Picture by Danielle Niculescu Sierras’
The Fish Party
My mother has a “Fish Coming Back to the Pond” party every Spring. Her little garden pond, the kind landscapers are quick to build in backyards. It is a spare 4 by 4. Each winter, her housekeeper takes the three goldfish and “winters” them at her home. New England winters are too severe for these shallow ponds made for trickling fountains and itsy-bitsy waterfalls. Fish just don’t stand a chance. Come Spring, they find their way back home to Mom’s.
Suddenly I am assaulted with memories as people who filled our lives at one time or another descend on us for a few hours. My mother’s friends have always left their stamp. I babysat for their kids or looked to them for guidance. They have stood as yardsticks, measuring my growth and acting as mirrors, reflecting back both the happy times and those I would rather have avoided.
My best friend from high school is always there with her family. We share one of those wonderful relationships where a sentence started in one visit is finished in the next. She is a member of the family now. She and hers come every Thanksgiving and Easter and often during the Winter break. Her advice is always sage and I love to watch her relationship with her husband, a curmudgeonly, irascible blockhead but a lovable man who also went to our school. Lately they are joined by another high school friend, the daughter of my mother’s close friend.
My mom and sisters think nothing about sharing my less than stellar moments with Kath, somehow expecting her to whip me into shape. There is no thought about this appropriation – they even call her to talk about me between visits. We are entering our fifties now. Our children are going or gone; grandmother-hood is in the offing for one of us. Still, the shades of memory I can’t quite escape from stand as silent sentinels, lurking in the background of our conversations. Their youthful faces of old float just in front of these faces which have begun to sag and bag.
Lisa’s (my other high school friend) folks are impossibly close to my mother. They, along with another two couples, have attended every party Mom has given over the last 35 years. Jack has shingles on the brain; it has been an ongoing painful experience for several years now. My Dad had dementia until his death five years ago. Dad always had an afternoon nap in his twin bed; Jack would invariably join him on Mom’s. They made a cute couple.
When I was in high school, themed parties were the rage. At one, Mom removed all the living room and dining room furniture and put in long, low tables so everyone could sit on the floor. As I recall, the dinner included pineapple, the drinks were in coconuts. She wore a grass skirt for the Hawaiian theme.
Every time they see me, they comment on how much better I look – always reminding me of those five years of drug addiction that almost took my life. I was on oxygen for 2 ½ years of that time for COPD and Chronic Eosinophilic Pneumonia. Not that I’m uncomfortable about my addictions, I just prefer to deal with them at Alcoholics Anonymous. I would rather that not be the only thing they remember about me. Seeing them has become intrinsically attached to my addictions. The women touch my heart, reminding me I look like my Dad. The men, on the other hand, will comment on my weight – not my favorite topic at any time.
My cousins come to visit each party, too. I really enjoy Jane and Bob, transplanted New Yorkers to Westchester elite. It is Janet I duck and run from. You need to understand, Janet was a psychiatric nurse who was viciously attacked on a hospital psych ward. She suffered severe brain trauma. Now she has diarrhea of the mouth – she never stops talking – shooting words in rapid fire across the divide. She can’t be silent or be in silence. The void must always be filled. And I am someone who needs, really needs, a great deal of silence. I have Traumatic Brain Injury as well, starting with the grand mal seizures which ended my active pill addiction.
When Jane and Bob got married, I was seated across from Janet and next to Kate, her sister who has a borderline personality. For five hours I sat while Janet spit food nonstop at me while she talked on and on. Kate continually complained about how wronged she was by her family because they were not financially supporting her anymore. Kate kept complaining all night her feet hurt. At the end of the evening, as we were driving home, my brother-in-law suggested she might have her shoes on the wrong feet. Turns out he was right.
Invariably, we will start telling stories. This time it was about our Aunt Gail, a diamond in the rough with a big heart and a sensitive soul. Every Sunday she sat in church, refusing to stand when everyone else does and continually sighing. These are not quiet, discreet sighs – they are gargantuan “AAAAAAHHHHHHH”s that covers a wide vocal range and at least one octave. She repeatedly looks at the time, trying to mentally smack the minister up against the side of the head if the service edges past one hour.
Every family has its strange ones. It bothers me I am one of mine. The memories of my mother’s parties linger over the years. Sleigh rides in the snow, stage coach rides, singers and my father’s singing for hours with his beautiful, tenor voice even as his mind was slipping away from him and his eyes couldn’t see. There were clowns, pool parties, a wooden Viking ship for the young ones. She invited her class to her home to celebrate their 60th high school reunion and at least forty drove to Northwestern Connecticut to be together. In fact, it was at one of the Fish Parties. Prime Rib on Christmas, about 20 sides on Thanksgiving – one more every year. My mother knew how to make people laugh, for that matter, she could make them cry easily, too. But her parties brought people together who only saw each other a time or two a year and made them feel like long-time friends. That is a rare gift, indeed.
On a stool, in the corner of my living room, rests a purple leash and a collar. Inside a kitchen cabinet are dog chews. Saying goodbye to your trusted, closest companion is never easy but it was gut wrenching and heart-breaking for me. Cody and I had gone through a lot over the years and through it all, he was at my side. Our connection was immediate and deniable. And the bond remained until the day he died several months ago. It is there still – I just can’t see him – but the memories I have – the memories I have . . .
I was going through a painful divorce thirteen years ago. Not only was my family adjusting to joint custody, but I missed my pets a great deal. I talked my landlord into allowing my to have a dog, grabbed my friend for support and headed for the pound. All my dogs have been from the pound, they needed a home and I needed a friend. This time I went to the Vallejo, California facility. The kennels were arranged surrounding an open court. All those dogs went nuts as a caretaker walked across the area, except one. He sat very quietly, taking everything in. I entered his kennel and sat on the ground. This Black Lab mix pup climbed on my lap and stroked my cheek. Immediately I burst into tears and my friend said “I think you’ve found your dog”. For the next two weeks I kept track of him as he was transferred to another facility and went through the mandatory waiting period so families could claim their dogs. The very minute he was available, he no longer was; he was coming home with me.
Cody was named for a day when I climbed a 40 foot, vertical cliff to see a depression further up. It was on a day shortly before I left my husband. Making that climb, with my kids and husband on the ground below, reminded me that I still “had me”. I hadn’t completely lost myself. It gave me the strength to leave a marriage which was causing me tremendous pain.
That didn’t mean Cody was easy, oh no, he was a real piece of work. First off, he was an escape artist unparalleled. He had a large yard to play in but he found every loose board and depression under the fence. Off he’d go on a tear. Myself, terrified he would be hit in our very busy suburban area, would go chasing after him, my asthmatic lungs wheezing, my legs burning, stars exploding before my eyes. Cody would go just enough ahead to keep me in his sights but my hands off him. I could hear him laughing in my head as I swore right back.
The dog had a passion for chewing. It started innocuously – just the insoles of my shoes. When he would escape, he would often come back with a glove or ball . . . there was no way I would ever know whose it was. Then he got serious. He chewed through the T.V. cable three times. My eye glasses were destroyed. He even ate my carpet shampooer. Three gardens were scrapped as a result of his one-dog demolition derby. All told, it amounted to about $2,000 worth of items. My friends kept asking me why I was keeping him, that there was a reason he was in the pound in the first place. I would just say “He’s going to make a great dog someday” as I gasped my way after him one more time.
He had a friend named Boswell. Bos lived two doors over. His mom would let him out his front door. He’d run up to the sidewalk, run along it to our steps, then run down. After knocking at the door, he’d charge to the back where I’d let him out with Cody. They sounded like they were killing each other as they would play hour after hour.
When we moved to Connecticut, we lived, at first, on a main highway with no fence. He’d get loose and I would chase after him with whatever I was making for supper, hoping the smells would bring him back.
At another location, a hospital was a couple of blocks uphill so ambulances were always tearing up the road. I’d have the kids lead him to the school a bit away. Sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn’t. When it wasn’t doing the trick, I’d drive uphill until this dirt road and let him run the steam out. There were plenty of times I went back and forth on the road for an hour or more before he would get in the car.
From then on, the leash controlled what I could not. Cody stayed by my side from then on – and always did. When he became sick, he didn’t let me know until he couldn’t hide it anymore. He died two days later. I brought him to my mother’s home, dug a grave, and buried him, sobbing the entire time. I visit his grave far more than I do my parents’. I was a lonely, reclusive person adjusting to a lot of changes in my life. He made life bearable, nurturing, playful. Cody was my angel on Earth – God surely knew what he was doing. And I am grateful.