Down East 2013 ©
The first was Tom, my mother’s malodorous, anvil-headed tiger cat who sat atop the sewing machine all day staring into the birdcage. He filled the role of sainted little brother, the perfection we girls could only observe and resent. She had a bird, for crying out loud, and all Tom ever did was look. Mum never raised her voice at Tom, never pestered him to clean his room, never asked him, “Where do you think you’re going with that?” When my father died, Tom became the little man of the house and seemed to know it, challenging my mother to upgrade the kibble, which she did, in nearly imperceptible increments, until one day we were asking for special cuts of stew meat while buying any old ground beef for the family meat loaf. I haven’t a single memory of childhood that does not include that comical, arrogant feline, either center stage or purring in the wings. Tom was the Childhood Cat.
Then came Samantha, who showed up when we girls were in high school. Prim and dainty and shaped like a tea cozy, Samantha undertook a critical task for which she was uniquely suited. During our mother’s long and awful illness, Samantha, with her gum-pink ears and electric-green eyes, served as a long-burning light at the periphery of our grief. That good old girl, who slept near my mother as she faded by inches. Samantha was the Sorrow Cat who made our sorrow bearable.
After my mother died, I married a beautiful man whose only fault was his nearly religious belief that cats belonged in barns. Sherman was our Starter Cat, and the negotiations went like this:
Day one: He’ll stay outside.
Day two: He’ll stay in the kitchen.
Day three: He’ll stay off the bed.
On day four, my new husband woke from a dream of strangulation to find Sherman curled around his neck, seeking warmth in a good beard.
Day five: Sherman will be our last cat.
But, of course, there is never a last cat, no matter how often they break your heart.
A week after Sherman disappeared for good, my boss at my first real job foisted upon me a homely, unwanted three-year-old alley cat with the girth and markings of a soccer ball. Simon-Marie was our Marriage Cat, who oversaw in unjudging silence our attempts at grown-up living, our move into a house so badly built that we didn’t have two windows exactly the same size. She followed us on walks through our new neighborhood, and loved the music we played so much then, trotting downstairs at the first click of a guitar case being opened.
This is how cat lovers measure the fleeting years, by the feline companions who bear witness. Cats compose a calendar of sorts, a way of arranging memory as a series of eras that vivify the breadth and depth of the most ordinary existence. No wonder the Egyptians mummified Fluffy and Mittens and took them on that final journey — how else did they expect to recall the passage once they got to the other side?
The Marriage Cat’s chief mission and ultimate legacy was to turn the husband of the household into a cat man just in time for me to acquire our first paired set, Alex and Pinky, the Career Cats. I published five books and Dan became a teacher during their useful tenure. Alex had an endearing habit of cocking his head while listening to a first draft. Pinky, for her part, regularly pinned me to the sofa by settling her prosperous skirts on my chest as I tried to read. “Can you get that?” I called out so often back then. “I’ve got a cat on me.”
Like our old bell-bottoms or a marked-up yearbook, cats remind us not only How It Was, but How We Were. When I first met Simon-Marie I was, like her, young and skittish. I fretted and dithered, yearning to make a leap into a vocation that would either fulfill my one and only life or bankrupt it. By the time Pinky passed on, at the inspiring age of twenty, I’d managed, like her, to overshoot expectations. I’d become the writer I’d always wanted to be.
The cats who compose the calendar of our lives give us comfort and joy, but, more than that, they offer us a way back to our earlier selves. My current housemates are Jack and Sonny, geriatric bachelors nobody else wanted. Given their age, the bachelors’ future with me will be brief, and I don’t yet know what name to give their time here. But if memory does its usual work, on some day hence I will look back, recall these two striped fellows snoozing in a buttery patch of sunlight, and the years they once inhabited will take on shape and meaning. Then, I’ll know.