Deaf Cat and Buried Bottles—Barbara Mertz continued

Barbara's Chairs

It has been a year since I wrote Galadriel in Lothlorien—an homage to departed friend Barbara Mertz PhD Egyptology University of Chicago (a.k.a. bestselling authors Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels.) The story of her impact on my life is so big it is hard to pick what to write about…but one has to start somewhere…

Let’s begin with Gandalf the White…

Bootsie was one of those cats that transcends other cats. Affectionate, smart, never aloof… She was my younger son’s favorite pet. She died when she was about 7 or 8. I can’t remember the cause. Something incurable. My little boy was probably 10. He was devastated. We soon went to the pound and got a new kitten. Turns out it had distemper or something incurable. It died within a couple days. Back to the pound. We chose a handsome young cat. He was white with striking blue eyes. This cat was regal. Leonine in some ways. I’m sure the pound knew but didn’t inform me that most white blue-eyed cats are deaf. We lived in town. The cat would be an indoor and outdoor cat. I was sure it would only be a matter of time before this beautiful creature would be struck and killed on one of the three streets that bordered our property. I couldn’t put my son through that again—so soon.

But the cat was so smart. And did I say…beautiful?

I didn’t want to return it to the pound and to an uncertain future. (I did not want to return to THAT pound and have not.)

Barbara…she was always taking in cats. She would often tell me:

“Cats will find me when the time is right.”

But I couldn’t ask: “Would you take our cat?”

In the early 2000s, I was likely visiting Barbara’s estate (which I likened to Lothlorien in the last year’s story about her) at least one afternoon every couple weeks. I would drop a hint or she would drop a hint that such and such a day would be opportune. When a match was made, I’d slip out there for a couple few hours after work. We would chat by her pond below the waterfall or in the sunroom with the glazed roof attached to the early 19th century stone home.

I dropped the hint… but I didn’t mention anything about a cat.

I arrived with Gandalf—for that is what we named him—in a large carrier. I sheepishly carried him in and explained the circumstances.

“I’m not trying to foist another cat on you…” She likely had 7 or 8 cats at the time plus Lucky, a Golden Retriever.

“Oh, no. I have too many.”

“I understand.”

“How bout a little something?” she asked.

I “mixed” us our signature Martinis—Old Raj Gin—straight—shaken—served neat in a stemmed glass. Likely the glasses were past gifts from me. I would never arrive at the Lady’s domicile empty handed. I always brought something to eat or drink or read or watch or play with. I’d gotten in the habit of picking up two unusual Martini glasses on travels. One for me. One for her. She displayed them atop a high shelf suspended from a stone wall in the kitchen. I inherited many of those after she passed. I’ve never dug them out to display. I will have to amend that. I poured our drinks in mismatched quirky Martini glasses and set one before her on the low round table before the couch in the sunroom. She spent so much time there working, chatting on the phone, reading catalogs, taking notes, watching CNN… I sat in one of the two matching blue upholstered armchairs flanking the sofa at right angles. I always sat in the north one. The one closer to the gardens.


Gandalf had hopped up onto the table and pushed Barbara’s glass off the edge with his nose. He peered over the edge of the table quizzically—surveying the bit of destruction he’d caused. Then he looked up at Barbara and if cats can smile—well, he smiled.

“Proud of yourself?!” she groused.

He certainly appeared so.

I swept up the shattered glass—first placing my drink safely high atop a bookcase. I made another drink, and we toasted. We, of course, did not set our glasses down if Gandalf was in the vicinity.

We talked and had another and talked and had another…maybe one more…and it was time for me to leave. By then Gandalf had climbed on to the couch was resting his gorgeous head upon her lap.

I picked up the crate and went to fetch the cat.

“No. He found me. He should stay.”

So the deaf white cat found a home, and Barbara found a new friend. It was almost as if it was meant to happen.

Thus began Gandalf the White’s tenure at Lothlorien. He soon became Barbara’s favorite. She doted on him. When I’d visit, she would tell me the toll of breakage he had exacted.

“He just loves to push things and watch them crash to the floor! He can’t hear them crash. He is just so proud of himself. He looks at me with a smirk and a smile. Everything in the house that’s breakable keeps moving higher.”

She had her assistant Kristen attach heavy-duty putty to the bases of many breakable objects that couldn’t be placed high enough to be beyond Gandalf’s carnage.

Gandalf grew and grew and, if possible, became even more handsome. He would often pose—usually atop some piece of furniture—as if he knew his majesty. He became a very large athletic adult cat. Like something out of mythology—perhaps Egyptian mythology.

He was the archetypal curious cat. When workmen visited, he would climb into their truck or the hole they were digging. He would place himself between them and whatever job they were there to do.

But no one seemed to mind. He was just…so beautiful. And charming. And smart. Everyone loved him so much that his shenanigans were forgiven. Visitors were cautioned to drive onto the property and around her circle carefully.

She even had a heavily duty sign made and fixed into the ground on the quiet dead end in front of her house. It read “Deaf Cat.”

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I inherited that—reluctantly. But there’s plenty of space on the mountain. I stuck it in the ground beyond the Puppy Chalet. When I see the sign, I can be transported to those wonderful years, those lucky years I had in Lothlorien. And I’m reminded of the most beautiful cat I’ve known.

One sad day this email dropped in:

Sent: October 20, 2009 12:19 PM

Were you planning on stopping by this afternoon? If you were Barbara would probably appreciate it—Gandalf died this morning.


I replied:

I’ll be there around 4 if that is ok?
I’m so sorry.
Call if any thing I could bring would be nice.

I recall that visit vividly. Barbara was devastated and struggled to hold back tears. They had found him out in the yard. He had been hit by a car or a horse’s hoof or something and had dragged himself home to die near the threshold.

I really feel things changed that day. It was a blow to Barbara’s spirit. The next years were full of all kinds of struggles for my friend, my hero. Health, family trouble, fears, advancing age… She slowed a bit and walked much more slowly. She soon needed a cane and an arm to hold to get across the lawn to the waterfall.

Some of my visits I feel she got more from me than I from her for a change. She liked the company and conversation and gin.

I spent some time searching old emails for an image of Gandalf and this is all I could find. It doesn’t convey his beautifully handsome majesty unfortunately, but you can certainly see his mischievousness.

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I also found this email I must have sent out of the blue to her 4 years later:

To: Barbara Mertz
Sent: April 4, 2013
Subject: dream…

I had a great dream the night before last…. it was very vivid and long.
Chatting…lots of cats. LOTS.
You had a pet “gazelle” of some sort and a kind of wise “rabbit creature.”
Best of all Gandalf appeared jumped in my lap, was friendly…then gave me a quick bite and jumped over to you on the sofa…
Let me know when you want company.
Spring has Sprung!!!

Four months later I was working in the warehouse. A call came from Stefanie who was Barbara’s final assistant and caretaker. The one before her had been a real problem. A nightmare in many ways. That had taken an additional toll on her. My friend had to suffer needlessly due to people problems in and outside of her family. This was in addition to the real physical suffering she had to endure. She was in and out of the hospital. In the last year or so, she had round-the-clock attendants in her home—so she could remain in Lothlorien. Stefanie was the angel who made the last months brighter. Barbara would be on her couch and laugh and talk about plants. She was building a knot garden for more roses, putting in grape vines on an arbor, a path was being built from paving stone so she could get a wheelchair out to her beloved fish pond below the waterfall… And she was writing her last novel—The Painted Queen.

The call came.

“Chuck, it’s Stefanie. I’m sorry. Barbara passed away in her sleep last night. When I went up to her room she was gone.”

Her voice cracked. My voice…wouldn’t work. The pressure rose in my cheeks and pushed a few tears out. They rolled down my cheek as my little world surrounded by millions of books stopped. I stood alone amongst so many words and pages. Employees walked past going this way and that. I stood transfixed there, but I was somewhere else.

She was gone. It seemed impossible. Though she’d been so ill, nothing could stop her.

I walked to my office and closed the door. I struggled for comfort. I cast about for my own words, but they were wanting. Somehow Tolkien’s words came to me. A gift from my Muse? From Barbara? I composed an email and sent it to friends and family:

Sent: August 13, 2013 12:25 PM

“I will not say, do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”
―J.R.R. Tolkien

Pippin: I didn’t think it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path. One that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it.
Pippin: What, Gandalf? See what?
Gandalf: White shores. And beyond, the far green country, under a swift sunrise.
Pippin: Well, that isn’t so bad.
Gandalf: No. No, it isn’t.

Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last one night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.


“I will not say, do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”

Each crystal tear we shed for Barbara is a jewel in her crown
Each tear is an homage for the many gifts she gave each of us
We are separated for awhile and while she awaits us
She is chatting with Tolkien
Or cooking up good Pennsylvania German food
She is planning a boundless garden
Smoking is permitted, and the gin is icy cold and clear
She is plotting the further adventures of Amelia
…and her ancestors back thousands of years in Egypt
…and her descendants far into the future
An epic story that will fill hundreds of shelves
The story of all times past and future

She will prepare a seat for each of us
so we can again chat and share and discover
[Well, these last lines are mine.]

Then the tears flowed, and my chest heaved like a child’s.

After her funeral services and the wake at Lothlorien, Barbara was buried with only family in attendance. Her daughter, Beth, had said she would be buried with things for her to take to the afterlife—Egyptian style.

Many years before I had bought a reproduction of Sting—the short sword that Bilbo and Frodo wielded, “more a dagger for a full size man.” I had bought it for myself. It was heavy and sharp and beautiful. It gleamed and hefted so comfortably. I took it to show Barbara one afternoon thinking she might like me buy one for her. It was pretty expensive.

She loved it.

“It’s magnificent! I’ll hang it by the door should any villains come knocking.”

“I…uhhh…” I stammered.

“And so close to my birthday too!”

“Of course. Be careful; it is very sharp. You could lop off an Orc’s head in a flash with that.”

My “precious” had become a “birthday gift.”

Barbara has Sting in her casket with her now. She also has Gin and cigarettes and chocolate. She has one of her own books, an ankh that had hung in her house, an empty Rita’s ice cream cup and a piece of jewelry.

About a month after her funeral, her daughter emailed me from Chicago:

…hi Chuck, this may be a little silly, but I was wondering, if you have time, if you could stop by Mom’s grave and clear away any flowers that have died—we left a pile of them, but I’m imagining that they are mostly wilted by now.
No urgency, of course—just a thought—
I am working on ways to remember Mom through her website and some other places…
Hope you and the family are well!! …

That afternoon, I sent this email to her daughter, Joan Hess, her agent and a few other intimates:

From: Chuck/Wonder Book
Sent: September 13, 2013
Subject: Barbara’s grave

Beth asked me to remove the flowers last week.
I was away and couldn’t til last evening.
I was surprised when I pulled up to see a splash of color on the bare dirt of the new grave.
When I got close, one of the orchids I’d given her and had been set on her plot was in full bloom—20 or more blossoms.

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This was, of course, impossible. Her plot is fully exposed in a very old Maryland cemetary. It had been a brutal dry hot August and September.

But then it made sense as well. It was Barbara. She nurtured us all. She nurtured everything around her.

I would often bring an orchid to her. I would never arrive at Lothlorien to visit the Lady empty handed.

Her long-time friend and agent replied:

“Sounds totally appropriate, even to be expected.”

Yes. Magic could always be expected around her.

A couple years later, Lothlorien was being readied for sale. Some things would go to auction. I took the more common books from around the house and hundreds of “author” copies that publishers had sent her gratis from the dark cool stony basement. These would bring very little at auction.

I asked if I could buy the pair of armchairs from the solarium. One of which I’d sat in hundreds of times. They wouldn’t bring much at a country auction.

That wish was granted, and now I can sit in my own primeval forest and look out onto the valley far below and beyond. Its colors are often very much like the colors Tolkien used in his painting of the Shire.

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There have been times when I’ve felt perhaps someone is in the chair next to me.

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One day a year or two later, Beth and a couple of the grandkids came out the warehouse. I had a large space opened up on the floor for them. They sorted through Barbara’s extra copies of her own books and made sure each grandchild would get a copy of each of her books.

The rest we put in the stores and online for others to enjoy.

One last story as an addendum.

Barbara, for some reason, saved many of the exotic gin bottles I’d brought her. Many are beautiful. A lot of investment goes into their design sometimes. Why save empty bottles? I don’t know. Each had been full of some magic, I suppose. Perhaps empty they contained memories for her.

“We’re going to throw them out unless you want them.”

Reluctantly I took home 6 or 7 boxes of empty bottles and put them in my garage.

What was I thinking?!

A year or so later, I came up with a practical and respectful use for many of them.

In August 2016 almost exactly three years after her death, I sent this to friends of hers. It is graceless to impose one’s “poetry” on friends, but this is more a story broken down to separate lines. AND Barbara would NOT approve. For her, poems must scan and rhyme…

Burying Barbara’s Bottles

We were two connoisseurs—
old and not quite as old.
I’d often bring her tribute—
gin from adventures afar.
Or gin discovered newly stocked
in shops, many shops,
I’d search ’round the region.
Waters from Spain, Iceland, Scotland
or domestic—Michigan, Vermont, Colorado.
Captured, infused in sculpted glass.
For gin was an intimate currency between us.
With ceremony we’d inspect the package
and read the label about magic within.
Botanicals, formulas, secrets.
“Well, we should try it.”
“Yes. How ’bout a little something.”
“This might be the most memorable ever.”
With a twist the cork would slip out
and so release the djinn in the bottle.
The spirit would inspire epiphanic conversation.
Secrets of the universe would unfold
(and be irretrievable the next morning.)
The empty shells she saved—
icons to the memory of good times.
Beautiful, though now impotent, objects.
Totems to a time, a place and friendship

She is gone—
a couple years on.
I inherited the odd collection—
empty vessels full of memories
meaningful to only two
and an odd possession to the survivor.
They’re just old liquor bottles
rational thought posits.
A dust collecting eyesore
lifeless now and meaningless
to any others seeing the glass.
Relegated to the basement
they’d meant something to two.
To the one remaining
they’re cold transparent specters.
Sad, lonely things.
once full of words and dreams
Now holding ghosts of summer afternoons
under the old River Birch; next to the waterfall
Or winter days in the solarium
watching snow accumulate on the glass above us

What to do?
I’ll keep a few…

There’s a vast field where I work
It’s plagued by whistle pigs.
Ugly dangerous holes in the grass
and on a little hill pockmarked by burrows.
I’ve fought them before.
Filled the holes with rubble and scrap.
I eye their tunnels—
warrens nasty dark.
“Those shapes are just right
I’ll fill those voids with empties.
I’ll know just where the memories are
until and, maybe after, I’m put underground.””
Down go Bombay,
Van Gogh and Old Tom Hayman.
Down goes Greenalls.
Down Tanqueray and the Old Raj.
I seal the tombs with rubble.
I pack it tight
No grave robbing rodent
will unseal these passages.

I look about this field.
There are more burrows.
I have more bottles…

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The bottles work very well. Those big nasty rodents are very destructive. However groundhogs have some kind of sense of where underground voids are even if the entrance is blocked. They have found ways around the blocked holes many times. I just put more bottles down. One vast warren—when we first acquired the property I aimed a flashlight down the entrance and saw a void as big as a Volkswagen far below—has taken nearly a hundred bottles. I’ll continue emptying bottles and burying them as needed. It has opened up again this spring. Today I’ll add to the buried trove. Someday the underground tomb will be filled. Maybe it will be excavated as a memory burial ground.

I put another dozen down this hole again today. There are well over 100 down there—including many of Barbara’s bottles.

6 Comments on Article

  1. Thanks for this moving post on Barbara. I remember Gandalf very well; he usually was embroiled in mischief, as I recall. I wish I had known about the auction; it would have been nice to obtain a keepsake. Here is my blog post on Barbara’s passing:

    1. chuck replied on

      There were several auctions. I didn’t go or bid online however. We have a lot of her books here that we are waiting for a computer upgrade to add as a catalog “From the Estate of Barbara Mertz” with a bookplate. Email me if there’s a particular kind of thing you’d like.
      I’ll check out your story.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!
      If you haven’t read Galadriel in Lothlorien you might enjoy that story as well

  2. Emilia Garlough commented on

    I have enjoyed reading your many stories about Barbara. I wish you would write a book of stories, I think it would be a great read. I worked for you many years ago at Wonder Book in high school and that time was such an influence on my life. I fell in love with books and have collected ever since. I moved away from MD in 1993 but have always wanted to return just to go to your store. Hopefully someday I will bring my family to visit. I read my first Elizabeth Peters book and never stopped, I continue to re-read them often. Please keep telling us stories.

    1. chuc replied on

      That is so great to hear!
      I’m pretty sure I remember you!
      Please come visit and let me know. I’ll give your family a tour of the warehouse if you like.
      Thank you so much for commenting! It is great to actually hear from readers.

  3. Michael Dirda commented on

    Wonderful and moving, Chuck. Marian and I only visited Barbara a half dozen times, but each time was strangely magical. You’ve captured some of that magic here.

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