Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Channeling St. Francis

          It's the day before Thanksgiving and I'm happy to say the preparations are complete.  All of the food's been purchased and put away.  The cranberries I cooked this morning are cooling in the fridge.  The autumn linens are clean and at the ready.  It'll only be me this year...well, me and a bunch of my little friends, but nevertheless, it's nice to know we can all tuck in and enjoy a peaceful holiday tomorrow.
          As you may know, I have a small passel of cats.  (I recently asked my vet what's the highest number you can have without totally messing up the domestic dynamic.  Without hesitation, Dr. Barden replied, "One.")  I don't consider four to be too many and can't imagine life without my naughty kitten who has grown into an affectionate and entertaining little adult.  Each one has a buddy and they often trade playmates, so all in all, it's a peaceable kingdom around my house.
          Still mealtime makes for an interesting event as Jhoti is on a diet and needs to have her food rationed -- and she has to be locked in my bedroom so her brother and sister don't steal her tasty little morsels.  My other three kids eat their own dry kibble, but Sophia needs a few treats on the top to entice her to eat.  Of course Aditi won't be left out, so she always gets one or two in her bowl as well.  And then there's Forest who needs some soft food twice a day to keep him well hydrated.  He's more than willing to share, so I need to make sure he gets first dibs.
          After nearly a year, we've got it down to a science.  I don't know how you parents of multiple kids do it!  All I have to do is scoop a bit of food into a bowl, or pop the top of a can and add warm water. 
          Mind you...I'm not complaining.

          When I was a teenager I thought about becoming either a teacher or a veterinarian.  Although the idea of caring for kittens and puppies was enticing, the image of helping sick or injured pets made my heart ache.  I grew up with dogs and when I was thirteen, my parents brought home a black miniature Schnauzer we named Cinder.  Dr. Barden was our vet back then, too, and our little fella soon earned the nickname "Mr. Perfect," for that's exactly what he was.  Loving and loyal, Cinder was the sweetest dog I've ever known.  He was incredibly smart and patient beyond his dog years. 
          Once when he was flea ridden from a trip to South Carolina, Cinder rested good-naturedly in my arms while I used the attachment to our vacuum cleaner to suck those little devils from his tummy and legs.  Gazing at me with his chocolate brown eyes, he seemed to say, "Thank you, Katie, I feel much better.  Now move that thing a little to the left.  There are a few you missed on my haunches."
          My first pet as an adult arrived when I taught fourth grade in Troy, Ohio.  Chuck the Hermit Crab was a gift from the Girl Scouts.   And even though I couldn't cuddle him or take him for a walk, it was nice to have something to nurture after a long day at school.  Alas, Chuck didn't survive the move back to Toledo, but he was the inspiration for a host of gerbils, hamsters, and a guinea pig I kept in my classroom at Greenwood.
          When I got past my fear of cats, I adopted a fierce kitten I named Scout who Dr. Barden and I still talk about to this day.  She was sweet to me, but to most everyone else, she was a hellion in the first degree.  Mollie came along as a playmate, then ten years later, I serendipitously came across Carly, a red tabby who loved to chatter at the birds and curl up with me while I read a book.  All three of them have gone to kitty heaven, but the lessons they taught me about care giving when I was tired or cranky, sacrifice when Scout developed diabetes and I had to give her shots every twelve hours for three years, and letting go when it came time to make the difficult end of life choices have made me much more compassionate and empathetic.
          Now more than ever, I can't imagine my life without pets.

          St. Francis is the patron saint of animals and the environment.  I'm not Catholic, but I've studied some of his teachings and he and I agree on one thing.  We both believe that nature is the mirror of the sacred.  To touch the earth is to touch the face of all creation.  To nurture an animal is the closest I can come to holding a part of the divine in my arms.
          For many years I've looked for a statue of St. Francis to place in my backyard garden.  I'm fairly picky about the details and didn't want a figure who had creepy eyes (i.e. no irises carved into the stone).  To no avail I looked high and low for a two or three foot fellow who would symbolically bless my home with love.  Last June I was surprised and delighted when my neighbor, Karole, presented me with a St. Francis she found in a home she had been preparing for sale.
          "I know you hate creepy eyes," she grinned.  "And he doesn't have them!"
          Sure enough, St. Francis was a little rough around the edges, but his eyes shone through the peeling paint.  A little wire brushing later and he was ready for a new coat of sandstone finish.  All summer long he sat in Carley's garden that's filled with red, yellow, and orange flowers.  This fall I knew I'd better bring him back inside.  Now every time I drive into the garage, St. Francis greets me with a smile while he watches over all of my garden goodies, tucked away for the winter.

          I've taken care of animals for as long as I can remember.  When Scout was a baby, I volunteered at the Humane Society and prepped cats who were taken to nursing homes as therapy animals.  In 2009 I fostered a couple of litters of kittens and oh, what a labor of love that was!  At one time I had ten felines in the house, but not in the same room.  The porch was dubbed the kitten spa and there I watched over the first litter as they flourished under the watchful eye of their mama, Hazel.  I was blessed when no one wanted the black male kitten and Forest became a very welcome addition to my happy trio.  Dr. Barden and I call him Mr. Perfect, too,...and he certainly is. 
          Once Forest's litter was grown, Hazel took care of another group of mangy little kittens who had been abandoned.  Sure enough, in a few weeks they were healthy and socialized, quickly finding forever homes in the Toledo area.  Then Miss Hazel found her way into one of my friend's hearts and she lived the rest of her days pampered and well-loved.
          In addition to my own fur kids, I often pet sit for friends.  In the wintertime, I feed the myriad of birds that flutter around the neighborhood.  All year long I keep an eye out for hungry squirrels, too.  The other day when I came home from pet food shopping, I found my squirrelly pal, Sam, waiting for me in the tree near my front door.  (He and I developed a friendship this summer when he visited me whenever I ate a meal on my front porch swing.  Fearless and bold, Sam often scampered right up to me and sat on his hind legs, begging for a bit of whatever was on my plate.)
          "Do you want an apple?" I asked him.
          Sam immediately jumped down and ran to the driveway where I'll often toss a core or the tops of strawberries.
          "Hold on, pal," I smiled.  "I'll get it for you."
          As I walked toward the entryway, Sam eagerly scampered after me.  When I had sliced a great big, juicy red delicious and headed outside, Sam was waiting with his paws pressed to the door.  He wouldn't take the apple out of my hand, but was excited to grab the core for now and see that I tossed the other pieces by the tree for later.  Chattering a "thank you," Sam ran up my neighbor's maple and nibbled on his afternoon treat.  Seeing Sam's elation, I know I'll enjoy keeping that kid fat and sassy all winter long. 
          Just this morning when I put a fresh cake of suet in the cage that hangs in a tree just outside the dining room window, the blue jays and sparrows and woodpeckers all dive-bombed it mere seconds after I came inside.  Forest and Aditi were an attentive audience as the birds twittered and darted here and there, catching seeds and sticky suet in their beaks.  It was fascinating for me to witness as well...and to watch my cats watching the birds, their eyes wide, their jaws chattering and clicking in excitement.
          What a joy to know that my Thanksgiving celebration will include feeding the birds and the squirrels and even the deer in the wood when I take a walk tomorrow afternoon.  They're good company and always enjoy whatever treat I offer.  And I always love being with them as they reveal to me the often unseen mysteries of nature.   I suppose channeling St. Francis has allowed me to tap into my inner Snow White once again so that I can experience the quiet wonders of the forest.  This year, I find that's one of the things for which I'm most grateful.
          May you and yours have a wonder-filled Thanksgiving!

With Lily, one of Forest's sisters, on her adoption day.