Sunday, March 9, 2008

Six years ago

That's my Uncle Bernard. On the right, age fifteen, his high school graduation picture (he was the youngest in his class, having been advanced two years). On the left, age sixty-five, leaving for his fifty-year reunion in 1990. I took that one. My mother and I bought him those clothes, got him ready, and I drove him from his farm outside of the tiny village of Davidsburg, in York County, Pennsylvania, to the site of the reunion down in Emigsville.

Bernard died six years ago today in the fire that destroyed his house. When I went into the ruins of the house a day later, I found these photographs in the living room -- or parlor, as he would have called it -- the one room left mostly unscathed by the fire and the massive amounts of water poured onto the structure by the local fire department. They were sitting atop on old record cabinet. The rest of the house had been allowed to fall into an appalling condition over the years, but Bernard kept the parlor in relatively good shape. It was where he entertained visitors. The photographs must have represented something to him -- bookends, perhaps, of his life. In lieu of an open casket at his funeral, they sat on a table next to his coffin. Now they sit on the mantle in my living room in Philadelphia, a hundred miles away.

Two years ago I wrote a piece called Tom and Colleen for another weblog that I no longer update. Because it is largely about Bernard, I am including it here.

Tom and Colleen

Tom is fat. I tell him so all the time. He doesn’t care, having his own agendas. Colleen is not fat. She is Tom’s sister, though you wouldn’t know it to look at her.

“Go make the coffee,” I say to Tom in the mornings.

“He can’t,” Donna, my girlfriend says. “He doesn’t have opposable thumbs.” She’s right, of course. Tom doesn’t have opposable thumbs. He’s a cat. So is Colleen, for that matter.

“These are the neediest cats in the world,” Donna says, when Colleen wakes us up at 3:00 a.m. For a small cat, Colleen has a loud purr, sounding very much like a tractor with a couple of bad cylinders. She is also quite strong for her size, and drives her head shovel-like under your arms to wake you up. If you pull your arms under the covers to escape, she goes for the face.

“Cats are supposed to be aloof,” Donna says when Tom plops his considerable bulk between us on the sofa. “This cat acts like a dog.” Tom has always been of the belief that if you have time to watch television or read a book, you have time to lavish attention on him.

In the mornings I eat my oatmeal and stare at Tom luxuriously sprawled out on his back on the rug next to the table, his massive white belly thrust upwards as if it were his proudest achievement. “Tom, you are the fattest man who ever lived,” I say.

“He’s not a man,” Donna corrects for the hundredth time, “He’s a cat.”

“He’s a fat man who happens to be a cat,” I explain for the hundredth time. I can’t understand why this is so hard to understand.

Tom and Colleen have been living with me in Philadelphia for over ten years. There’s a photograph of the three of us somewhere, taken shortly after I got them -- a man in his mid thirties sitting on a wicker sofa, holding two gray and white kittens. I took the photo myself with a timer, so the three of us have that self-conscious posed look.

They were born where I grew up, on my Uncle Bernard’s farm in rural York County, though I had left the farm nearly fifteen years before they came along. Their mother was a stray who Bernard took pity on and allowed in the house one night when the weather was bad. He didn’t know she was pregnant.

The next morning he had four cats in the house, or rather, one cat and three kittens. He didn’t want cats, didn’t particularly like cats, but Bernard was a kind man and couldn’t put them out. Eventually, I took two of the kittens and my mother took the third, a tabby who she named Tabby.

Bernard died four years ago today, in the fire that destroyed his house. The farm, which had been in our family for over a hundred years, has been sold. And farming, which had been the family trade since our ancestors arrived in this country over two hundred and fifty years ago, is something none of us do anymore.

You could say that Tom and Colleen are my last connection to that life, but the truth is, I never was much of a farmer, and long ago I decided to choose another path.

The real connection is this: Bernard showed extraordinary kindness and patience toward me when I was growing up, despite the fact that his work never ceased, that he never got more than four or five hours of sleep at night, that the farm which he wanted with all his heart to be a success was sinking into ruin. He always made time for me. He also showed kindness when a stray cat gave birth to a litter of kittens in his house, making their welfare his responsibility.

That is our shared legacy. Bernard’s kindness, at least on my better days, has given me a way to be in the world. Tom and Colleen remind me of that.

“Now who is spoiling them,” I say to Donna. Tom and Colleen are swarming around her feet. (And yes, for those of you who don’t have cats, two is enough to constitute a swarm.) She places two not-particularly-well-emptied tuna cans on the floor for them to clean out, then referees to make sure that Tom doesn’t raid Colleen’s after finishing his own.

As I am completing this post, I find that Tom and Colleen have crept upstairs into the guestroom-cum-office where I keep my computer, and have fallen asleep on the bed next to my chair. They always want to be near me when I’m at home. After all, they are the neediest cats in the world.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

A very heart warming story, Dan. Having the cats is a good reminder of what is now gone, although I'm not saying that it makes it easier to suffer a family loss of such proportions. It's just good to have and hang on to those memories.......especially, when that's really all we have to leave behind.

P.S. My cats have opposable thumbs :-)
They are polydactyls....so they both have extra toes on their front paws.....it's like they have on mittens, haha
*You could probably do a quick search through my WW blog to see a photo of their paw......