On Cats and Cat Pillows

cat pillows 20160519_154022On a chair in my guest room sit two handmade pillows with cats on them. Although I have owned dogs most of my married life, I really consider myself a cat person. But my husband is not. He wants dogs, only dogs.

I embroidered one of the pillows when I was in college. It was the summer that I attended Eastern Washington State College (now Eastern Washington University) in Cheney, Washington. I was there to earn some extra credits so I could graduate from college in three years. The college was mostly a commuter school for Spokane, particularly during the summer session. Few students lived on campus in the summer, only one dorm was open, and food service was limited.

I had four classes in the morning, then was free from noon until bedtime. I could easily complete my class reading and other homework before dinner was served at 4:00pm. I ate, then returned to my room to watch television (I think I got two or three stations on the tiny TV I had borrowed from my parents) and do needlework. I made three pillows during the eight-week summer session. One of them was this cat pillow.

My mother was also a cat person. We had three cats during the time I was growing up—four, if you count the old tabby that my grandparents owned when my mother, brother and I lived with them in the winter of 1957-58, while my dad was in graduate school. The only name this cat ever had was Kitty. She lived from the time my mother was in middle school until I was three or four. So I only knew her as a crabby old cat that hid from me under the sofa.

T & cat 72360158-SLD-001-0024

Me with Corvallis Kitty

My parents got their first cat when we lived in Corvallis, Oregon. I was in preschool when they acquired this kitten. I don’t know if she had a name—if she did, I don’t remember it. I think I just called her Kitty also. She had a skin problem and had to be fed beef liver regularly. I remember my mother cooking and chopping the slimy red meat for the cat. This cat only lived a year or so before she was killed by a car on a busy street near our house.

About a decade later, we got a Siamese cat that preferred to live outside. We called her Sukiyaki, Suki for short. Suki was my little sister’s pet, though she loved my mother better than anyone else in the family. The rest of us she merely tolerated. Suki would jump into my lap to be petted. She’d purr, but when she was done, she dug her claws into my arms without warning until I put her down. And she clawed the furniture when she wanted outside, which was several times a day.

R & Suki 72360158-SLD-005-0006

My sister with Suki (or maybe it’s Susie)

Suki, too, was hit by a car after a year or so. That happened when I was in high school, at a time when I didn’t want to have much to do with my mother. But my mother and I cried together when we learned what had happened to Suki.

We soon got another Siamese cat to replace Suki. My sister named this cat Susie Q. Susie only liked the indoors. Unfortunately, my sister was diagnosed with cat allergies about this time, and we had to give Susie away not long after we got her.

My father was always allergic to cats also, except for Siamese. (Or was he only allergic to Siamese? My memory on the issue isn’t clear.) My sister’s cat allergy didn’t have any breed limitations.

After Susie Q, my parents switched to from cats to Schnauzers. They got their first Schnauzer shortly after I left for college.

Despite the lack of cats in her life after Susie, my mother continued to love them. When her oldest granddaughter (my daughter) was young, my mother embroidered the other cat pillow I have and gave it to my daughter. This pillow depicts Chessie, the mascot of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. I’ve always thought the Chessie pillow was sweet, and perfect for a little girl’s room.

But like my husband, my daughter is a dog person, and has been since childhood. She didn’t have much use for the Chessie pillow my mother stitched, though I made her keep it on her bed for years. She finally rebelled and stuffed the pillow in her closet. But I wouldn’t let her give the pillow away, because my mother made it.

Now when I pass the guest room and see the chair with the two cat pillows, I think of my mother, of my college days, and of all the cats that have passed through my life.

What reminds you of pets you have had?

Fighting Fires: Now and Then

close up fires croppedMany of the forest fires raging in the West this summer are not far from places I know—outside of Twisp and Omak and Okanogan near Lake Chelan in Washington State; Clark Fork near Lake Pend d’Oreille in the Idaho Panhandle; and other fires in Oregon.

I remember fires from lightning raging across Rattlesnake Mountain when I was a child. They never approached close to home, but the smell of smoke wafted into town and lingered for days. The black hillsides reminded us of nature’s power until plant life grew the following year. Sometimes it took several years for the scars to vanish.

As I watch the news reports this summer, particularly when I hear of firefighters dying, I think of my father. It’s not just because he also died this past year, though perhaps that is a factor. It’s because fire-fighting was a part of his personal story. Had he died fighting fires as a youth, like the young men did this past week in Washington State, I would not be here.

My father spent his summers during college fighting forest fires in Idaho. The money was better than any other job he could get, and he relished the freedom of living away from his parents and working outdoors.

1953ish TTC in Idaho 20150311_155121

I think this picture was taken during one of those Idaho summers between 1952 and 1954. He was a skinny guy in those years. The hard physical labor must have built him some muscles, though they’re not particularly evident in this picture.

My father told a few stories about his Idaho summers. None of the stories I remember involved him getting close to flames, though I think he did on occasion. His stories gave me the impression that most of his time was spent hacking through weeds and brush to build fire breaks, not in the dangerous heat and flames we see on television.

My father developed a life-long hatred of weeds. When my brother and I were in grade school, he assigned us the summer chore of pulling weeds out of our backyard gardens—a different flower bed each weekday morning. My brother had an hour of duty each day. I got off with only thirty minutes, if I spent the other thirty minutes practicing the piano. My musical abilities improved rapidly.

Some days during his summers in Idaho, my father’s job was to repair equipment. One day he had to work on the camp’s Jeep. They didn’t have a car lift in the forestry camp, so the Jeep was driven onto planks over a pit, then the men worked underneath it. Apparently, the planks were not very secure, and it was fortunate that the Jeep did not crush the mechanics below. According to my father, the foreman did a lot of cussing when he discovered the rickety set up.

My father’s goal with his summer employment was to earn enough money to cover his college tuition and books for the following school year, and he succeeded. (Of course, he told me frequently that his annual tuition at the University of Washington was $600 in those days—less than books alone would be today.)

For his room and board during college, my father traded off between living and home and living at the fraternity house. When he lived at home, he didn’t pay rent, but what young college man wants to live with his parents? After a quarter, he was usually chomping at the bit to leave.

At the fraternity house, he worked as a short-order cook in the kitchen to cover his living expenses. That’s where he learned to baste eggs and make such yummy pancakes! But after a quarter there, he was ready for the easier life at home.

It’s hard for me to believe my father was ever a 19- to 21-year-old college student facing danger, whether the danger came from fire or from falling Jeeps. I was born before he was 23, just a few years after his fire-fighting summers. He always seemed cautious to me, even when I was a young child. Maybe that was just the face he showed his daughter. Maybe it was the maturity of becoming a parent.

All these memories run through my head as I listen to the evening news. I mourn the deaths of the young firefighters as well as my father’s death. I regret the destruction of some beautiful parts of the nation. And I remember my own small connections to the newsworthy events of the moment.

What recent news stories have hit you close to home?

Kindergarten Show and Tell

My brother, about kindergarten age

My brother, about kindergarten age

My youngest sibling was in kindergarten the year I started college. When I came home from Middlebury College for Christmas my freshman year, this brother had a favor he wanted.

“Would you come to Show and Tell with me?” he asked.

“Okay,” I responded, somewhat surprised—why did I need to go with him to Show and Tell? “What are you taking for Show and Tell?”

“You!” he said. Maybe it was unusual for a kindergartener to have a sibling in college, but I didn’t think I was that much of an oddity.

I wasn’t sure what five- and six-year-olds would want to know about college, but I agreed. I could handle them, I thought—I’m a college student.

On the appointed day, I went to kindergarten. I had prepared a few remarks about living in a dorm and going to classes in buildings all over campus and studying really hard. Topics suitable for children still going to G-rated movies. And after a semester of Political Science with a professor who used the Socratic method of instruction, I figured I could field any questions a little kid could throw at me.

When I arrived at my brother’s classroom, I found I was not the only entertainment for their Show and Tell. Some child had brought a new toy, and the little girl who lived across the street from us had brought her Golden Retriever, Macdougall, on a leash manned by her father.

The kids all milled around the dog. “Ooh! He’s so soft!” they said of his fur. He wagged his tail and licked everyone. It was instant love on all sides.

When Show and Tell began, Macdougall went first. More tail wags and dog slobber. More oohs and aahs.

Then the toy.

Finally, my brother introduced me, and I gave my little spiel about college, while the kids looked bored or ogled the dog. “Does anyone have any questions?” I asked when I finished.

One little boy raised his hand.

“Yes?” I said.

“Can we pet the dog some more?” he asked.

So I yielded the floor to Macdougall and his owner for another round of adoration.

When have you been upstaged? How did you handle it?

Before the Good Ones Are Taken

My sister about the time I left home for college

My sister about the time I left home for college

I mentioned last week that I left home for college about the time my sister turned nine. She soon found out that she missed me more than she thought she would.

Shortly after I arrived at Middlebury College, my sister wrote me a letter. I don’t have the letter any more, but it made its way into family lore, so I remember the gist of it:

Dear Theresa,

How are you? I am fine. How is college? Fourth grade is fine.

Do you have a boyfriend yet? If not, you’d better hurry up and get one before all the good ones are taken.

Love, R——

Now there are several ironies in this letter. The first, of course, is the presumption of a nine year old giving me advice, although I might agree that I needed some advice in this area of my development at age seventeen. The greater irony, however, is that my sister’s and my romantic relationships during our college years and beyond were remarkably parallel.

No, I did not find a boyfriend in my early college days. In fact, I did not acquire one at all during college. Maybe I let the good ones of Freshman Week pass me by.

My sister and brother congratulating me when I finally nabbed "the good one."

My sister and brother congratulating me on the day I finally nabbed “a good one.”

When I started law school, both my sister and my younger brother were convinced that the only reason I was continuing my education was to get married. They told many and sundry friends that Theresa was headed to Stanford to find a husband. Finding a job was a distinct secondary goal, in their minds.

And I did find a boyfriend in law school.

Reader, I married him.

So not all the good ones were taken in the freshman year of college. There were a few good ones left for the picking in graduate school.

Not only did I find a husband in law school, but so did my sister. She also, despite her earlier advice to me, did not grab “a good one” in college, but waited until graduate school and married a law school classmate of hers. There were a few good ones left for her also.

The moral of the story is: Do not listen to a nine year old for romantic advice. Wait until she’s twelve or thirteen.

Another moral: Find your good one in your own time. (And mine is still a good one.)

What relationships in your past now cause you to laugh?

The Summer Between High-School and College: A Giant Gap

There was a story on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition show on July 16, 2013, about “summer melt.” These are the students who say in spring when they graduate from high school that they are going to college in the fall, but they do not actually enroll when autumn comes. The “summer melt” is as high as 40% for students who plan to enroll in community colleges – mostly urban, lower income students.

This is a serious problem, and I urge readers to listen to the NPR story.

But that problem is not my topic today. My topic is how two words in the NPR broadcast triggered memories of my summer between high school and college. The Morning Edition story mentioned a “giant gap” between high school and college, when neither the high schools nor the colleges feel responsible for the kids.

“Giant gap.”

That’s exactly how I felt in the summer of 1973, after my high school graduation and before I started at Middlebury College. I recall feeling completely finished with one phase of my life, but unconnected to my future.

I was in a giant, carefree gap. Nothing left over from my past school years. Nothing yet begun on my next responsibilities.

I was not working. “She should take the summer off before college,” one of my parents said. “She can help with the little kids at the lake,” that same or the other parent said.

View of dock from cabin deck, Coeur d'Alene Lake, circa 1972

View of dock from cabin deck, Coeur d’Alene Lake, circa 1972

My parents owned a vacation cabin on Coeur d’Alene Lake in Idaho by then, and my mother planned to spend most of the summer there with my younger brothers and sister. My father would commute on weekends.

It was an idyllic way to spend three months. We traveled back and forth to our home in Richland, Washington, every few weeks, but most of the summer we spent on the lake. We went down to the dock in mid-morning and stayed there until mid-afternoon, swimming and waterskiing and eating. (For more on summers on Coeur d’Alene Lake see here and here.)

I lay on the dock, small waves from boat wakes lapping against the wood, rocking me gently into stupor. Cerulean sky above, sapphire lake around me, green firs on the distant shore. Life was perfect.

And I knew it. I knew life would never be so good again.

Now, in my yoga classes, when the instructor says during the relaxation and meditation phase, “Think of a safe place where you are happy,” I remember that summer on the lake.

There have been good times in my life since 1973, of course, but never a time without a purpose. Never a “giant gap” between phases of my life.

The summer between college and law school, I worked. The summer between law school and starting my first job as an attorney, I had to take the bar exam. My maternity leaves – gaps of another type – were consumed with baby care.

Even when moving from work into retirement, I went immediately into a mediation training program and launched into writing a book. I made my own obligations, but they were obligations nonetheless.

So now I look back on that “giant gap” with a sigh. I realize even more how fortunate I was to have that carefree summer.

Unlike the students in the NPR story, I did not have any problems distracting me from starting college as I planned. No worries about financial aid, no fears about doing college-level work, no concerns that I should get a job to help my family.

I was simply grateful for my “giant gap,” knowing I might never have another.

Have you ever had a gap period? Was it a positive or negative time in your life?

Working Through the Generations: Happy 80th Birthday to My Father

I’ve written before that I am a lot like my mother. But I developed my attitudes toward work by watching my father.

My earliest memories of my father at work date back to when I was in pre-school. When he was in graduate school earning his Ph.D. in metallurgy, he worked a variety of jobs and studied at home in the evenings. Some of the other graduate students had wives who worked, but my father was determined that his wife would stay home with my brother and me.

MC900326236My father’s desk was a tilted drafting table he had made himself, large enough to hold full-size blueprints or several textbooks at a convenient angle (this was long before personal computers). During the day, my brother and I played house underneath the table. But when Daddy came home, we had to evacuate and be quiet so he could study. My mother made it clear that helping Daddy study was important for all of us.

MC900017013One of the jobs my father had during graduate school was as a butcher at the neighborhood market. When my mother walked to the store for groceries, my brother and I rode our tricycles beside her. At the store, I saw my father behind the meat counter covered in a bloodstained white apron. It seemed a yucky job, but his hard work impressed me even then. (He still can get the best steaks and roasts from any meat department in any grocery store – he makes friends with every butcher he meets.)

After he completed his degree, my father returned to his engineering role, and soon was promoted into management. Then he worked even harder. He left home before we children were awake, and returned just in time for dinner.

MC900226834He traveled all over the world for his job, presenting papers at nuclear engineering conferences and touring production and research facilities in the U.S. and abroad. He had to cancel one business trip near the time my mother was going to give birth to my youngest brother, so he’d be home when the baby came. He wasn’t very happy about the scheduling conflict . . . particularly when the baby appeared earlier than expected, so he could have made the trip.

My father brought home stories from his job about his bosses and co-workers. As I grew older, I could tell when things were going well for him at work and when they weren’t. Usually, when he wasn’t happy about his job, it was because of corporate politics or budget cuts. Or because someone wasn’t behaving as ethically as my father thought they should be.

I learned from his stories. I learned that doing a good job meant working hard, doing the right thing, and doing the best work you could.

As my father’s jobs became more demanding, my mother raised four children. She volunteered as a school librarian for several years at a Catholic grade school. As the head librarian, she could have taken a salary, but my father claimed it would be a conflict of interest because he was on the school board at the time.

I don’t think he wanted his wife to work for pay. In his mind, it was his responsibility to support our family, and he would meet that obligation. My mother hadn’t worked when he was in graduate school, and she wouldn’t work even after the kids no longer needed her full-time.

Yet, though I was female, as I grew up, I knew my father expected me to be able to earn my own living after I finished my schooling. He paid for my undergraduate and law degrees from excellent institutions. After I graduated, however, I would be on my own.

Well, I surprised myself and got married before I got my law degree. But I still expected to work after graduation. I received my J.D. in 1979, and started work as a new attorney immediately after passing the bar exam.

I had never held a long-term job before, only summer jobs during college and law school.

So I only knew one way to handle a job, and that was how my father had handled his – by devoting as much time to the job as it took to finish it, by being honest in what I said and did, and by working for the best result I could achieve. His stories came back to me as I confronted problems in my work.

And when my kids got old enough to understand, I told them stories. As an employment lawyer and Human Resources director, I found plenty of stories of my own to tell about people who didn’t do what they should at work.

“Don’t ever do that!” I told my children, as I told them about someone lied about an absence from work, or stole from the company, or harassed another employee, or did any of the myriad of dumb things that people do at work (as they do elsewhere in their lives).

My children are now grown and working in careers of their own. As far as I know, they have been good employees. I hope they learned something from their father and me, as I learned from my father.

This week my father turns 80. He has been retired for many years, though he is still an active volunteer. He built a good legacy in his work and in his family – a legacy I am proud to be a part of, and one I hope his descendants will continue into future generations.

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Writing Across Time

The Middlebury College Admissions Office uses interviews by alumni volunteers to supplement the online application process. As one of the volunteers, I’ve been talking to Middlebury applicants this month, and of course I have told them about my experiences at college.

One of the things I talk to applicants about is the 4-1-4 academic calendar at Middlebury. It is an unusual program, although probably not unique. The college has a fall and spring semester, each four months long during which most students take four courses. But students spend the month of January taking just one course. It is an opportunity to explore a topic or interest in depth. Many people take a course completely outside their major.

Young Student Making NotesI knew I wouldn’t major in English or creative writing (why is a story for another day), but I’ve always had an interest in writing. I needed an English course to graduate, and I had placed out of the usual freshman writing programs. So during the January term my freshman year at Middlebury, I decided to take a creative writing class, which would let me write what I wanted, but would also fulfill the graduation requirement.

Middlebury in snow

Middlebury College in snow, courtesy of the Admissions Office

I spent the month of January 1974 writing fiction and learning to ski. It was my first experience with a life devoted to writing, an experience I only recaptured after retiring from corporate life.

I still have the file of pieces I wrote that month. Recently, I’ve gone back to one of the short stories. I think it has potential, and I want to re-write and polish it.

Unfortunately, technology was quite limited in 1974. I wrote my stories in longhand, then typed them on mimeograph stencils. I turned in the stencils to my professor, who had them (along with other students’ work) copied for the class to read. I was not a good typist in those days, and the mimeographs I have of my stories are filled with typos and cross-outs and overstrikes.

Now, of course, students could simply email their work to the class, or upload it to a common file directory, or use a number of other technological solutions for instantaneous communication.

Technology has dated the plot of the story I wrote as well.

In my story, the main character and her best friend from high school have grown apart in just the few months since my protagonist left for a college far away from home. They have had little connection in the months since they separated. Their worlds are going to separate farther as each pursues a different dream. The theme was certainly true to my life, although the specific circumstances my character had to deal with were different from mine.

When I wrote this story in 1974, there were no computers. No email. No Facebook. No Twitter. Secrets could easily be kept from far-away friends, because there was no social media to make instant communication possible around the globe.

So one of the issues I am wrestling with as I begin to re-write this story is whether to keep the time in the 1970s, or to update it to the second decade of the 21st century. How do people keep secrets about their social life in today’s world? How do you keep your friends from sharing what you might wish to keep private? Does my plot have to change if I update the story? I at least have to explain why my  main character doesn’t know what her best friend has been up to for several months.

Readers, what do you think? Should I update the story to today’s world, or keep it in the more controlled world of the 1970s?