You know me. I always write my column to make you smile… or at least, feel good. Before I’m finished with this column, in spite of the title, I expect to do the same. Time takes its toll. I once startled admiring ladies when I made my tackles on the football field and lifted big chunks of iron over my head at contests. Now, when I work out, I grit my teeth and groan through simple exercises. I expect, now that I am ninety-plus, no matter how hard I work, sooner or later, Father Time will get in his licks.
I have written so many articles about Cleo I’ve lost count. That’s because she takes up a lot of my time and spends all her off-hours thinking of new ways to keep me on my toes. No matter. You may rest assured I shall not allow Cleo to take over my column. For one thing, she does not have the imagination to make up the stories. All that interests Cleo is playing outdoors, sleeping, getting her head scratched, petting when she wants one and getting fed. Besides, her paws will not hit the keys of my keyboard with enough exactitude to make anything read right.
Certain my cat, Cleo, was no longer among the living and was lying dead somewhere in the field, I was feeling blue. I missed my cat. For nearly three years, she had kept me company, been around to speak with, and help me write my stories. Now she was gone. However, just as I have told others, when things are tough or not going right, sometimes the best thing is to keep on going forward with your chores and not freeze up. That was what I was doing. It was time to practice what I preach.
This year I have a helper. More and more, as Cleo grows up, she insists on being a part of whatever I am doing. When I write, she lays on the table beside my keyboard and watches the screen. Supervising and guiding me, I suppose. If she gets bored and wants to have her ears scratched, she lays her tail on my keys. She makes it look like an accident so that I must stop to pay her some attention. It is the same for whatever I am doing. When I go down to the cistern to check my well water level, there she is right behind me all the way to make sure I know my way back to the house.
At a time of the year, when many of us are the center of a human bee-hive of family and friends, and have work we enjoy, feelings of loneliness don’t pay us much attention. Still, there are many of our friends, who are older, or because of illness or the loss of someone near and dear to them, feel alone. They suffer more often from those great cripplers; loneliness and depression. In a world so wonderful and amazing, some may wonder why being lonely has gained such control over so many people’s lives.
Everything changes. No matter how hard we try to keep a wonderful moment from ending or changing, sooner or later, it ends and slips away like sand between our fingers. That’s all right. When we continue to step out and have new experiences, our good memories keep, and we add to them. Cats change too. Cleo, my friend and writing associate, is a case in point. Now that Cleo is nearly two years old, and no longer a teenager, she has put away kitten attitudes. Cleo has developed not only a mind of her own but very definite ideas about how her world should be.
As you may recall, I once had a cat named Calico. Mrs. Fallon, the widow neighbor lady, who lived across the road and passed away a few years ago, was the reason I acquired Calico. She had cats. After she was gone, the cats ran wild. When Calico came to my house, I adopted her. We became good friends.
Abraham Lincoln said, ‘Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.’ The simple act of pretending happiness, or pretending courage, or beginning a task you know you cannot do, accomplishes other miracles. When I am sad or fearful or dead certain I cannot accomplish some formidable task, the simple act of acting and pretending as if I am brave or happy or see that job already finished makes me happier, braver, and, somehow able to finish the job in style.
Lately, I have not been up to par. After a couple of consults at Sutter Emergency Hospital near my home (with the VA’s okay) I gave myself to the good graces of the Veterans’ Administration Medical Helpers. The VA Medical people are thorough. Give them an inch and they will take a mile. A first minor symptom, which they thought might be a ‘pre-stroke’ was the cause of every test for heart and lung problems known to the mind of man. After taking all those MRI’s, X-rays, and examinations, the long and the short of all that investigation was there was nothing wrong with my ticker. It was pumping away pretty well and behaving as expected. It was a lung problem.
This morning, when my cat, Cleo, and I, peered out the window and saw, in the growing morning light that the hills on the far side of my valley were clear, the dark smog had vanished and, once more, the air was the purest anywhere in the world. Covid-19 is like that. Here we are in the home stretch of a world-wide plague that has laid us low for nearly a year. It has given the world’s economy what might have been a death blow. It has sickened millions and killed hundreds of thousands world-wide. The morning is coming.
Every person I have met during my fifty tears in lake County, and especially in Witter Springs, are good neighbors. They are the sort of folks you would want living next to you. Next to my farm in Witter Springs, I have two of the best neighbors you could find anywhere. Maybe it’s because of Carl Sandburg’s poetic prose about neighbors; ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ We all have fences in Witter Springs. Naturally. Otherwise, our cattle and horses would be sitting on each other’s front porch.
Animals communicate. They can’t speak words, at least that’s true most of the time, but we once had a mongrel dog that could. My dear wife, who found the dog in San Francisco and brought her home, taught Sweetness (that was the name she gave the dog) to speak. I’ll swear to it. Our friends heard her speak as well. Many times. Sweetness had a limited vocabulary, but it could say ‘I love you.’ That’s what my wife taught the dog to say. Sweetness did it every time she had an audience, and when my wife asked her. Of course, it was rough speech. Actually, the dog said something that sounded more like, ‘Ahhiiiee wuuvvve oooo.’ But that is what it was trying to say.
Driving my Jeep from Witter Springs to Lakeport, on my way to my monthly support group at the Pizza palace on Eleventh Street, I had a crackerjack of an idea. First off, let me tell you the support group meets once a month every Thursday in the back room of the Pizza Palace. Naturally, everybody buys something for lunch. It may be anything from a slice of good Pizza to a Veggie plate. I usually get the Veggie palate and load up. It’s a good way to get my veggie vitamins and keeps me cranking full speed ahead. Once everyone has arrived, we talk.
A good friend reminded me of something I had forgotten. It relates to the old warning that the greatest danger and the greatest chance of a mistake happens in the last mile on the way home. Driving home from a journey, we may let down our defenses when we are closest to the finishing line. I know it’s not easy for you. For nearly four months, after being Sheltered in Place, except for a very few times going out as a masked stranger, there have been times when I was ready to climb the walls. Since I live alone, the best cure has always been to call a friend and listen to their problems, or just have a good conversation. It always helps me forget my problems and, I believe, the other person benefits as well. There have been times when the only thing I could do, rather than stare at four walls, is to drive around my valley and see how beautiful the world still is.
Before I started writing this article, I had second thoughts. What I wanted to write about was personal. I want my friends to think well of me. To say what I wanted to say, I had to unload myself and tell my friends about some of my faults. Exposing my mistakes might lower me in their estimation. On the other hand, if I can’t speak freely to my friends, who can I tell?
Every day I make mistakes; usually, one or two. I expect that, but yesterday I made my quota, and they were doozies. You may think a person as old as I don’t make mistakes anymore. After all, by the time you get to be ninety and, if it is true that we learn from our mistakes, then I should be perfect. Right? Not so. I keep on making mistakes all the time, no matter how hard I try to be perfect.
Perhaps, after my ninety-four years of making mistakes and watching this old world roll by, I have acquired a broader sense of what the future may hold for us, a sense that I did not have when I wore a younger man’s clothes. I never expected to live this long. I expected the two score and ten would be plenty during which I had my fair share of life. Now that I have, I had better use, and share, whatever small lessons and knowledge I’ve acquired to help others be ready for tomorrow.
I am a persistent person. Once I set out to do a job, like a dog with a bone, I cannot quit or let go until I have got all the meat off the bone or finished the project. While I admit that I am not always the brightest bulb in the room, I’ve discovered even a dim bulb, given time enough to shed light, may furnish enough light to do a job.
The next thing to being famous is to have a famous friend. My cat, Cleo Paleno, is famous. I know she is famous because on three separate occasions, total strangers, as well as several of my acquaintances, have gone out of their way to tell me how much they admire Cleo. That warms my heart because I consider Cleo my best animal friend and a cat deserving of admiration and praise.
Sometimes life gets complicated. Like a slap on the side of your head when you least expect it. The other day my reading glasses right ear hanger fell off. Being a person with a razor-sharp intellect and the reflexes of a jungle cat, and since the same thing happened to me a hundred times before with other glasses during the last twenty-five years, I knew instantly what happened; the screw that fastens the ear hanger to my spectacles had come unscrewed. Over time and use, the screw had come loose and fallen out.
It’s always wonderful to get presents. Not just on birthdays and Christmas, but any time. The most wonderful day of the year, when I was a boy, was Christmas. My three sisters, two brothers, and I would go to sleep on the night before Christmas with visions of … well, you know what I mean. That was during the 1929 Depression years that most of us older Americans remember. It was a time that lasted almost until World War Three. The thirties were the hard years, and nearly everybody had to scratch to keep body and soul together. Our family was as poor as the rest but, living on a farm and growing our own food, we didn’t know we were poor.