave us excitement (chased children and wild animals from our yard), money (won $14 from the County Fair), and fertilizer (everywhere he waddled in the yard and on the deck), but the lovable Quackers, pet extraordinaire and award-winning duck, met an untimely death in the form of a neighborhood dog (or raccoon or skunk or possum or cat—the duck had many enemies) in early fall.

I will never know what beast the duck encountered, yet I have no doubt that there was quite a struggle. Judging by the down feathers and fur floating in the air and on the trees, the blood-stained dirt, the trampled bushes, Quackers must have inflicted his share of wounds upon the perpetrator (as he did on all of us). As the sayings go, “He who lives by the sword must die by the sword” or “All bills must be paid.” The duck attacked everyone, except perhaps Dale—the alpha male of our flock, who dared enter his domain. In fact, the night before he died, Quackers brutally bit a skunk on the nose. I knew what was going to happen next, so I darted out the garage and into the backyard, which, of course, meant the duck now had to chase yet another invader from his yard. I owned the house; the duck owned the yard. He quacked, released the skunk’s nose, and went after me. The next day the duck died and we cried.

We received the call from our whimpering children who arrived first and witnessed the carnage. It has taken years of therapy to relieve them of the trauma. Though the girls considered Quackers a general nuisance, avoiding him at all costs, their phone call betrayed their true feelings, “Ducky’s dead. He’s dead.” I cried with them. He was fodder for many a story—shoot—he could have been a book.

Dale drove quickly home to bury Quackers beneath our fruit trees, a veritable orchard and pet cemetery in our yard. Beneath each fruit tree (and we have dozens) lie the remains of cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, hamsters, and now our duck. Dale had skinned several of our previously dead animals, just like out of those crazy, southern backwoods shows on television. Rex, our 4H show rabbit who died years before, was our first model with a hide we deemed too precious to waste. Dale skinned that thing, stretched and salted it, and we both used the sample fur for years in our biology classrooms. In fact, I passed the “skinning” technique on to my biology classes, as we “harvested” the hides of fetal pigs from dissection, using them for hacky-sacks or mini-footballs (pigskins for pigskin).

However, Quackers’s death was different. The wafting down feathers might have made a pillow or jacket, but not this time. Quackers required a deep hole and resting place near the plum-tree and beneath his old swimming pool. Our family needed a break from the drama.

31 Years of Memories–Year 14

First Half of 1996 – 1997

Our girls were 5, 8, and 11 when I returned to teaching high school full-time. This was the year of Quackers the duck and our immersion into the world of 4H, starting with poultry and rabbits, and then moving to sheep and pigs. One afternoon, Sammy brought home a special “gift” from her kindergarten class, a newly hatched, almost neon yellow duck. Quacker’s webbed feet never touched land as he was passed from one girl to the next. Most days, he slept contentedly in the palms of his many little mothers, within another hand’s reach of duck feed. Quackers thrived and pooped and pooped and thrived. At night, he slept in a refurbished hamster cage, which lasted about a week, as he quickly outgrew that abode and moved into the chicken coup.

Our cat, Ginger stalked him wherever he waddled, so our girls and their friends stood guard while he was young. However, ducks grow quickly, even faster than children do, and within a month, Quackers was twice the size of the cat. Ginger kept her distance—the two paced on the backyard deck—meowing and quacking, respectively to come into the house. By three months, in duck adolescence, Quackers was like something out of a Dr. Seuss book—a brown, white, yellow mishmash of colored feathers on short legs, long neck with a beacon of an orange bill. As he grew, he became territorial; hence, our assumption that this duck was a male and no 4H leader was going to “sex” him to find out.

One morning, Allie opened the chicken coup to release Quackers for his daily foraging of our yard. As she lifted him out of his cage, he flapped his white wings that proved flightless, which landed him squarely between the cage and a bale of hay. Bottom up and webbed feet kicking furiously, Quacker’s neck and small head wedged firmly in the narrow spot, while poor Allie screamed for help, but by the time I pulled Quackers free, he was bleeding from his bill, which I deduced brain damage. Sure enough, the next few days Quackers staggered around the yard, twisting his head to one side to see with his one good eye. He was a sad, nearly blind duck—a large, flightless Pekin better for a meal than anything else, but slowly, over weeks, Quackers recovered.

At four months, Quackers had developed into a well-fed Pekin, ready for a banquet. He flourished from the exercise and endless supply of food. The exercise came from chasing small children who ran about our yard. Not that he would eat any of them, but countless kids from the neighborhood sustained tiny red welts from his bill-bites, as he latched on the thinnest piece of skin and held tight. I was the nurse for many. Once safely atop the play structure, the children were stranded by Quackers, who circled the area, quacked loudly, and waited to strike unaware children who swung too low, or dropped from the rope, or slid down the slide, or jumped off the monkey bars. He was there. Waiting. Quacking. Again, I rescued kids with my mop in hand and defended against duck-attacks.

By summer’s end, after months of hosing off the deck or walkways or wherever the duck waddled, months of dashing outside mop in hand to protect small, defenseless children, I was “done with duck raising.” Time to release our assailant. Quackers clearly outgrew our domain, one-half acre was insufficient territory. He needed a more expansive spread; say the entire pond at the bottom of our hill. The hills beyond our house were nearly limitless—expanding into 1500 acres of wilderness, a regional park. Quackers could roam forever–free at last!

We found a large orange crate in which Quackers could sit, and then with smiles amid tears, we marched down the hill. Each little girl sniffled her goodbyes, sure that he would miss her and she would miss him. Dale brought the camera; we would have pictures. We reached the edge of the pond where Dale tenderly placed the box of Quackers. The five of us plus duck stood our places at the lip of the pond. I focused the camera, ready for action. Nothing happened. We waited—no flapping of wings, no quacking. The duck remained in the box, and he was not going anywhere. Quackers looked at Dale, with pleading in his eyes, and he turned his head from side to side to make sure Dale saw both eyes (prey, of course, have eyes on the sides of their head). He waited for his master, Dale to do something. Dale reached down and removed Quackers from the carton. The duck moved as close as possible to Dale’s size 14 boot, which Quackers knew well, but the boot was a safer bet than the unknown but beautiful pond. So, we stood—duck, Dale, me, Meg, Allie, and Sam for the longest time. No one moved.

After a few minutes, Dale with soft and gentle hands that Quackers never experienced before picked up the duck. He lovingly stroked Quackers’ long white feathers, spoke kind words, and said, “Goodbye. Be strong. Be a duck.” Then, he tossed him, as a quarterback would throw a football to a receiver at the far end of the field. Quackers instinctively flapped, which, of course was useless. He landed with a giant splash because he was such a beefy bird, and sprinted out of the water as though chased by some predator. Now, he was quacking, loudly, furiously, and shaking. He ran to his master’s side and Dale tried again. In fact, Dale tried to get rid of Quackers at least five times. Each heave met with a quacking duck, exiting the water faster than before—taking off as a seaplane. After an hour of unsuccessful attempts of introducing Quackers to our pond, we gave up. He was going home. To our house. I did not know whether to laugh or cry.

31 Years of Memories–Year13

Changes Ahead

12/28/93 – 12/28-94

While our kids, Meghan, Allie, and Sam were little 10, 7, and 4, I worked half-time, Dale worked time and a half, his summers spent in construction as a tradesman-carpenter in electrical, plumbing, and carpentry on assorted remodels or new homes. Each Christmas, I consulted Alan Douglas, Dale’s friend and employer, for tool suggestions. Alan directed me to the right store, exact machines and best prices, so for these years, Dale acquired new skills and skill saws or saws-all or jig-saws or drills or whatever a good tradesman needed. Little did we know at that time how these skills and skill saws would be used, but that is a story yet to come.

For one brief blip during my teaching career, I shared a fourth grade position with Jan Nutton. Jan taught Monday and Tuesday and I Thursday and Friday, while we shared Wednesday.  It was quite an adjustment moving from high school to elementary, despite the fact that La Mesa was a science magnet school with field trips nearly every week. I delighted in teaching a variety of subjects and considered staying at fourth grade when the year ended.

Fourth grade children usually enjoy school, unlike teenagers, and they offer their teachers cards of devotion on random occasions or hug their teachers at moments of celebration or sorrow or boredom or giddiness. Not much triggers a hug, and initially, I struggled with the steady barrage of embraces, as this was so foreign from high school student behavior. I stood tall and immobile as one child after another lunged at me “hello,” “goodbye,” “good lunch,” or “nice break. ” Okay, that was weird—students marched in line –but not without the requisite contact. By high school, there is no marching except for ROTC, and hugs morph into high fives or slaps on the back or fleeting eye contacts, the latter the more typical. Elementary students gave wings to my heart every day. They tugged on my shirt, sweater, and sleeves. They hovered around my desk. They gave glittery, flowery cards, both girls and boys, cards unlike anything my husband has bestowed upon me, and he has given me plenty of cards. I received apples, oranges, pears and roses—for no reason. Dale is romantic, in a practical sense; his roses were the potted kind we added to our garden.

This year, we rushed to school or to day-care or to soccer practice or to swim practice (both of us), or wallowed in dirty laundry or clean clothes (mostly me), kept up with shopping and meals for five (me), maintained working vehicles (Dale), maintained plumbing or wiring or flooring or whatever the house needed (Dale),  kept up with yard work (both of us),  brushed and backwashed the pool (mostly me), bought clothes for growing children (always me)—all of which took hours of our days and weeks and weekends.

The dilemma of fourth grade verses high school hovered over my head for weeks, until I finally decided that high school anything was more stimulating than fourth grade curriculum; I returned to the high school campus and down the hall from Dale.  It was a difficult decision—a melancholy for the sweetness of young children and their precious gifts for the mania of high school adolescents and their exuberance for life.

31 Years of Memories–Year 12

31 Years of Memories—Year 12

12/28/1992 – 12/28/93

Sam was 1-year-old, Allie 4, Meghan 7, Dale 42, me 38, and Fort Ord 75 years old and the base was closing. Congress warned in the “Base Realignment and Closure Act” that closure of Fort Ord was imminent. In response, our school district initially did the responsible thing and generated a list of employees, their priority numbers based on year hired and subjects taught. The lists hung on public bulletin boards near bathrooms, in teacher lounges, next to mailboxes or in mailboxes, on any available space on campus. It was the first question asked when you met someone.

“Hi, so, where are you on the list?” or “Hi, what’s your number?”—so GATACCA-like in nature.

To which the ubiquitous response was “Oh, I already have a job in ______________” or “I am safe. They won’t get rid of math or science teachers” (implying that these lucky people were more valuable that the rest).

To which the usual reply was “Oh, yeah, sorry, about that and good luck on the job search” or “Wow, yeah, you’re in a good place.”

Dale and I were momentarily safe, yet the stress on our family was as insidious as a cancer diagnosis with its impending treatment. We were only “safe” until the next CAT scan or PET scan, or in our case, the updated list. No one knew exactly what effect the departure of 22,000 troops would have on local schools and businesses, but there was plenty of speculation.

We had seen the army come and go with a variety of deployments. In 1989, the seventh IDL deployed to Panama to restore order and then captured, Dictator Manuel Noriega. In 1990, the seventh IDL joined the coalition troops in the Middle East to defeat Iraq during Desert Storm. One of the last deployments was to quell the 1992 Los Angeles-Rodney King riots. Each time, when Congress called out the Cavalry, it took its toll on our students, most of whom cried for days while we consoled and tried to teach them. Often, bomb threats to the campus accompanied the deployments, as though students had anything to do with the government decisions. The bomb scares were nerve-wracking distractions as we stood in evacuation lines for an hour or so, until the military police secured the campus.

So, we were familiar with the military response, but nothing prepared us (and the school district) with the rapidity the military used for the base evacuation. The day after the government announcement, oversize eighteen-wheelers carted off military mobile homes to God-knows-where. Each day, three to five students submitted transfer requests; my average class enrollment of thirty dropped to five students. Our district could do nothing. Teachers signed contracts in September at the beginning of the school year and Congress decided in October to close the base. Every teacher remained in class, regardless of student enrollment, while school funds plummeted with ADA (average daily attendance) as over 500 students dropped to Germany, Hawaii, Korea, or wherever the military sent its troops and their families. We began the year with over 1300 students and ended with barely 400. Dale and I survived for this year.

I jogged, during my fourth period prep, through the ghost town of a base. No sounds from abandoned homes, no evidence of life, no evidence of succession in that first year. It was a significant year of change for all of us.