Friday, December 1, 2023
backyardcat photographscatscats visiting after deathcookieessaypet loss

Memories at the Picnic Table

picnic table in autumn yard
The picnic table, bench on its side.

Memories build on their own around the most common everyday things in our lives, and we don’t even realize until it’s pointed out to us in some poignant way. Visiting the picnic table nearly every day with Mimi, as she races me across the yard to hop onto one of the benches and have a really good scratch, is a habit that began years ago with other garden cats. The table has seen a lot of weathering over the years as it became the spot for morning coffee and summer lunches, breaks during working in the garden, and we’ve seen it layered with autumn leaves and piled with snow, waiting for those temperate days to return so we can just sit there once again.

Last autumn, in 2012, I wasn’t visiting the table very often at all. I don’t insist that everything about me stay neat, because then I’d have to keep it that way. But I do notice when things are out of place, especially when they are consistently out of place…the picnic table bench, for instance, which, every time I looked out in the yard from October onward was down on its side, sometimes it had obviously rolled a few times and flipped upside down. And it wasn’t just first thing in the morning, after the overnight visit of the raccoons, but also in the middle of the day, after I’d set it upright.

Normally it stands upright next to the picnic table, ready for me to use it as a base for my outdoor photo studio, or to sit on at lunch or to read…or for a kitty to step up onto it on her way to the picnic table. I always look at but don’t typically study the picnic table when I look outside, but when the bench is on its side I stop, look at it, and remember Cookie and our times there. That bench was her step up onto the outdoor throne she loved so much, and the big branch that’s there fell just in time to give Cookie a boost when, at age 17, she had difficulty lifting herself up onto the bench; I left it there after the big storm for that reason.

tortoiseshell cat stepping onto picnic table
Cookie steps up from her branch to her bench and onto her picnic table, November 2011; read “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” (click on photo).

I was so busy last summer with major changes in my business and worrying that I needed to focus and keep working, taking no time for breaks, and it was so hot that even Kelly and Mimi weren’t interested, then I lost Kelly and lost all interest for a while. I’d spent little time out there aside from my garden and hadn’t given myself the physical and creative breaks I’d always appreciated in a long day working at home when Cookie and a parade of kitties before her would bug me to go outside in the morning, or for a few minutes in the afternoon, and I would comply. Seeing the picnic bench on its side I decided it wasn’t important enough for me to take the time to walk out there and put it upright, and it really didn’t matter if it laid there, though it felt disrespectful to my memories, especially of recent times with Cookie. Eventually I would walk out to upright it, only to find it on its side once again, sometimes within hours. Even the raccoons weren’t that persistent.

Short visits outside to upright the bench led to longer ones and I was soon back to filling the bird feeders in the mornings and finding beautiful things to photograph and making memories with Mimi. Thoughts of Cookie each time I visit the yard, visualizing her in all the places I remember, eased the memory of autumn 2011 when I knew her loss was imminent though she reliably requested a visit to the yard no matter how she felt or what the weather was.

tortoiseshell cat in snowy back yard
Just a dusting of snow for Cookie’s visit to the back yard, December 2011; read “Just a Dusting” (click on photo).

Why did I think of Cookie each time I saw the bench was toppled? Was it that Cookie was still vigilant in my care, and saw that I needed to take a break and visit my refuge and tipped over the bench to lure me out? Perhaps to commune with her once again on a sunny autumn afternoon? And Namir too? And others? Perhaps she was remembering the moment one week after Namir had died that we were visited by a hummingbird as we sat at the picnic table remembering him.

two cats and person
Cookie and Namir and Me have lunch at the picnic table, 2007; I had to piece this together from about five photos I took holding the camera at arm’s length to take selfies…

I’ve had that picnic table since 1994 when I pulled it out of someone’s trash pile, cleaned it up and repaired it and for over a decade had it on my deck. Kublai and I were the first ones to share time on the picnic table and it holds the memory of time spent with each of the cats who’ve shared my life since then. I moved it to the yard a few years ago when I wanted a place to sit and even work out under the trees just in time for Cookie and Namir and me to create some wonderful memories.

two cats on picnic table
A magical morning in the back yard with Namir and Cookie; this was just four days before Namir died; read “Old Friends” (click on photo).

Cookie was the one who happily accepted her role as my lady-in-waiting all those years ago, and I’ve no doubt she was the main instigator in the plan to get me back outdoors, and I’ve also no doubt that Kelly, Peaches, Namir, Lucy, Stanley, Sophie, Moses, Nikka, Fawn, Sally, Allegro and Kublai all had paws in toppling it for my benefit. After they felt I was consistently visiting the yard, I’m sure, the bench stayed upright, and I was the better for it. I guess Cookie figured her work in this is done.

Cookie Watches
Cookie Watches

We sometimes deny ourselves or neglect things that bring us joy when we are grieving, at times intentionally but often not realizing, not wanting to relive memories associated with places or activities, yet it is by returning to them that we ease a little more of grief, as we must.

Several years ago, in autumn 2009, I was once again avoiding trips to the picnic table after losing Namir until one late autumn afternoon when Cookie pestered me enough to get me to go outside. Cookie and I spent some time in the back yard, she supervising my leaf and garden cleanup from the vantage of the picnic table. She and I hadn’t spent too much time out there since Namir had been gone; she didn’t seem to have the heart for it, nor did I. But time passes, and once the season has changed it puts a bit of a distance to the loss and we allow our memories to come forth. We remembered Namir and his antics, imagining what he’d be doing on a lovely day like that. Neither Cookie nor I had sat at the picnic table where the three of us spent many mornings, but returning on that day felt completely right.

When she was younger Cookie really didn’t like to have her picture taken, and when she would see the camera come out she looked everywhere but at me. However, in this one moment she looked straight at me and a sunbeam passed down through the thinning tree tops, catching the slight haze in the autumn air. He was with us, I think, in this beam of sunlight, the three of us together again.

tortoiseshell cat outdoors with sunbeam
Cookie with Sunbeam, remembering Namir.

Read other stories and essays about Pet Loss as well as my Pet Loss in the First Person series.

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2 thoughts on “Memories at the Picnic Table

  • Now you’ve got me crying again! I’ve been that way, seems like all year this year. First losing Question in February, then as long as Mewdy Blue was healthy I felt a little better. Then he passed and I fell apart. Now, just as I started to get back to my swimming and visiting family, Lady Butterfly has gone. But tomorrow I will have to get out to shovel those sidewalks. Maybe the exercise will do me good.

    • I hope so, Andrea. There was a year when I lost my four oldest cats and then my 15-month-old kitten and I really thought I’d die. Instead I took in her mother and half-siblings…guess who that is? But I’m sure I would have been a very different person otherwise. After losing Cookie and then Kelly in the same year, if these five hadn’t been here for me I may have just stayed in bed forever. I’m go glad to celebrate those happy moments of redemption. Hope the snow shoveling worked, at least for a while.


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