Thursday, April 28, 2022

Morning

 


It’s fitting that Sirius, “the dog star,” is the brightest star in the night sky, since I am out with Thomas and Maya before dawn. I look for the constellations first, sighting Orion, standing guard with his bow ready to the west, and Ursa Major in the southern sky. (Okay, well, maybe just the Big Dipper; I can never see all of the bear.) Then I walk along the side of the house until I get a clear view of the eastern sky, and yes, there is Sirius on all the cloudless mornings, shimmering away. Seriously someone’s sun, I think, and chuckle to myself.

If we are out before first light—and we are not so much anymore, as the season waxes on toward summer and the light comes so very early—we may hear one, two, or all three of the venerable residents of the neighborhood gossiping loudly from tree to tree, the Great Horned Owls that will sometimes answer if I mimic their call. (If you'd like to hear what we hear, click here.)

We are long past the days now when Thomas would spring up out of bed at 4:00a.m. as soon as I set my feet on the floor. He prefers to sleep in until 5:00 or 5:30, and I let him; old dogs need their sleep. Sometimes, if he’s had a bad night, he will sleep as late as 6:00. He started this, of course, right around the time I brought Maya home, so that the opportunity for me to sleep that late seemed almost possible, a dream come true! But no—the new dog needed to go out early, so even though the old dog snored on, I had to clamber out of bed and get dressed anyway. It is with a grateful sigh that I wonder—Will my life always be blessed with a good dog to wake me early and take me outside to see the night sky? I hope so.

Maya is the one now to literally bound out of her bed when it’s time to go out in the morning. This is the only time of day in which she is animated, and it is a joy to see. Out she pops from her crate—her den inside my den, where she hides during the daylight hours, even though the door is wide open, and she could venture out at any time. She chooses of her own volition to remain where she feels safe, until I come to take her out several times a day, and in those times she emerges reluctantly, dragging her feet, stretching, cautiously stepping out to the patio, her nostrils flared as she sniffs for danger.

But not in the predawn hours. When I am dressed and striding down the hall, I call to her as I turn on the kitchen light, grab my jacket from the hook in the laundry room: “I’m coming, Maya,” and I hear her scramble up. If Thom is up, he trots along with me, his tail wagging. Not like hers, though. In these fleeting moments, Maya’s tail wags her, her toenails clicking as her body tap dances across the floor.

I slide the heavy glass door back, and she leaps down the steps, then hops and skips to the grass, her tail still wagging as she finds the right spot to squat, leaving the old man and I to amble along behind.

While the dogs sniff and snort and pee and poop, I listen for the owls, look for the stars, and think about the tasks before me in the new day. Often, this is a time of affirmations for me.

“You can do this, Kay. Just pick up the phone and call and get past the first few awkward sentences.”

“You can do this, Kay. The quality of your writing is not defined by one person’s criticism or rejection. Get back to work. You know you can write. You know you can.”

It is also, often, a time of gratitude.

“I’m up! I’m ambulatory! I’m functional! Thank you!”

“The marine layer is gently dropping liquid sustenance on my garden! Yay!”

“Maya is happy! Thom is alive! Jenny’s warm little purring body was a comfort last night. I am blessed.”

“All my children and grandchildren are well and safe right now. I am so, so grateful.”

Always, it is a time of meditation, to take deep breaths in the still, quiet air before we go inside to the frenetic energy of feeding and watering and walking and training, to the pseudo-urgency of needing to check messages, check email, check Facebook, check Twitter, start laundry, make lists, pay bills, get groceries, pick up mail, ship books, return calls, and oh yes, maybe just sit and write for a while if I can bring my brain back to equanimity by then.

Those few moments—gazing at the stars, watching Maya hop and spin and dog bow to Thomas (who ignores her), or standing with my hand on Thom’s soft shoulder while we wait for her to finish taking bites out of my rosemary bush—those few moments before the sun ushers in birdsong and traffic noise and all the chaos of the day—those moments are priceless.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Hope Day, 2022

 

Mom and her four goofball kids, circa 1993

One of the first songs my sister taught me to play on guitar when we were teenagers was a raucous, hillbilly, Jesus tune called "He Rose from the Dead" because it only had three chords. The first verse goes thusly:

He rose from the dead

He done just what he said

He rose from the grave

And to us new life he gave.

And because we ourselves were rowdy young lovers of Jesus, we played and sang this tune often, as much for the message as for the practice in switching chords from D to A to G.

Mom apparently listened to us on occasion, although she herself was not a churchy person. "I was raised without religion," she told me once (and good for you, I would later come to conclude, since "religion" has been the bane of my spiritual existence). But she did love music. As I've mentioned on the blog before, I grew up in a house that was constantly filled with music--not with the TV going, as was the case with many homes in the 1950's. The squawk box went off after morning cartoons and didn't come on again until evening. In the meantime, we heard either my mom's favorite show tunes (I'm betting my sister still knows all the words to all the songs in Oklahoma!) or my oldest brother's folk tunes (think Dylan, the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary). These were supplanted for a time in 1961 when the soundtrack of West Side Story came out on vinyl and that's all we heard for weeks. (And yeah, I still know all the words to all the songs on that one, and I'll bet my brother Kevin does, too.)

Anyway, there came a day when Peg and I sat down to play and Mom said, "Sing that one song about the heroes."

"Heroes? What heroes?" We were puzzled--and probably asked Mom whether she was finally becoming senile--such brats that we were. "We don't sing a song about heroes."

"Yes, you do," she insisted. "That one... oh, what is it? Heroes from the dead."

I don't know which one of us burst into laughter first, but we had a fine time guffawing at my mother's expense. Sorry, Mom. Love you!

Anyway, today is Easter, a day of profound hope around the world, and I think back on this memory at this time every year. I've already pulled my guitar out of the case to sing the song, just for Mom, and I hope you know that if you have loved ones who have passed, it is only their physical body that has returned its carbon to the Universe. Their spirit lives on, and they hear you when you sing.

He rose from the dead....

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Dad

 

My dad. Yes, we have the same eyes.

Last week during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, her father, an attorney, was mentioned several times. Judge Jackson said she learned to love the law as a little girl, sitting at the kitchen table, doing her homework while her father, a law school student, studied along with her.

That could almost have been the case for me, except I didn’t come to truly love the law until I was in law school myself. (Reading courtroom dramas like Presumed Innocent and Snow Falling on Cedars or watching every episode of L.A. Law, notwithstanding.) And I had no idea—until I started law school—that my father accomplished his own study of the law when I was a little girl in school, but he didn’t do his studying at the kitchen table.

Let me backtrack just a bit.

My father was born in Wisconsin on the land his great-grandparents homesteaded after immigrating from Ireland. They were farmers. They were poor. But they had come to the Land of Opportunity. When my dad was still a boy, his parents moved with their seven children to Illinois, where they lived in a small house that boasted one indoor bathroom. Dad’s mother died when he was sixteen, and in order to help support his family, he left high school and joined the Civilian Conservation Corp. After a stint there, he joined the Army. When he returned home at the end of WWII, he got a job first as a taxi driver, then as a cop in Highland Park, Illinois, the same suburb he’d settled in after he married my mother.

Mom and Dad moved to California the same year that I was born, bringing with them a few belongings in a U-Haul trailer and, oh yeah, my three sibs. Dad took a job as a security guard for what was then Douglas Aircraft Company, an aerospace manufacturer in Long Beach. He worked swing and sometimes graveyard shifts. When I returned home from kindergarten in the afternoon, he would be in his uniform, ready for work, but eating whatever hot meal Mom had prepared for him, since he had to take his “lunch” to work in one of those cool metal lunch boxes that are rectangular in shape but have a domed lid for storing a thermos. Dad carried a big thermos separately, though, a small fact that made complete sense when my mother explained how my father managed to work full time and attend law school. She didn’t volunteer that information. I had to ask her. The question was no doubt posed sounding something like this: How the hell did Dad work full time for Douglas and still go to law school and do all the reading?

Reason I asked: I graduated from UC Riverside in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in English and went straight from there to Western State College of Law the following August. I was thirty-six years old and a single parent with sole custody of my four children. I carried sixteen units the first and only semester I attended, and it nearly killed me—literally. I ended up in the ER with pleurisy, and if that hadn’t brought me down, I would have been crushed by the weight of guilt anyway for spending zero quality time with my kids from August to December that year. So I withdrew.

I loved my classes. I loved the law library. I loved the process of studying what the law says and applying it to cases. I loved everything about law school—except having to read pages and pages of case law every single day in order to be ready in case I was called upon in class. To be honest, with four kids and two dogs and no second parent helping, I don’t know how I managed to get through that one semester. I know I didn’t sleep much.

So you understand, then, my question to my mother.

What she said in response gave me a whole new respect for my daddy. There was no room for a thermos in that old black lunchbox because that’s where my father carried his books. It was against company policy for the guards to bring reading materials with them to work. So Dad very carefully cut up his outrageously expensive law books (decades later, in speaking of it, my mother was still pitching fits about how “those books cost a small fortune” and “he cut them all to pieces”) and took them to work in sections, reading on his breaks and his lunch and, I have no doubt, in the still of the night when he was sure no saboteurs or spies or bosses were about. Way to go, Dad.

Here was a man who earned his high school diploma by taking a GED exam, never went to college but had the determination to apply to law school, then slowly and methodically work his way along until he finished—and passed the bar. He was immediately hired by the IRS to do tax law.

This could have been such a Cinderella story…. Except that not long after starting his new job, he began to have some serious medical issues. Within a few months, he was diagnosed with primary amyloidosis, a disease that would have him in and out of the hospital for the next two years until he passed away from its devastation. Damn it.

I chose law school after my undergrad education for the same reason my father did; I wanted to move my family up economically. I wanted to do whatever it would take to make sure my children were provided for. But after my first semester, I had to come to terms with the truth that providing for my children meant giving them what they needed emotionally and psychologically as much as providing food, shelter, and clothing. In choosing a career in teaching, I not only had more time to spend with them, I also had the privilege of nurturing hundreds of other kids, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

Still. Check out my pops, y’all. He was a pretty fierce warrior daddy, wasn’t he?


Monday, March 21, 2022

One Small Miracle, Part 2

Part 1 of this post is below, so you can scroll past this one and skim that if you like, or just let me recap for you:

My great-grandmother, Bertha Gifford, is infamous in Missouri (and online, now) because she was charged with multiple murders in 1928. Depending on your point of view, she was either a cold-hearted killer of just fewer than twenty people, or she was a misunderstood, compassionate person who wanted to help others (and who aided in raising my mother in a loving, doting way). To my knowledge, up to this point in time, only two photos of Bertha existed. (There are a couple of photos that were published in newspapers during her trial that were wrongly identified as her.) One photo of Bertha was taken on the day she went to trial and was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the newspaper that, to this day, still owns the copyright to that photograph (see previous blog post). The other photo is one taken at intake on the day she was remanded to the Missouri State Institution for the Criminally Insane (although it is no longer called that). I have that photo because I have a copy of her file, but it has not been made public.

Last week, a descendant in the Gifford family contacted me because she had been given photos that had been passed down through Bertha's second husband's family. This woman--whom I've never met--had read my book, The Tainted Legacy of Bertha Gifford, and she wanted to give those photos to me. I assumed she would send me copies. She sent the original photos. Oh my dragons....

The package arrived (as previously noted) last Thursday night, but I didn't open it. I felt strongly that my sister should be present, so we arranged for her to come to my house on Saturday morning. We sat together at my kitchen table, and I opened the package, sifting through the many, many photos that were sent. One was a picture of our maternal grandmother, Lila (Bertha's daughter with her first husband, Henry Graham). In this photo, she is standing with Gene Gifford's sister, Margaret Morse Gifford. My grandmother, Lila, is the one on the left. The photo is dated 1914, so Lila would have been 18 years old.

This picture was just absolutely lovely to receive. But the photo that made me cry was the single photo of Bertha Gifford included with all the others. In it, she is seated on the steps of the front porch of the farmhouse in Catawissa--the same porch where I have been photographed a number of times in recent years. She's wearing the same coat she wore to trial, so I assume the photo was taken circa 1928, possibly a bit earlier.

Her husband Gene is in the picture as well, sitting beside her. Bertha is not looking toward the camera. She is looking directly into Gene's face, and she is smiling. Her hands are folded in her lap. Gene is wearing a suit and tie and hat. Neither are dressed for farm work. Was it a Sunday? Were they going to or coming from church? Or was the photo taken by a traveling photographer, so they got themselves gussied up for it, as was the custom back then? Who knows.

I do know this: Bertha looks like any other loving wife, charmed by her husband's good looks. No, she does not look like a crazed serial killer or psychopath.

And no, I'm not going to post the photo online. If I did, it would immediately be copied and exploited for the benefit of others.

So yeah, I know, these two posts are probably disappointing. Everyone wants to know what she looked like. Well... she looked a bit like her daughter in the photo above... who looked like her daughter... who looked like me.




Thursday, March 17, 2022

One Small Miracle


 My great-grandmother, Bertha Gifford

As I write this, a package is making its way to my address via the United States Postal Service. I can hardly stand the anticipation. I've been waiting for its contents for over a quarter century.

Last Saturday, I received an email from a woman who introduced herself by explaining her genealogy. Her great-uncle, Gene Gifford, was the second husband of my great-grandmother, Bertha Gifford.  We're not related by blood. (I am Bertha's great-granddaughter through her first marriage, to Henry Graham.) So why does this woman's genealogy matter? I'll tell you why. Because this very kind person, in going through very old family photos, found some of her great-uncle Gene--and his wife, Bertha. And she wanted to know if I would like copies of them. Would I? Oh holy saints preserve us, why yes, yes ma'am, please and thank you a thousand times.

Other than the picture posted above (and one I have never shared publicly that was taken on the day she was incarcerated), there have been no other photographs of Bertha Gifford in existence. Or so we believed. The one shown here is a copy of the photo taken by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer at Bertha's trial (for murder). Due to the family's shame at her arrest, and their subsequent distancing of themselves from her, no photographs of her have ever been passed down. Until now.

Suddenly, out of the blue, on a normal Saturday when I had finished walking dogs, and I thought I would just quickly check my inbox before working on my current writing project, here was this email. From a stranger. She'd read my memoir, The Tainted Legacy of Bertha Gifford, and she'd heard "family stories" about Bertha since she was a young girl. When she came across the photographs, she thought I might like to have copies.

Her phone number was included at the bottom of the email. I called her. She picked up. We chatted like cousins (because we very nearly were) for twenty minutes. She promised to make copies of the photos the following Monday, then send them on to me.

Please, USPS, hurry up. Because all I can do in the meantime is pace around the house and wait. I know, I know, I've waited this long. It's only a few days, right? I'm so excited....

My mother, Arta Ernestine West Murphy

UPDATE: Oh hey, are you still reading? Because, after I wrote the first draft of this post, I strolled down to my mailbox, and, what do you know? That package has arrived. Haven't opened it yet. Stay tuned....

 

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Maya, One Year In


In all the sadness around Purrl’s passing, I haven’t really felt much like writing. Slowly, I’m coming back to my words, tamping down the emotions, moving forward despite the ache every time I hear or write her name…or see her picture.

So, despite a muted celebration at home, I didn’t mark Maya’s one-year adoption milestone.

There isn’t much to say, so I’m going to let a couple of pictures tell the story.

She’s come a long way from the wild-eyed, terrified dog she was at the rescue.

As I’ve stated before, she absolutely loves to hike, and now, when I lead her through the garage and out to the driveway, if she sees the car sitting with the passenger side open, she knows we’re going for a ride, and she charges forward, diving into the back seat, curling into a ball behind the driver’s seat. As soon as we reach our destination and I open her door, she’s ready to hop out, sniffing the air as she goes.

This is her happy place…out on the trail, away from homes and cars and people. When we go for walks around home, she still requires the Gentle Leader collar to keep her from dragging me down the street. Out in the wild, though, she walks without fear, stopping often to look and listen.

Her favorite things are meals, treats, and her big brother Thomas, whom she adores. Maya’s idea of a perfect day would be breakfast early, a walk around the block with Thomas before the sun comes up (she literally struts beside him, she feels so safe and happy), treats upon returning home, and then remaining curled in her bed the rest of the day, emerging only for potty breaks and more treats.

By late spring, it should be light enough to get a video of her when she, Thomas, and I head out to the back yard at 5:00a.m. Her behavior then is nothing short of astounding. Every single day. And every day, it makes me laugh—quietly, so as not to wake the neighbors. This girl can jump! She bounds out of the house after Thom, chases him into the yard, leaping and hopping, stops just long enough to pee, then races back, bonding and leaping, to the patio, then back into the yard. It’s a sight to see, truly. When I can document it, I’ll drop a YouTube link here.

In the meantime, we walk every day, and every day I tell her what I used to tell Thomas years ago: “Don’t worry, baby. Someday you’ll be a real dog.” She’s getting there.

 


Monday, February 21, 2022

Saying Good-bye to Purrl Jamz

I named her Purrl because her color reminded me of a gray pearl. What a cat face, though, huh? So beautiful. And, as a kitten, she was the purringest cat ever.

Last week I had to say good-bye to her. She was only eight years old. I was not expecting to lose her.

When Purrl was two years old, she was poisoned, and she never fully recovered from that awful experience. And I'd rather not talk about that in this post.

Last fall, she began to lose weight rapidly and show signs that she was ill. There followed a trip to the vet and blood work, and I don't want to talk about that, either.

In this venue, I'd rather just talk about the feline diva who had a rough start in life but came to be the queen of my home. (Oh yes, we all recognized Her Majesty as the monarch of the house--I did, the dogs did, Jenny did, and anyone visiting definitely did.)

This is her baby picture:

 

A friend found her, abandoned in a parking lot, in need of rescue, and I was the unwitting human who saw the Facebook post and couldn't say no to a little gray kitten in need of a home. I had Sugar Plum then, and Sug had said, "Absolutely not" to any second cat I had tried to introduce her to. Until Purrl. When I brought that mewling kitten home and opened the carrier to let her out, Sug proceeded to wash her face and comfort her, much to my surprise.

For the first two years of her life, when she was still healthy and whole, Purrl was a people person. She loved visits from my kids and grandkids. Hell, she even loved a visit from our "Home Vet," even after he poked her for vaccinations.

Often when I came home from work, I would open the door from the garage to the kitchen to find both cats seated patiently, waiting for me to enter and bestow head pets and back scratches, Purrl especially.

Since my neighbor didn't like cats (a profound understatement, if you know the back-story there), I paid a friend a thousand dollars to build up my block wall so that Purrl couldn't get out of the back yard. After work I would take her outside to play. She loved to chase the tiny foam soccer balls I bought for her, and she would carry them back to me so that I could throw them again.

And she loved Thomas. He came along four months after she did. At first, the cats were convinced he was a monster that they had to shred at the first opportunity. I kept them apart, daily apologizing to Thom for the strange hissing creatures on the other side of the door. But Purrl's curiosity got the better of her, and she began approaching him cautiously whenever she could. Finally, she decided she liked his big, warm furriness, and she claimed him as her own, much to his chagrin.
 

By the time we moved out here to Calimesa, Purrl was no longer energetic or agile, and she'd lost most of her vision when she was poisoned. But that didn't stop her from being the world's best mouser. She proudly brought me this beast one evening just as I was going to call her in from the yard.

Three years ago, when Sugar Plum died, Purrl and I were both bereft, and I think it was somewhat of a turning point for Purrl. Her grief was deep, as was mine, but Purrl never seemed to recover from the loss. I adopted Jenny because I thought it would help if she had a kitty buddy again. Despite Jenny's many very sweet and gentle attempts to make friends, though, Purrl never accepted her, and Jenny sustained more than a few bites and scratches for no apparent reason other than being the other pretty cat in the room.

I like to believe that Purrl decided to go find Sug. In fact, I do believe that Sug was waiting for her on the other side, ready to wash her face and mother her as a welcome. Someday, I will see both of them again.

Before I close, I want to say one more thing--and then I can't write any more because I'm crying now, and I can't really see the screen very well. Purrl died peacefully at home with me by her side, loving and comforting her. This was facilitated by Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, and I am grateful that, on the day Purrl and I needed them, they were there for us. Dr. Kara's kind, gentle, quiet energy was exactly what we needed to get through a sad and awful moment. I highly recommend them.