“Southern Voices” is a reader-submitted platform for stories from the heart. Today’s submission comes from Mary Liza Hartong. If you have a story to tell, see our guidelines for submission here.
Snowflake had four litters of kittens and lived to be 16. My mother liked to joke that half of Nashville had a descendant of our cat — the kind of bizarre clout we Southerners thrive on, like how far you can spit or whose daddy can hog whistle — and she was probably right. Every spring, we ladled out kittens to whoever would take them. Six months later, we’d do it again.
The cat was a matriarch if you ever saw one — great hair, an arsenal of protective glares, and a softness that came out when she was stroked. Her only weakness was her missing tooth. When she was happy, she would drool out of the gap, soaking whoever had dared to pick her up. Vulnerability, I suppose, is a good fault to have.
One snowy December afternoon, my Uncle Robin found her dead body covered in — what else? — snowflakes. Young, befuddled, and, most importantly, in a hurry, Uncle Robin wasn’t quite sure what to do with the fallen feline. For a moment, he simply stood there in the snow, cradling the cat as if she were a saint.
We always thought Snowflake was white until we saw her against the backdrop of real snow. Years of living outside had yellowed her fur like the pages of an old storybook. Other families in the neighborhood might have accused us of neglect, but we knew she was much happier outside with her fellow alley cats and abundant adventures. Unlike some cats, Snowflake had truly lived.
It was hard to say who she loved the most, but Uncle Robin certainly had a good case for being the favorite. Snowflake slept summers on his doorstep, sauntered up to him first in our crowd of post-church, patio parishioners. He alone could make the little squeak-squeak noise that would call her in from the monkey grass. But there she was, dead at the iron gate between our two yards, dead without hinting at a favorite. Can death be a tie, a draw? Uncle Robin was alone with Snowflake for the last time. There would be no more afternoons spent with a good book and the steady tick of her tail at his feet.
Swatting flurries out of his embarrassed, teary eyes, he decided the ground was too hard to break and thus Snowflake too hard to bury. He needed to get back to work. We were out of Ziploc bags. He didn’t have time to leave a note. So, without warning or explanation, Uncle Robin placed Snowflake in the crisper of our refrigerator and went on his way.
A few hours later, my mother returned from the grocery store. As she attempted to place a cluster of carrots in the crisper, she realized all at once that our beloved pet was dead, that our butter would taste like her for the next month, and that someone was responsible.
Snowflake died in the middle of my parents’ lengthy divorce, and, as it turned out, the cat was just one of many aspects of family life that would perish and end up in a funny place. That same December was the last year my father was allowed to spend Christmas morning with us.
Mom had kicked him out in May, and he’d been living with my cousin, Bert, in a house near the airport. His bedroom had previously been the “toy room” for Bert’s son, so my father slept surrounded by trucks, trains, and herds of Hot Wheels. The only things he brought to his new home were his clothes. He’d hardly even wanted them, but after a few weeks, my mother insisted on stuffing them into huge black leaf bags and leaving them at the front desk of the YMCA for him to pick up. The YMCA was their official trading post. Children, checks, and everything else were exchanged in the presence of a weary, polo-clad employee named something like Denny or Jan. Poor souls, they never had the heart to tell my parents to cut it out.
After the divorce, we expected my father might change, might learn to cook or iron his shirts. What he actually learned to do was make toffee. He’d call us up late at night and see if we wanted to come eat some. “I made six pounds!” he’d declare. I didn’t like toffee, nor did my sisters, but every now and then, we’d humor him, drive out past the Waffle Houses and 24-hour wedding chapels to sample the sugary bark he was so proud of. Turns out, it was pretty good.
That spring, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Something had shown up on her mammogram, nasty and small, almost missable. Like a fly in a pot of soup, it could have slipped by unnoticed. I can recall sitting on my parents’ old queen bed, waiting for the final call from the hospital. Hours dug their heels in. Minutes stayed put. Finally, a flippant nurse phoned to say yes, you have cancer. She sounded like she was in a hurry.
Like my uncle, sometimes I happen upon things I find impossible to bury. I’ll remember a time in my childhood — those summers when my mother woke us up with blueberry pancakes and my father spent the whole day swimming in the lake with us — and I’ll hold on tight. If you do not bury Snowflake, it is almost as if she is still alive, just sleeping. We were together once. I wonder if we will ever be again.
Many years later, we are what you’d call a “blended family.” My mother survived her cancer. My parents married nice people. My sisters started litters of their own. But, sometimes, I miss the original five: Mom, Dad, Corinne, Graham, Mary Liza. I miss us squeezing into a church pew, 20 minutes late, trying to sit quietly but rustling every hymnal in the place. Everyone in the backyard drinking lemonade, Snowflake emerging from the monkey grass to jump on our laps. Or much earlier, the five of us lumped in my parents’ bed to watch cartoons. It seems a long time ago it was just us. And I think, will we ever sit down on the couch and watch a movie again? Eat breakfast again? Walk the dog again? The absolute answer — no — is sometimes too sad to think about. I tell myself this is why Uncle Robin chose the crisper, not the ground. The in-between space of the fridge held his memory of Snowflake, if only for a few hours. She may have been dead, but at the very least, she was crisp.
And yet, as hard as I try to preserve the memory of my family intact, the cat in the crisper is not the cat who sat on your lap, purred you to sleep, and gave you four litters of kittens. Death takes all that with it. When Snowflake died, we got Alfie, a grey and white rescue kitten. We got step-parents and spouses. We got nieces and houses and springs and falls and the possibility of doing things differently this time around.
A cat has a lifespan. A family has many.
Mary Liza Hartong is a Fulbright Scholar and a graduate of Dartmouth College. Her work has been published in the Portable Stories Series, the Sound & Literary Art Book, and the Ember Chasm Review. Originally from Nashville, Mary Liza now calls New Orleans home.
All photographs provided by Mary Liza Hartong.
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