Cats in the Cradle: Week #13 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On feline favorites, snuggling protocols, and letting go
Topic Idea: Desiree Hunt Floyd
Whenever the topic of romance comes up in polite conversation, I wait for a quiet moment amidst the chatter and laughter and then solemnly pronounce, “My cat Gwendolen was the love of my life.” More chuckling will ensue, some of it slightly uneasy. I fix the nearest titterer with a basilisk stare and repeat, humorlessly, “The love of my life.” Scott, the spouse, rolls his eyes and sighs, “It’s true. She pretty much just puts up with me.” Scott and I have now been together for 22 years, and he is still a newcomer, a protostar muscling his way into the fixed firmament of feline supernovae. He is very much on probation.
Even though they now occupy the deepest penetralia of my emotional landscape, cats came to me relatively late in childhood. My father had grown up on a dairy farm and for most of his life did not understand the concept of “pets.” To his mind, feeding and cleaning up after an animal living in your house was a grotesquerie akin to throwing a newborn into a volcano: a bizarre and spectacularly wasteful practice undertaken by mysterious others. He changed his tune shortly before I was born when my mother convinced him, at the age of 35, to acquire a Boston terrier named Charlie. Charlie was a big hit (he stars in even more photographs than their first-born child, me) but he was sent packing when he began to menace their first-born child, me, in her crib. (Knowing my parents, I have a feeling this decision was not a no-brainer.) They tried again a few years later with Snowy, an imaginatively named white toy poodle who lived with us until her peaceful demise shortly after I went away to college. My parents subsequently shared their home with Rocky, a black toy poodle; Cokie, a brown toy poodle; and Katy, a gray toy poodle. They sort of blend together for me, but my father was completely besotted with all of them. Somewhere in the middle of Cokie’s reign he started carrying the dog everywhere with him in the crook of his arm; there is not a single photograph of him in the last 20 years of his life without a small fluffy poodle attached to his person. At one point I toyed with the idea of getting him a carry-all so he could tote his current pet around with him like Paris Hilton, but I think he really preferred the full-body contact.1
But he drew the line at cats, at least when my sister and I were still in the house. For him, domesticated felines really were working animals, and I think he assumed they were all like the barn cats he had grown up with: malodorous psychopaths. I, on the other hand, was completely enchanted by the sleek exotic creatures I had met at friends’ houses and was desperate to have one of my own. One day when we were in middle school either my sister or I (memory is fuzzy on this point) “rescued” a small kitten that had been hanging around the neighborhood and brought it home, thinking we could do an end-run around the household prohibition if the cat just suddenly appeared, needy and small and adorable. We did not take into account our father’s utter implacability. He ordered us to get rid of it immediately, but we dragged our heels for the better part of a week, assuming that his heart would eventually melt under the emerald gaze of little Bernie/Digby (we never did decide on a name). Finally things came to a head when he returned home from work one day to find the kitten gamboling around the family room like a tiny fluffy parkouriste (strictly forbidden—we were supposed to keep him in the garage) and yelled at us, “Either get rid of this cat right now or I will tie you both to a tree and make you watch while I shoot it.” The next day we took him to the animal shelter and I nearly vomited from crying.2
(I promise we will get to Gwendolen soon. She is non-corporeal now, so she can wait patiently a little longer. She was always my sweet girl.) Finally my father was forced to change his tune when moles started destroying his beloved bright-green, chemical-laden suburban lawn. Poisons didn’t work, traps didn’t work, shooting them with a .22 in his bathrobe in the middle of the night didn’t work. The only answer was: cats. Working cats. Hungry cats. Fetid sociopath cats. Off we went as a family to acquire Patch, a dainty calico, and Ralph, a gigantic male silver tabby. We were allowed to keep them indoors—only in the basement or garage—as long as they were kittens, but as soon as they were grown they were to be kept strictly outdoors and work for their keep. The kittenhoods of Patch and Ralph seemed long, marked as they were by protracted bloody battles with my father whenever he came home and caught us snuggling with them in front of the TV. Eventually they were fully grown and evicted from the house, left to fight the backyard raccoons for the cat food left out for them every night. (My father insisted this state of affairs was good for them, and for his lawn.) Only when winter came did he relent and allow them back into the basement, where he installed a cat door and a beat-up armchair with a cage around it. The idea was that they could come in just far enough to warm up before heading back out to work, kind of like sex workers grabbing a quick smoke between johns in the shelter of a bus stop.
It wasn’t a terrible existence—napping on a chair 23 and a half hours a day, tussling with raccoons for some dry kibble the remaining 30 minutes. When they were younger my sister and I would even pay attention to them sometimes, and occasionally risk the Wrath of Dad by springing them from their cage for a bit of indoor play. As time wore on we forgot about them and they faded into the furniture, both literally and metaphorically. Eventually my parents moved, and even though my sister and I were in our late teens at that point and I was off at university, we were diplomatically informed that the cats had been “relocated to a farm in the country.” I like to think this is true, that my parents really did drive these two ancient fat toothless layabouts to a bucolic wonderland in Pennsylvania Dutch country where they were welcomed with open arms by Charlotte and Wilbur and lived out their remaining years reclining on golden bales of hay and drinking milk straight from the bucket.
I do not believe Patch or Ralph ever caught a single mole.
So when I grew up and left home and it came time for me to acquire my own feline companions, I vowed that things would be different. My cats would be strictly indoor-living, non-working, pampered, cossetted, and fed with the ambrosia of the gods. I was in grad school in Chicago and living by myself for the first time when I decided the moment was right and headed to the local animal shelter. I saw Emma immediately: she was a gorgeous calico (a bit like Patch, but with more soulful eyes) who was pushing against the bars of her cage and thrusting her nose out to nuzzle anyone who came by. I stroked her cheek and felt her purring and was pretty much a goner. There were a few other people cat shopping that day, and one couple was also hanging around Emma’s cage, sticking their evil, grasping fingers through the bars and talking to each other in low voices. I executed a neat headlock elbow drop on the woman and kneed the man in the groin3 as I rushed over to the clerk on duty, shouting “I’ll take the calico! I’ll take the calico!” Only when I was filling out the paperwork did I realize that there was another cat in the cage with her who had been cowering in the back corner, terrified. The attendant said they were probably sisters, littermates about 10 months old who had been tossed together in a dumpster when they reached adulthood. The clerk blinked at me meaningfully. There was a long, pregnant pause as we stared directly into each other’s souls. I blinked back at him, and then said that I would take them both.
Only after we all got home and I sprang my new friends from their cage did I get a glimpse of a streak of white fur as “the other cat” dashed behind the stove, where she remained for three days. Emma and I spent this time bonding, lap-sitting, brushing, snuggling, telling each other our deepest secrets, reading each other’s Tarot cards, and making each other our emergency contacts. Her name came to me within hours: she was Emma after the heroine of Jane Austen’s novel—beautiful, smart, a little mischievous, pushy in a thoroughly charming way. I was extremely distraught that the nameless other cat was ensconced in a hole in the wall where I couldn’t get at her, and worried that she would eventually die of starvation back there—she didn’t seem to be touching the food and water I’d put next to the stove. I was sad for Emma, but also matter-of-factly started making back-up plans for acquiring another kitten companion for her if the worst should happen. It was a real shame, I thought. I hate to think that a cat has died on my watch, I thought. If it gets to be more than three days I’ll call the fire department, I thought. But it wasn’t like I was sad. I mean, I’d never met this animal.
On day three, as if she knew the fire department4 was coming, the other cat sauntered out from behind the stove. She was calm, she was serene, she swished her giant fluffy tail, she freaking owned the place. “I’m sorry—who did you say was cowering? I have no idea to what you refer. Fetch me a salver of morsels.” She sashayed over to Emma, touched noses with her briefly, jumped up on my lap, and from that moment forward was the iron-pawed ruler of the entire household. I immediately christened her Gwendolen after the heroine of Daniel Deronda—an even more haughty, charismatic, and imperious character than Emma Woodhouse. As George Eliot’s narrator famously asks of Gwendolen at the very beginning of the novel, “Was she beautiful or not beautiful? and what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams?” Now, Gwennie was definitely a looker, but she was also a cat whose beauty grew upon deeper acquaintance. She was ever-so-slightly crosseyed; her long soft white fur was often lightly matted from whatever scrape she’d just gotten herself into; the peachy-orange of her flame points was quite subtle; and you had to get up close to notice that she had a tiny flame-colored half-moustache on the right side of her face. Photos cannot begin to do her justice. In order to appreciate her full splendor you had to see her in action, swaying her hips slightly as she walked, daintily placing one foot in front of the other, gently waving her tail. I swear she would time her entrances, waiting for an entire dinner party to be assembled, say, before tip-tipping down the stairs and gliding through the dining room to a chorus of admiring gasps from the assembled company. She was like Marilyn Monroe taking the USO stage in front of a thousand troops.
It is with the deepest shame that I admit that poor Emma took a back seat from then on. Don’t get me wrong—I loved her deeply, and cared for her assiduously, and snuggled her aplenty. But my heart was with Gwendolen. It was Gwennie I’d look for when I entered a room, Gwennie I’d call to come sit on my lap, Gwennie whose favor I sought. I was mortified to discover that I was indeed one of those mothers who has a favorite child, and that she can’t even conceal that fact from herself or others. Or, worst of all, from the children. When I was growing up my mother relentlessly compared me to my younger sister, her favorite; she would taunt me in front of others but save her worst insults and jibes for the sotto voce aside that only she and I could hear.5 Now, I wasn’t that bad with my own girls—my favoritism was of a more gentle and benign variety—but I loathed any sign of it in myself even as I felt helpless before its power. (I do not forgive my mother for treating me with open contempt until dementia improved our relationship, but I now understand at least a tiny corner of her mind.) This state of affairs continued for a number of years until Scott came into our lives, scouted the whole situation, and promptly adopted Emma as his own. Life was utopia then, my friends, each of us with his or her own special cat or her own special human. Scott not only took Emma under his wing (literally—she would sleep snuggled in his armpit every night), but he toughened up Gwendolen, too, whom he taught to roughhouse and play-fight. After he came on the scene I started doing a little wrestling session with Gwendolen at bedtime that we dubbed “Rififi” after the classic French heist movie.6 It was a blissful 10 years that I would never take for granted.
This essay is getting long, and I have barely described my most precious love to you. She was sweet but sassy, loving but slightly aloof, snuggly but independent, smart but ... well, just smart. Basically, she was a cat—but the Platonic form of Catness. She was obsessed with pens. She would roll over on her back and demand belly rubs. She would wait outside the shower until you were done and then jump in the tub and lick up the water drops. If she saw Emma snuggling anyone, anywhere, she would leap on top of her and try to muscle her way in. (Sweet loving Emma would usually end up clinging precariously to a forgotten corner of the lap.) She slept on top of my head. Every night before bed she would visit the closet briefly to make sure the vacuum cleaner was still dead. She was head over heels in love with our friend Thomas and would make a shameless spectacle of herself every time he came over. If you were sick she would paste herself to your side until you were better, then saunter away and refuse any thanks. She was a terrible mouser but would take credit for anything Emma caught.
And she loved me back, hard. Just a year after Scott and I got married, he was required to return to New Zealand due to the terms of his visa. We put everything we owned in storage, dropped off our darling girls with our friends Dan and Antonia in Vermont, and went off to his native land, thinking we would not return for two years. After a couple of months we miraculously got a waiver of the home-return requirement7 and came back to the States, stopping first in Middlebury to scoop up our kitties. When I entered our friends’ place I called to Gwendolen, who immediately came running from deep inside the house and leapt into my arms; I lay down on the carpet in the living room while she jumped all over me, snuggling and purring and pawing at me in ecstasy.8 We all had our reunions that day, and they were all sweet, but those are the moments I remember the most.
Gwendolen died in March 2009. She was the first person I ever lost. When we came home from the vet and I saw the hollow in the couch where she had lain for the last weeks of her life I buried my face in it and thought I would die. That first one you lose—it’s not just about them; it’s about the horror. It gets easier. Since then I’ve lost Emma—who went to join her sister just a few months later—a close friend, both parents, and another beloved cat, Alice, who was with us for only 8 short years. For a long time I tortured myself over the fact that Gwennie’s last two days were probably painful; I had refused to recognize the signs that it was time for her to go. But now I know that you can’t judge a life by its ending—almost none of us get good deaths. There’s no point in ruining your memories of a long life together by dwelling on a brief stretch of suffering. There’s pain enough before, and after. It’s best to remember the belly rubs.
He also needed immediate and constant access to the dog so that he could slip it treats it wasn’t supposed to eat, primarily tortilla chips that he nicknamed “Cokiestitos.”
Oh by the way, my parents got a petite white cat not long after their daughters had left home. Her name was Annie, and my father spoiled her rotten.
Not really. But I did flat-out run over to the clerk and claim Emma before they could make their move. I’m sure they were perfectly lovely people who would have provided a warm, stable, loving home. I sincerely hope that they also found feline companions as perfect in every way as Emma and Gwendolen. Suckers.
In later years Emma and Gwendolen—who had excellent senses of humor—would start referring to firefighters and paramedics as “Cat Leisure Consultants” because of the solemn oath they take to rescue any feline in distress.
My sister had her own travails with my mother, which I learned about decades later. But at the time I was consumed with jealousy and wanted nothing in the world as much as a scrap or two of attention and affection from my mother, which I got only when she succumbed to dementia and started thinking I was her older sister. I took it.
Originally I had called our daily wrestling session “apache dance” until I learned that the latter was named for fin-de-siècle Parisian street gangs, dubbed “Apaches” after the racist assumption that their Indigenous namesakes were particularly violent and combative. Probably I would not call it “Rififi” now either.... Maybe I would call it “U.S. Senate.”
Apparently this was the first time anyone had ever received a waiver of this iron-clad requirement—not even marriage to a citizen mattered. We will never know for sure, but it’s likely that the intervention of one of our Senators at the time, either Trent Lott or Jeff Sessions, is what did the trick. I know, I know.