Volunteering as Defiance

Every Thursday I volunteer at an animal sanctuary down the road from me. This sanctuary, Last Dance Rescue Ranch, works to provide animals a safe place for the last years of their lives. It might sound like it’s full of geriatric, dying animals, although the reverse is more accurate. The place is hopping–literally! It shelters large livestock like cows, horses, donkeys, goats, sheep, pigs, alpacas, and one llama, as well small animals like rabbits, chickens, turkeys, cats, and dogs. These are animals whom no one really wants, and they’ve all found a home for the rest of their days on a little piece of land about two miles from where I live.

My job at the rescue ranch is to feed the cats. I had originally intended to do barnyard chores as a ploy to keep myself from acquiring large animals. When I moved to my own farm (I use the term loosely), I realized that I was living the dream of my nine-year-old self, who thought being surrounded by animals large and small was nothing short of heaven. But my senior citizen self realized that I have limited energy and strength (to say nothing of money), so I was hoping that mucking out stalls a couple of hours a week would keep me from acquiring any additional animals.

As it turned out, I’m not mucking out stalls: my job is to feed the cats in Catland, where anywhere from eight to twelve or so cats live. I am happy to serve wherever needed, and I happen to like cats a lot, so it’s a good fit. I am quite fond of the cats in Catland, from Sqeaky Pete (he has a screechy meow), to Pistol Pete (a youngster who is into everything), to the aged but affectionate Molly, to Eleven (who needs a pretty complicated mix of medicine), as well as a few other cats whose names I don’t know. Volunteering in this way helps me structure my week, and it gets me out of the house even on winter days when I really don’t want to emerge from my warm and comfortable cocoon.

But it’s how I came to volunteer at the Ranch that is, I think, blog-worthy. That’s because my time volunteering there is directly related to something that happened close to fifty years ago. And in this way, I feel like I’m defying time itself, forcing my distant past to stretch its thin hand all the way into my present life. In a sense, too, I feel that there is something almost holy about the work, trivial though it may be, that I do–and I’m not talking about the holiness of caring for neglected animals, or being altruistic, or paying it forward, or anything like that. Rather, I’m talking about the holy enterprise of keeping a memory alive, the memory of a person who lived only a short time on this planet–but whose memory can, and does, still have agency and a tangible effect on the world today.

And so here’s the story of how I came to volunteer at the Last Dance Rescue Ranch. When my mother died two years ago, my brother and sister and I tried to find suitable places to donate her things. Of course, a lot of stuff went into the trash, but we were able to give a lot of her possessions away to people who appreciated them. One thing that my mother had always kept on her cedar chest, wherever she was living, was a latch hook rug that she had received back in 1965 or so. It had been a gift from a little girl who lived a couple of houses down from us; she had made it specially for mom. There’s a story behind it: this little girl–I’ll call her “Jan”–was frequently ill with leukemia. We included her in our games whenever she was well enough to play, but apparently there were many periods when Jan was simply too sick to join in with us neighborhood kids in our raucous escapades. My mother, who was not always the nicest person (she actually had a pretty wide mean streak), took it upon herself to teach Jan how to knit, a pastime which kept her busy and active when she was stuck in bed, whether in the hospital or at home.

Because I was four years younger than Jan, I was pretty oblivious to a lot that was going on. I knew that Jan was sick and sometimes wasn’t home, but how could I know how serious it was? And I never knew that my mother had taught Jan to knit specifically to provide her with something to do when she was bedridden. As a matter of fact, Mom taught all of us neighborhood kids to knit, even my brother–and this in the sixties, when boys didn’t do domestic activities. I guess I’ve always thought that’s just what mothers did: teach the neighborhood kids to knit for some strange, inexplicable reason. At any rate, to thank my mother for her knitting lessons, Jan made, with her own mother’s help, the latch hook rug that mom kept for well over fifty years, always in a visible place, in all of the different homes she lived in ever since. Jan died when she was ten–my first experience of real, unalloyed grief, a difficult memory which I suppose I have mostly blocked but never forgotten.

So, when my mother died, my sister had the brilliant idea of giving the rug back to Jan’s mother. She tracked her down through Jan’s sister (Facebook is still good for something), and I had the rug cleaned, boxed it up, and sent it to the woman. I was worried that it might elicit painful memories, but my sister, and Jan’s sister, insisted it was the right thing to do. Some weeks later, I received a lovely card from Jan’s mother. In it, she thanked me for the rug and went on to attest to the impact my mother had made all those years ago, helping the family out in a variety of ways during an incredibly difficult time–one of which, of course, being those knitting lessons. In this way, I learned the precise provenance of the latch hook rug. And, along with that explanation and expression of gratitude to my own recently deceased mother, Jan’s mother enclosed a check to defray the expenses I’d incurred in sending the rug to her.

Of course it’s obvious where this is going: I could not take that check, but I could use it for something good. Jan’s sister runs a farm for retired show horses, so it seemed like a good fit to donate the money to the Last Dance Rescue Ranch, which was doing good work in my own neighborhood. And then another idea came to me: this one involving a strange attempt to vanquish time. If I didn’t stop with a simple donation, I reasoned, but actually volunteered on a regular basis, then Jan’s life would not have completely ended, because it would still be having an impact–not only on my life, but on the lives of the animals I was helping. It seemed like a way to extend Jan’s own fleeting time in this world. Once I thought of it that way, I couldn’t help myself. I was determined to mess with time, and so, to make a very long story short–one that spans over fifty years, in fact–I became a weekly volunteer at the animal rescue ranch down the road.

And so now, every Thursday, I go and feed the cats. I do it for myself, because it makes me happy to see the cats well fed and to watch their antics. I do it for the cats, because they need someone to care about them. And, not least of all, I do it for Jan, who died all those years ago, after much too brief a time in this world. I do it because in this way I can defy death itself, allowing Jan to live again through my own actions, insignificant as they are, and continue an existence that was so cruelly cut short all those years ago.


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