The circumstances were such that I was in Rome without dear children and husband this Christmas : they went ahead on a family holiday to Washington. I spent Christmas with my very elderly mother, whose presence I felt continuously and whom I love so deeply, but who was asleep almost the entire day. So while I was emotionally very much with her, my real physical connection on Christmas was with the animals.
The animals. I have never spent Christmas so deeply in the presence of animals. They were my family on Christmas, a cream colored lagotto romagnolo called Teddy, with round brown eyes and tight curls and a mouth that turns up always as a smile. Teddy licked my face when I first awake and was at my feet when I went to bed. He was sweet, loving, funny and undemanding and never more than a few feet away. There was a four year old tiger cat, self contained and desirous of hugs and stroking, called Mistral. And two sister guinea pigs, each three months old, as round as they are high, called Posy and Aly, who sing for their meals and have seen very little of the world outside of their big cage in the sunny window.
Every time I sat by my mother, Mistral, with an elegant leap, jumped upon my lap, and coiled himself around my knees. He purred and purred, sometimes reaching out a long paw and yawning, all the while purring. I rarely have so much time with Mistral, and to sit with his self containment and warmth gave me such a sense of well being. I peeked into his ample ears, which I had never done before, and marveled at the tiger striped fur that ends half way in, there meeting the coral pink of the inner ear. I saw a little star of whiteness at the very bottom of his chest. And I noted how his purrs are as rhythmic as our own breathing, and how each purr drew me in and eager to hear the next.
I had never spent hours with Aly and Posy. Normally they are fought over by my two children, and carried away speedily by one or the other where they are positioned on desks to watch over homework or in the hollow of the shoulder where they immobilize themselves themselves as the child reads. Today I set them free on the dining room table to explore — and, with no distractions, I watched them. Really watched them. I watched the tiny fingers that reached for a slice of pumpkin, watched how they chew carefully but hurriedly and how they reach for the next morsel while the first one is still in their mouths. I watched them jump over branches of fir tree wreath and chase one another round and around and around the table, Posy shedding a bit of her silky black fur as she did so. I turned them over at look at their round tummies that extend from their shoulder all the way down to their tails and make up surely most of their weight.
We listened together, the animals and I, to the Queen’s Message on BBC radio and to Scandinavian and English Christmas carols, and everyone except Mistral, who showed no interest, had panettone together — Aly and Posy, each a raisin and a bit of orange peel, and Teddy and I.
When we are surrounded by people, those we love, or not, our lives are absorbed by conversation. With the animals I talked hardly at all. They talked, in their way of being, with me, and I realize that I must make time to listen to them by finding a place in my life where I can be silent and fully in their presence so that I can observe them with concentration undiluted by people.
Many Christmases have been special, but this one, in the all-day presence of the animals, is not to be forgotten. I hope in the coming year, those of us who love or care about animals — and plants, and oceans, fish and birds — can find time often to simply be entirely with nature, and take it in for the wonder that it is.