Dear Animal Lover,

            You know who you are.  You’re one of those people who consider the animal you live with “a member of the family.” You sometimes make a fool of yourself telling anecdotes about this animal to people who don’t quite get it. You cringe a little when someone refers to you as a “pet owner,” knowing full well that no one “owns” an animal.  If you aren’t an animal lover, there is no reason to read further.

            One of the challenges to life with a companion animal is their number of allotted days are so much fewer than ours. Depending upon the breed, a dog averages 10-13 years. Depending upon whether it’s an indoor or outdoor cat, 12-18 years. Despite good veterinary care or fancy diets, they are going to experience old age and death long before you are ready for this. I have been through this passage now with eight animals.

            Animals have been among my greatest teachers, as each of their lives have changed mine through both their living and their dying. One thing I’ve learned is that even close friends do not have patience for more than one conversation about the loss of a beloved animal, but grief has it’s own schedule. A useful aid to me in the process of letting go has been to write short tributes or obituaries for each of my animals. The process of remembering helps you uncover their gift to you. This is the most recent one, about our cat, Edith, who died last year. (The  photo above was taken of her during the total eclipse of the sun in 2016.)

Edith, 2006-2018

My four-year-old son, Frank, found Edith in the recycle bin one morning 12 years ago when I asked him to take the cans outside. He remembers being a little frightened to see this 3-pound skeleton of a cat where aluminum and tin should be, but she purred so quickly that he rushed to tell me that there was something alive out there. Bird-loving dog devotees, we weren’t the perfect family for a cat. But she made us her family. When we weren’t sure if we should let her in, she hung from the screen door like a Christmas decoration wearing suction cups.  When our 60-pound Rottweiler mix went for her food, she jumped on the dog’s back and dug in her claws.  Always, though, when any person picked her up, she purred and purred.

Thanks to our vet, Edith doubled her weight and beat the fleas and worms that tried to take her down. Visitors who met her invariably commented on her voice. “What is that sound?” “Oh, that’s our cat purring on the radiator.”  We had a difficult time beating her fungal infection, and eventually a surgeon removed a polyp the size of a jumbo shrimp from her throat. “Cats don’t ordinarily come out of anesthesia purring,” he told us afterward. “We are all quite taken with her.”

Edith sat on Charlie’s lap that sad day the Rottweiler died. She sat on Frank’s lap when his science fair project didn’t advance. And she comforted me through that rainy year that both my father and nephew died by vibrating herself through every cell of my being. As an 8-year-old Katie Franklin put it: “She loves me.”

After the way that Edith entered our world, nothing else seemed like a challenge for her. She quickly notified our new puppy, Fletcher, that she was here first.  He was smaller than her at 6 weeks, but he respected this order when he was twice her size. They had an on-again, off-again relationship until Edith accidentally shut herself in the abandoned house next door. We looked everywhere for a week, plastered the neighborhood with her photo, and gave her up for dead when Fletcher (aka Lassie) barked at the house until we saw her face in the window. Edith and Fletcher became close friends, and she purred to hypnotize him into being groomed. When she had enough, she bit his leg.

In September 2016, Edith suffered a stroke. She lost mobility in two legs, and she lived precariously at our vet for four days. She purred whenever one at of the vet technicians touched her, raising their spirits. We brought her home (not knowing if it was to say goodbye), and she purred every time we did something for her.  In two weeks, she learned to walk again.  The following summer she greeted the miraculous full eclipse of the sun with family, friends, and dogs (we live inside the totality) by, of course, purring and purring.

On Maundy Thursday 2018, she finally slowed. She sat in the spring sunshine and purred, which of course drew us all around her.  My husband, son, and I each had a chance to say what needs to be said. After 11 years, Edith didn’t have to say anything. She understood: The secret to life is a loud purr.

           I usually send these tributes to good friends who are cat or dog lovers or who appreciated the animal. And part of writing a tribute, for me, has been to seal it in plastic, then put it inside a jar, and bury it with each animal in my garden.  In this way, I always find that they live on.

In gratitude,

Margaret

Other unusual aids to grief I recommend are:

For Cat Lovers: May Sarton, The Fur Person, New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.

For Dog Lovers: Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain, New York: Harper, 2008.

For Children: Cynthia Rylant, Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven, Blue Sky Press, 1995 and 1997.

 

Jane Fonda and Tomlin in ‘Grace and Frankie.’ (Photo: Netflix/Lionsgate)

 

Dear Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda,

Congratulations, Lily and Jane! And thank you for setting in motion what I hope will be a new era of comedy. For the first time in my adult life, I’ve watched four seasons of a television series that portrays older women as engaging, funny, thoughtful, and, yes, sexy. Grace and Frankie is a new moment in the history of comedy.

Although there have been comedies about older women—Golden Girls or Maude comes to mind—or starring older women (the ubiquitous Betty White), invariably, these women are the butt of jokes. The audience laughs at them, not with them. They are Grumpy Old Women and not people we might emulate. No one watching them is invited to think differently about aging or our society’s dysfunctional attitudes toward wrinkles and gray hair.

Grace and Frankie manages to captivate us using real situations. In the third episode (Season 1, “The Dinner”) Grace and Frankie go to the store together, where a clerk is so busy fawning over a young and beautiful customer that he ignores their potential purchase. After trying for a long time to get the young man’s attention, Grace (Jane Fonda) loses her patience and yells angrily, “Are we invisible?” Every woman over 50 can relate to this experience, but in the parking lot Frankie (Lily Tomlin) offers revenge: “We have a superpower,” she says, holding up a pack of cigarettes she’s pilfered. “You can’t see me, you can’t stop me.”

Even the set-up for the show is funny. Grace and Frankie’s husbands—Sol and Robert, played by Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen—leave their wives for each other. Grace is a businesswoman who never had time for her children; Frankie is an aging flower child who teaches a painting class to former convicts. Thrown together by their husbands, they are the Odd Couple with a unique twist: their husbands of 50 years turned out to be gay.

Great humor is more than a setup, though, it also nudges us into uncomfortable subjects. Taking her somewhat stoned daughter, Brianna, (June Diane Raphael) and Frankie to the frozen yogurt store, Grace slips on the floor and confronts the fear that haunts every older person: an injury that might limit their ability to live a normal life (Season 1, “The Fall”). She ends up seeing how much she needs her friend, Frankie, whom she so often criticizes. “I’m just like you,” quips Frankie, “except with a better personality.”

Different responses to the impending death from cancer of their dearest friend, Babe, separates Grace and Frankie, as they grapple with end-of-life issues. “I don’t need a miracle, Sugar,” Babe explains to them both. “I’ve had a really good ride.” (Season 2, “The Party”) Babe attempts dark humor in a way that is real and funny and not funny. Negotiating the roller coaster set in motion by Babe, the two friends don’t agree, but they see each other and Babe in a new light.

And, yes, older women can be sexy. In the first season, a stranger tells Grace she is “smokin’ hot,” and anyone watching the show can believe that this is possible. Single women over 50 worry about whether or not they should put an ad on a singles website, and then what that ad should say. They use vibrators, and they are interested in potions that improve lubrication. Grace and Frankie explores the humor in all of these situations. And they reveal the true risk that it takes to be vulnerable. It was worth watching all four seasons to see how Grace finally allows herself to be vulnerable to a younger man, Nick. As she pulls off her fake eyelashes and washes off her make-up, she says: “You want the real me, well this is what you get. And it’s all downhill from here.” (Season 4, “The Expiration Date.”)

You may remember some four decades ago, Grey Panther Maggie Kuhn blasted the media for not including normal images of older adults. Old white women accounted for less than 1% of the major characters on television, and old black women, she charged, “were only depicted as victims or corpses.” In 1975, the Gray Panthers successfully persuaded the National Association of Broadcasters to amend the Television Code of Ethics to include “age” along with race and sex as an area where the media needed to be more sensitive. Despite the best efforts of Maggie and the Gray Panthers, little has really changed on television for older women.

Maggie appeared on Donohue and The Tonight Show, and she was so charming nobody cared if she was critiquing the show and the entire media to boot. I remember as a child, thinking she was funny but also really thinking about what she said. We are living in a future where facelifts and botox are commonplace; hair coloring, mundane. I don’t plan to confess what I spend on wrinkle cream, but none of us have to guess what Maggie Kuhn would think about of all that.

Still, one night, in between episodes of Grace and Frankie, I thought I heard her laugh out loud.

With gratitude,

Margaret

 

  1. S. to Readers: Grace & Frankie is a Netflix Series, and it enters Season 5 in 2019. For more on Maggie Kuhn, see the Gray Panthers Archives at Temple University.