Life lessons from a wobbly little cat

Theodora Roosevelt Brassard

Theodora Roosevelt Brassard (better known as Teddy), June 2015-Jan. 22, 2016: the sweetest kitty ever.

I almost can’t believe that the latest news from the Manse is the loss of another beloved cat. Readers mourned with Raymond and me when we lost our dear Sieste (the first Manse Cat); and even before that, when Bayona the chubby and loving calico died suddenly before ever getting to see this big old house that was just made for cats to chase each other around in.

But this past Friday night, little Teddy (short for Theodora Roosevelt Brassard) succumbed, at the age of only seven months, to the neurological illness that she was born with and that began to manifest itself a couple of months after we adopted her and her sister, Honey Bunny, from a feral-cat rescue organization. That illness affected her balance so that she could not jump or climb, or raise her head really; and she had a bit of a to-do getting herself up and onto her feet – finding her sea legs, as Raymond liked to say – when it was time to get up and walk. And then when she did get upright, she walked with a wobble. But she had determination, and she always got there. “Teddymarch!” we would say. In fact, here she comes now:

Teddy was, quite simply, the sweetest cat ever. She loved her people. She loved new people, visiting with them without shyness and with great affection. She loved to be held, or just to be close. Here she is showing how much she adores her dad:

Teddy loves her dad

As Raymond (still in bathrobe) gets an early start on the day’s National Newspaper Awards work, Teddy shows her appreciation for being allowed into his lap.

And here she is helping him at foot level in the kitchen, something she was very fond of:

Teddy helping Raymond in the kitchen

“Teddy underfoot!” Raymond and I would say to each other when we noticed she’d parked herself beside us in the kitchen. (Our highly unrenovated kitchen, I should add – but that will change soon.) One didn’t want to step on her!

Here’s Teddy with Raymond during what was her first and, very sadly, only Christmas. It was a lovely Christmas at the Manse, and it makes me happy that she shared it with us:

Teddy's Christmas

Teddy’s Christmas, 2015. What does she do while curled up in her dad’s lap? Why, Teddypurr, of course. It will be hard not to have her with us next Christmas.

We’d had a close call with Teddy’s health once before, but to our great joy she pulled through. I wrote about that experience here, giving Teddy the Harry Potter title of The Cat Who Lived. Sadly, it turned out to be only a reprieve. Teddy died this past Friday evening.

I hope you’ll pardon me for revisiting the theme of the loss of a feline pet, but I feel like I have to write about Teddy. Mainly it’s because I am just so sad, and telling you folks about what a sweetie Teddy was will make me feel better. And then there’s this: if I don’t write about Teddy, I won’t get a chance to share with you one of the funniest and cutest cat photos you’ll ever see. And we can’t have that. (It’s toward the bottom of this post.)

Teddy’s death was as peaceful as it could have been. For the previous couple of days we had vaguely noticed her showing some small signs of weakening – moving around a little less than was normal for her, and having a slightly harder time getting her legs under her. But it never crossed our minds that she was approaching the end of her short life. Teddy was pretty much herself on Thursday, beginning the day as usual by quietly asking me if she could sit in my lap while I had my morning coffee. Twenty-four hours later, she suddenly could not walk at all, and then lost interest in food and water.

Her final illness really only lasted a day, and we looked after her all of that day. She slept in her soft bed, and she allowed her sister to nuzzle and bathe her:

And then she quietly breathed her last at about 9 o’clock in the evening. She did not suffer. She died in complete peace in a warm, happy and comfortable place, with Honey Bunny, Raymond and me all with her. It was the kind of death we all should wish for when our time comes.

While Teddy’s life was very brief, she had a big impact on our lives – just how big we are in some ways only realizing now that she is gone. I am beginning to understand that the reason for the immense love we felt – and always will feel – for her is the fact that she was a special-needs cat. She needed our help: to steady her sometimes as she tried to get her balance; to clean up after her when she temporarily forgot, during that first health crisis, how to make it to the litter box in time to pee (something she fortunately figured out again eventually); to lift her up and down from places she couldn’t jump; to stop her rambunctious sister from playing too roughly with her; and most importantly, to show her that she was loved as deeply as she loved us. In needing these things from us, she taught us what a gift it is to help someone in need.

I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot over this weekend, in between bouts of weeping for my dear Teddy. And I have concluded that we could all stand to learn some life lessons from the late Theodora Roosevelt Brassard, aged seven months when she left this world for a better place where, I hope, she doesn’t wobble any more. Here they are:

  1. Life is short. Spend all of it being gentle, kind, open and loving.
  2. Be close to the people you love for as much time as you can possibly manage. March after them if you have to.
  3. Don’t complain.
  4. Don’t let physical impairments stop you from getting where you want to go.
  5. Love everyone you meet unreservedly and unfailingly.
  6. When you’re happy and you know it, purr.
  7. It is sometimes all right to be unladylike. Especially when your legs don’t work very well and a big stretch makes them feel better:
Teddy looking unladylike

When Teddy was really, really comfortable in someone’s arms or lap, she would stretch herself out as far as she could. It seemed to ease the physical discomfort she experienced. It wasn’t very ladylike, and it was pretty funny to see, but if it made her happy, then we were happy too.

Our friend Jill said something perfect about Teddy in a kind note of sympathy:

She had the best care from all of you (including her furry mate) while she tiptoed this earth and warmed your hearts.

I love to think about Teddy tiptoeing this earth. That really was what she did: tread lightly and gently for a few short months, spreading goodness wherever she went.

It was peaceful outside as Teddy was buried yesterday afternoon. A gentle snow was falling, and a gentle winter sun was shining. It was just right for saying goodbye to a gentle and loving kitty who in the five short months she lived with us taught us a very great deal about showing kindness and gentleness and love. Her life was … a Teddygift.

The stars look very different today.

David Bowie

Photo from wisegeek.com

Tonight I’m interrupting my more-or-less regular schedule of Monday postings, and taking you back to when Friday nights at Meanwhile, at the Manse often meant it was musical-reminiscence time. On various Fridays through the past four years of this blog, I’ve written about the 20 most ubiquitous pop songs from the years (1964 to 1975) when I was growing up here in this very Manse; about the song that went missing from that list; about the sometimes underappreciated Ringo Starr; about one particular ubiquitous song from that era, Please Come to Boston; about the greatest hits on the cafeteria jukebox at Centre Hastings Secondary School back in the early 1970s; and so on.

I wish there were a happy reason for my resumption of that Friday-night musical tradition this week. Sadly – very sadly indeed – it is prompted by the death this past week of David Bowie, an artist who transcended generations and styles, not to mention time and space. I wouldn’t call myself a monster Bowie fan, but there are tons of his songs that I adore, and I’ve always been impressed by his fearlessness, self-reinvention wizardry, and, yes, his oddity. I’ll say it flat out: the world this week lost one of the greatest and most original musical artists of all time.

Now, Bowie’s death basically took over the internet, and it’s putting it mildly to say there’s no shortage out there of collections of best-of-Bowie songs and performances. But in thinking about his music – as I have been, a lot, these past few days – I decided to put a Manse spin on things by collecting videos of his songs that were hits during my childhood here, Manse Era 1.0. The July 1975 cutoff date (when I was 15 and my family moved away from Queensborough to the town of Campbellford, Ont.) means no Ashes to Ashes, no Let’s Dance, no Fame, no China Girl, no Golden Years, and most disappointingly, no Heroes, perhaps Bowie’s most powerful and most lasting song.

But the good news is that those years do include some absolutely great, great songs, and I thought you might appreciate my hour or so of searching out YouTube for videos of Bowie performing them. So herewith, the greatest hits of the early years of the former David Jones of Brixton.

Of course we begin with Space Oddity, the 1969 single that was the first connection that many of us had to this offbeat androgynous Brit singer:

Then there’s Ziggy Stardust from 1971, which I’ve just learned, to my surprise, was never released as a single. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s got the greatest guitar-riff opening of any pop song in history (sorry, Keef):

And speaking of Ziggy, there’s also the wonderful Starman, here performed on Top of the Pops:

Then, from 1972, Changes, featuring the immortal imperative “Turn and face the strange”:

Rebel Rebel, 1974:

Diamond Dogs, also 1974:

And finally, Young Americans from 1975. I love that song, and I love this live performance – from, if you can believe it, the Dick Cavett Show. Wow. Just – wow.

So yeah, David, or Ziggy, or Commander Tom, or whoever you are, and wherever you are this Friday night: Thanks. Thanks so, so much.

A newfound treasure of local sports and culinary history

Cooper Comets Cook Book

A copy of the Cooper Comets Cook Book from sometime in the mid-1970s – do you happen to know when? There is no date on it – has made its way to the Manse. I couldn’t be more thrilled!

A treasure, people! And I don’t use that word lightly.

Oh all right – maybe when it comes to finds from the era of my 1960s and ’70s childhood here at the Manse, I do use the word lightly. What I mean is: all such finds are treasures to me, be assured. But sometimes I suspect readers must roll their eyes at my breathless reporting on my vintage finds, whether they be pieces of Blue Mountain Pottery, or multiple copies of Donna Parker in Hollywood, or old roadmaps, or a record by the Singing Post Family. “Why is she accumulating all this junk?” is probably the question in at least a few minds. Because, as we’re constantly told these days, our mission is to declutter, to simplify our homes and thus our lives by keeping only the things we constantly need and use. Well, I ask you: where’s the fun in that?

Anyway, a desire on someone’s part to get rid of – well, if not exactly “junk,” at least something that this person considered old and no longer useful, is what was behind my latest thrilling vintage acquisition, the topic for today’s post.

I have my Queensborough friend Jen to thank for my newly acquired copy of the Cooper Comets Cook Book. Jen happened to be in one of the local hardware stores recently when someone there – I’m not sure whether it was a customer or an employee – brought forth this delightful little volume and announced that he or she was getting rid of it. Jen, who well knows my love of local history and artifacts, immediately offered up that she knew someone who would be thrilled to have it. And before you know it, the Cooper Comets Cook Book was in my hands. Which means I get to share it with you good people!

Now, there’s absolutely nothing that’s not great about this slim little volume, but let me tell you some of the things I love about it:

Queensboro Cook Book

My most treasured cookbook from the days of my childhood here at the Manse.

One: It’s a classic example of those locally produced midcentury cookbooks that I’ve written about before – the ones in which members of a church group like the United Church Women, or of the local branch of the Women’s Institute, or of a sports organization, or of a school group, get together and contribute their own recipes and those they can beg, borrow and steal from their friends, mothers and mothers-in-law, so that a cookbook can be produced and sold as a fundraiser for the group in question. My most treasured example of these cookbooks is the Queensboro Cook Book, produced in 1966 by the U.C.W. of St. Andrew’s United Church in Queensborough; thanks to two wonderful women and Queensborough natives, Barbara Martin and the late Isabella Shaw, I have two precious copies of that foodstained cookbook. But the Cooper Comets Cook Book is now a close second to it in my heart.

Two: It’s a great reminder of simpler days when every little community in rural Ontario – hamlets like Queensborough, and Eldorado, and, yes, Cooper – had sports teams, primarily hockey and baseball. And, as the Cooper Comets show us, they weren’t just men’s and boys’ teams; women played too. (I’ve written before – that post is here – about the hard-to-beat teams that were fielded in those midcentury days by “The Tannery,” a community that wasn’t really even a hamlet, more a collection of homes and farms in the Tannery and Riggs Roads area north of Madoc.) I remember that Cooper in particular had a reputation for teams that were skilled and tough. The Comets were no exception; as is explained in the introduction to the book, they were league champions from 1971 to 1973. Here’s that introduction, complete with the listing of the team members:

Cooper Comets Cook Book, introduction

The introductory page of the cookbook, including a listing of the team members at the time of publication. So many familiar names!

Three: The ads. All cookbooks like this one were funded partially by ads paid for by local businesses, and leafing through them, you are frequently reminded of businesses that you patronized long ago that are no longer with us. And sometimes, happily, you spot ads for businesses that are still here, like Johnston’s Pharmacy and the Toronto-Dominion Bank in Madoc:

Cooper Cook Book including ads

A typical page of the cookbook: half recipes, half ads. What a delight to see that one of those ads is for Johnston’s Pharmacy, still in business (though now in a new location) all these years later!

Most of the ads – featuring stores like Stickwood’s Dry Goods, and Ross’s Ladies’ Wear, and Rupert’s Drugstore, Brett’s Garage, and the Madoc Cash & Carry, and Kincaid Bros. IGA – are an exercise in happy nostalgia for me, and I bet they will be for you too, so here you go:

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Oh, and here’s a very special one, featuring three Queensborough businesses:

Cooper Comets Cook Book Queensborough ads

Wow! Sager’s and McMurray’s general stores (about which I have written fondly many times, including here), and Allan Ramsay’s trucking company (Allan being the man who finally got general-store proprietor Bobbie Sager to say yes to matrimony) were all advertisers in the cookbook. A good showing from Queensborough! (Though the cookbook company should have had a proofreader to catch the misspelling of Doug Chapman’s name.)

Vintage cookbooks

Some of the many vintage cookbooks filling a bookshelf dedicated to them at the Manse.

And finally, of course, there are the recipes. As I’ve written before, I love vintage cookbooks in general, and have a fairly good collection of them. I am intrigued by what these culinary guides tell us about the lives of people in those eras – what they ate, how they prepared it, and what their attitudes to food were as compared to how we approach food and cooking now. (Hint: they were a lot more Jell-O friendly in those days.) Now, many of my vintage cookbooks are by “the experts” – people such as James Beard, and Julia Child, and Elizabeth David, and Irma Rombauer (of The Joy of Cooking), not to mention giant food companies like Betty Crocker and homemaking publications like Chatelaine and Better Homes and Gardens. But many others are collections from groups like the St. Andrew’s U.C.W. and the Cooper Comets. These recipe-writers are not famous TV chefs like Julia Child, or newspaper food columnists like James Beard, or literary types like M.F.K. Fisher. They are ordinary women who had busy lives and families to feed when they weren’t doing chores on the farm or working at a part-time or full-time job in town. They did not have a lot of time for fancy-schmancy stuff in the kitchen. Many of the recipe titles feature the words “quick” or “easy;” many of the recipes are along the lines of casseroles whose ingredients are hamburger (“hamburg,” as we used to call it back them), a can of soup and some bread crumbs on top, perhaps with some ketchup or mustard and salt and pepper added in for “seasoning.” And you know what? There is nothing wrong with that.

One other interesting thing about the recipes, though, is the emphasis on desserts and sweets. As the pie selection at the St. Andrew’s United Church Ham and Turkey Suppers always shows…

Pies at the St. Andrew's supper

… desserts are kind of a specialty around here. As I’ve often said, you never leave a community meal in Queensborough (or environs) hungry, and you especially don’t leave feeling the need for more dessert. Here’s a typical double-page spread in the Cooper Comets Cook Book, just one of several featuring squares and “bars” (another name for squares):

Cooper Comets Cook Book, squares and bars

I have to say that, while I might not be trying too many of the casserole or pickle recipes in the book anytime soon (I think it’ll be a frosty Friday before I ever try to make pickles), some of the dessert recipes look pretty darn tempting. And easy! Like this one:

Cooper Comets Cook Book, Chocolate Ribbon Cake

I mean, yum!

So yeah: this cookbook is my new favourite thing, and I thank the person in the hardware store who parted with it, and Jen for her quick thinking in nabbing it for me – and most especially the women (some of whom are no longer with us) of the Cooper Comets – who in my eyes were, and are, superstars of sports, cooking and the home front. Ladies: play ball!

A charming local symbol of peace and hope for this new year

The lion and the lambHappy new year, dear readers! I hope that 2016 will be a year of good health and happiness for you all. And I hope that your Christmas season – remember, it’s not over until the Twelfth Day of Christmas has come and gone and we mark Epiphany on Jan. 6! – has been a peaceful and pleasant one.

Kitties and Raymond in the kitchen

Our kitties keeping an eye on Raymond (okay, Raymond’s feet) in the Manse’s tiny unrenovated pantry/kitchen. That’s Honey Bunny at top, and Teddy (Theodora) at bottom. They are good Manse kitties!

Certainly it has been for Raymond and me at the Manse; we enjoyed what was, for me at least, one of the best Christmases ever. It was just the two of us and our little kitty-cats, and we celebrated quietly with minimal gifts and maximum time spent making a lovely turkey dinner complete with flaming plum pudding, admiring our Christmas tree and the cards that so many friends had sent, and hanging out with the aforementioned kitty-cats, who really are the best ever. (If you would like to read the story of how one of them returned to us from a near-death experience, click here.)

Christmas dinner by candlelight at the Manse – just Raymond and me, and was it ever nice!

Christmas dinner by candlelight at the Manse – just Raymond and me, and was it ever nice!

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about what might make an appropriate topic for a start-of-the-year missive, and I finally settled on the delightful image that you see at the top of this post. It is a wall hanging that is in the sanctuary of St. John’s United Church in Tweed, which (for those of you from “away”) is a village not far from us here in Queensborough. Raymond and I attend services at St. John’s every now and again because it is one of two churches that, together with our own St. Andrew’s United in Queensborough, have formed a productive three-church arrangement to share the services and talents of our excellent minister, The Rev. Caroline Giesbrecht. While most Sundays each of these churches has its own service, we join forces every now and again and all worship together at one of the three. And on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s, we did so at St. John’s.

Every time I visit that historic and welcoming church, my eye is drawn to the colourful hanging on the right-hand wall at the front of the sanctuary. At first (probably because of the dove carrying an olive leaf) it makes you think of Noah’s Ark, with all those critters gathered together: the zebra and the elephant, the giraffe and the koala, the panda and the tiger, the puffin and the – hey, what is that animal on the right, anyway? I’m thinking maybe a wolf. But then you realize that the two creatures front and centre are a lion and a lamb, and that the gentle little lamb is happily nestled in the mighty paws of the ferocious lion. And then you get the larger message, which is that it is a vision of a world that has become truly peaceful.

The story behind the wall hanging

The story behind the beautiful handmade wall hanging at St. John’s United Church in Tweed. “Peaceful Kingdom” – how lovely!

Now, I learned a couple of things from researching this post. (What? You think I just make all this stuff up? Okay, maybe it sounds like it sometimes. But I am a journalist, and therefore I do try to get my fact straight. And by the way, I appreciate it when readers point out where I’ve gone wrong.) One of those things is that the phrase “And the lion shall lie down with the lamb” is a misrepresentation of the actual verse from Isaiah in the Christian and Jewish scriptures. As you can see from the text that accompanies and explains the wall hanging at St. John’s, there is not a mention of a lion lying down with a lamb. And yet that’s the line we all know, and the image that Ken Fisher worked with when he made that beautiful piece of art for St. John’s United. And you know what? There is absolutely nothing (in my view, at least) wrong with that.

Another thing that I learned (though I kind of knew it already) is that the passage from Isaiah 11 on which the image in the wall hanging is based is regularly read in Christian churches during the Christmas season. In Year A of the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary (we are currently in Year C, by the way), it’s read on the second Sunday of Advent. So it ties in very nicely with this time of year.

“The lion shall lie down with the lamb” is a saying that over the centuries has become part of our everyday language because it is surely what we all wish for: That enemies can learn to become friends. That war will end. That we will finally figure out that we are all God’s creatures sharing God’s good Earth, and that we should – we must – work together to preserve that Earth and the species who live in it.

Or, as I like to say (not very originally): Can’t we all just learn to get along?

Which leads me to my thought and hope for myself and all of you for this new year of 2016: Let us all try to learn to just get along – recognizing our differences, and accepting them, and maybe even (one hopes) celebrating them.

If we all make that our mission for 2016, I think it will be an awfully good year. One for the ages!