My parents’ generation called Memorial Day “Decoration Day”. It was the weekend to clear away the weeds, trim the grass, and spend time in the cemetery, and the graves of family members were decorated with wreaths and flags and freshly planted flowers. We took some red geraniums around to plant on my parents’ parents’ graves. I’m not sure how it had lost the origin for them of remembering those who had died in service to their country because nearly everyone in my parents’ generation was touched by WWII, either in service or the hardships of living through the war years and the friends who had not come home. For me it was a day to think about the grandparents whose difficult lives were over before I could remember them, and think about my parents as children.
Growing up, that was what I had learned of the holiday, and what am still moved to do, remember those who’ve left this life.
That includes, of course, a lot of cats.
Our animal companion’s lives are usually shorter than our lives. Rescuing cats and living with a lot of them, often medically compromised, loss comes regularly, and often unpredictably. Last weekend when Basil collapsed in the kitchen I immediately went into early grieving mode, especially when I couldn’t find him immediately after. Collapse is serious, and especially after I’d been tracking some behavior for a month or so my radar for the possibilities were on alert.
But even before Basil I’ve been constantly alert to Mimi as well. She came in with a worn-out body after six litters of kittens and took a long time to regain health over the next two years. While she looks fine in all my many photos of my little muse, she still has lingering symptoms from the lymphoma-like condition she’d had in 2015, constantly vomiting, not eating for days, losing weight and dehydrated and rapidly deteriorating. A combination of medications and palliative treatments as well as alternative treatments slowed the symptoms and brought her back from that, but she never regained the weight, and two or three times a year the symptoms begin again, I catch them as early as possible, and we go back to the treatments that have worked each time.
I will never be ready to remember any of them at the little sleeping kitty memorial in the back yard. I will be vigilant and do my best to make sure that Mimi has many more years to enjoy the yard and be my model, and that we will find the best treatments for Basil so that he can amuse us with his wild antics and outsized affection and those big amber eyes. But even as I share the photos from the archives from these weeks, all those sweet and very real moments, and all those cats who I touched and loved in that time, are memories now, and someday Mimi, and Basil, and all the others will be too. That knowledge is also part of Memorial Day.
The Kitty Memorial
My little memorial spot for them all has to have some flowers blooming on Memorial Day. In 2012 I lost Cookie and Kelly, and my physical connection to those early decades of rescuing cats. I had planted special flowers around the memorial, but with changes in light and moisture I had lost some and gained others. But the important one was the bleeding heart. I try not to be attached to having things just so; if other plants were more appropriate I wasn’t going to force a plant to grow in a place that would make it suffer or put a lot of work into just keeping it alive. But the bleeding heart was different. Here is what I wrote around Memorial Day 2013.
These bleeding hearts are blooming, just in time for Memorial Day, leaning protectively over the sleeping kitty memorial in my back yard.
Bleeding hearts are an old-fashioned favorite with their large palmate leaves and long stems and the unique flowers dangling like little purses, blooming profusely early in spring. If you are a gardener and know your common plants you’d know that bleeding hearts typically bloom earlier in the year, depending on your growing zone. In my area they usually bloom in the first week of May, but there are a few reasons why this one is blooming at this time in my yard, and a few reasons I’m surprised it bloomed at all, and it warms my heart to see.
I just planted this bleeding heart plant three weeks ago, to replace the one I’d planted when I placed this stone kitty in this spot in 1997. A friend who I sadly helped through the losses of two of her cats, even inviting her here to have them put to sleep just for moral support, got me this garden sculpture as a thanks for helping her. Through the years I’ve lifted the kitty, loosened the soil beneath and added most or all of the cremains of whichever kitty I’d recently lost, depending on whether there was reason to spread other portions in a different place. Kublai and Allegro were the first, and along with them I planted a deep sepia iris for Kublai’s sable black fur and a bright orange blanket flower for Allegro, and a new flower for each kitty, along with daffodils and crocus just to bring life to the spot before even the snow cleared.
Over the years the trees have grown over the site and in the shade many of the plants needed to be moved or simply didn’t emerge again the following year, except the bleeding heart. For such a delicate, frilly looking plant it’s a tough one. Then, a few years ago in spring after a particularly dry and hot year previous, the bleeding heart didn’t emerge either. I really couldn’t afford to replace it then, just letting it go until…whatever makes me go and take care of these things.
It was to honor Cookie and Kelly, the last of that long line of rescues from years ago, along with that feeling of renewal in having young and lively Mimi wandering the yard with me that I intentionally went out to find a bleeding heart plant, brought it home, and planted it. And in short order we had five days of extreme heat, then storms when a branch fell on the poor thing and broke a portion of it, then freezing temperatures. I was sure it would fade and thinking perhaps I wasn’t meant to have one there anymore, Mimi and I went out to inspect the yard on Monday and I saw a tiny bit of pink through the emerging greenery, and there was just this one branch of little heart-shaped pockets in magenta and white. And I saw that the one branch left on this plant was leaning well over the kitty, holding the heart-shaped flowers over the kitty’s head. Many meanings in the emergence of those flowers in the face of such adversity.
So this is a Decoration Day here as well, as I remember all the kitties whose earthly remains are placed there, and whose spirits I clearly feel as I stir the soil to add their next feline family member: Kublai, Allegro, Fawn, Sally, Nikka, Moses, Stanley, Sophie, Lucy, Namir, Peaches, Cookie and Kelly, and fosters Lakota, Emeraude, Kennedy and a feral kitty named Victoria.
Some feline memories in photos and art
They are actually from around July 4, but the flags are always from the Memorial Day parade.
Above is Stanley on the picnic table on July 4, 2006, his last summer with me at age 24. You may recognize this from my sketch “Stanley With Geraniums”—this is one of the photos from that series, and I mentioned I almost included the flag in that sketch. Below is a gratuitous photo of Cookie that just happens to have my flag in it as I worked on a project out on the deck on July 4, 2009.
I am wishing health and safety to all of you and your loved ones, and that your memories are sweet and cherished, even if they make you cry unexpectedly.
Of course, on Memorial Day, I remember my father who was a veteran of WWII, and all my male relatives from my parents’ generation, all of whom served in the same war. Older cousins, both male and female, served in later conflicts and in peacetime, and I am honestly grateful for all they’ve done in service to this country. I wanted to share articles I’ve posted on my other sites.
“Memorial Day”, a remembrance of my father and his service, on Paths I Have Walked.
“Memorial Day Dedication Ceremony”, a slideshow of photos from the annual ceremony in the veterans’ section of a local public cemetery, on Today.
“SOLDIER 1861–1865”, a photo taken of a Civil War-era headstone, on Today.
“Memorial Day Parade”, a poem and pencil sketch of our local Memorial Day Parade on Main Street from 2008, on Paths I Have Walked.
Browse a gallery of photos I’ve taken over the years of the reenactors and activities at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall’s Civil War Living History Event.
Read more Essays on The Creative Cat.
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Animal Sympathy Cards from Portraits of Animals
Inspired by my own losses, my animal sympathy cards fill a need for those who want to give and those who need to receive pet-appropriate images and sentiments that remember the joy of life with their animal companions. Click here to read more.
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And sometimes, I just throw my hands in the air and have fun!