Commentary

Early Gifts

By Pat Garber

Christmas has not yet arrived, but already this month I have received three gifts of inestimable value.

The first came when, passing by my front stoop at my Ocracoke cottage Marsh Haven, I glimpsed under the deck a sight that made me stare first in shock, then wonder, and finally delight. Let me back up a few months. In early fall, before I left my summer home in the Adirondack Mountains, I attended “Fungusfest,” an all day festival on mushrooms held  at Paul Smith’s College. Among the workshops I

The salt marsh near Pat Garber’s home. Photo: C. Leinbach

took was one on growing oyster mushrooms. The participants mixed together hemp, a special kind of kitty litter, and soil in a plastic bag and injected it with oyster mushroom spore. We took the bags home with us, along with instructions on what to do next: keep the bag tightly closed in a dark, cool space for three weeks, then bring it into moderate light and warmth and pull back the plastic. After a week or so mushrooms should sprout, after which they should be lightly watered until large enough to savor in gourmet recipes.

I followed the directions but saw no signs of mushroom life. So I closed up the bag and hauled it down first  to Virginia and later North Carolina. With all the traveling and jostling and temperature changes, I didn’t figure there was much chance of success, but I kept trying. Finally, however, I gave up. Last week I decided to get rid of it. Hurricane Mathew had ripped apart my porch the year before, leaving a gaping hole where the post had been. I decided to use the lump of failed mushroom garden (about a foot and a half square) as fill. I dumped it out of the plastic into the hole, replaced the chalice woodwork and forgot about it.

Until, that is, that moment of revelation when I realized that my supposed failure had sprouted into a plethora of gorgeous white fungi, some as big as my hand. In excitement I called my friends to come see what was growing under my house, shared some of them, and then prepared myself a mushroom feast. 

Sometimes gifts can be happy accidents.

The second gift arrived just three days ago, Dec. 11, in the form of a winged visitor. Since returning to Ocracoke over a month ago I have been trying to tidy up my somewhat neglected yard and ready it for winter. I have been cutting back all the plants which had died or gone to seed. Some young sprigs of goldenrod still had blossoms, and I left them, in spite of how messy they looked growing in the middle of the lawn. I told them I was allowing them to stay in case any late pollinators showed up.

I was by the front fence, stripping yaupon leaves from branches I had collected to make tea, when I saw a flutter of motion pass nearby.

Monarch butterfly. Photo by Peter Vankevich

Bright shades of orange and black hovered before my face.   A monarch butterfly! My first reaction was “Oh, no! You’re too late. You should be far south of here by now!” As I watched, it flitted over to one of the goldenrod plants and began feeding; then to another. My old dog, Bruce, who is almost blind but can detect motion, followed it around the yard, and I followed Bruce, pulling him away and saying, “Let it eat! Don’t scare it away!”

For about 20 minutes the monarch feasted on goldenrod nectar. It rested for a bit and then, in what my imaginative mind fancied as gratitude, danced a sort of circle around me. Then it fluttered away in a flight pattern which seemed whimsical and slow, but which I knew could project it about ten miles an hour. South, I hoped, to its winter destination, maybe Mexico.

How, I wonder did it find the little sprigs of goldenrod bloom in my yard.  There were almost none in the rest of the village. I prayed that it could find enough nectar along the way to sustain its flight, and that the temps would not dip too low before it made it.

The goldenrod was my gift to the monarch butterfly, and its visit to my yard was its gift to me.

The third gift has roots that go back eight years, when a tiny yellow tabby kitten was born and then abandoned at Ocracoke’s convenience site, otherwise known as The Dump. The attendant watched as the mama kitty moved three of her kittens, but did not come back for the last one. He waited till it was time to close. The kitten was still alone, crying, so he took her home, where she was bottle-raised and grew into a sweet loving cat.

Fast-forward to a week ago. I was working at my part-time job at the Community Store when an island woman I had known for many years came in looking for me.

The yellow tabby that is now reunited with its owner. Photo by Pat Garber

“I’ve been feeding a stray cat,” she said, “and it has an awful place on its neck. I wonder if you can help catch it and get it to the vet.”   I couldn’t say no. The other request was that I not return the cat to her house, as she goes away a lot and has no one to feed it when she is gone. That part was not so easy.  What do you do with a homeless cat?

After a couple failed tries at catching this yellow tabby, an excited call from the woman informed me that the cat was in the trap. I called the local veterinarian and we met at the house.

It soon became obvious that she was not feral.  She was quite tame, and she purred as we gave her three injections and shaved and cleaned the wound on her neck.   I put the cat in a large dog crate on my screened porch, adding kitty litter, a bed, water and food. I called my Ocracats friends, and before long we had the kitty’s photograph and story on Facebook. I couldn’t sleep that night, wondering what I would do if we did not find a home. I couldn’t keep her (my 20-pound male tabby hates other cats), and I couldn’t take her with me during Christmas. We were having a cold, windy snap, and I felt terrible leaving her on the porch, even wrapped in blankets as she was. I had been asking around for someone who might foster her but had found no one so far…

The call came at midnight. The person who called had seen the picture on Facebook and said it looked a lot like her cat, who had disappeared months before.  Her teenage daughter came over the next day and recognized her. She showed me a picture of her from years back, held in a hand and being bottle-fed. Before long the cat—her name is “Baby-kitty”—was on her way home.

We may never know how she ended up so far away from her home, but now she is back. I was filled with relief and joy.

Many gifts this time: To the woman who so kindly fed the cat but now is relieved of the responsibility; to the mother and daughter who got their beloved kitty back; to the kitty who is back in a warm loving home; and to me, who is happy for all of them.

All these lovely gifts and it’s not even Christmas yet!

Pat Garber. Photo: Peter Vankevich

Pat Garber is an island author, whose books can be found in stores all over the island.  Born and raised near Richmond, Va., she has a background in anthropology, history and education, with a master’s degree from Northern Arizona University in cultural anthropology.  

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  1. What a heartwarming article! I would not want to have to prioritize which of these “gift” stories was my favorite. I am satisfied with leaving them in just the order they occur in the article.