Miss Henrietta’s Heaven
Looking back on it, I should have been rich and beautiful, with a handsome, kind husband. But here I was, ordinary looking, never married, and enjoying my life teaching school in Book County, North Carolina. I never went to Europe, like Pete McKinnon did, she ran away with a playboy and traveled around the world. She wound up back in Book County with nothing to show for it but a fancy pink and black dress and a really stupid hat that she insisted was from a famous haberdasher.
I grew up in Book County, high in the Great Smoky Mountains. It was the last county incorporated in North Carolina, the Scots shoving out the remnants of the Cherokee. The Great Depression was tough on my parents, but I roamed the forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains and thought life was grand. I could identify any tree, flower, or critter that I encountered on my wanderings. When money was nonexistent, public libraries still had books. I skipped almost a year of studies when I got to the Western Carolina Teachers College in 1942. Tests on botany, biology, zoology, and geology were passed and classes satisfied. I came back home to Book County and started teaching in 1945. Folks in Book County are religious, some faithful and some hysterical. I distanced myself from the hysterics, not because of my scientific knowledge, but because they made my stomach hurt from worrying. They were proved wrong about the end of the world, thank goodness, and with the end of the war, life picked up in Book County. It was good that I already had six years experience teaching before the wave of war babies hit the schools. Forty years teaching school, I know almost everyone in the county. Many are dear friends. Needless to say, I am not financially rich.
The handsome man in my past was a no account drifter, my mother said. He made me feel like the prettiest sunrise, the brightest moonlit night, the baby fawn, wobbly and full of wonder. I was sixteen, pregnant, alone, and my mother was mortified, befuddled as what to do with me. There was no such thing as an ‘unwed mother’ in her world. I stubbornly insisted that I would keep and raise the child. Maybe the screaming matches, my dad called them cat fights, made the child feel unwelcome. Before I could be sent away, I miscarried. My mother was elated. I was desolate.
Pete McKinnon and I did lots of things together. She never recovered from her lost love either. She lived in a solid Craftsman style bungalow, out past Robertsville. She and I would go horseback riding in the forest. We took a couple of trips to Las Vegas. I love number games and always won enough to pay for our trip!
Life in the mountains reflects your attitude. Plenty of folks had less than I did, and were content. Others could be sitting in the catbird seat and moan and be mean. The children in our classrooms were mirrors of their homes. I’m not a gossip and good thing, because I knew more than I wanted to about the families of Book County. There are countless stories, some turned out better than others.
People come and go but the mountains remain and erase human scars with the changing seasons. Native vegetation is denigrated as weeds, but a few years respite from bulldozers, chainsaws, lawn mowers, and weedwhackers and the mountains reclothe themselves in trees and flowers, bejeweled with butterflies and birds…
Let me know if you’d like to read the rest of the story. SL
Cat of God
© Susan Livengood 2007
Catherine studied the painting on the easel. The bent figure was a crone, not a middle-aged art teacher. Months of work and she realized that she hadn’t dealt with the hands. She would look up talons and claws. The energy and anger she had thrown at the board were evident. Tomorrow the show would be over, the county competition was over, and next week was final exams and respite, she prayed.
Idling, waiting for the coffee machine to do its’ thing, she contemplated what palette of colors would distinguish early morning light. What colors were in the light bathing the white walls of her painting studio? You couldn’t just lay down titanium white onto a canvas. A gray cat was contentedly sharing the chair, reveling in non-stop cat scratching. The spacious room with red chair and gray cat was quiet, unlike the racket of birdsong outside in the courtyard.
“Hank, why don’t you go to the opening tonight, and I’ll keep your spot by the window warm? I’ll keep an eye on those birds for you.”
The cat stretched, considered checking his bowl for missed morsels, but settled back into her lap. The fat red chair gracing Catherine’s studio had been sitting on the curb one day, waiting for the trashmen. Her son, Paul, and his friend, Ben, had been persuaded to haul it to her studio. College boys were good for something.
“No big deal, just the Art After Dark Stroll. Eileen says it will be a nicely mixed show. My students did great in the Book County Student Art Fair, but I’m exhausted. You go tonight and I’ll get some sleep.”
Catherine put the cat on the floor, stretched, and shook her arms, trying to wake up.
“Hank, look at you, so handsome. Tell them that you’re the artist. You’re patient, you could listen to them gush about talent and artistic influences.”
The cat headed for the food bowl, hopefully.
“They don’t want to hear about the grinding need to splash my emotions onto anything that stands still. It’s not talent, it’s torture!” She folded down and tapped the floor, stretching hamstrings.
Nothing was left in the bowl. The cat groomed himself, then curled up for that nap in the sun.
“You wouldn’t have to worry about what to wear, your gray tuxedo with tail, tres chic!”
Catherine got a cup of coffee. It was going to be a long day. Staring at the easel, she absently picked up a palette knife.
Paul Dade was casting. Practicing in the courtyard under the maple tree, he aimed at targets, always aware of not hanging the line in the tree. He would have much preferred to be in an icy mountain creek, casting for fish, not birds. He had twenty minutes until he had to leave for work. The pall of anger was heavy this morning, and the only way he knew to relieve it was to get lost in fishing. He flicked the line at the door to the studio, giving Hank something to stalk.
“Paul doesn’t know that I am The Cat of God. He named me Hank Aaron because he found me at the baseball field, a tiny kitten. I’ve been making up for that brush with starvation ever since. Catherine tried to persuade him that a cat was too expensive and too much work. Ha, she didn’t know who she was up against! Paul paid her back for every penny they spent on me. Now you may ask why God would send his cat to a small town in North Carolina. Go ahead, ask, I dare you!” The cat sat near the French door, alternately watching Paul casting and Catherine painting.
“Why would God send a cat when he has a host of angels?
Let me know if you’d like to read the rest of the story. SL