I don’t know the stages of grief but it appears our animals are in one now, some sad acceptance their lives aren’t as good here as they were in Germany. They don’t like their food even though it’s the same they had before we left, or perhaps they don’t like the feeder. I microwaved leftover steak for Ginger, New York strip, and though she wolfed it down it made her feisty and nippy afterwards, some primal part of her reawakened. The cat takes to the paté with savagery, simulating muscle tissue as she yanks at it, paces the doorway wanting out, walks the gravel road with a swagger, like a colleague I knew who walked the same way, his arms from the shoulder sockets swung like rope.
The dog sulks, the cat broods in the dark of the garage listening for small sounds, ears like Venus flytraps. So with all the malaise, the natural response from the family is to buy more! — to get more pets to entertain the old ones, restock, reload.
I’m keeping the kids like the pets a bit hungry, running a tight ship. No one needs called twice when it’s feeding time, they don’t act inconvenienced like whatever preoccupation consuming them is a higher priority than mine, the communal act of feeding, us hunched over our bowls masticating, slurps off our cups and burps caught mid-air: that eating could be restored to a necessary rite and not an indulgence, that we could learn to arrest our gluttony and stop before we’re full Siddhartha-style, Stoics. That we could stretch the food in the fridge and keep track of every uneaten morsel, the scraps and the bits, and reincorporate it all Depression-era style into sauces and soups. To teach my kids that nothing gets poured out unless it’s obviously gone off, even if it has hairs.
It’s with the same spirit I started shopping the outskirts of the grocery aisles scavenging for deals, things at the edge of their freshness like chili peppers good for freezing, to liven-up the lentils — milk near its end, chicken that smells like chicken but still appears to be OK.
At day’s end with Dawn gone the five of us bed down in one of their rooms, me, Lily and Charlotte, the dog and the cat: and because it’s cold we burrow in and leave the Big Band radio program going all night to transport ourselves in time and place somewhere none of us know anything about but imagine it must be better, it’s foreign.
Keeping most of the books displayed in the garage to soften the edges, to imbue the space with a spirit of wonder for all those words buried inside their spines and backs. We’re holding an area free in the family room where the books used to be for an old piano from Beth’s that’s heavy as hell, mottled, sorely out of tune and full of ghosts, messages in a bottle. I reposition the family photos, the greatest hits collection, dream fragments, some as distant, half-forgotten now: my grandmother and grandfather in black and white, granddad stone-faced and startled, not expecting to be caught on film like that: nana, forever alive in the frame, a hundred million lives to follow but none resembling the last one in that rehabilitation center groping to connect her thoughts with her speech, trapped inside this mortal coil.
My college graduation photo, dad recently remarried with his new wife and my mom on opposite ends of each other, my aunt and uncle in the middle smiling, hopeful, all the promise and bewilderment of what comes next, a summer in Ocean City, Maryland with nothing to gain or lose, safe. The kids sprouting in little blooms with smiles and packages and poses, learning to be. Dawn and I lost in each other’s eyes, newly married. The New Year’s we cooked a cassoulet when we had more time than kids, idealized scenes, Lily first reading: friends, mountains, beaches, pets, our forbears. Times we tried to get away from it all, anywhere. Cells of our souls in portrait and landscape gone crooked, sometimes needing adjusted.
We end a run of swim lessons at the Y and me, an Updike book of memoir set not far from where we lived in southeast Pennsylvania: all the pretty ways things can be said, the going out and coming around of story-telling, long loops made with sewing needles, the pricks and nicks along the way. And the parents emerge with their kids around the corner freshly showered with their towels now and somewhere else to be coaxing them along to please hurry, get your coats, it’s time to go.