The kittens were very tiny. I learned that cow’s milk, so prolific on our dairy farm, would not sustain their needs. I found Kamar, a kitten-based milk formula, for sale in a veterinary catalog. I used an old syringe without the needle to get the milk into them. By now they had their eyes open, their claws out, and while I was feeding any one of the four, the other three would be climbing up my leg in their hunger. I learned I had to rub their tummies to get them to defecate like their real Cat Mom would have done.
The kittens began the process of reawakening my heart. Two survived my efforts and became my companions for several years. Each one had their own dignity, yet very different personalities. Fitz was the most charismatic, and even as an adult cat would go through the motions of nursing on my old terrycloth bathrobe. I did not have children for many years yet, and I suppose the cats fed an inner need I had to mother that I filled up with animals. We had a farm, so caring for so many animals was not a problem.
My husband and I milked Holsteins and Jersey cattle. I had Morgan horses. I bred a couple and trained a couple over the years. I find these years hard to speak about. I was blessed with so much, but appreciated so little of it. I did not realize that the attitudes I had formed during childhood had followed me into this blessed life and veiled my appreciation of it. Nothing good can come out of good if it is not seen. I did not seek treatment for my melancholy, because I did not see that I had a problem. Any mental “problems” I laid at my sibling’s door: We had finally learned that my sister had been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder for many years.
I am not going to blame or project or label other people as a problem. What was, was what was. The circumstances in which I found myself were simply with other people being what and who they were, coping with very disturbing and chaotic and ongoing situations that seldom rested. The onset of my sister’s furious moods began at puberty and upset what had previously been a relatively calm and serene household. Mom had lost one child. She was going all out to protect her third child from harming herself. If I was thrown under the bus in terms of having my emotional needs met, it happened because Mom assumed I was okay.
But I was not oh-kay. I had not been allowed to comfort myself from Buffy’s death. I received no comfort at all. Mom’s attitude was that it shouldn’t matter, because “it was just an animal.” I was the shy kid who had trouble making friends, even since kindergarten. When I tried to talk to Mom about it, my experience was that she didn’t listen. With my sister’s moodiness, I withdrew and fell back upon my own devices. I was a bookish kid, so reading and drawing were what I did. I sought recognition for my budding art skills, but the very fact that I sought attention created jealousy in my sister, so Mom discouraged me in order to protect my sister from herself. None of it seems very fair in hindsight, but I had no basis for comparison, so I stuffed all of these emotions down so deep I had no facial expression for two years until I found some friends in high school when I laughed so hard my face hurt.
Out of the friends I found, the ones I most related to were the most like me. It hurt me that the friends I cared the most about – the ones who liked horses and wilderness the way I did – were the ones Mom sought to have me reject in favor of those who were more like her, and wanted families and a home. It became one more hurt to stuff down.
Stuffing down the hurt feelings does not make them go away. It does not make them any less real. Talking about them now is uncomfortable because of the voice in my head that is labeling me a whiner and a complainer. I am talking about what was and how it make me feel. The feelings don’t change because the facts don’t change. But what they gave me was empathy for what other people were going through. In my own way I became the family peacekeeper.
The family did not talk about my sister’s problems because they did not understand my sister’s problems. The raging at home was not just my sister and her furious moods, but my father who could not understand how any daughter of his could behave that way and wanted Mom to take a sterner hand with things. Mom could not take a sterner hand with things. It was not in her. She was a gentle person who could be genuinely kind and has truthfully been accused of being a pincushion for anyone who wanted anything from her.
I was upstairs in my bedroom one early winter day working on a leather craft project, and heard a loud commotion going on downstairs. I put down what I was doing and ran down the stairs. I found Mom standing in the dining room wringing her hands uselessly moaning, “No, John, no!” I saw Dad turn away from the kitchen where my sister stood cornered. He was heading downstairs, he said, to get a lead pipe. My sister threw down the knife she had been holding and ran out the door. I took one look at my parents, who were there for each other, and ran out the door after my sister. The only thought in mind was whether she was okay. We lived close to Lake Erie, and the light snowfall that day made it easy to track her. I followed the tracks to the hot dog restaurant on the corner and found her on the pay phone to her friends who were coming to pick her up. After she hung up, she assured me that she was oh-kay and did not need my help. I was left standing there, not knowing what to say, and feeling too much, and still not knowing what to say.
Part of me is still standing there.