“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Day 24: Zoe and Cindy: Or, Meditation on the Quilt

Cindy came to clean our house yesterday, removing the last evidence of holiday family fun: stray bits of wrapping paper, crumbs on the floor, crumpled up and stained green tablecloth and napkins.  Cindy says she can always tell when we've been happy in our house because we "throw more food around" in the kitchen.  Yesterday the floors were in particularly bad shape and she gave me that smile that said, "I'm glad you had a good time."

I met Cindy about a dozen years ago when she took my fiction-writing class.  She was finishing up a double major in English and Economics (her honors thesis had to do with the budget and funding cycles of the Adirondack Park).  She maintained a 4.0 or near-4.0 average while still running a thriving house-cleaning business and putting her two youngest of five kids through college.  We don't get that many non-traditional students at St. Lawrence University, and I think those of us who had Cindy in class were all a little in awe of her.  Later, after she graduated, she considered moving to the city and working in the finance industry, but soon realized she liked having her own business up here.  The North Country had been home to her family for generations, and Cindy is the family historian.  Then there was a certain gentleman whom she later married.

When I called her up about a year after she'd taken my class and asked her if she would consider adding us to her list of customers, she said yes without hesitation.  I had been afraid she'd say no because she'd told me back when she was my student that she only cleaned houses that had history and character. I haven't seen the other houses, but I think they are all really big, gorgeous old homes on the North Country historical register, expensive and well-situated, whereas ours is just plain old.  She had been to our house when I had the fiction class over for pizza and salad and I remember being hyper-aware of every stain on the rugs when I showed her around.  Of that occasion she just remembers that I introduced her to avocado as a salad ingredient--she'd only eaten it before in guacamole--and now she puts it in her salads too.

Cindy has known Zoe since we took the pup home in May of 2003.  Zoe loves her, and when we're outside at lunchtime doing what my husband and I call "the midday romp," in which she strolls around the back yard along the river bank, rolls in the snow, or runs and catches a stick, sometimes the only way I can lure her back into the house is to say, "Let's go see Cindy."  Yesterday it was very cold and windy when I took Zoe out, and I was glad to have Cindy there as bait.

Over the years, Cindy has witnessed the way my husband and I interact about a number of things, including one matter we have never agreed on.  When I take Zoe to be groomed at Bows and Bandannas in Potsdam, Zoe always comes home with a bandanna, unless they have run out.  I'm not one of those people who dresses up their dogs with antlers and bells for holiday photos, and Zoe doesn't even have a sweater, but my feeling is that if I have paid for something, it's my call as to how much use it gets.  Kerry thinks the whole bandanna thing is too cloyingly cutesy and way too demeaning for our rather reserved, dignified dog, and I can see his point, I really can, but hey, she does look pretty darn charming in those bows.  So our compromise is that Zoe gets to wear the thing for 24 hours, and then, generally when I'm not looking, he slips it off and puts it in the trash by his desk.  The trash by his desk isn't really trash: it's paper, mostly, discarded envelopes and such, and if I wanted to, I could take the bandanna out when he's at work and put it back on Zoe, but even though I've often been tempted, I've never done it.  A deal is a deal.

Sometimes I think Cindy is a teeny bit psychic.  For example, once, a couple years into her time working for us, she said she'd dreamed that I had gotten really exhausted from being on a major book tour, and that I took Zoe off to Europe, and she thought this meant I was about to write a book that made me really famous.  That next year I did wear myself out a bit going around the country giving readings, but that's because the book was published by an independent press with no publicity budget, so I had to cobble together the whole tour myself on top of teaching full-time, and it took a lot of energy.

But then, a good five or six years after Cindy had had this dream, we took Zoe to France.
Zoe in front of Chenonceau Chateau, in the Loire Valley, May of 2010

Later, I said to Cindy, "Your dream from all those years ago came true, but not the way you thought it would, exactly."

She agreed. "I didn't realize it would be your teaching that got you to France.  Sometimes I think we get the life we want, and get to do the things we love, but not in the exact way we thought it would go."  I wondered if she was thinking about her own life then.  She'd always wanted to be a small business owner and to live in a beautiful place.  She does.  But as in my situation, she didn't have to get rich or become successful in the conventional way she'd initially thought it would have to go in order to make this life materialize.

I've mentioned in numerous other posts how this past year of 2011, when I got to teach in France again, my husband couldn't come, and Zoe stayed home with him, and how I then took another group of students to India.  I was away from home for about six months and I really got homesick at the end.  And I missed Zoe like mad.

When I returned, Cindy presented me with a welcome-home gift.  She had made a dog quilt so that Zoe would have another place to lounge.

I looked at it closely, and then my eyes misted over.  It was beautiful, and it was made with Zoe's old bandannas!  Over the eight years Zoe has been in our life, the every-eight-weeks groomings, Cindy has been removing the triangles of cloth from Kerry's trash bin and saving them.

The day she gave us this gift was the week I noticed Zoe had developed a limp.  Later, after the diagnosis, I asked Cindy if she "knew."

"I have had three quilts going for a long, long time," she said.  "And something told me I should finish Zoe's first.  Plus you were coming home."

After Zoe's cancerous leg was amputated, and we took her home from the hospital, she spent long hours resting on this quilt.  It was soothing against her shaved skin.

Now I keep it on the bed in my writing & yoga & meditation studio where I read and take naps and look at the river flowing by.  Zoe relaxes on it when we've been outside.  Maybe it smells of her youth?

3 photos of Zoe in my studio by Tara Freeman
To design a quilt, bandanna by bandanna, over eight years takes a certain kind of long-range vision and patience and faith.  It's probably the same kind of planning and step-by-step adherence to practical matters that helped Cindy raise those children and get them through school.

I've always believed that everyone we meet has something to teach us but sometimes, when I find myself face-to-face with another person's generosity and kindness and humility, I understand that I am, within the dynamic of this particular relationship, mostly going to be the student, and I count my lucky stars (and triangles).

Cindy and Zoe and Natalia; photo by Tara Freeman


  1. I love this, and was right with Cindy: I would have been saving those bandannas for some kind of similar project. So glad she actually did it!-xoxo sk in MA

  2. I love this, and was right with Cindy: I would have been saving those bandannas for some kind of similar project. So glad she actually did it! xoxo sk in MA

  3. OK Nat, the truth is I started reading your blog out of respect for Zoe. Zoe initially earned kudos from this corner after convincing her people to bring her along for 6 months in Europe. Apparently not one to rest on her laurels, she has moved on to inspiring us with her playing of the current cards she has been dealt. Does anyone need more evidence that animals are here to guide us?

    Now I'm hooked on your writing as well...thanks for publishing it!

    1. I just figured out I can reply! Duh. A much belated thank you for this kind note.