Carmen Ruggero and Don Webb
discuss Challenge 203
What does the kitten add to the story? What do you think the girl learns — or ought to learn — from her last visit to the Lady?
This paragraph gave me an idea of the significance of the cat at the end:
“I can remember standing beneath The Lady, her highest branches far out of reach of my eight-year old eyes and almost forgetting to breathe. We’d always bring her something — shiny stones, a ring of hair tied with a ribbon, a robin’s nest found along the way — just something. It seemed disrespectful to visit empty-handed. You never drop by someone’s house uncalled without a little something — or so I’d always been taught. You made a welcome for yourself so that next time they’d be glad to open the door even if they didn’t look too welcoming this time.”
They treated the tree with the same respect they would a human being. They brought it gifts to earn their welcome. I was told by a friend, an African-American woman who studied African culture, that in some African languages, the word for home was the same as the word for tree. That justifies the childrens’ bringing gifts to the Lady: the tree represented home. Something not human but live and welcoming, like a friend.
The narrator recalls waking up to a feeling that something has died. She seems to forget about it, but discover the dead tree near the bonfire:
“I put my hands on the tree — not the wisest course during a rainstorm — and I wept again. But, this time, I cried not only for myself, but for the tree. I cried for what I was and for what I wasn’t. I cried for everything that could have been, and might have been, and might yet be. Eventually, I walked out of the woods. I don’t remember it very well, but I ended up in my dorm room under flannel sheets with blue stars.”
She goes home after that. Her Grandmother, knowing she was going for a walk, could have told her The Lady had died, but didn’t. The narrator had to discover that by herself.
I think finding the cat by the tree is a coincidence — or maybe it ties in with the concept that as we give we shall receive. Did the tree return the gift, or does life mirror our hearts?
When the narrator returns home, Grandmother seems to echo the girl’s thoughts:
“Grandmother finished the cookie and took a drink of tea. “Some things happen, that’s all,” she said, “She had a good long run and I guess it suited her well enough.”
Some things happen, which we label mysteries but from which we derive spiritual comfort. The cat was symbolic that life is forever changing and it does go on.
Some interesting ideas, Carmen, but my interpretation is rather different. As I see it, the story is not about a tree, or a kitten, or a grandmother, or a granddaughter, or even about life: it’s about caring.
The grandmother obviously cares for the girl. And the girl cares for her grandmother, although as she’s grown, she’s shown it less by her increasingly infrequent visits. That, though a bit sad, is understandable: for the young, life is timeless; others’ mortality is hard enough for them to comprehend, and they can hardly conceive of their own.
Why does the girl care for the old tree? As you say, it is a monument of her grandmother’s home. And the tree is the eldest in three generations of characters: the tree, the grandmother, and the girl. When the tree dies, the girl can hardly overlook the lesson: Who’s next? Grandmother, of course. And then? Beverly Forehand wisely lets us draw the conclusion ourselves: the girl comes of age with the object lesson that all life is mortal.
What’s the kitten’s role in all this? Kate Allen reasoned quite logically that if the continuation of life were to be represented, we’d expect a new tree seedling rather than a cat. One problem: the girl would be more likely to step on a small plant than to notice it; in contrast, a kitten commands attention.
The kitten is indeed a coincidence in terms of literal realism. But coincidences occur only in real life: in literature, coincidences are symbolic. The tree is dead; long live the kitten. With the kitten’s appearance, the three generations of caring are restored.
And with the kitten, the three classic levels of existence are in communion once again: the divine (love), the human, and the natural world.