Dénouement

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Apologies for being so quiet of late. In the first hour of November 10, 2019, my beloved and seemingly invincible Mom died, and I just haven’t felt like writing. Or reading or commenting.

Mom was 94 and had recently undergone emergency surgery for scar tissue blockage in her intestine. During tests before surgery, the doctor also diagnosed severe liver cirrhosis. (Seventy years of hybrid martinis can cause that. But my parents did cherish their evening cocktail time.)

Anyway, although the surgery was successful, her failing liver and age-related fragility couldn’t handle the surgical trauma, and Mom decided it was time to join Dad in that mysterious ether on the other side. “I’ve had a good life. Dad’s waiting for me,” she told me in the hospital. So our family placed her in hospice care until her peaceful end.

Unlike with Dad, who died suddenly in his sleep 13 years ago, I had opportunity to repeatedly tell Mom that I love her. I was able to apologize for the times I got angry with her, and for forgetting cards and flowers on her birthday and Mother’s Day. I also thanked her, albeit clumsily, for everything she’d done for me, and for us as a family. So despite her feeling “like hell…H-E-L-L” (a direct quote), for me there was some of that merciful closure which we all value, yet which many of us are sadly deprived of.

Therefore, I’m hoping I won’t need individual and group therapy like I did with Dad’s death. We’ll see…there’s still time. (You know me, Mom.)

“Writing for yourself is self-serving. Writing for others is pandering. You write for the thing that needs said”—Unknown

Speaking of time, now is a good time to take stock. I began longitudes seven years and 170-odd posts ago (and I do mean “odd”). It was originally called Latitudes, and I launched it to promote my blubber book. But like rock ‘n’ roll, it soon grew out of control. If you’re interested in seeing how quickly innocence can evaporate in an Age of Treason, here’s my very first WordPress article: a rather insipid story about Lynn and me visiting Ohio Amish country in October 2012. If I recall, we bought some award-winning Guggisberg baby Swiss cheese for Mom on that visit.

I discovered not long ago, during my never-ending quest for an uncomplicated life (which the Amish also strive for, though for slightly different reasons), that—while I will always have an urge to write—social media platforms are not as imperative as one might think. I also plan to expend my writing energies on another Pulitzer Longitudes Prize-winning book, rather than WordPress. So my activities here are going on hiatus with those on Facebook and LinkedIn, up there in the barn loft.

It’s a bittersweet moment.  I love writing these miniature “mind blasts.”  While some are spontaneous, most I labor over for days, occasionally weeks.  I’ll be driving to work, or running on the bike trail, and one word will spring to mind to replace another that I’m unhappy with.  Or something will sound too sour, and I’ll return to add some sweetener (getting harder to do these days).

I’ve saved all of these diverse essays in hopes maybe my grandkids will one day pore over them, just to see how weird, and maybe prophetic, their Grandpa was.  That is, assuming humans still read things longer than 280 characters, and our atmosphere is intact, and our puerile leaders haven’t, in their ever-increasing hissy fits, pushed any red buttons.

But since I haven’t packed up email communication (yet), I would love to stay in touch with fellow readers and WordPressers. So please drop me an email, if not old-fashioned letter, once in a while, and I’ll do the same.

Thanks for reading and for all the great conversations, everyone. Like Paul or Ringo, longitudes may threaten to do yet another tour. It depends on the amount of pressure in my shrinking brain matter, and how compelled I am to release it. Or whether I need to shamelessly plug my next Pulitzer Longitudes Prize-winning book.

***

Me, after Dad’s death: “Mom, I think we’ll all be reunited somewhere, in some way.”

Mom: “Maybe. I don’t know. My father always said ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead. That’s it.’”

Well, assuming your father’s wrong…save some vodka for me, Mom.

Chloe: A Life with Love

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Friday night I had to do something that I didn’t think would bother me as much as it has. I took our cat, Chloe, to the vet and had her euthanized.

A cat? That’s right. While cats are not my favorite animal species, when you have a house pet for 17½ years, memories are formed. My wife and I got Chloe for our daughter when Holly was having some difficulties in junior high school. As often happens, we became closer to Chloe than Holly did, and she to us.

Chloe

Chloe had a unique personality. Frequently, the whole family would be gathered in the den, including our dog and our other cat (Alex). “Where’s Chloe?” we’d wonder. Once, I searched for her and found her asleep on some linen in the dark corner of an upstairs closet. Cats are independent by nature, and Chloe was her own cat.

Camoflaged Cat

But she wasn’t totally antisocial. She often jumped up in my lap when I was reading or watching TV. She made her bed by kneading my stomach with her front paws (a stomach that becomes softer as the years go by). Then she’d lie down, close her eyes, and purr with contentment.

Fall 2018

I often lie on the bedroom floor to stretch after my evening jogs. Chloe seemed to know when this occurred, because she’d appear out of nowhere to rub her head against whatever free hand was available, coaxing me to massage her. She loved having her cheeks and forehead stroked, getting what I called “Chinese eyes” whenever I palmed her entire head and stroked.

Her biggest eccentricity was her penchant for hibernating in unusual places. Empty cardboard boxes were a favorite domain. Eventually, if we received a large package in the mail, we deliberately saved the cardboard box for Chloe. She’d fancy her new box for a few days, then grow bored with it.Cat Nap

Boxes, soft shoes, clothing, duffel bags, blankets, plastic laundry basket…all were favorite places to take a “catnap.”

Another idiosyncrasy was her taste for lettuce and spinach (and, frustratingly, indoor plant leaves). I always eat a big bowl of leaf spinach in the evening, and often, when hearing the familiar sound of the plastic spinach tub being opened, she would trot over and stare at me. I’d drop a few leaves on the floor, and she’d chew them with delight. This became more difficult as she got older and lost several teeth.

Although an indoor cat, once in a while she’d sneak out the backdoor, and immediately head for the grass, not to stalk birds, but to munch on the grass blades.

Lookouts

We were beginning to think Chloe really did have nine lives. Several times in the last year, we discovered she was peeing outside her litter box. “I think it’s time,” I would say to Lynn. But at the last minute, even after making an appointment with the vet, we’d decide to give her another chance. We filled two litter boxes, one for the basement and one upstairs. We moved these around as needed. And she seemed to adapt to our new techniques.

The last couple years, she was joining the dogs by greeting me when I came home after work, waiting for a stroke and a few Temptations treats. “Hello, Chlo!” I’d say in my Mickey Mouse voice, while Sheba jealously tried to intervene. Chloe took in stride my morbid joke “So, I see you’re still alive!”

Beanbag Pussy

By the time last Friday rolled around, though, she was bone covered with fur. The fur itself had become increasingly matted, indicating she was unwilling or unable to groom herself. She seemed to hang around water a lot, even the wet bathtub and shower floors. And over the last couple days, she only sniffed and slightly nibbled her food. She had mucous and moisture under her eyes, and she was having balance problems.

She was probably also losing her mental faculties. The last time she jumped in my lap, on March 21, she didn’t know what to do or where to lay.

Dec 1 2018

She’s now resting in the woods in back of our house, just uphill from Alex. With the trees still bare, I can just see the top of her headstone from the back window.

Yes, the memories. People? Definitely. Dogs? Probably. But I didn’t think a cat’s death would cause the grief it has. Chloe and I did have a bond, however insignificant it might seem. Writing is therapeutic for me, so I appreciate your indulgence.

I’m not religious, but I think we’ll be reunited someday, humans and animals, in a better place. Anyway, that’s what I told Chloe, as I stroked her head while she drifted to sleep for the last time.

Sleepy Head

Here’s an obit that Lynn composed about our beloved “Chlo-Cat.” Lynn always sees the glass as being half full. (If you’re a regular visitor to longitudes, you know that my glass only has one drop, it’s whiskey, and it’s quickly evaporating.)

Celebration of Life!

Chloe, July (?) 2001 – March 22, 2019

Chloe, Ruler of the Kurtz Clan, passed away on Friday, March 22, 2019, at the age of 18 of a prolonged illness.  Sadly missed by her human subjects, Peter and Lynn of Maineville, Ohio; her dog subjects, Sheba and Ginger, also of Maineville; Nick Kurtz of L.A.; and Holly Kurtz of Glasgow, Scotland. Chloe started the world in humble surroundings as a street urchin taken in by the Kurtz’s.  Chloe succeeded her mentor, Brownie Kurtz, to the throne in 2008.  She went through careful training to be excellent in her role. She was preceded in death by her only other cat subject, Al.  Al, or Alex, sometimes showed great disdain at Chloe’s role, but managed to do well as the lowly Kurtz cat subject.  Chloe liked to eat her subject’s food on occasion.  She had palace rooms on the ground floor and frequented the rest of the house on most evenings.  She liked to terrorize her neighbor and petsitter, Becky, by growling and hissing, and got out of her annual physicals by acting very snooty on her doctor visits, and was at one point put in solitary confinement while staying at the vet when her home changed, in 2011.  In her failing health, her grooming became a bit unsightly, and bathroom facilities had to be updated. 

Contributions can be made to Kings Veterinary Hospital in her memory.

A Kiss

Carnival of Familial Souls

 

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In my last post, I talked about my grandmother. Sadly – and I don’t fault her for this – she was merely a sheet of newspaper that the wind blew toward me one November day. But since I’m plucking walnuts from the family tree, I might as well keep plucking, and climb out on another limb.

These kinfolk, to my knowledge, never experienced forced incarceration like Grandma. But they may be even more interesting, if only because they managed to circulate amongst “normal” society. It’s no coincidence that three of them share the same bloodline as Grandma.

All are long deceased, I’m not using last names, and there are no living descendants, so I shouldn’t need to worry about a libel suit. If their ghosts visit me some night of the full moon… well, if I can avoid strangulation or suffocation, their specters will provide enthralling material for a future nonsensical longitudes post.

Grandma had an older sister named Blanche. According to my dad (who heard it from his dad), Blanche was even more “peculiar” than Grandma. My aunt claims that Blanche used to cook meals while dancing around in her wedding gown. Since the name Blanche is French for “white,” this makes sense. Maybe it was the only garment she owned, because my mom says that, after she drove her husband to his death by suicide (my aunt’s theory) or a broken heart (my dad’s theory), she was reduced to scrubbing toilets in Penn Station. (For you younger readers, I’m not referring to the fast-food chain, but a historic passenger terminal in New York City.)

But this was during the Depression, and I’m sure a lot of people felt lucky to be employed scrubbing toilets.

Blanche had two children, Virginia and John. John, like his heartbroken and/or suicidal father, died mysteriously at a young age. John fancied himself a poet. My dad knew him and said he was “a real oddball.” But my dad hated non-pragmatic things like poetry, so maybe that’s why he considered John an oddball.

After John died, his mother (Blanche, the toilet cleaner with the wedding dress) paid for a large copper caricature of him to be embedded in his tombstone, accompanied by the words “The Forgotten Poet.”

(If this is getting too weird for y’all, I won’t be offended if you stop reading).

Virginia (John’s sister) was the most normal one in the family. But even she had her idiosyncrasies. She deliberately married a gay guy named Bown (the silent film buff who was in my last post). Now, I’m all for gay marriage. But I’ve never heard of a gay man and a straight woman exchanging vows. Do people do that? What the heck was he thinking?

Like my piano-playing grandmother and failed-poet cousin, Virginia and Bown were artsy-fartsy. But their domain was theater.

They ran an acting studio in Manhattan in the 1950s. Some of their plays were written by Bown, who seems to have been sort of an Ed Wood of New York theater. One of the plays was a one-character oddity starring a woman who was both deaf and blind. This was a very compassionate and progressive thing for Bown to attempt. I’m assuming the actress wasn’t also dumb. Now that would have been really avant-garde.

Even though this “Professional Actors’ Studio” was off-off-off-off-Broadway, a few big names did pass through. One of the students was television and movie star John Forsythe. So was either Ann Blyth (MILDRED PIERCE) or Anne Baxter (ALL ABOUT EVE)… one of those Annie B’s, anyway. And Kirk Douglas briefly was a guest instructor. Probably very briefly.

My impression is that Bown was the mastermind behind this troupe, and Virginia merely acted. Or, at least, tried to. I Googled their studio once and came across a review by noted theater critic Kenneth Tynan of a production of theirs. Virginia had the lead role in the play. Tynan referred to her as a “rock-like creature.” The play was called “Queen Lear.”

(Folks, I’m not making this stuff up).

This acting studio seemed to exist in a New York City nether world: it aspired to artistic greatness, but was permanently stuck in mediocrity (similar to this blog… hey, at least we aspire). There’s little evidence it even existed, other than one or two small newspaper blurbs. Bown closed it down abruptly one day after he caught several of his actors backstage smoking marijuana. It wasn’t so much that he objected to the drug’s illegality. It was because the incident deeply saddened him: he felt that acting was the highest “high” in life, and one shouldn’t need anything else.

Later on, Bown amassed one of the largest collections of silent films in the country. It’s now preserved at Phillips Exeter Academy in Massachusetts.

carnival-of-souls

Well, there you have it. Bown, Virginia, Blanche, and John the Forgotten Poet. Somewhere I’m sure they’re happily munching popcorn together while watching one of Bown’s favorite silent films.

It may sound like I’m poking fun at these people. But I honestly don’t mean any harm. I’m sure all were very nice (maybe even Blanche). I just find curios like these interesting, and they definitely make for great conversation. Every family seems to have at least one member who’s a little “off:” the free-spirited uncle, the bawdy aunt, the self-destructive sibling, the perverted grandpa. I just happen to have several.

Whether or not I’m a similar curio, or whether or not I’m evolving into one, I’ll leave for others to judge.

the-end

Elegance in a Shuttered Room

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I saw her only once.

It was Thanksgiving Day, 1970. At my aunt’s house in New Jersey. After dinner, Bown showed one of his silent movies. She sat like a tiny sparrow on the sofa. But there was a large elephant in the room. Why was everyone acting so strange?

I didn’t see her the first 12 years of my life, and never again the last 10 years of hers.

When I was very young, I used to ask my parents about her. “Why don’t we ever visit Grandma?” And they always told me that she was “in the hospital.” It wasn’t until my teen years, when I was in my dad’s study and accidentally-on-purpose read an opened letter that she’d written to him, that I finally understood why she was always “in the hospital.”

Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile, eggshell mind.

My grandmother was born in 1895 in an upscale section of Harlem. Her mother was descended from one of the first families of New York, and her father from early Massachusetts Puritans. She must have begun piano studies at an early age, because she eventually became so talented, she was invited to tour with composer Victor Herbert. But it never happened.

In 1918 she married my grandpa. A more unlikely pairing you couldn’t imagine. He was from central Pennsylvania farm stock and 15 years older. He was a practical New York businessman, she a musical romantic. According to my aunt, he’d had a date with her older sister, Blanche, at Delmonico’s. Afterwards, Blanche invited him to her Harlem brownstone to meet the family. He took one look at the younger sister and was besotted. Poor Blanche.

She gave birth to my dad in 1922, and my aunt two years later. Maybe raising two children was too much for her. She probably had something that she’d inherited. Could it have been from her grandfather, the Civil War naval captain who was court-martialed? No one knows.

In 1930, she entered the hospital for six months, but was released. A year later she entered for good. Permanent vacation. Imposed communal living for the next 50 years. Jeezus. That’s a lot of piano-playing in the day room.

My dad never talked about her. She wasn’t at his wedding. Early in his marriage to Mom, he told her “I never had a mother.” But here’s a quirky upside: her absence brought him very close to his father. “Dad could have left her, and nobody would have faulted him. My dad adopted his dad’s strength of character.

I remember a few things from that Thanksgiving Day. I had a Craig reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I taped conversations in the kitchen while the turkey roasted. Goofing off with my cousin and brothers. Dallas playing Green Bay. George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” all over the radio.

And there are one or two photos of the meal. Bown, married to Aunt Blanche’s daughter, wearing a pin-striped suit, sitting erect with his hands folded on the table, a benign smile on his face. Grandma is at the head of the table, with her hands up to her face, her mouth open, as if surprised, tired, or confused. Her hair is gray and frizzy. She looks small and insignificant. And I remember the other adults, including my noble dad, treating her gently but awkwardly, as if she might break any moment.

Then came the movie. I remember the dark, claustrophobic living room with the thick, Persian rug, and the musty but pleasant smell of old things. A step into antiquity. The movie was The Thief of Bagdad, starring dashing Douglas Fairbanks. It was released in 1924, six years before Grandma went into exile.

I remember Bown acting as master of ceremonies and working his bulky black movie projector. He gave a florid introduction, then intermittent narration. Mainly, I remember his politeness to Grandma. “What do you think of the motion picture, Grandmother?” he must have asked her three or four times. And Grandma – her eyes blinking in the glow from the movie screen, with God knows what fantastic thoughts and images ricocheting through her broken brain – gave the same response every time:

“Very elegant.”

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