Frater Memento Mori

Frater Memento Mori June 20, 2020

There is something about gardening that’s almost guaranteed to make you superstitious.

I was in the garden at twilight because I’m sensitive to heat and it was nice and cool after the evening rain. I was planting late corn in circles closer together than the package says to, do because that’s an actual gardening technique for pollination. But I was also just in the garden at twilight, drawing circles in the ground and burying things.

 A stray cat came by, a new one. I know many of the stray cats in the neighborhood by name. LaBelle is a wonderful place for stray cats– lonely people leave out dry food for them in salad bowls, so they’re healthy and friendly. I sometimes bring out snacks to share with cats who come to watch me garden.  Most of the cats in the neighborhood are either large gray tabbies or small, sleek tuxedo cats. This was one was marmalade, and medium sized.
I give them names, usually based on the feast days on which I meet them or the Bible stories they remind me of. I call the cats in this neighborhood Elijah, Elisha, Gabriel, Olga, Enoch, Peleg, Chrysostom. This cat didn’t have a name.
  He nosed at the landscaper’s cloth between my squash plants while I finished with the corn– perhaps he wanted those armadillididae. After all, a pillbug is more or less a dry shrimp.
The neighbors down the street, friends of Rosie’s playmates the Baker Street Irregulars, lost a cat this morning. This afternoon, when Rosie and I were watching the children while their grandmother ran an errand, the neighbor came by, looking for the cat. She told me a lurid story about how it gave birth to five dead kits yesterday, and had disappeared without a trace this morning. I shuddered– it sounded like something that would be interpreted as a bad omen in some other culture, a long time ago. I promised them that I would keep my eyes open for a stranger in the yard. But that was a gray tabby, not a marmalade one. The marmalade one was a mystery to me. I’d never seen a marmalade cat around here.
I pulled out great big handfuls of weeds from around the brassicas, and threw them onto the compost heap. I had killed the grass in the late corn patch by laying down cardboard, weighed with a brick so it wouldn’t blow away, and leaving it there for two months. Now I put the sodden, moldy cardboard on top of the weeds that were sprouting from the base of the compost to kill them. Eventually, I hope, the cardboard and dead weeds will all break down and become loam to spread over the garden patch. If we get out of here before next growing season, I am finding a container for my compost and taking it along.
As much as gardening is a celebration of life, it is equal parts the remembrance of death. The grain falls upon the ground and dies, and then it sprouts and rises, and then you have to kill it again, and out of that death comes valuable, life-giving loam. Loam itself is alive. It teems with life. When you hold a handful of good dead earth, you’re holding a whole biome full of tiny living things. Light makes the plants grow, but in the dark under the ground, you find a different kind of life.
Things are coming back to life in Steubenville, at least at the moment. I believe we’re in the eye of the storm rather than going back to normal– as normal as life in Steubenville ever gets, I mean. But people have decided that COVID-19 is over. Less than a third of the people I see running errands are masked. Everyone’s complaining that they’ve kept the pool closed for the year and canceled the Dean Martin Festival. They seem to think this is a partisan conspiracy. No one seems to be mourning the nearly one hundred twenty thousand people, in our country alone, who are dead.
The cruelty of the Ohio Valley, the coldness that is celebrated as virtue here, is something I know very well. But it still shocks me how they can shrug off a hundred thousand deaths.
If, as they say, we’re gearing up for a great big second wave, this one in the hick towns and rural areas instead of the big fancy cities– I don’t think even that will teach them empathy. Empathy can be chosen, but it can’t be taught.
The other day I took the bus downtown, the only one masked and trying to keep my distance from other passengers. I prayed for Miss Nancy as we went down the street past her old house. Nancy is the real name of the elderly, extremely clumsy bus driver I referred to as “Betsy” when she was alive. She died at the beginning of the year– not of COVID, at least as far as anybody knows. She didn’t have to die in a hospice with a tube down her throat, her worst fear, the fear she was exclaiming about the last time I saw her. God spared her that. She dropped dead of complications from her breast cancer, at home, before this nightmare started.
She ought to have died surrounded by family. She ought to have died surrounded by people who were willing to be her family, when they found out she didn’t have the ordinary kind anywhere near. But she didn’t. At least there was no ventilator.
At least there were her pet cats. I used to see her at the supermarket buying giant bags of cat food– she didn’t only leave out food for the strays, but welcomed them into her home as well.
The cat who’d come to visit my garden left the pill bugs alone, and stalked away.
I could almost believe it was somebody’s ghost–the ghost of one of those stillborn baby kits. A ghost of a person, taking on the form of a marmalade cat. A ghost reincarnated as one of a cat’s nine lives. Maybe even the Holy Ghost descending to bless my labor, in the form of a cat instead of a bird. Some Medieval people depicted the Holy Ghost in the form of a goose or a dolphin, not just a dove. Perhaps the Tongues of Fire from On High sometimes settle on the earth looking like a bright orange cat.
Gardening, late, in the cool of the evening, makes me believe in things like that.
If I ever see that cat again, his name will be Frater Memento Mori.

Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross

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