Tapping into my inner handyman

We have some general cottage rules: claim times before you set your holiday schedule at work; first one up cuts the grass; last one up stores the canoes; and leave it as clean as you found it.

My sisters both think I’m a slob and that I don’t know they talk about me behind my back. I know.

Probably the toughest rule is this one: if it breaks on your watch, you have to get it fixed. If that means finding a plumber or electrician during high season, that’s what you have to do.

Gilly has an edge because her husband is really handy and we have no problem allowing Manny to spend his holiday fixing things. Roz is super organized and can find receipts and knows things like when the septic tank should be cleared.

I have Christopher and Ari and everyone is just happy we don’t burn down the place.

As Gilly was packing up last week, we got a note that the bathroom tap had started leaking. I was coming up the next day, so I told her not to worry, I’d handle it. Roz said we probably needed new taps, as the ones on there came from the Sears Early Poverty line. No problem.

I picked up a set of taps in town, paying careful attention to the size and knowing we wanted something with a higher spout. I did not pay attention to the drain part. This becomes important later on.

We still work with the tools my father left behind, many of which were in turn left behind by the previous owner 43 years ago. My father believed he could fix most problems with a hammer.

I rounded up some tools that looked promising, if a little rusty.

I read the instructions (it was only going to take three simple steps), shut off the water and got to work. It wasn’t hard to get the offending taps off and the new ones on.

I spent an hour lying with a cricked up back under a tiny vanity alternately swearing and saying lefty loosey tighty righty under my breath.

I got the little water hoses hooked up and couldn’t figure out why the taps were still all wobbly. I spotted the little black things you screw on to anchor them, and took everything apart to get them on.

I still had a part left over. The drain in the kit was very different from the drain in the sink. I’d already disconnected some bits, and now they just lay there looking at me.

Making an executive decision, I started tugging out the old drain. I felt some pride in finally using tools the instructions hadn’t thought to tell me I’d need.

When everything looked about right, I turned on the taps and water fell all over me. I picked up the phone to call our local contractor, Rod. He calls us Those Crazy Sommerfeld Women. The next morning, he surveyed my handiwork.

“The taps aren’t quite centred,” he told me. I was aware of that, and knew it would make Roz nuts. She’s a little OCD-ish and I knew she’d say how nice they looked while silently measuring the half centimetre they were off.

After a couple of days, I’d call and tell her how to straighten them.

“You’d do that to your sister,” he said.

“Of course,” I replied.

Turned out the issue was in the black bendy bits under the sink, not my mad skills. Rod did a bunch of real plumbing while I watched, though he gave me points for getting the taps on.

Never did use the hammer.

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If you’re going to break a trophy, make it a loser

We were sitting down for dinner when Ari looked quizzically at a stout, glass trophy in the middle of the table.

“Oh, that’s only there because one of the cats broke it last night. Check the base,” I told him. A good sized chunk of glass had broken cleanly off. I was considering gluing it back together.

“Well, good thing it’s not a winner or anything,” he said.

You could have driven a truck through the slow motion moment of silence that ensued. Emblazoned on the piece were the words Runner Up; while technically correct, the rest of the table knew it was a second-place grab for a national auto writing award that only issues two spots.

Not a win, but not bad.

Even as he finished the sentence, Ari was slowly looking up at me to make eye contact. Like he could stop me from reaching for my gun holster or something. Everyone else at the table froze

“All I mean is busting the other one would have been worse.”

There is actually a first placer the cats could have knocked over instead, because I never put anything away.

“If one had to be broken, it’s better it’s that one.”

Pammy started laughing; Ari’s girlfriend Taryn gave him a deliberate look before saying, “you need to stop talking.”

“No! All I mean is if one of my fifth place track and field ribbons got lost, I wouldn’t care!”

By now Pammy was laughing so hard she put her fork down. Taryn was shaking her head in disbelief.

“So, let me get this straight. You’re comparing my writing award to your Grade 3 track day ribbon.”

“Just the fifth place one.”

“The ones that everyone got just for attending the meet.”

“I’d be mad if it was the first place ones,” he said after some consideration.

“You were eight years old.”

A few years ago when I changed papers with my car work, I thought Motherlode was done. Though still a freelancer, I thought leaving a parent company might spell the end of the column.

The boys have pretty much grown up in this space, the highs and lows of our world unspooling each week. They have never paid it much attention because it’s always just been there.

When I sat them down that night to tell them the news, I was surprised most by Ari’s reaction.

“Why can’t you still write Motherlode?” he asked.

“Not sure if I’ll have a conflict, but it’s been a great run. I’ll miss it,” I said, which was a very big understatement. I’d been walking around all day imagining the end of Motherlode like a small death.

“Look,” Ari said with some force. “I’ve never read a single one, but that’s just not right.” He and his brother have threatened to have silent days, to withhold what they call my material.

I make a living doing something I love and to my sons, it’s just business as usual, albeit comparable to a third grade track day. I sit at my computer in the kitchen as the household pulses around me. Look at a weather map when they’re forecasting a hurricane; I’m that swirly crazy part in the middle.

There have been many don’t-you-dare-write-that moments, and many more times I’ve self-censored to protect the guilty, including myself.

I long ago stopped looking for what sets us apart from other families by understanding that our strengths lie in the things that make us the same.

I actually don’t care much about the trophies, only the material.

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You’ve got mail. Sort of

My mail – my actual mail in the mailbox on the front of my house mail – is pretty slender these days. I use email for most things, though Canada Post needn’t worry; Pammy orders enough on-line to keep the wheels of that corporation well greased.

But letters, cards, bills and cheques have for the most part been electronically replaced. Fewer dead trees and less clutter make me a fan. I haven’t sent out Christmas cards in years and years so I don’t expect to receive them. I used to do Christmas cards, just like my Mom, but the first year after the divorce I sent out a batch signed with just three names and got launched headlong into yet another discussion from a pearl-clutching tutting friend of my mother’s about the errors of my ways. No more Christmas cards. I hold my mother’s graces alongside my father’s grudges.

I do smile when I receive mail forwarded from readers, lovely handwritten missives that I not only read, I keep.

Which is in direct contrast to the holiday cards I receive from people like insurance agents and financial planners. Why? I wouldn’t know the man who juggles my kids’ school accounts if I ran over him with my car. I’m not revealing a dark side here; just that if he was trapped beneath the wheels and emergency services were desperately asking “does anyone know who this man is?” I’m afraid I’d have to shake my head sadly, in spite of the fact that he’s been sending me Christmas and birthday greetings for over two decades.

My sister and I exchange a Thanksgiving card back and forth. A company she deals with sends out greetings for every single thing noted on the calendar. I’m slightly jealous, as I only get Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday, whereas she is encouraged to celebrate not just her own birthday, but Queen Victoria’s, as well. She now crosses out her own name and forwards it to me, usually for an unrelated event.

I wish they’d just follow the lead of other places I know and make a donation to a local charity, instead of ordering yet more foil-lined envelopes. I often wonder why I read headlines saying I’m wasting money if I buy a frou frou coffee when I should be investing for my feeble retirement, yet the very place I entrust to invest that money thinks greeting cards (that are seldom opened, scarcely read and rarely appreciated) are a sound decision. I’m sure politicians of all stripe are shooting their festive holiday pictures as I write this, and the media will scan them come December like they’re reading tea leaves. Stephen Harper in a snowflake sweater. Awesome.

I get little calendars I can’t use from realtors I don’t know. My entire history is encapsulated on Milk Calendars because I need squares big enough to write in and recipes made from things I actually have in the house.

Someone needs to inform the fridge magnet people only the sides of popular stainless steel appliances are magnetic, severely limiting the acreage available to post that phone number. I’ve heard some places that annually send out gorgeous poinsettias defend themselves against their poisonous-to-pet qualities (the plants, not the companies) stating they’re only a little toxic. Nothing says happy holidays like mild signs of vomiting, drooling, or diarrhea.

I’m a fan of reminders from eye doctors and dentists, and the free toothbrushes at every checkup. I like samples that’ll do a load of dishes or laundry. But birthday and holiday greetings that have been sent out from an assembly line?

No, thank you.

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One of Mama Lorraine’s proudest moments

Christopher and I were sitting in a convocation hall filled with people, all proudly watching their loved ones receive degrees. It was noisy and busy, but when I saw his girlfriend Pammy, 23, enter the hall in her graduation robe, I waved excitedly. She excitedly waved back. Christer pretended he didn’t know me.

Pam“Never fall in love with the girlfriends,” a reader told me years and years ago. The thought has lingered in the back of my mind. I’ve dismissed it, of course, because every kid who crosses my threshold is welcome whether they make me jump for joy or hide the silver. I’m aware romantic relationships can be more fraught than other friendships, but my sons have been free to bring home anyone they care about. Every kid is special.

I learned a while ago that not a lot of girls were brought around because of me, not them. “You can kind of be a bit much,” I was told. I found this confusing. I make excellent conversation and consider myself an adequate hostess, and I always make sure I have pants on when new people are around. I have erred, it seems, in being visible at all. Roles have reversed; I should be seen and not heard. And preferably not even seen.

Pammy was different. She’s been dating Christopher for 5 years now, a feat I find simultaneously astounding and darling. She’s lived with us for the past 4 years, and though I was hesitant at first, this young woman has worked harder than anyone I know, and every time I threaten to throw my son out, I stop to consider I would be throwing her out, too. And then I don’t do it.

She has worked part time jobs as she studied. I’ve seen her at her laptop long into the night; early classes; late classes; group projects and midnight deadlines. I come home to a full fridge and a clean bathroom; she scoops litter; she folds laundry. She recently bought her first car and not only asked for my advice, but took it. She is paying off her student loans early. She calls me Mama Lorraine.

So don’t fall in love with the girlfriends, they say. I get it. But what seems to be forgotten is that this girl, this young woman, is someone I admire beyond the bounds of her role in my son’s life. I would work with her in a professional setting (in fact, I do; she is my lead hand on a project I’m working on), and I would support her regardless of her relationship with my son. He looked at me one day and said, “she’s pretty special, isn’t she,” and it wasn’t a question. I didn’t raise her; I just raised a young man who appreciates her. Nobody knows the future, but this is a lovely present.

As we watched her accept her degree, I glanced at Christopher. His formal schooling is on hold, as we say in polite company. There was no denying the pride in his eyes as he bellowed out a line from Game of Thrones as his beloved’s name was announced. I looked at him quizzically, but the laughter that ensued made me realize I was about the only one who didn’t get the joke. He knew what I was thinking, though.

“I think I’d only consider going back for a degree in keilbasa,” he said over the noise. I looked at him in horror.

“Are you kidding me? Kielbasa?” His turn to stare at me. “I said philosophy. You seriously just thought I said I wanted a degree in kielbasa?”

Like I said, every kid is special.

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Forget the Smartie Philosophy: Eat the red ones first

My Mom’s mother died when she – my grandmother – was just 54; it was before I was born, but I remember Mom telling me she lived life up until her own 54th birthday with her breath slightly held. Crossing that imaginary tape was a relief.

For my dad, it was the opposite. His own father had plugged away until 93, and as Dad grew progressively more ill in his 60s, it became clear to all of us he would never meet the Sommerfeld longevity standard. As it was, the doctors who poked and prodded him as his lungs gave out were astounded he was still alive. They told us privately it was only because he’d been so active and never smoked that he was here at all. The bad news was that he was dying; the good news is that it was taking him longer than they thought it would.

My parents lived their lives, in some ways, with very different philosophies. I know now it was directly because of the arc of their own parents’ lives. Mom lived every day completely while Dad festered over a tomorrow that might never come. Mom saw every year after age 54 as a bonus, while Dad felt he was ripped off for the 23 his father got that he didn’t.

My father started a subscription to National Geographic in 1966; I know this because it was the year my sister was born, and it’s where the stacks of magazines in the basement begin. There is no way any would have been thrown out, because National Geographic was a religion in this house. You didn’t turn down a page you were reading, you used a bookmark; you didn’t set a drink on it; you didn’t take it until Dad had finished reading it, which could take awhile because he read the entire thing. It was from him I learned this habit, reading something cover to cover regardless of topic.”Learn something,” he’d growl as I spent too much time poring over the familiar and dodging the unknown.

In grade 6 – 1973 – I was doing a project on Russia. I spent the requisite hours at the library creating a masterpiece that encompassed all things Russian: agriculture, trade, history, geography, sports and art. I liked to do a thorough job, and I’m sure I got all those headings directly out of an encyclopedia. After colouring a few maps, my project was decidedly lacklustre and the photocopies I was running for a dime apiece added nothing. As I dug through reference materials, I realized we had a whole trove at home. National Geographic magazines.

I showed Dad the glossy photos on a pictorial of Russia. I’m sure it was from 1966 because it was near the beginning of the shelf. I asked him if I could cut out the pictures to use for my project. It was like I’d asked if I could cut out his heart. You did not cut up National Geographic magazines. You saved them. For some tomorrow.

I cut out the pictures.

When I got the project back, I carefully taped all the pictures back in their windowpanes. It looked exactly like a 9-year-old had scissored them out and cobbled them back together. I don’t know if he ever knew, but I doubt it. I’d have remembered the trouble if he had. Clearing out the basement a few years ago, I discovered scores of National Geographics, and found that one as well as a few others I take full responsibility for; I’d defied him to live in the moment.

Dad would have turned 89 yesterday. He’d still give me hell if he found out.

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Forget seven stages of grief. There’s only one: I miss you

“I think I missed the Maggie column, can you tell me when it ran?”

This email flipped across my laptop while I was out of the country for work. I’d just finished getting dressed for dinner and was trying not to wrinkle/tear/spill anything on the only grownup outfit I’d brought along. My makeup was done and I immediately started crying it off my face.

Maggie was my cat. As a part of the household, she’s served many roles in this column, from star to cameos to supporting cast. Fourteen years ago when the boys were young, I’d promised them a cat when the time was right. Vet bills and cat food were nowhere in our ridiculously tight budget at the time, so I used mystic phrases like “when it’s meant to be” and “we’ll get a sign”.

The sign was Free Kittens propped by the curb of a house that looked like it had been condemned years before. Sensing a bad outcome, I left the kids at home. I crept around the back to find three drunken men holding two chainsaws aloft, empty beer cans everywhere. It took them a moment to notice me, a moment I nearly seized to run far, far away.

“Free cats?” I asked, trembling. I never tremble, but the beer- chainsaw combo rarely ends well. I went home with a few ounces of calico kitten, fur so sparse it was more like feathers. She was trembling, too.

I don’t use the word “besotted” often, but we were besotted with this tiny beast. She reached her full weight of six pounds and maintained her kittenish good looks her entire life. She sat on my lap all day and slept with me every night. I would carry her around while I put on the kettle or fetched the mail, neither of us thinking there was anything odd about this.

Around age 12, she started getting cranky if I was away. She would usually stop eating, and Christopher would race her to the vet. I still have one memorable text: “I know the Visa card is for emergencies, but I took Maggie to the vet and told them to do whatever they had to. I know that’s what you would want.” We paid $600 to find out she was sulking.

She’d have blood work every six months or so in the final two years. I think she just had a crush on her vet. She dropped a half pound each time and it stayed off, my tiny girl shrinking before my eyes. I’d await the results with the vet’s cautionary words ringing in my ears. And each time, both the vet and I would be amazed to find out she was essentially fine. Maggie had perfected faking it. She only needed a small fainting couch to complete her drama.

Except the last time, of course. In January of this year, I looked at the vet, the test results, and my four-and-a-half pound girl who refused to eat, and said no to surgery. Christer and I endured a tearful exchange where he was prepared to use his own Visa card, but I shook my head.

Resilience, like youth, is wasted on the young. I keep barricades around my heart to keep things out, because once in, they take up permanent residence. It’s like a cupboard full of broken dishes in there, and I walk around with small ghosts hanging from me like charms on a bracelet.

That reader hadn’t missed the Maggie column. I’ve just never been able to write it. It’s too hard to articulate things I can’t bear.

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I used to laugh at Dad for never throwing anything away. Not anymore

I glanced through the back window in time to see dinner being cremated.

“I thought one of you was keeping an eye on the barbecue!” I yelled.

“I just checked it. It was fine,” said Christopher. I opened the lid to see five chicken breasts huddling together on the left side of the grill, as if something had scared them. “Why is everything crowded over here?”

Because the right side had turned into a flamethrower, again. But they were only on the left front area, because the rear burner quit working years ago.

“Did you say we were getting a new barbecue last year?” asked Christopher. “Five years ago,” I corrected him. The barbecue is nearly twenty years old. It’s a Weber natural gas one because I use it all year round, and can’t stand lugging propane tanks around or worse, opening a cold grill with dinner staring back at me, half cooked. It’s been an excellent barbecue, outlasting a team of cheaper ones, and I’ve replaced parts when I could. Problem is, buying pieces of barbecues is cheaper than buying one whole. And it’s time for a whole one.

One of the knobs stopped turning several winters ago. I thought it was just ice and told the kids it would work again in the spring. I fix a lot of things this way; a friend’s air conditioning unit was making a weird noise. She asked if I knew anything about them. I went over and gently banged on it and the humming stopped. I told her it was fixed. If my computer starts messing up, I immediately shut it down so all the gremlins can leave. These things work just frequently enough for me to have faith in them.

Spring came and the knob didn’t work. We adjusted to cooking on the remaining two sections, which is totally fine unless a guest tries to barbecue. It’s like knowing where the creaky stair is, or using pliers to turn off the tap because the handle broke. Every house has its magic.

I saw an ad to win a new barbecue, and it looked like it would be perfect so I entered. I’m still waiting to hear back on that. I thought of making the kids put their money where their mouths quite literally are, knowing if it comes to food, they can probably be inspired. Pammy once wanted to start a petition to make them frost both sides of her Mini Wheats.

I watch people crowd fund surgical procedures which makes me sad, and weddings which makes me laugh. It then occurred to me that my barbecue lasted far longer than my marriage did; going by some chart I just found, I’m coming up to my china anniversary with my barbecue. If begging for wedding donations looks greedy and silly, begging for a barbecue at least would be a good return on the investment.

I know what’s actually going to happen. I’m going to procrastinate for another year, and as soon as I can find a complete pair of rubber gloves instead of just three lefts, I’ll tear it apart and rebuild the sucker. Ari will raise an eyebrow knowing I won’t remember where everything goes, and he’ll help. I’ll call the Weber place to ask about some part and I’ll call it a doohickey and they will pretend they’re not laughing.

And after I’ve broken all my nails and have grease everywhere, the knob still won’t work but it will at least look better.

My mom always told me to put a little lipstick on if I wanted to feel better. My barbecue just needs a little lipstick.

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Unless Noah is on match.com, I’m doomed

Christopher’s girlfriend, Pammy, 23, has wanted a dog her entire life. She’s lived with us for four years and I’ve never felt obligated to indulge her childhood yearnings because I always wanted a pogo stick and I got one and I hit my head on a snow shovel hanging on the wall when I pogo’d in the garage because it was raining. Sometimes parents shouldn’t give in to childish whims.

After losing my darling Maggie in January, it threw the cat quota askew. JoJo is 12; Pip is 2, but I reasoned she needed a friend. Hence the two kittens, now 5 months old. What’s worse than a 5 month old kitten? Two 5 month old kittens.

When Ari’s girlfriend brought her dog Shelby around, I was shocked to see everybody adjust quite nicely. I thought of something.

“Pammy, when you guys move out, you’re going to get a dog instantly. It might make sense for you to start looking now, so it can become accustomed to the cats, and here. We all know where it will be dropped off when you need a sitter.” There was stunned silence, at both concepts: someone moving out, and someone getting a dog. That afternoon, Pammy and Christer went off to the Hamilton SPCA “just to look”.

What they brought home was The Ugliest Dog in the World. Pammy came in cuddling a hairy bundle of sticks, cooing about how precious he was. Even the cats thought it was a joke. After a grooming, it was revealed she’d adopted a rat terrier- Chihuahua, apparently something that is made on purpose. She named him Alfie; my father finally got his namesake. Alfie has the face of an 89-year-old man, so it seems appropriate. If my father were alive, he too would have the face of an 89-year-old man.

I’ve had a crash course in dogs the past two weeks. They are different from cats. They like other dogs. When a moving truck pulls in and a kid is watching out the window saying, “I hope they have kids!”, that is a dog. If you introduce something new to a cat, they roll their eyes and tell you they’ll get back to you in a month or two. Maybe.

I tell Shelby she can go on the couch. “Lie on your towel,” I say. She carefully lies down beside the towel.

Marco gets on the counter where he’s not supposed to be. He stares deeply and intently into an outlet. I worry about this one.

Cairo likes one of my sweaters to knead and teethe on. I didn’t know kittens’ teethe, but apparently they do. She intently goes to town on my sweater, blissfully unaware that I am actually wearing it and she’s piercing my lower back with her teeth and claws.

JoJo sits high on one of my dressers most days, certain The Rapture must surely be upon us. She is equally certain she is the only one in the household who will be saved, because surely the addled won’t be rewarded.

Pip is angry at Pammy, who previously gave her undivided attention and love until Alfie, the puppy with the face of a gargoyle, showed up. Pip now loves me best.

A colleague called me the other night. “You’re up to four cats? And two dogs? You’ve already written that you’re officially crazy, too, right?” I pretended to take offence to his tone; I could hardly argue the content. “You know you’re staying single forever, right?” Good thing, I thought. Four cats sleep with me every night.

And sometimes a puppy who looks like a gargoyle.

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Food is the way to my heart… as long as I know what it is

Pammy wanted to make guacamole the other day. I do not do this, but I am not averse to things like this taking place in my kitchen.

“Where’s the avocados?” she asked. A reasonable thing. I looked at her blankly.

“What avocados?”

“I had two avocados here in the fruit bowl. They were finally ripe enough, and I need them.”

“What exactly does a ripe avocado look like?” I asked her. As it turns out, if you ask me, they look exactly like a pear that has gone really bad. I’d thrown them out. Some people watch too much Food Network. I don’t watch enough. The limes accompanying the avocados didn’t go to waste, however. They gave up their tarty lives in several gin and tonics.

I fumble with food that doesn’t start out looking like what it ends up being. Pineapples dare you to eat them, and kiwis look like something just got neutered. I try to give all new ideas a chance, especially if they’re plunked in front of me. Most are overrated and sometimes, I wonder if there is some giant joke going on. I ate kale chips in a pretty spectacular restaurant in California, and if it hadn’t been for the very successful martini in my other hand, I never would have been able to swallow them. Sometimes the emperor has no clothes.

My sons have grown up none the worse for wear, as far as I can tell. Everybody will try everything once, and eat anything put before us if someone we need to impress is watching. The fact remains we’re a bunch of peasants at heart (and stomach) and prefer food we can not only readily identify, but pronounce. I thought teaching my kids how to pronounce Worcestershire was silly until people starting getting all fancy about bruschetta and quinoa. I won’t fault you for making those faces with your perfect enunciation, but I probably will make fun of you.

For Mother’s Day recently, the kids announced they were taking me out for breakfast. They know I prefer breakfast over any other meal, and I know they’d had a party the night before and needed hangover food. I told them it was lovely of them to think of me on this special day, and Ari replied they figured it would be easier to get a table if they had a mother with them.

Christopher and Ari sat at one end of the table, and I sat in the middle, chattering away with Taryn and Pammy. I looked up in time from requesting my usual omelette to hear Christopher order something called a Hungry Man breakfast. Before I could finish reading what that was comprised of, Ari ordered the same thing. It entailed four eggs, four kinds of pig, toast, hash browns and other things. It sounded if not awful, at least awfully big.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said as platters were deposited before each of them. They were grinning like fools, staring at plates that have probably been ordered as last meals. I poured more coffee and daintily spread some jam on a slice of toast. I fully expected Christer to discover Jimmy Hoffa when he lifted up a slice of ham.

It didn’t take long to realize that Ari’s eyes had been bigger than his belly. The girls and I scavenged a few things from his plate, but it was a lost cause. Too much comfort, too much food.

“Should have ordered the Hungry Boy,” Christopher told him with a smile.

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Snips and snails and puppy dog tails.. what is cat food made of?

You may have noticed that pet food is no longer just pet food. When we had our first cat 35 years ago, my mom plunked a bag of cat food into the cart at No Frills and that was that. My Dad supplemented the critter’s diet with all kinds of gross extras, like lumps of gristle. It was disgusting and Nooly just chowed it all down and lived to a healthy ripe old age. We’d find bits and pieces of mouse lying around, leading me to believe that our cat invented the sushi craze.

Now, I go into emporiums devoted to pet food, pet beds, pet toys and guilt. I spend more time peering at labels on tins of cat food than I do investigating what I feed my family. The internet is no help at all; if I listen to those crazy people, I should be spending three hours a day working on my Michelin star for our Cateteria. On the Internet, everybody is a pro. If I got itchy over people declaring themselves doctors and lawyers because of their Internet learning, I soon discovered the vast armies of homemade veterinarians out there.

I blame advertising, of course. Like many people, I’ve watched Mad Men and been made even more aware of the sinister side of selling, evil people plotting up ways to make me buy things I don’t need with money I don’t have wearing clothes I don’t like while asking myself why people wear false eyelashes.

It was bad enough when the ads were targeted to my sons. We had many, many battles over Nutella, a jar of chocolate gloop I refused to buy them. The boys dragged me to watch a commercial declaring it wholesome. For breakfast. I refused. Nutella had to pay fines over those misleading ads, but not before an entire generation was brainwashed into thinking it was the equivalent of spreading broccoli on their toast.

Advertising shows me frisky puppies and sleek cats next to labels featuring streams and vegetables. They leave out the part that animals eat animals; maybe they should show that purring calico bringing down a chicken. Most of it is so expensive, Christopher calls it câté.

We used to take Nooly to the cottage. We’d found him as a stray, and he knew his way around the outdoors. I was always terrified something would pick him off; he was nowhere close to king of the jungle up there. One time as we packed to head home, he had vanished. After a few hours of calling into the forest, my father announced we were leaving. Two girls with horror-stricken faces pressed to the back window of the station wagon wailed most of the way home. How would Nooly survive if he didn’t hear the can opener every night?

Two weeks later, we pulled into the cottage driveway, and Nooly was sitting on the back step. He looked fine. The cat and my father exchanged glances as we raced to open tins of food for our four footed Robinson Crusoe.

It’s this memory, of course, that nibbles around the edge of my brain as I scour labels for added fillers or too many carbohydrates. Venison, chicken, turkey, beef, ten kinds of fish, every kind of vegetable and I’ve yet to see the only label that would make perfect sense: mouse. They could even draw up a little label, make a cute commercial.

As I stared at the latest labels a few days ago, stressing over the fact I’d bought something with brown rice in it, I heard the kids start laughing.

The kitten had eaten a gummy bear.

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