The Littlest and the Last

Several years ago, shortly after I graduated college, I returned home, broke and jobless, to live with my mother and my younger sister.

I was not jobless long, and therefore not broke long, but I did continue to live with my mother and sister for a while as I gathered my financial strength and prepared to leave home for the last time.

On a rare weekday off — young journalists don’t come by many — my quiet reading time alone on a spring afternoon at home was interrupted by the doorbell. Our next-door neighbor was there, and she asked me to follow her outside because there was a problem in our backyard.

Out back, near the fence beside our neighbor’s yard, was a tree, or, more precisely, a stump. Quite a stump, though — roughly 30 inches in diameter and about 12 feet tall to the jagged, broken top from which the rest had been lost to a storm just before we bought the house. The sellers refused to have it removed, and it wasn’t hurting anything, so we left it.

I really hadn’t given the stump much thought until that day, when the neighbor brought to my attention that it was mewling.

I fetched a scaling ladder a bit shorter than the tree and climbed to investigate. The splintery top of the tree was open enough that I could see down into a hollow crevice within, where lay three tiny tabby kittens, all orange.

I affected a rescue, passing the kittens one by one down to the neighbor, who placed them in a box.

As soon as I was down the ladder, the neighbor said something along the lines of “Congratulations, new father,” and left.

Since I found them, since kittens need names, since I thought (incorrectly) that orange tabby cats were always male, and since I was reading Feist’s Riftwar novels at the time, I named them after the three noble sons from those books: Martin, Liam, and Arutha.

Over the weeks that followed, we kept the barely weaned kittens in a bathroom before eventually having them checked out by our vet, who corrected my misunderstanding about orange tabby gender. Turns out, only most orange tabby cats are male, not all. The orange coloration is recessive in females, so they are less common, but it is not unheard of, for example, to find a litter of orange tabby kittens two-thirds of which are female.

Martin stayed Martin and soon found a home with a friend of my younger sister’s, who, for reasons inexplicable, renamed him Sparky Chicken. Sparky grew to be a large (not fat) cat of great vigor and zest for life.

Liam became Lia, at least until she found a home with another friend of my sister’s, who, for reasons inexplicable, renamed her Osiris, though that old Egyptian deity is male.

Arutha, the littlest and the shyest and the quickest, who suckled milk from my finger before her siblings, whose first reaction to cat litter was to try and eat it, we decided to keep.

Well, mostly I decided.

I officially dubbed the little kitten Arutha D. Cat, keeping in place a family cat-naming convention, but we always called her Ruth.

She joined Boo, our beloved aging large orange tabby, and Sullivan, the young stray grey tabby Boo and my sister had found on the porch of our old house one summer day two years earlier.

She would always be on the small side, and she was ever a bit shy, but she was a great cat from the moment I pulled her from pitiful abandonment atop a storm-broken tree — my good, quiet friend, a reading buddy, a comforting presence at all times, and the gentlest cat I have ever known.

When I left home, I contemplated taking Ruth with me, but by then she was an inseparable part of our cat family, the little sister who completed a kitty trinity, who brought the smiles and kept the peace and grew the love.

I still saw her often for a few years as I lived nearby, but I have lately lived farther away and so my visits with her have been as infrequent with the rest of my family.

I would, however, usually say hello to her whenever my mother called.

A couple of hours ago, my mother called … Ruth did not wake up today.

I have spent the time since thinking and writing and neglecting house guests because I am an absolute wreck, but doing this is all that helps, though it helps very little: the last cat of my childhood is gone … no matter the words, there are no words.

I am told when the rain stops, if the rain stops, my family will bury Ruth alongside Boo and Sullivan, the inseparable kitty trinity together again beneath the red clay earth of my hometown.

RIP, Arutha D. Cat, 2000-2013

Mommy Bread

My interest in cooking goes back to college, where it flared up a year or so after I moved off-campus and began to tire of frozen pizzas and similar fare.

I admit I was pretty terrible at first, fumbling my way through a few simple dishes I grew up with, succeeding only by the most loose definition of success. (In those days my attitude was very much akin to Hannah Hart’s: “This whole cooking thing is a matter of opinion. There is no right, and there is no wrong. There’s just food and inedible.”) (If you aren’t watching “My Drunk Kitchen,” please, by all means, rectify.)

In the years since, I have continually worked on my kitchen skills, coming to understand that food work, like so much else worth discovering, is a life-long pursuit, not a simple skill set swiftly mastered and filed away before flitting to another goal.

Along the way, I studied a lot of cook books, followed a few cooking shows, and bought my weight in kitchen gadgetry. During my journalism career, I spent the better part of a year soliciting advice from my paper’s worldly wise food editor. Gradually, my methodical, detail-oriented personality drew me to cooking idols such as Alton Brown and J. Kenji Alt-Lopez.

My first and most lasting cooking influence, though, is my mother. I still periodically call her for advice, and I often set my sights on replicating some dish of hers I fondly remember from my childhood.

Sometimes that’s easy, but other times … well, other time’s it’s Mommy Bread.

My mother makes a bread the likes of which I have not encountered in any bakery, restaurant, home, or street stall. It is light, pillowy, wonderful. And, according to my mother, simple to make.

Well, it is. For her.

For me, every time I have attempted it, it has been a hot mess.

Part of the problem — okay, most of the problem — is that my mother knows this recipe so well that she makes it without thinking. She throws a few things in a bowl, no measuring, and it comes together. Every. Damn. Time.

I have watched her, and I have tried to estimate amounts, and procedures, and it has driven me near to madness. (Not a long drive, but still …)

So, this week my mother was in town, and I decided that, before the week was over, I would figure this bread the hell out.

I finally came to the delightfully simple answer to my problem: I had my mother throw things together as usual, but, before each addition, to her great amusement, I put the work bowl on my scale and measured.

Some math later, I had a proper recipe.

Last night, to my great delight, I followed that recipe and achieved the dream.

I made Mommy Bread.

From the Archive: Out of Iraq

The United States officially concluded its military mission in Iraq late last week, and the last U.S. troops left over the weekend.

We’re out.

Except for all the ways we’re still in.

I’m not going to write about those.

Nor am I getting into the cost.

Or the cost.

I’m just going to share something, an old newspaper column from 2003.

Mostly it is exactly what it appears to be: a montage of my thoughts from the early days of the Iraq War, as I collected them on one particular day when a very important phone call came in.

It is also something else, though: a painful reminder of a time when I believed it would all end well, and soon.

I’ve since been wondering whether that belief was sincere or whether I was just lying to myself.

Certainly I was smart enough then to know better, but … sometimes I duck the hard truths, not that doing so makes them go away, or makes acknowledging them later any easier … still.

The last line of this one haunts me, and I think that’s as much because I failed to admit what I knew then as it is because of what I know now.

—–

“These Last Few Months, in Pieces”

(Published May 4, 2003, in The Houston Home Journal)

I was waiting by the phone, so it hadn’t fully rang when I picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Her plane just touched down.”

Dad.

Dad, and a sense of relief, a feeling of one less thing to worry about.

Months of half-expressed fear and frustration began to subside.

•••

It was a few weeks after a handful of fanatics had turned passenger jets into
weapons when she brought the subject up.

“I’m thinking of going back into the Army.”

She has always been a seeker, my elder sibling.

For years: Different jobs, life spent across several cities, classes in assorted
colleges, her inner sense of place never quite satisfied. Now that questing voice within was telling her to retake her place in armed service, convincing her this was how she could make a difference in a nation suddenly as unsure of itself, as ill at ease as she had so often been.

My parents expressed concern and worry, but offered no resistance. Our paths have always been our own to seek, and while they have advised, warned, cajoled, suggested, and implied, they have never forbidden.

“Jon, what do you think?”

I think you’re an optimist, more the dreamer everyone accuses me of being, if you believe this is the way to peace and recovery for our nation.

“I think you’re doing what you have to.”

•••

In time we came to almost forget. We watched her fit seamlessly into an old place, heard tales of new friends, rejoiced with her as she married an old one.

Then the man at 1600 began sending troops across.

•••

“She’s in a maintenance company, drives a fuel truck. They’ll be behind the
lines.”

Dad.

I can tell when he’s worried because while his tone hardly changes, and his face is as impassive as ever, he speaks ever-so-slightly slower, as though considering the words carefully, tasting them for believability.

He went to war, knows as well as anyone that “safe” has no place in sentences about armed conflict, understands that the lines are all too often redrawn, erased, colored cross.

•••

The thing about working sporadically and via computer is that it leaves quite a lot of time for other things.

News.

Fire.

Pain.

Death.

And someone says, “The truck was from Fort Bliss, part of a maintenance group.”

Missing.

Captured.

Dead.

Which truck? What company? Who? Who? Who?

•••

No news is not good news. No news is the absence of bad news. The absence of bad news is hope in a box.

•••

“She’s fine. They were in a different part of the convoy.”

Dad.

I can tell when he’s scared because this is the first time I’ve ever heard his fear.

And I hate myself because the relief I feel is bought with someone else’s tears, because the war goes on, because the bill is still being calculated and I have to hope I’m going to be covered by others until this is over.

•••

“Her plane just touched down.”

Dad.

I can tell when he’s been crying because he and I are sometimes all too alike.

I wipe my face and worry for the others, all those yet to receive their own calls.