Welcome to The Squeaky Pen

...where life is slow, and ripe with rural treasures

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Twisted Mind of Cat

I did a count the other day. In my house there are the following:
6 sofas
3 loveseats
8 upholstered chairs
5 beds
2 chaise lounges
3 rocking chairs
and a dozen or more regular old straight-backed table chairs
Not to mention three plushy store-bought pet beds and a bunch of comfortable rugs. Yet my cat, Lucy, chooses to sit and sleep in a broken box. A box, she in fact, broke herself by pawing and gnawing on the corners until one of the flaps came apart. I picked the box up one day, sick of my cat looking like a homeless thing living on the street, and tossed it on a chair with the intention of disposing of it later. In less than a half hour Lucy had wrangled the box to the floor again and was sleeping in it.
I once had a cat named Taylor who had about 37 toys, fuzzy mice and jingling balls and who knows what all. Yet his favorite plaything was a three-inch-long scrap of cloth that fell on the floor one day.

I read someplace that Americans spend more than 45 billion dollars a year on their pets. I don't know the breakdown, but I have to guess a good chunk of that money goes toward toys and beds. What are we thinking? I love my pets, I do, but sometimes I believe we've all gone a little nuts. They aren't humans even though we treat them like they are. They're animals, who before smirking up at us and slathering our faces with tongue kisses have eaten flies, chewed on deceased rodents, and licked their own butts. I'll never forget the day Harry the dog was dangerously quiet. I found him sitting in the cat box (not the cardboard one, but the one where the cats do their "business"). He looked like a tiny sailor heading out to sea in a disgusting boat, the "business" of the his feline sisters smeared all over his lips.

As for the Lucy-sitting-and-sleeping-in-a-cardboard-box dilemma, I've given up. It now resides in a corner of my home office, usually with the cat in it, a permanent part of my d├ęcor. Lucy seems to like it and who am I to argue? The plushy pet beds go unused, and I guess I should be happy cat hair that in other circumstances would be all over my furniture is now relegated to a non-plushy, non-soft, brown container that came in the mail with a book in it.

Friday, May 16, 2014


Twenty-two years ago today it was raining. I recall being on Route 17 in upstate New York, heading north in late morning. I was a passenger and my high school friend Jackie was in the driver's seat. I was crying. We both were.

Several hours earlier I'd gotten the phone call, one of many we all ultimately get and all of which we dread. The phone jangled horribly at 5 a.m. A ringing telephone at that hour is always horrible even when everybody's okay. In my case on that rainy day 22 years ago, everybody wasn't okay. My mother had died suddenly in the night. Stroke, or heart attack (or both); we never knew for sure. All we did know was that she'd been at her camp with friends and family, had come rushing out of her camper, banged on her brother's camper door, and died minutes later in her sister-in-law's arms. My mom, Iva, was 69 years old. This loving, friendly, caring woman who had tucked me into bed and brushed tangles out of my hair and bought my first pair of kindergarten shoes, who included a 20-dollar bill with each letter every month I was in college and with whom, as a grown-up, I sat at a kitchen table drinking coffee and eating donuts and laughing and learning about what's important in life, had simply vanished from the world in a matter of minutes. While I was asleep in my bed in New York City, my mama had slipped away.

My father, John, had died in 1980. By the time Iva left us to join him he'd already been gone 12 years. So there I was in 1992, riding along in the rain, without parents at the tender age of 36.

After getting the call, I don't remember much. My mind seemed altered, as though a protective sheath had been tossed over it. I pulled out a suitcase and packed a bra. Then another bra. "Well," I remember thinking. "I'll certainly be noticed at the funeral, the woman wearing two bras and nothing else." I finally managed to get some suits packed, and pondered this: "Good thing I went shopping recently, who knew I was buying a suit for my mother's funeral!" The thought was funny and tragic and wholly inappropriate. But then, what's appropriate when your mother has just died? The sheath got thicker, and for the next year my brain took a vacation.

Oh sure, I remember some things about the next 12 months, and certainly about the next week. I remember how many people flocked into the funeral home to say goodbye to Iva, I remember dearest of friends showing up unexpectedly, many in tears. I remember going back to Queens and changing my driving route so I would never have to think about crossing over the same bridges I did the day my mom died. I remember my lackluster work ethic in the months that followed, shrugging when called on it and saying, "Oh who cares." Then in April of the following year, while on a six-seat plane over of all unlikely places the Maasai Mara in Kenya, the brain sheath chose that moment to remove itself. My poor friend Liz, with whom I was on vacation, took the brunt of being with me when my mind returned. We still talk about it (although now we can laugh). Suffice to say hysteria doesn't begin to explain the situation of a grown woman cracking into ten pieces on a tiny plane where below there are hungry lions waiting.

It's hard to believe that more than two decades have passed since last I heard my mother's voice. Her hands always smelled vaguely of Clorox -- she was fond of bleaching things ... clothes, the sink, the tub, once even suggested I use Clorox to fix my hair when I accidentally died it black. I still see her fussing with flowers or hanging bird feeders. People loved her, especially family. I did not inherit that lucky trait, but I'm told by some that they see qualities of her in me. I could not be more proud of that. She was, truly, a dear person. Maybe one of the kindest souls ever to walk the planet.
It's raining where I am. In fact, we had a bit of a microburst here this morning. Huge trees have been uprooted on a roadway outside of town, property damaged. Another monumental thing happened on May 16, 2014: Barbara Walters, after a long and proud career that shattered the glass ceiling for women in broadcasting, has retired. It's been an interesting day for me, one of microbursts and retirement and rain and tears. Lots of tears. Not for the downed trees, nor for Ms. Walters. Today is the day I became an orphan 22 years ago.
I love you, Mama. I wish I could hear your voice one more time, wish we could have a donut at the kitchen table, wish I could tell you all my troubles and have you tuck me into bed and say it's all going to be all right. But I can't. That's how life goes, isn't it? I guess I should consider myself lucky that I had such a wonderful mother at all, for however brief a time. 
Wherever you are, Iva, I miss you so.  Every single day.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

"I'm Sorry ... I Have Color Guard Practice"

Last Thursday around 6 p.m. I was on the phone with someone, glanced at the clock, and said, "Oh sorry, I need to hang up. I have to go to color guard practice."
Now I'm fairly certain I haven't said those exact words in a very long time ... like, since I was 16. In fact, having said them Thursday I sort of felt like I was 16 again. Double-knotting the laces on my sneakers, grabbing my banner pole, and scooting out the door to get to Paddleford Park so I could line up with the other "girls" who are marching in Sherburne's Pageant of Bands on June 7.
When I got there Paddleford was teeming with people: squealing kids on the playground, folks milling around on the baseball field (small town life in full bloom on a beautiful spring evening), and a whole flock of females twirling rifles and flags who haven't been "girls" for more years than any of us care to count. I dropped into line with the other banners and we practiced our routine to the taped and tinny boom box sounds of Love Me Forever and Temptation. At first I was thinking, "I can't remember how to do this," even had a moment or two when I found myself out of step. Then, after about 15 minutes, it all came together. When we turned half-right and slammed our banners to the ground, it was in perfect unison. When we saluted the imaginary judges' stand, I could hear the crowds cheering in my head. I felt that chill, the zing up the arms of military discipline, the camaraderie of people who most of the year only bump into each other at the grocery store, but who every half decade come together to recreate, one more time, the thrill of that wonderful and beloved marching beast known as the Sherburne-Earlville Alumni Band and Color Guard. 
The guard -- rifles and banners both -- have practices planned for every Thursday at 6 p.m. from now until Pageant of Bands. Why? Because just like when we were teenagers, we want to look sharp. We want to be on point. We want (still) to be the best.
I've written about the alumni band many times. Ten years ago I wrote the following, which for me still captures the feeling of getting out and performing to the still incredible and well-known S-E street beat. I thought I'd share it again here, because I think it says it all.
Among Life's Blessings - Sherburne-Earlville Alumni Band
Originally published May 2004
Recently, I found myself counting my blessings.  I was on a plane on the way back to New York from a business trip in Madrid, where just a few weeks earlier terrorist attacks had turned that city upside down. Needless to say, it wasn't really on my top ten list of places to go, and I was glad to be coming home.
So I was counting my blessings because no terrorist had walked into my hotel with a bomb strapped to his chest and taken out the first six floors, and because another terrorist hadn't hijacked my airplane and drilled it into a high rise. The counting went on as the landing gear hit the runway, when I found myself saying "thanks for good health, good friends," and then, surprisingly, " . . . and thanks for getting me home safely so I can march one more time in the Pageant of Bands . . ." It's the truth. I actually thanked God for keeping me alive through this trip so I could get home to Sherburne and march.
Now this is pretty powerful stuff.  We're talking about returning to a pastime from 30 years ago.  Don't misunderstand, though . . . it isn't reliving band and color guard that I'm looking forward to, it's revisiting it, a subtle yet important difference. Some people turn away from the alumni band with the explanation "I have no interest in reliving high school." Believe me, neither do I. High school was fine, I'm glad I did it, and when I graduated I was extremely glad it was over. This isn't "Oh, wasn't the football game of '71 the best time of your life" kind of thinking. It's more about once having had something wonderful, like your first kiss, and wanting to experience it again; or maybe a better example is the feeling you get from certain scents . . . your grandfather's pipe tobacco, Lilies of the Valley in your back yard, your baby's first blanket . . . something that brings you back to a time when life was simple and your biggest worry was can I hit that note on the trumpet and not is somebody going to walk onto this airplane and blow it out of the sky.
I've written, with difficulty, about this feeling before, this alumni band "thing." It's a sensation that usually gels for me when I think about things people have said or done, both while we were marching as kids and since we've "revisited" it as adults. I remember the look on Sharon Monahan's face at the state fair in the early 1970s when the band and color guard took first place. From her vantage point she could see how straight the ranks were, and she was just beaming because she knew we were going to win. There were late night trips back from competitions when parents all over town stood on their front steps as the busses went by, cheering. There was Katie Hoefler, who said, after hearing us practice for the first alumni reunion, "We have our band back again!" and there is always the chill up the spine when hearing Jeff Funnell's street beat. There was Roy Balma and the Frank Millers and the Plonus girls and hours of time spent making us the best we could be. And there was and is Temptation, our signature song that every person who plays solo trumpet is wearied by and still the one that brings a lump to everybody's throat when they hear it.
But it was something I overheard Laura Keefe Fagan say that really struck me: at one of the early band reunions, she told someone she couldn't stay out late the Friday night before the pageant because she "had a performance the next day."  Laura, you hit it right on the head.  No matter what, we in the Sherburne-Earlville band and color guard always gave one hundred and ten percent. We always performed, whether as students, in an alumni setting, or otherwise, like we were competing. Mark Perrin remembers seeing an article in a high school marching band magazine in the mid-1970s that ranked the S-E band among the top ten in the country. In the country. Pretty impressive for such a small school, but then we were a willful bunch and weren't about to let anybody down -- the instructors, the parents, the audience, and least of all ourselves. The pride we felt, the sense of accomplishment, and (my apologies for saying this) the well-deserved arrogance at being that good, all of this combined to create an atmosphere, an aura, that's almost impossible to articulate. Those of us who keep coming back know what I'm talking about. It's like the first whiff of spring: you don't have to say anything, you just have to close your eyes and breathe it in.
No one really knows how many more times -- if any -- the alumni band and color guard will march.  We all have busy lives, and many of us are gone -- of those I named here, Sharon Monahan, Roy Balma, Jeff Funnell, and the "old" Frank Miller. Our ranks ever shrink and, let's face it, the alumni band's days are numbered. I don't know how many people have signed up to march this year, I hope many. But either way I'll be there, with my little banner, breathing it all in. I'll stand on Main Street when we face the judges' stand, listening to the band play Love Me Forever and Temptation one more time -- maybe for the last time -- and I'll think about Roy and Sharon and Jeff and Old Frank. I'll be there for them, and I'll think of them as I count my blessings . . . thanks for a good life, thanks for good health, thanks for keeping me from getting blown up by a terrorist, and thanks for giving me one more chance to come back to experience this band, and that indescribable sensation of home.

About Me

Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: ...And I Breathed (author, Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum