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Missing Milo

He joined our family on a beautiful spring evening. Nine years later, he left us on a cold November morning.

None of us have gotten used to the silence his absence left behind.

Milo James, a svelte tuxedo cat, was our family’s first pet – unless you count sea monkeys and goldfish.

We’d intended to adopt an older female cat. Preferably a white, fluffy, princess-y type feline, because I’d grown tired of being the only girl in our house.

But a hyperactive ball of dusty gray fluff caught my eye at the pet adoption event. He was literally bouncing off the walls.

“My goodness!” I said. “This little guy needs Ritalin.”

He jumped. He hopped. He spun in circles. In short, he was just like the rest of the boys in my house.

“No,” Derek said. “Not that one.”

I dutifully looked at the other cats, but I couldn’t help wondering if all Milo’s frantic activity was just a desperate plea for attention.

“I want to hold him,” I said.

“Not a good idea,” Derek replied.

But a store employee unlocked Milo’s cage. I picked him up, fully expecting him to squirm, or scratch, or climb up my hair, but instead he laid his head on my shoulder and sighed.

“Let’s go pick out a bed for our new cat,” Derek told the boys.

That playful kitten grew into a sleek, bossy cat who quickly took charge of the household. He was a creature of order and habit. He expected breakfast to be on time, at the same time every morning, and the ruckus he raised if it wasn’t, was impossible to sleep through.

When it was bedtime, all I had to say was, “Night night, Milo,” and he ran downstairs to the boy’s room he’d chosen as his own.

He never slept in that fancy cat bed. Not once. Why would he when the other beds in the house were bigger and contained warm humans to snuggle with?

Milo appointed himself the household greeter. His was the first face each of us saw when we returned from work or school.

Milo James (2)

But he did have some less charming habits.

He was a committed and dedicated swiper, and he focused his attention on my desk. Anything left unsecured was fair game. Most mornings I come down to my desk and find my notebooks, calendar, pens, post-it notes and mouse on the floor.

Sam would catch him in the act and yell, “Milo! Leave Mom’s desk alone!”

Milo would gaze at him, unblinking, and proceed to knock everything to the floor.

He was also a prodigious and sloppy sneezer. Few things are more disgusting than stepping on a spot of cat snot in your bare feet first thing in the morning.

For someone with sneezing issues, he was mightily offended if anyone in his vicinity did the same. A sneeze from one of us prompted a loud yowling lecture, followed by an annoyed exit.

He didn’t like change of any kind. Re-arranging the furniture elicited anxious mutterings, so imagine his reaction seven years ago when we brought home a tiny tabby kitten named Thor.

Milo sulked for days. He hid under our bed and refused to come out, until hunger finally made slink downstairs.

Thor became his devoted, annoying acolyte, and Milo eventually tolerated his presence.

Two weeks ago Milo got sick. Really sick. I rushed him to the vet and was told his bladder was completely blocked. Urinary problems are common in boy cats who only eat dry food, and Milo turned up his nose at wet food or treats. He was a stubborn creature of habit.

His illness resulted in a four-night stay at the Pet Emergency Hospital. He seemed to rally, and we brought him home on a Monday evening.

He made his rounds. Cuddled with each of us, and spent the night on the couch curled up with Thor. But in the morning he was worse. Much worse. He hid under Zach’s bed or in his laundry basket. He refused to eat.

A miserable week passed, with daily trips to the vet. It was too much for Milo, who hated any kind of disruption to his schedule.

He grew silent. We grew sad.

And one evening the four of us made the choice to let him go. It was an agonizing decision, but Milo let us know he was done. He was sick. He was tired. He wanted to go.

So, on a Friday morning we gathered around him in the vet’s office. We held him. Kissed him. Told him how much we loved him.

He laid his head in my hand as the vet gave him the first injection. My face was the last thing he saw and the last thing he heard was my voice telling him what a good boy he was.

Turns out Milo didn’t have nine lives. He only had one. And we are forever grateful that he spent it with us.

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All Write, TV

Of cats and conference calls

This week’s Front Porch segment is bittersweet. It features Milo, my tuxedo cat and the embarrassment he caused me during a business call.

The episode was taped last month. Sadly, Milo passed away this week, so he missed his network debut on Spokane Talks on Fox 28.

But I doubt he would have been interested. Milo was very difficult to impress.

Click here to watch this week’s segment.

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Columns

A soldier’s letters home

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Dear Mom and Dad,

I’m now in the barracks and have just a short time to write before the lights go off. I wanted to ask you to send my clarinet. They are forming a band in the company and I want to join it. The commander is very strong for anything musical. He said if we send for our instruments, the army would take care of them for us. They will ship them any place we go….

Please write soon.

Your “Private” Son,

Love Jack xxx

The letters came from Fort Devens, Massachusetts, from Camp Pontchartrain, Louisiana, from Dutch East Indies, New Guinea, and the Philippines – approximately 150 in all.

Jack Rogers enlisted in the Army in 1943, at age 19. He was assigned to the amphibious engineers unit and spent three years on active duty, two of them in the South Pacific.

When he returned from the military, he embarked on a lifelong career as an artist, illustrator and teacher. I met him many years ago when he taught art at my sons’ elementary school.

A founding member of the Spokane Watercolor Society, Jack started the art department at Spokane Falls Community College in 1963 and taught there for 26 years. He never actually retired. In fact, he was still painting and teaching the last week of his life.

He was an amazing, inspiring man, and I wrote several articles about him for this newspaper. I also included Jack and Fran Rogers’ story in my book “War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation.”

Recently, I went to Fran’s 95th birthday party. As I was leaving, their daughter Nancy asked if I’d like to read some of the letters Jack wrote home while serving during World War ll.

I eagerly pored over them when Nancy dropped them off. I thought I knew Jack and World War ll history pretty well, but these letters offered a new glimpse of military life during the war and they also reveal Jack’s wit and talent for telling a tale. Many of the envelopes are illustrated with his whimsical sketches and drawings.

Boy Mom, you ought to see me sew my insignias on. I can almost thread the needle every time. And as for my laundry, well they give you plenty of G.I. soap. We have plenty of water the rest is just plain elbow grease….

Please write real often.

Love Your Private Son Jack

Even the more serious anecdotes feature Jack’s flair.

Last Thursday Red was on guard. He felt a little sick, so he sat down and went to sleep and the O.D. caught him. Well, if you don’t know it that is a very serious offense in the Army. Friday they had a court marshell (sic) but no one would testify that he was actually asleep, so they charged him with sitting down while on duty.

Lots of Love, Your son Jack, good nite Mom xxx

He often couldn’t tell them exactly where he was or what his training entailed.

“You know, military secrets,” he wrote.

But in one letter he enclosed a small card emblazoned “Ancient Order of the Deep” that certified he’d crossed the equator aboard the S.S. Extavia on May 10, 1944.

Last night we slept on deck as it was too stuffy below. Although the steel deck didn’t have much spring, it was a lot cooler.

He asked his mom to send him things like white handkerchiefs, jockey shorts and coat hangers. She dutifully noted his requests on the backs of the envelopes.

In a 1944 letter from New Guinea, Jack already sounds like an old soldier instead of a young recruit.

Company had a rifle and personal inspection. It was the first we have had since leaving the States. How I remember the days when you shined your boots ’til you could shave in them, stood in ranks thinking of all the things that could hold up that weekend pass. Did you remember to tuck your handkerchief all the way in the pocket? Could you have missed a button, or could some dust have gotten on your rifle?

But a letter from Dutch East Indies shows that he and his buddies were still kids at heart.

They got a bulldozer and fixed up a softball field. And we have a league started in the company, playing in the evenings and Sundays. It sure roused a lot of company spirit.

It reminded me of what he’d said in an interview.

“Our whole company was made up of kids – kids dressed up as soldiers,” he’d said.

On Dec. 23, 1944, Jack wrote of Christmas plans.

Cornie is now fixing up a little java for us and we broke down and opened one of our fruit cakes. We were talking tonight that we would get us a small palm and decorate it, but I’ll be darned if I know what we’d use for decorations.

Jack’s unit was the first one back into Manila, Philippines, after Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s famous landing, and they served as part of the occupational forces in Japan. They were torpedoed by subs and shot at by kamikazes.

The letters from home served as their lifeline – their connection to the world they’d left behind and the world they wanted to come back to.

Good nite Mom and don’t worry about anything on this end. Write soon. Your loving son, Jack.

All Write, TV

Driven to Drink

I taught them to eat solid food.

To use spoons. To use the toilet. To tie their shoes. And somehow I also ended up teaching my four sons how to operate a motor vehicle.

In the most recent episode of the Front Porch on Spokane Talks on Fox 28 Spokane, I recount how son #3 ended up driving me to drink! Watch here.

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Columns

Some like it hot… especially me

They say you don’t appreciate what you have until you no longer have it.

Take electricity for example. In August we lost power for several hours. It didn’t take long for my family to deeply appreciate the magic that happens when you flip a switch and the lights come on.

Apparently, the Universe deemed we needed another lesson in gratitude.

Ten years ago, my husband and his father replaced our aging water heater with a fancy tankless model. Like all Hval projects it was fraught with unforeseen complications. Namely, they couldn’t get the water shut off. But also like all Hval projects, it was worth the wait.

At the time, we had six people living at home, including four active boys. Showering had turned into a competitive sport. No one wanted to be the last one to shower because that’s when the hot water usually ran out. And God help the Mom who threw a load of laundry in while boys were bathing.

After our new tankless system was installed, Derek ran his hand over the compact, gleaming wall-mounted beauty.

“We’ll never run out of hot water, again!” he said.

For a long time, he was right. But a few years ago, the heater began making some ominous noises. We ignored them.

This summer the rattle turned to a roar that echoed all the way outdoors to the Great Gazebo where I sunned myself.

And then the dripping started.

Last month, Derek and I came home after an evening out, and Zach said, “Did you know water is coming out of the hot water heater?”

We did not know this.

After assessing the situation, Derek put a bucket under it.

Within days the trickle became a small but steady stream and the bucket had to be emptied with increasing frequency. We took to turning the water heater off at night.

“I think it’s the heat exchanger,” said Derek.

Then he did something unheard of in the Hval household: He called for professional help.

A plumber visited and confirmed Derek’s suspicion, and recommended replacing the entire unit. The estimated cost was the equivalent of sending one of us to Hawaii while the other stayed home and ate macaroni and cheese for a week.

“I’ll just replace the heat exchanger and I’ll do it myself,” Derek announced.

He watched a YouTube video about the process and ordered the part online.

“It’ll be here in less than a week,” he said.

Of course, that was the day the water heater quit all together.

Theoretically, one can live without hot water. You can wash your hands and your clothes in cold and our dishwasher has its own heating coils. What you cannot do is shower in cold water. At least I can’t.

The four of us scrambled to find bathing options while we waited for the part to arrive. We have a gym membership, so Derek and Sam took hot showers there. I could have done that, too, but I like more privacy when I get ready for my day. Thankfully, I housesit for snowbirds during the fall and winter, and hot showers and my office away from home were just a short drive away.

Which left poor Zachary (who’d let his gym membership lapse) to learn the military discipline of taking an icy shower.

“The key is to keep your feet out of the way of the water,” he informed us.

A chilly week passed before the part arrived. It had some complicated wiring, but Derek easily figured it out and hooked it up in record time.

He switched it on and waited. No rattle. No roar. And unfortunately no hot water.

“I think the dripping water fried the fan,” he said. “I’ll order a new one. It’ll be here in a couple days.”

We are a stoic lot, but the news was hard to take. Our combined groans sounded almost as loud as the defunct water heater used to.

On the appointed day, the fan arrived while we were all at work. Derek hurried home to install it. The rest of us watched our phones, anxiously awaiting word.

Within minutes a text arrived. “We have HOT WATER!”

Such beautiful words!

Zachary got the first shower. He’d earned it.

As for me, when it was my turn to luxuriate under the warm water’s soothing spray, I counted my blessings. Loudly. Just in case the Universe thinks I need any more reminders.

Columns

A prayer to find their way home

Grime had worn grooves on the backs of her heels.

Flip flop season was quickly veering toward boot-wearing weather, and I wondered if she had warm shoes – or a place to bathe.

The September sun was brilliant in a cloudless sky, but the chill in the air made me thankful for the sweater I’d shrugged on as my husband and I walked through Riverfront Park.

The girl caught my eye as we waited at a crosswalk. Her thin shoulders bowed under the weight of a backpack, and her arms were filled with plastic bags. Clothing dangled from them.

Her companions, a large man on a small bike, and a beanie-wearing, vaping teen, mostly ignored her. She kept her head down, her long hair hanging in greasy ropes around her face. One of her companions had to nudge her when the crossing signal flashed.

I worried about her feet and her bare legs. They weren’t the kind of dirty a kid gets from playing barefoot all day. It looked like it had been a very long time since her last hot shower.

We stopped at a restaurant entrance, and the trio kept moving. I paused, watching her walk away.

A few weeks later in my suburban neighborhood, I went out to get the newspaper from our box. An angry shout startled me.

“Give me my coffee right now!” a woman shrieked.

I’m pretty addicted to my morning cup of Joe, but I don’t think I’ve ever sounded that furious when asking for it.

I looked down the street and saw a woman in a pickup truck, yelling at a small boy on a bicycle. Neither the truck nor the boy looked familiar.

Turning away to retrieve the newspaper, I heard her shout again.

“Give me my coffee! I am so sick of this. You do this every morning and I’m sick of it!”

Her anger floated like a vaporous cloud, shattering the Sunday morning stillness. But her words intrigued.

Did this boy steal her coffee and take off on his bike every morning? That would definitely be rage-inducing behavior.

Did the kid do it just to provoke her? How far away did they live that she had to get in her truck to track him down? Was it the coffee-stealing or other behavior that the woman was sick of every morning?

From the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of her reaching out from the truck and snatching a white cardboard cup from his hands as he stared at her.

They were too far away for me to see the kid’s expression, but I have no doubt he was glaring.

I walked slowly back up the drive, wondering if I should intervene.

Suddenly, the boy spoke. Well, screamed. An expletive.

The woman floored the truck, speeding past my house.

“I’ll show you ‘expletive’ !” she screamed as she drove by.

What had been an awkward, but potentially amusing anecdote became a heartbreaking glimpse into a family’s struggle.

I don’t assume this woman is a bad mom, nor do I infer this boy is a budding delinquent. I’m not making an album out of one small snapshot.

After all, I’ve had my share of painful encounters with angry kids. I’ve been the perpetrator and the victim of enough harsh words to know that no one gets out of parenting or childhood unscathed.

From my front porch I watched the woman race up our street in one direction, while the boy furiously pedaled off in the other.

Shaken, I closed the door and walked up the stairs into a home where my well-loved family slept.

And I then remembered the girl with the dirty feet walking away from me on a downtown Spokane sidewalk.

Dropping the newspaper, I bowed my head.

I prayed that the girl with the grimy feet had walked safely to a shelter where she was warm, well-fed and clean.

Then I asked that the woman in the truck and the boy on the bike would circle back to each other and discover forgiveness and healing.

More than anything, I hoped that all three would be able to find their way home.

All Write

It’s Christmas in October!

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Delighted to have my story “Christmas Miracle” included in Chicken Soup for the Soul’s newest release “The Wonder of Christmas.”

This marks the 11th Chicken Soup for the Soul book to feature one or more of my stories. What makes this one extra special is that “Christmas Miracle” is about our youngest son, Sam. It’s also the first story in the book!

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Even better proceeds from the sale of this volume go to Toys for Tots!

The books are on sale now at stores nationwide, or you can click the link in the title above.

Merry Christmas in October,

Cindy

All Write, TV

Runaway

In this week’s Front Porch television segment I ponder how the invention of Velcro might just have changed the course of my life.

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And how history often repeats itself, as it did with my youngest son, Sam.

Sam, kindergarten

Click here to watch this episode and tune in Sunday, the 21 in which I address the necessary evil of conference calls and Milo makes his TV debut!
The Front Porch airs on the Spokane Talks program Sundays at 6 PM on Fox 28 Spokane.

All Write

Register now: The Art of the Interview

 

I’m delighted to be presenting “The Heart of the Matter: The Art of the Interview,” at the 4th annual Spokane Writer Conference, Saturday October 20 at 10:15.

Maybe you have this amazing grandfather who served in WWll and you want to preserve his story, but he gives you one-word answers. Perhaps you know a fabulous woman who is quietly helping homeless teens, but she’s loath to talk about herself. We’ll discuss interviewing methods that focus on having conversations that allow the speakers’ natural light to shine. In this workshop, we’ll discuss how to ask the questions that will give you the information you need. And you’ll learn how to glean information from body language and how to use the context of a story to  help you pinpoint the direction you’d like to go.

There are only a few spots left! Did I mention it’s FREE?

I’d love to see you at this class, so don’t delay. Click here to register today.