What our grandmothers leave us

51pCIyD8BvL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Something in Fredrik Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry made me think of the classic Truman Capote short story, “A Christmas Memory.” You have a young child and an older relative who are each other’s best (or only) friend. It’s essentially the two of them against the world until they are confronted by larger forces — in the Capote story, Those Who Know Best; and in Backman’s 2015 novel, by the grandmother’s death and the puzzle she leaves behind.

This novel was translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch. Whenever I read a translation (whether it’s the Bible or anything else), the language purist in me always wonders how differently it read in its original language, and how the author meant for this word or that phrase to function. At no point does the novel read as if the translator wasn’t quite sure how to convey something in English. The language feels so authentic to the story and characters that, if I could read Swedish, I’m guessing it would be spot on.

Elsa is seven going on forty. She is different. Her teachers say she needs to try harder to fit in, and she is relentlessly bullied by other children. She lives in an apartment building with her mum and stepdad, who have a baby (whom she calls Halfie) on the way. Mum’s mum, Granny, lives in the same building. She is the kind of crazy that climbs zoo fences, shoots paintball guns at door-to-door evangelists, and more. You wonder how she’s functioned in the world for her seventy-some years, but this is a retired medical doctor who has traveled the world and saved untold lives. The building’s other tenants are an assortment of scary, mysterious, or annoying neighbors. So it seems like any urban apartment building in the world.

Granny and Elsa have their own secret language, one that stems from Granny’s stories of the mythical Kingdom of Miamas and the Land-of-Almost-Awake, places where being different is standard operating procedure. Theirs is a life that makes sense, if only to the two of them.

Then Granny dies, leaving her granddaughter with a series of apology letters to deliver. In the midst of her grief and disorientation, Elsa now has an important job to do.

Her mission takes her first to a reportedly vicious dog and a germ-phobic loner who will become the Scarecrow and Tin Man to her Dorothy. Or the Ron and Hermione to her Harry, as Elsa is a Harry Potter fan. Then, one by one, she delivers the letters and discovers not only the stunning connections among her building’s oddball residents, but their connection to Granny — and to Elsa. Their stories are much like Granny’s tales of Miamas, which at first “only seemed like disconnected fairy tales without a context, told by someone who needed her head examined. It took years before Elsa understood that they belonged together. All really good stories work like this.”

Pearls and secret family recipes are great, but a sense of connection to what was, what is, and what can be is one of the best things a grandmother can leave her granddaughter. Granny, with her messy, maladjusted life, bats this one out of the park, as does Backman with this book.

 

 

Chosen by cats

If you are in transition, chances are an animal is or is waiting to be your teacher. Cats in particular choose us for these missions, although some cleverly let us think we do the choosing.

For example: A tiny, loudmouthed tiger kitten adopted me at a Southern Indiana animal shelter when I was just out of graduate school and unsure of the next step. When I picked her up, she looked me straight in the eye and meowed. I’d passed muster.

UnknownRaven Mardirosian describes a similar experience in “Just Another Crazy Cat Lady Story” (2014). She had just arrived in Fort Collins, Colorado for graduate school. On the East Coast, she’d left behind her fundamentalist Christian family and her “sort-of” girlfriend at their Christian college, which banished Mardirosian from campus when their relationship was uncovered (by said girlfriend).

It was the beginning of many years of wandering — if not running — and yet there she was in an animal shelter, about to take on the commitment of adopting one of two kittens. She was drawn to the darker one, as the orange tabby reminded her a little too much of the beloved family cat whose loss she still grieved. But when the orange tabby’s tiny white paw grabbed her finger, Mardirosian knew she’d been chosen.

That orange tabby, Avery, became Mardirosian’s link to a kinder, gentler way of being amid a return to the East Coast and a series of jobs, schools, apartments and girlfriends. People in her life asked: When are you going to grow up? When are you going to get right with the Lord? Avery just napped in her lap, knowing she would figure it all out.

While living in New York City, Mardirosian adopted Zoey, a little gray street cat, through a fellow CCL (crazy cat lady). After thoroughly vetting Mardirosian and her living space, CCL brought Zoey for a trial visit.

Zoey turns her eyes my way: jade green, with just enough of a razor slit to show that I’m not the only bitch in the room. …

Then she decides to come over and say hello.

She likes you.

The magical three words. All of the chasing after my parents’ love, the attention of the beautiful redhead or blonde or black-haired girl at Henrietta’s … flies back in one terrifying sword of truth — she likes you — as Zoey remains in my lap, not quite seated, not quite standing.

She does, doesn’t she?

Still, in the beginning there was fearsome hissing and screaming, broken glass and an abscessed injury to the base of Avery’s tail. Though Zoey did settle down, she remained moody and opinionated — much like Idgie, my aforementioned loudmouthed tiger cat.

Mardirosian developed a unique relationship with each of her feline charges: “I’m much more aligned to Zoey, the secret observer. The runner. I’ve got that skill down pat. Avery challenges me to remove the labyrinth that winds its way around my heart and let others love me.”

Her account of Avery’s illness and the agonizing decision to let him go, after nearly two decades of life and love, is wrenching. Though deeply moving in and of itself, it brought back the loss of Idgie, who passed at age 16, quite vividly.

Even in her grief, Mardirosian recognizes, as I did, that her friend and guide is “safe, happy and free. … This crazy cat of mine will fly on. I may not know how — but trust the energy that propels him forward will move me in the same way.”

At our city shelter, I met a tortoiseshell kitten. I picked her up, and she reached out and patted my face with her paw. Lucy is now an easygoing 3-year-old, a very different cat with a new set of lessons.

My education continues.

Dog school confidential

51+12AmLdKL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_When 24-year-old Evie answers an online ad to become a dog trainer, she doesn’t know exactly why. She’s never had a pet and has little experience with dogs. But before she even clicks on the ad, “suddenly I felt that I stood in the doorway of a crowded, noisy room, picking up the sound of a whisper no one else seemed to hear.”

That is key to The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances by Ellen Cooney (Mariner Books, 2014) — learning how to listen in a new way.

The training program is at a mountaintop sanctuary for stray and rescued dogs, and Evie is the lone trainee. There are no classes. There are no instructors. There are only stern innkeeper Mrs. Auberchon, Giant George (a young man with no apparent history or actual age), the older women who run the sanctuary, and a handful of dogs who — accompanied by mysteriously placed case history notes — introduce themselves to Evie, one by one.

Hank is a Lab/pit bull mix left anonymously at a shelter, deemed unadoptable due to aggression. Josie, a small white dog, lived in the lap of luxury until the new baby came along. Her hearing loss was determined to be the result of a recent blow, or several. Tasha is pure Rottweiler; before arriving at the Sanctuary, she was pushed out of a car at a stop sign, adopted twice and returned both times, and barely escaped being adopted by dogfighters.

The dogs, of course, aren’t the only ones with troubled pasts. Evie knows she requires just as much training and re-socializing as her canine charges. Mrs. Auberchon is a lone wolf and determined to remain so. What they have in common is an uncanny knack for communicating with the dogs. Evie “messages” them. Mrs. Auberchon reads to them.

Some aspects of the novel were puzzling. It’s hard to believe such an unstructured dog training program could exist for very long. The sanctuary staffers barely communicate with Evie and show little warmth or welcome. The canine characters, however, were very genuine, as dogs tend to be.

This story is a reminder that there are no bad dogs, as Barbara Woodhouse famously said in her 1982 book. There are dogs with severe limitations, and sadly, we humans are sometimes ill equipped to respond. My rescue dog, a German shepherd-golden retriever-collie mix, joined the household at about two years old, which in dog years is plenty of time to develop life-altering fears and bad habits. Like pulling at the leash and lunging at other dogs, sometimes injuring the human holding the leash who is trying to restrain her or, at the very least, hold on. Or launching herself toward moving bicycles because they frighten her so badly that attacking them seems to be her only option. After three training classes, there is improvement, but unfortunately not enough for walking her to be safe. However, she has a home, and who knows what learning opportunities may unfold?

Finding peace with doing what we can do for abandoned and abused animals, even when that seems woefully inadequate, is humbling. It reminds us to not give up on ourselves. After studying dog breeds and dog training and reading countless case histories, she writes a case note for herself in the form of a haiku:

Came in as a stray.
Is not completely hopeless.
Please allow to stay.