There Is a Season
To everything, turn, turn, turn.
There is a season, turn, turn, turn.
And a time to every purpose under heaven.
A time to be born, a time to die.
We never thought Sophie would be our last cat standing. Our almost eighteen-year-old aging feline, still a debutante in her own mind, has now bid us farewell. Her litter mate Tucker died on the operating table a few years back during a routine tooth cleaning. Sneezer’s life was squeezed out of him around the same time by a wasting cancer. Pandora just faded away from kidney failure. Zoé broke through the thin ice of the pond. Frisky crawled under a shrub and curled up. We are without a cat for the first time since 1986.
My friend Ashton has almost made a living creating laser-cut tombstones for our pets who are all buried down the slope of the back yard under the shade of a muscle tree. He cuts pieces off a leftover corian countertop and then inscribes them with names and dates along with any memorial words we choose. Tucker is the “Big Footed Boy,” Sneezer is known for “He Never Met a Lap He Didn’t Like,” and Hank the Golden Retriever will always be remembered as “Best Boy.” Now Sophie needs a memorial. She was once a zaftig girl topping the scales at about thirteen pounds. When she died, she was less than half of that, a bag of bones with a faint meow.
Ashton usually works in wood, and was my woodturning mentor when I was learning how to follow the bevel of the gouge as it “engaged” a spinning block of wood. The word “engaged” always captivates me, such a formal expression when you think of connecting with people, pets, places, even sunsets and photographs of the natural world, erupting volcanoes, the birth of a giraffe, a pod of whales swimming in unison, the slide of penguins down a sheet of ice into the sea. You’re engaged with something beyond yourself, and you are transformed, changed, in how you view your life and your place in the world at large.
I’m not a religious person in any traditional sense, but for lack of a better word I’ve felt transformed whenever I’ve taken a beloved pet at the end of its life to the vet. Early this morning Sophie and I engaged one another in our usual pre-breakfast banter. She still had a voice and gave me a small peek into her mind. We didn’t have an in-depth discussion about the clumsiness of dogs, why cats are aloof and mysterious, or which flavor of canned Friskies is tastiest. Maybe I misread her, but I think I heard her say nothing really hurt, it’s just a touch of the listless flu. Then a couple of complaints about missing breakfast. Appetite was hiding elsewhere. She did play a bit in her water bowl, stirring it up with one paw and making a mess on the floor during the night. She was always a late-night gal and must have pulled her worn-out body from her cradle to caper about on the warm floor tiles. Although she had a calico’s mottles, she was really one of Eliot’s Jellicle Cats who have moonlight eyes and dance by the Jellicle Moon.
I normally don’t turn the heat up very high, but Sophie liked a warm spot. When we first put the tiles down over a maze of looping electric wires, the installer said the heat would migrate out to the peripheral tiles that were outside the grid. Sophie never slept on those particular tiles. I can almost hear her saying, “Yeah, yeah, I hear you, but this is the happening tile.”
When we drove to the vet clinic, I imagined that she was preparing an apology for her bad breath. She was fastidious about keeping clean and never had an odor till now. After all, Jellicles “make their toilette and take their repose:/Jellicles wash behind their ears,/Jellicles dry between their toes.” I was letting my wandering mind go astray, since Sophie had no reason to care what impression she made on anyone. She never had before, so why now? When the vet returned with the lab results, I was and I wasn’t prepared when she told me the blood work was not good. It wasn’t just not good. None of the results were even close to the normal zone. Sophie didn’t seem to mind or even show any interest, although I think she must have taken pride in knowing she was not normal. She was content just lying in the lower half of her carrier. I had removed the top so the vet tech could lift her out earlier to go to the lab. She looked now as though she were sprawled out on a pillow while floating in a boat enjoying a leisurely afternoon on the pond. If she wasn’t happy, she wasn’t unhappy, either.
As the vet did what she had to do, I scratched Sophie’s head and told her she was the queen of cats. In a few minutes Sophie peacefully and gradually stopped being Sophie. I was again transformed. Her head was in my hand, and neither I nor she, I think, felt her slip from one side of the barrier to the other. However we want to think of the moment of transition, the passing, the transformation, I told the vet that we all should be so lucky when our times come. On the way home, I continued to think of what I want on her tombstone. Perhaps a simple HRH, since I will always think of her as regal.
Another kind of transformation happens when a gouge shapes a rough blank of wood into something more beautiful and often more useful such as a bowl to hold oranges that have come all the way from China. I also know how to turn a block of wood into a vase, a beautiful vase that will hold Sophie’s ashes. Her vase, like her, will not be normal. It will have striking grain patterns, just as she did, colors that catch the sun on a body once so smooth and lustrous.
Ashton lives to make things. Bowls, platters, stair spindles, handles, huge abstract spiders on stilts have all come off his lathe. When I first partnered with him, we made oversize pieces for someone’s outdoor chess board. Duplicating sixteen pawns so they all look alike was harder than I imagined. Ashton was a demanding teacher and insisted that I keep turning till I got them right. I eventually did, but I also know where there’s an army of misbegotten pawns who make up a legion of rejects.
Like me, Ashton always has a pride of cats and a couple of dogs wandering about his place. From the looks on their faces, the dogs must have opinions about the cats. And I imagine the cats feel the same way about the dogs, although they usually ignore them. Ashton is also well-known for his opinions and is not reluctant to share them with anyone, including the dogs and cats. He once told me, “If I had my way, I’d be out there in the shop all the time turning wood. I wake up in the middle of the night, my legs twitching like a hound chasing rabbits in his sleep.”
Ashton’s obsession with wood, as with dogs and cats, came early in life. He whittled twigs like the rest of us and always enjoyed his boyhood dreams surrounded by dogs and cats that piled into his bed. He learned to work with wood out of necessity. His daddy was a sheriff who busied himself putting people in jail in a small Georgia town when Ashton was a boy in the 1960s. The old man didn’t have time for house maintenance and ignored a worn-out screen door hanging on its hinges. The house endured neglect but didn’t tolerate it much. As a twelve-year old, Ashton learned to scream pretty loud when the door finally lost it and slipped off plumb, yanking some pain out of the boy’s mouth. It got the attention it needed by ripping some skin from Ashton’s bare foot. The dogs and cats hadn’t seen this side of Ashton before. Fixing that door turned Ashton from minor-league whittler into carpenter and later master fixer of about everything mechanical.
I had been butchering wood for a few years before I joined Ashton’s woodturning club. I grew up with a hammer in my hand, but had no experience turning. I started with a mini-lathe or baby spinner. I outgrew that pair of shoes pretty quickly, especially when someone asked what kind of lathe I wanted when I grew up. I came of age when I bought my Canadian-made One-Way big daddy 2,000-lb behemoth that had to be bolted to the concrete floor to keep it from galloping down the drive.
Ashton had me under his care and was determined to make me into a competent—if not good—turner. His first bit of advice was, “Never waste good time on bad wood.” “But what is bad wood?” I asked. Turners use “integrity” to describe wood that is solid and won’t crack apart easily. Punky means bad news to a turner. It’s wood that has gone soft on you, tipped into the mushy and highly impressionable world where your thumbprint can leave a sizable indent. It’s not dust yet, but it’s getting there. Then there’s spalted wood which gives the wood interesting spirals of color and design. Like Sophie, it’s the calico cat of the wood world. Spalting is usually caused by worms looking for food in all the wrong places. Someone said spalted wood reminded them of a modern painting or something similar to what they saw in the mixing bowl when their mothers whipped chocolate sauce into the pancake mix for that special Sunday morning treat. Long streaks and ropes of color wiggle their way along old worm passages as though they are lost miners tunneling with no sense of direction. Usually, but not always, the worms are missing. I was in the next stall at a woodturning class once and was sprayed by worm juice when the guy beside me touched his gouge to a turning piece of spalted maple I like spalted wood but know enough to be cautious about where it teeters, sometimes a place between an exquisite corpse and one that needs burying.
Wood has that magical quality that none of the rest of us share. It’s still animate and malleable even though it’s no longer alive and growing. Unlike cold metal that needs the heat of the forge to resurrect it, wood is a solid ghost that continues to breathe long after being cut. It is open to transformation. It bleeds and moans when sawed. It calls out for you to touch it, to run your hands over it, to insert your finger into its collar when it becomes a short-necked vase. It has its own holy concupiscence, flirting with you to revere and fondle it. Pieces of “textured” wood like bird’s eye or flame maple, feathered crotch walnut, or lustered ebony stretch out to be kissed.
My wood stove often goes cold because I hate sentencing most wood to the fires. I’m a reluctant inquisitor shy of even burning white oak which usually has little grain interest and is shunned for lacking “character.” Of course, it has character! Wood is a shape shifter, wearing different masks as the good pieces make their way through a long and varied life. When it’s not happy looking at itself in the mirror, it changes costume. Sometimes it changes for the better, other times not. It has a mind of its own and can bend, twist, and warp if not given proper guidance. Sophie could be ornery like this at times, too. She got banished from the house once when she peed in my wife Jody’s large leather bag. Sophie could reform, too, and knew how to worm herself back into your heart. The wood was like Sophie at times. If you knew how it behaved, you could nudge it into a good transformation. Nothing better than taking a rough bark limb and shaping it into a natural-edge bowl. But you always have to keep a keen eye on the wood as well as Sophie. Both could crack at their seams, blow apart with gusto, and inflict deep scratches. Wood turners and cat handlers wear protective clothing for a reason.
Even the tools we use to push it into a higher esthetic have their own beauty and utility. Shapers cut decorative edges, planers make wood anything but plain, mortisers and tenon cutters join it in the tight bonds of matrimony, a marriage unlikely to fall apart. Even when large pieces of wood are reduced to handheld bites, those little scraps morph into great fan pulls, pen blanks, and handles for knick knacks such as cheese cutters or bottle openers. Some form remains hidden even in the scraps.
I like to think that woodworking is one small way of keeping death at bay. I once took a class on making wooden boxes taught by a fellow named Michael. We made all kinds of boxes—square, round, squat, and tall. I enjoyed inhaling the aroma of the cherry as shavings peeled off like an apple’s skin. My favorite boxes were the vase-shaped ones, hollowed out and capped with a top that threaded onto a neck. Making the grooves is called “chasing threads” and is fun but tricky to do. Michael showed us how to make wooden bolts with threaded ends. Cool enough in itself, but child’s play when it comes to reversing the thread for a wooden eight-sided bolt. Keep your angle of attack steady, don’t vary the pressure, know when to let go. We were beside ourselves with enthusiasm. An occasional nut would find a good fit with its ideal bolt partner, but most ties ended without satisfying union.
Michael touched again and again on what a box is—and perhaps isn’t—and how it can be used. If you want something to hold your pencils, you can go to Wal-Mart and get a practical plastic container complete with a top. But what about something you can create that will hold thoughts and emotions and will call up memories and help you reflect on times both joyous and sad? Such a box was what Michael wanted us to make.
He told us a story of a special vessel he made for a mother he was close to. She was grieving over her schizophrenic daughter who took herself out of this world for reasons no one really knew. Michael made her a small vase with a threaded lid and filled it with the thorns of a rose bush. The idea was that this lady would open the lid on days when her grief eased and she was able to enjoy bits of life again and toss away a thorn. Eventually, the box would be empty.
In my own shop, I often found my Old English Sheepdog Bobbie lying about in the shavings. She always brought a settled feel to the place, as though it were a retreat, a place of comfort, where she could watch and doze in contentment. She did leave, though, whenever I turned on any noisy equipment such as the planer. Even my shop ear protectors couldn’t muffle that roar. But she was soon back when the noise softened. Bobbie loved to lounge around, lulled to sleep by the hum of the lathe that ribboned off strips of green wood as it spun round. You could shave with the gouges, sharpened to the point they could peel the wood away in cat whiskers.
When the kittens Sophie and Tucker joined me in the woods, they also liked to hang out, often perched on a table to watch silently. Other dogs and cats became shop companions over the years, but only Sophie seemed to enjoy being there as much as Bobbie. In her dotage, Sophie developed “old woman’s warts,” as one female vet calls them, on her head. She had her favorite spot in the shop, a kind of kitty easy chair. From there, the sun warmed her as I think she dreamed of the many birds and squirrels she stalked and studied over the years. I like to think all malice had aged out of her and that those birds and squirrels had become old acquaintances in fun. I grew alarmed, though, when I first noticed that she suddenly had a waist. Her roundness had concealed her curvaceous features up to then. I heard the dry rattle of old age. The smell of decay lingered about her. She maintained silence, though, just looking up at me and meowing no clues as to what ailed her.
I came to this wooded land in eastern West Virginia over twenty years ago after my wife Lilian died. I needed a new beginning and no longer belonged in the neat and orderly urban neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia. I felt wild and raw and would rouse myself from nightmares that demanded a new awakening far from that once comfortable home. I packed up Bobbie and found a place along the Lost River. It was a footprint of land whose previous owner had left a blank slate. When I first saw the property I saw many possibilities. Some months later my doctor asked if I had been doing any strenuous exercise that might explain the bursitis in my shoulder. I told him I had been rooting out brush and digging like a sapper. Decks, gazebos, and pergolas needed holes for footers and they didn’t come cheap. My digging iron, as long as an Olympic javelin and as heavy as a dark-matter shot-put ball, was at least an inch shorter than when I bought it.
I stepped into a world of rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They were all separate into themselves, and I was trying to make sense of them by giving them meanings that shored up and redefined my own shattered views of the world. I had survived warfare and Lilian’s death, but I was adrift and had no direction. I was willing and able to dig deep, to toss dirt between my legs like a dog in search of the elusive Other. Be it gopher or gold, I needed to find and touch the loss that lived below the surface.
One of the first structures I built was a pergola in the front yard. I loved watching Norm Abrams’s New Yankee Workshop program on PBS. In a presentation stretching over three consecutive weeks, he built an elaborate and complicated pergola, a garden structure related to a gazebo and made of oversized vertical posts, sturdy horizontal connectors with supporting cross beams and a heavy-duty open lattice on the top. I felt like a slave building the Egyptian pyramids, straining to wrestle the massive wooden posts into place. I dug the footers deep enough to find China and then rigged a ratchet contraption to pull the heavy posts upright. The digging iron earned its keep as it cut into hard clay and pried up a field of rocks.
When I was finished, I bedded American kiwis at the base of each post. The pergola needed the strength of Atlas to support the kiwis when they are fully grown. My Herculean pergola would have impressed a professional weight lifter. The three female fruit bearers eventually twined their long and lithesome vines up the posts and through the latticework. Meanwhile the frolicsome male pollinator pursued them in huffs and puffs. The pergola beckoned as a garden wedding bed.
I placed a wind whirligig on the top, but it was quickly embraced and then engulfed by the passion of the vines. They were so unruly that a casual passerby had to take care so as not to be swept up into their arms. They vied with the fairy tale Jack-and-the-beanstalk rascal of unrestrained and rampant growth. Birds built nests in the foliage, and Bobbie stretched out in the shade underneath a swing I hung from one of the cross beams. One day Bobbie alerted me to mischief in the vines. A possum climbed up a post and was making unwanted advances on a bird nest. A pair of mocking birds revved up their engines and dive bombed the hapless possum into submission. He quickly surrendered and tried to flee by retreating down one of the posts. The trouble was that Bobbie awaited him with great enthusiasm and an open mouth. The critter eventually escaped, but not without providing us with a full afternoon of kiwi drama. Meanwhile, the vines continued to grow, but the flowers never developed into fruit, perhaps because the pollinator was still just a boy.
Felix, owner of Edible Landscape near Charlottesville, laughed when I asked him why I wasn’t getting any kiwis. “It’s all sexual maturity, my friend,” he explained. “You have to be patient. Things will change. That pollinator will grow up and be transformed into a man.” And he did. After seven years, something solid started to set on the vines. These shapes would grow into tart-sweet, fuzzy green fruit, a smaller version of their grocery store New Zealand cousins. Kiwis are sensitive souls and are overly susceptible to late chills of spring. Too cold and they refuse to make babies. Some years we were overrun with fruit; others, the vines were barren.
I moved from project to project, even attempting to build a barn on my own. The planning and the work were fun, but often beyond my skill level. Sophie liked to climb up on my drafting table and spread out. And she toddled out every day and took her vantage point at the worksite. I don’t know what she made of my progress when the walls wouldn’t rise alone with just me pushing them up. The roof rafters were impossible to best in a wrestling match. I needed to recognize my limits and to ask for help when I required it. And like Bobbie, I was getting older and could no longer ride the roof beam twenty feet above the ground.
All this outdoor work was changing me, too. My one suit refused to button, zip, or close. Shirts strangled my neck. I was no longer a pencil pusher, a pumper of floppy discs. Like the wood, I shape-shifted into a craftsman with calloused hands and invigorated stamina. I thought my new-found energy was limitless and would never wind down.
When Bobbie started having trouble getting up, I knew we were heading somewhere I didn’t think we’d ever be. I steadied her hind quarters as I walked her in the mornings. The turkey vultures, waking up and stretching their wings to dry, watched us from atop the ancient white oak in the back meadow. “Keep moving, girl, they’ve got their eyes on us,” I whispered to her. I let the old girl go too long and ended up having to help her in the middle of one night when her pain was too great. I spent most of that night digging the first of many pet graves. I had my powerful halogen lamps shining as I drove the digging iron into the ground. I wanted her safely deep in the earth where no predator could find her.
A cedar board first marked Bobbie’s grave. I used my router and a jig to cut in the words “A Good Dog” along with her name and dates. She had really been Lilian’s dog. She would lie at her feet back in Arlington or rest her slobbery chin on a window sill to watch squirrels and birds. She was supposed to live forever, as was Lilian. Neither did. Now her marker is made of corian, although the cedar board is also still there. Sneezer, Pandora, Frisky, Tucker, Bertie, and the Hankster are also all there, as is Zoé, the aloof slate-gray feline empress whose name means life in Greek.
Now I have to dig another hole, this time for Sophie. As her namesake famously sang, “You gonna miss your big fat momma one of these days.” Sadly, one of these days is upon me. These cold days when the ground is still frozen are not good for digging. I don’t want to do it.
When I walked the yard the other morning, I stopped by the pergola. The bare kiwi vines are still winter-brown but should green up in a month or so and give us a good harvest this year, if the frost doesn’t nip the flowers. The fruit ripens in late August and is a welcome treat when the weather is hot and I’m mowing. I just maneuver the John Deere in that direction. Shut down the engine and pick a few kiwis. A huge flat boulder in front of the pergola offers me a seat where I can look out toward the big oak where the vultures used to greet Bobbie and me.
After many years, the pergola is showing signs of age, as am I. It woke me up one morning groaning as the wind blew through it. I groaned back with stiffness as arthritis wouldn’t let me tie my shoes. Sophie just sat on the floor in front of me and said nothing. That pergola and I were a call-and-response duo. Old Mr. Pergola then began slouching a tad north by northwest since he had the prevailing winds at his back. I also reminded myself to stand up straight and to square my shoulders. Foundations were shifting under middle age creakiness and all those full rounded vines. When my pile of bones and his heap of lumber slanted a bit too far, alarm bells went off. We both needed righting. My leaning tower shouted “Fix Me Now Or Else!” Like Ashton’s screen door, my patient knew how to make me jump. I saw my lady chiropractor, and my pergola saw his winch. With the help of a couple of oversized come-alongs, I forced that wayward temple to mend its ways and avoid disaster. I laughed remembering that I thought I had built something to withstand the ages.
I’ll have to call Ashton, that Falstaff of a man, big, boisterous, a lover of food and drink, and full of mischief. He’s a man who also has a soft spot for dogs and cats. I’ll feed him Falstaff’s line that the chimes have at last rung at midnight. He will stop whatever he’s doing and make me a marker for Sophie. She used to climb his pant leg and curl up in his ample lap. She was just about the size and texture of a kiwi fruit in a sea of his denim. I now have to think of the best words to describe her. Can’t call her Water Balloon any more since she lost so much weight. Maybe something to do with wisdom from her name’s Greek derivation. But Sophie never really showed traits of being particularly wise. A story floats about that might link her to an early, probably mythical saint, who died of grief after her three daughters were martyred during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. Although I can’t imagine associating Sophie with anything to do with martyrs, she once had her ear torn open by a marauding tom who lived just long enough to regret his violent ways with her. Up until now, it was her only encounter with a clear and present danger.
Unlike the saint, perhaps she didn’t die of any grief at all, just old age and disappointment. After all, what’s the point of living if your appetite has run away and you can’t stalk a clueless dove or catch an off-guard squirrel. Whatever determined that now is the time, I’ll remember her as my young shop cat, still a debutante, who sometimes grabbed a long ribbon of green apple-wood shaving coming off a bowl and played with it. Remembering Ashton’s advice, I wondered if she was wasting good time on bad wood. She teased the shaving for the longest time, pouncing on it, pulling it in close, giving it a chew, and then abandoning it before returning to the scene of her crime to begin the show anew. She studied the strip, watched for movement, gave it deliberation, and pounced with fierce cunning. She always waited for her opportunities. Many a mouse had felt her grip. The quality of her mercy was never strained. She was not wasting time. She was becoming a philosopher.
She deserves a good memorial inscription. She is worthy of more than anonymity in death, since she never suffered anything close to that in life. When I think of how she stalked that wood shaving, a thin translucent membrane still trembling with life, patience might be an apt name for her memorial, since hers was always rewarded. She sang the song of the Jellicles and saved herself for her final Jellicle Ball. She transformed herself and me along the way.