Unlikely lessons from a vagabond cat.
The morning is grey. Clouds and a haze of snow obscure the mountains that flank the valley, incising them from the landscape. Snow has settled in the ridges of the giant oak tree on the west side of the house. Frost crusts the windows on the deck. Across the street, Mr. Speakman and his family have just pulled their blue minivan into the icy road on their way to church; the roof of their small saltbox house, a doll’s dream in mint green and white, is tufted with fresh snow. This sort of morning doesn’t announce itself. Usually, sunlight pours through the east-facing windows in the bedroom. Today, the bedroom is dark, all blackout thermal curtains and muffled silence. Lily rests by my husband’s feet at the corner of the bed, a warm, purring mass of white fur. My children are still asleep, judging from the silence of the floorboards upstairs. I shuffle into the kitchen. Ethel, a mottled longhair tortoiseshell with sharp green eyes, waits on the back steps for food.
Ethel chose us. She appeared last May, her fine coat thickly entangled, fur falling out in handfuls. At first, she annoyed us with her low, aggressive mew. Lily eyed her, twitching. Our town has a problem with feral cats. We live near a feral colony hangout, but somehow Ethel didn’t come across as wild: she was too eager to be petted, too comfortable in our company. We assumed she was probably dumped. My children, Kai and Rory, imitated her bawdy mew as she weaved through their thin legs. I distracted her with treats as I cut the mats from her fur. We mused about a good name for her, settling on Ethel, because I enjoyed hearing Kai and Rory say her name.
“Effel!” calls Rory. Ethel materializes from somewhere in the garage, flopping over at Rory’s feet and rubbing her whiskers against the driveway. Whatever her name was before, she’s Ethel now. “Who’s a good girl,” asks Rory, puffing out her lips and petting Ethel on her matted belly. “Who’s a good girl?” The house shades the driveway from the morning sun as Rory and I play with Ethel. The weekend’s snowstorm has moved on; the sky is a rich, promising blue above the western hills. Rory’s face pinkens in the cold air. She smiles at me, revealing an appealing line of rounded teeth and her singular dimple. When I look at Rory – tiny hand patting Ethel, blond hair falling over her face, the flit of mischief in her golden-green eyes – my focus sharpens, makes a clear, precise picture, and sets right an unbalanced frame.
Two years ago, I decided to leave my full-time job in order to stay home with my children. I’d lost my mom, and her loss dramatically restructured my priorities. My husband and I also lost our children’s caregiver (not to death, only fate). The small town in which we live has no daycare providers and the elementary preschool, officials informed me, was only an option for special needs children over 4 years of age. The logistics grew too difficult. I quit.
Switching gears between career and family presents challenges that I grapple with nearly every day. For the first few months, I felt a steady nagging sense of guilt about not reporting to work, to some physical place where I had a documented set of responsibilities, an order, a reachable goal. For me, the hardest part about not working in a ‘proper’ workplace is its attendant sense of isolation. Entire days pass when I don’t see anyone other than my family; on a cumulative level, this lack of social contact suffocates. I find ways to deal, even if it means going to the grocery store to buy a single kaiser roll from the bakery. I have not regretted my decision to be with my children, to be present in every moment of their lives… and every moment in mine.
The differences between my children astound me. Rory is a telegrapher. Her feet have communicated her state of mind since she was two months old. If she is not singing, she is mid-conversation. My son, Kai, who is two years older than Rory, is a heavy kettle that releases only an occasional cloud of emotional vapor before returning to a steady, quiet boil. We call him the Professor. Perhaps we should call him the Situation, since he finds it important to continually define what “the situation” is.
Kai loves first grade; he can’t wait to tell me about his day when he comes home from school. Sometimes, he flails his legs and skips, a young Gene Kelly. Once, when Rory and I painted our toenails, Kai asked to me paint his as well. I said, “Boys don’t usually paint their toenails…” He persisted, so I painted his nails; it seemed like a harmless way to make him happy. He wiggled his powder blue toenails with pride at his winter gymnastics performance. Rory loves preschool like Kai loves first grade. She adores her teachers, and their goofy, indulgent smiles confirm that they love her too. Rory occupies herself for long stretches with drawing, painting, and bedazzling, usually while singing or telling jokes. She has a perplexing habit of suddenly losing touch with gravity, though, tumbling sideways at random moments.
When Rory eats something that pleases her, her body dances a small, unconscious rumba of appreciation at the table. She might have learned this by watching me, or perhaps it’s a basic human trait: good food = happy. Kai is a beanpole who wears clothes intended to fit children half his age. When he finds a food he enjoys, predominantly sweets, he inhales it, just like his dad does. His eyes hone in on me if I so much as crinkle a wrapper. “What’re you eating?” he asks, the tiny synapses in his mind firing in anticipation of something sweet.
“It’s cheese,” I say, perhaps a little too perversely. “Would you like to try some some?” He doesn’t want to try my cheese. It isn’t made from sugar.
At breakfast, Rory says, “Hey, mommy! Why did the refrigerator talk to the other refrigerator?”
“I don’t know,” I say, staring blearily at my water glass and wishing it was a triple espresso. “Why?”
“Because the refrigerators wanted to get refrigerator married!” She cracks herself up with this joke; tiny blueberry muffin crumbs splatter across the table. Rory weaves a forked piece of cantaloupe through the air. She builds towers of muffin and scrambled eggs on her plate. Daily chores start to tick off in my head: laundry, sheets from suspended student, dishes from earlier this morning, dishes from last night, four students coming over for tutoring today, mop the floors, edit the essay I wrote a month ago, find Zen place for once.
Though I cherish the time I spend with Rory while Kai is at school, I can’t wait to drop her off at preschool so I can go for a run. I embrace the solitude; solitude embraces me. Running helps me enlarge my world on days when it feels too small: it lifts the ceiling of small town insularity and demolishes the self-imposed walls that I have built around what it means to be a good wife and a good mother. My legs sing with pride when I get home. I shower in silence. I get dressed in silence. I am ready once again to un-pause my world.
After I read the children their bedtime stories and tuck them in, I turn on their lamps and nightlights. I say, “Goodnight! Sweet dreams! I love you!” as I descend the stairs. Kai and Rory chirp back: “Goooood ni-ight! I love you, cupcake face! Sweet dreeeeeeams, dear mother of zucchini! Farewell until tomorrow!”
Though people frequently tell me how sweet and funny my children are, I berate my parenting skills. Every other word from Kai’s mouth is an apology. “Sorry, mom,” he says, sighing into his shoulders, when I ask him to zip his winter coat because it is freezing outside. “Sorry,” says the bony hunched figure playing his Xbox in the wicker chair upon my suggestion that he move to more comfortable seating. Loving observations turn into reproaches that prompt the inevitable: “Sor-ry.”
Rory’s catchphrase is: “K, mom.” I can’t deny the charge I get from her agreeability. She has independently dressed herself for over a year now. If I compliment her outfit, which is as likely to match as it is to mismatch, she beams: “Thanks, mom!” The other day, she played with a garbage bag, pretending it was her cape. As she twisted the bag over her shoulders, she inadvertently knocked over a picture of my mother and me. I gasped when the frame clattered against the wood floor. Rory’s eyes brimmed with tears. “It’s okay, honey,” I stammered, rushing to hug my terrified child, whose face clearly telegraphed her fear of my rage. “It’s okay,” I said, hugging her, massaging her back. “It was an accident… Accidents happen all the time… It’s just a picture.” But insecurity flooded me: How did she think I was going to react instead?
It is my responsibility as a mother to encourage the individuality of my children and bolster their confidence as much as possible in preparation for the grueling adolescent years. I want to build them up, because I know that there will be plenty of people trying hard to tear them down as they grow. It’s a shame, but that is the reality of life. I can’t control what other people do or act or think or say, so I build and build and build, controlling what I can. But I can’t shake the fear that, no matter what I do, it won’t be enough. It breaks my heart to hear Kai say “sorry,” to see the look of terror in Rory’s eyes.
Cats exhibit a total responsiveness to touch. They don’t know the meaning of subterfuge; you know without doubt when a cat likes you. This may be why I identify more with them than I do their domesticated canine counterparts. I know all of Lily’s pulse points: she likes to have her chin scratched, and she presses her head into my hand when I flatten her ears and pet the sparsely covered patches above her eyes. She finds me irresistible in my smelly, panting, post-run state. She does not like it when I tickle the muscles of her hind legs. Ethel, on the other hand, likes to be petted simultaneously on both sides of her rib cage. She skooches just beyond reasonable petting distance and is prone to flopping sideways when spoken to. Ethel responds well to manhandling.
I worked full-time when Kai was a baby. My husband worked towards his PhD at the time, which allowed him freedom to stay home with Kai while I worked. I got myself ready for work, and then I woke Kai for his morning feeding; that is, if Kai didn’t wake me first. I fed him in the dark, burped him, changed him, and returned him to the car seat in which he slept when he was very little. (He didn’t sleep in his crib, so my husband and I made do.) If Kai didn’t fall back to sleep right away, I rubbed his forehead with my thumb in soft, soothing motions: my beautiful, little owl-eyed worry stone. The more I rubbed, the glassier his eyes became and the heavier his eyelids drooped until, finally, he went back to sleep. I placed him, car seat and all, next to my husband still sleeping in bed, and crept out the front door to work, making as little noise as possible and praying for Kai to return to sleep.
Ethel was still here, encamped under the giant shrub in front of the house, when we returned from last summer’s three-week vacation. Though we had arranged for someone to provide care for Lily in our absence, no one knew what to make of the furry vagabond: should they feed and encourage her, or should they ignore her and hope she wandered back into itinerancy? They ignored her. She remained. We found clumps of her fur discarded randomly around the lawn. She was thin, the sides of her body freed of hair, a bodyhawk in feline form. I grew fond of Ethel’s multi-colored whiskers and delicate paws. I smiled when I sometimes caught her creeping around the neighbors’ yards. She became dear to me.
I tried to lure Ethel indoors throughout the summer and fall, despite my husband’s protests and a wicked adult-onset allergy to cats. I left trails of treats leading inside the house and left doors open for longer than necessary. I even physically placed Ethel on the living room floor. Her rear end twitched; she sniffed furniture. But she found the nearest exit and sat by it, looking outward, until I relented and let her back out. Ethel settled in the hay-filled cranny underneath the unused chicken coop adjacent to the garage. We’ve seen her slinking out of it on cold mornings. Now that the snow’s arrived, she’s a little more eager for her morning bowl of food and she’s bolder about coming into the house for small stretches, but she seems to have found her true home somewhere in between the chicken coop and the crannies of our lives.
Ethel leaves us love letters in the form of dead farm mice. The ragamuffin persists. Her winter coat has come in thickly, and her belly has rounded. I am not sure what she sees in us, but I see her in vivid detail: an announcement, a warning, a challenge to memory, an enigma. Sometimes you have to add members to your family who aren’t related by genes or blood, but feel entirely right to you on a metaphysical level.
Every day is a lesson. When I open the back door and see Ethel, I place my hands on the small bowling ball of her body, lift her front paws off the ground, and kiss the top of her raggedy little head. She chose us, but I want her to understand that we choose her right back.