Dusty: Cat, Friend & Mouser Extraordinaire

Best friends - Dusty & I (circa 1970)

Dusty was a very special friend to me. He came into my life when I was 9 years old, born to a stray (who had adopted our family 2 years earlier) named Smoky. His mother had had 2 litters previous to his, but the tomcat got them all. This time, Dusty was the only one that escaped, because my father was able to hide him in the hayloft before it was too late.

Dusty was spoiled rotten by his mother Smoky, since she could devote herself solely to him. She was a great mother, and we watched with fascination as she eventually started to teach him all about the important hunt. She first brought home her catches and would eat it in front of him, allowing him to sniff and examine. Next, he would try nibbling on a mouse or shrew; he found he rather liked them. Once he got a taste of them, Smoky couldn't keep them coming fast enough! He literally stuffed himself, the little piggy! We would laugh, wondering how many today. I think the record was 5 mice she brought in, and all for her son. Eventually, she started bringing her prey home alive, and would present them to him and we'd see how he would play with them, and not know what to make of them, and then his mother would show him how it - the kill - was done. It was humane, really - cats take a mouse by the neck, make a quick bite, severing the spinal cord (or as my father would say when he witnessed it, the cat would do a coup de grĂ¢ce...) It was an amazing process to watch over a short time as Dusty was growing up. It's another story, but during this critical time, he lost his mother. But she was there long enough to help him grow up. He never forgot his lessons, and was an amazing mouser the rest of his long life.

Dusty and I hung out a lot.  We slept together, we hunted together, we played together, we took walks together.  He wasn't sure what to make of my horses, but he sometimes played chicken with them!  He was pretty brave, sniffing noses with Sunny a few times, considering how much bigger Sunny was compared to him.  He loved to show off his kills, and would often come trotting out of the pasture or woods, proudly carrying a mouse, vole, shrew, gopher, or other feline delicacy, for us to crow over.  I swear, he looked so proud every time!  We'd pause whatever we were doing, Mom would even come out of the house, and we'd watch with fascination as he went through the cat ritual:  play, torture, play some more, let the prey think they were escaping, then viola, execution!  He would usually eat the head first, which he particularly seemed to enjoy (BRAINS!)  He invariably would leave nothing but...the tail.  Sometimes, even when we weren't there as an audience, we would come home later to find a tail or two on the steps.

Dusty in his (doll) bed, getting ready to go to sleep...
I was very fortunate to be at my parents' home when Dusty passed away.  One night he wanted to go to bed, but couldn't get down the stairs on his own.  He was 18 now, and his arthritis was catching up to him.  I took him downstairs in my arms, and tucked him into the doll bed, his bed for so many years.  In the morning, he wasn't up at the top step rattling the door like usual.  I wasn't immediately alarmed since he had had a hard time getting downstairs the night before, so I went down to help him get back upstairs.  When I got to his bed, he was curled up like he was still sleeping.  But he wasn't sleeping anymore.  His beautiful body was already cold and stiff.  Dusty was gone, having crossed over the Rainbow Bridge.  I cried and cried like a baby that day.  It was the middle of the winter, so he had to be put in the shed until spring to be buried.  Wrapping him up and saying goodbye was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.  But I'm so glad despite the pain, that I was there with him to the end.  Eighteen years is a long time to be a friend to a cat, and I felt privileged to have been a friend to one named Dusty...


Butchering Day

On the chopping block...

I remember the last time my family butchered chickens.  I was three years old.

I had spent the summer wandering around our yard, curious about the woods, but afraid to explore them yet.

The smell:  hot water mixed with chicken blood and feathers in the old copper boiler...

Running around the adults as they dispatched bird after bird, I stayed away, keeping a distance so I could see, but not so close at to get in the way.  I was told "don't get close" - sharp knives, hot water, blood and guts.

My grandmother and mother took them after their heads were cut off and they were hung up to bleed out. Grandma and Mom did the butchering in the yard right outside the kitchen, between the house and woods, just east of the big tree swing.  They worked on a table of planks over some saw horses; the birds were gutted, sliced open and bare hand reaching in, organs pulled out.  Smokey the cat milled around not far away, hoping for some fresh giblets.  Next they were put in the hot water, to help with removing the feathers. Final step was rinsing them inside and out.  In the end, they had went from feathered friend, to Sunday dinner, all in an afternoon...

I didn't know it then, but it was a sort of initiation.  I now knew what fewer people know nowadays: Where my food comes from.  My family didn't do it to save the earth, or eat healthier, but because they needed to, to get by. Our family was able to help themselves by having a garden, some livestock, and skills to process them into healthy delicious food on our table. What a blessing!


Art on the Wing

Monarchs are old friends of mine. Our area being one of the main migration paths, I saw them arrive and leave every year as far back as I can remember. It really saddens me to hear of their plight.

As a little girl, wandering around the garden, pastures, and ditches of our property, I would come across them on the many milk weeds scattered around.  There was no missing them, with their bright colors; Deep oranges, dramatically-outlined by black, wings catching your eye in bright morning sun.

When you're very young, everything is fascinating to you.  It's all so new!  For instance, one day I noticed the dryer vent on the outside of the house.  Mom was doing the laundry that day, and the weather was still too cold for her liking to hang out the clothes.  Warm air was rushing out of the vent forming little clouds near the ground.  I had to investigate, of course.  As I drew near, I could feel its moist warmth - it was delightful!  My little hands were cold, despite the wool mittens my grandmother had knitted me.  I thought, why not take them off and warm them up under the vent?  So I did.  I came back often as I played in the yard, to warm up there.

One day later in the spring, in that in-between time when the snow had gone, but the full bloom of summer is yet to be, I came to warm up at my friendly vent, when I saw something different there.  It was small, short, round...and a shimmering green in the early morning light.  I had never seen anything like it before.  It intrigued me, and I wanted to know more.  I ran in the house and told Mom about it.  She told me that it sounded like a Monarch butterfly chrysalis.  I didn't fully understand, and my confusion must have shown on my face.  She smiled and said, like a cocoon that brown and orange caterpillars I already knew so well, turned into before becoming moths.   Oh, I said.  She further explained that if I watched it everyday, soon it would turn into an amazing butterfly, one of the most beautiful ones there are.  That's all it took, I was hooked.  I think this was my very first scientific adventure; I was taking the step beyond just exploring, into focused and purposeful observation.  I was excited!

It didn't take long.  I went out one morning to check, saw it was open.  Upon closer inspection, I saw that the former occupant was long gone.  I was very disappointed to have completely missed the magic of seeing the chrysalis finally open, and the butterfly emerge.  But I did what I could, examining the opened "shell".  With a gust of wind, it detached and blew away before I could catch it.  Gone, just like the butterfly.


Creamed Corn

After cutting the kernels off the cob, she'd take the backside of the knife, scrape the cob
hard all the way around to get every bit of of the 'corn milk', thus enhancing the flavor...
My Mom made the best creamed corn. She always made sure to scrape the cob after cutting off the corn to get all the tasty 'corn milk'.  She used milk, butter, a bit of sugar plus flour, salt, and pepper to add to the corn after cooking it in a bit of water for a few minutes, to thicken and enhance the flavor. 

I loved her creamed corn - especially with a Sunday roast chicken meal...



One of the films that affected me deeply as a young woman, was the adaption of Ray Bradbury's FAHRENHEIT 451. I will never, ever forget how the society in the story tried to control every aspect of individuals' lives. Nor how a brave few fought against it, and resolved to choose free will and knowledge above conformity and ignorance. The final scene of the 'books' walking purposely through the woods of their sanctuary, reciting out loud their contents, has stayed with me to this day...


Talking to Myself

Soliloquy: The act or custom of talking to oneself or talking when alone.

When I was growing up, I would often overhear my grandmother and mother talking out loud to themselves. They'd count up something, make an oral mental note, mutter an exclamation or make a declaration, shoo away a pet, scold a child - and at other times, deal with a frustration by 'talking it out', out loud.  That doesn't even count all the singing, humming, Irish 'diddly-dee'ing', or whistling.  Some of it I suspect was just to deal with the continual work that never seemed to end, or the solitary nature of the majority of their long days. Whatever the reason, I grew up around hearing them vocalizing their thoughts, and felt it the most normal thing in the world to do.

Thus, I also talk to myself. I have done so all of my life, on an almost daily basis, about this and that.  It is like a method to clarify my thoughts, lay out problems, work through frustrations, or express deeply felt emotions.  I don't really think about it, and have even been caught doing it by other people around me, who find it very odd.


Spring Cleaning

When I was growing up, it was common practice for my mother and grandmother to do what was called spring cleaning.  Windows were opened up, curtains and quilts were washed and hung out, rugs were aired and beaten, walls and floors scrubbed.  And kitchen cupboards were emptied, and thoroughly cleaned out and washed down.

As a young wife 35 years ago, even I used to do this domestic ritual.  I liked how it connected me to my mother and grandmother, and how it made me feel like a successful homemaker.  Everything felt so wonderful, so fresh, renewed!

Over the years, I became a very busy single working mother, and spring cleaning was forgotten and abandoned.  Not because I stopped believing in it, but because there was never enough time.  Deep cleaning gave way to spot cleaning on-the-fly.  It seemed to suffice.

In recent weeks, Bill and I have noticed increasing sightings of a small, dark, and thin beetle on our counter tops.  Along with this tiny beetle we have seen nearly as many small 'worms'.  We cleaned the area and thought no more about it.  Until it kept happening.  Over and over.

As often is the case, we were in denial.  It became obvious that this was not isolated but ongoing, that no amount of wishful thinking was going to make them vanish.

We did some research.  We learned they were a type of grain beetle, of which there are many kinds.  The solution sounded suspiciously like...spring cleaning.  I had lucked out over the years;  sadly, time and statistics (and maybe domestic karma) has caught up with me.

So this week, I shall be slowly but surely unloading the corner cabinets top and bottom, doing an inventory on my supplies, throwing out anything that is old, open, and/or infested, and thoroughly cleaning the cabinets.

Grandma and Mom knew what they were doing...