cats – not the movie, not the play

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During these months of isolation, near total for many of us, pet owners’ emotional lives have become even more enmeshed in the lives of the dogs, cats, rabbits and more exotic creatures that may be their passion. Dogs have never been better walked and cats have never had less time to be in full solitary control of their domiciles. A few months into the quarantine, our beloved cat died at age 18, and my wife and I were left alone with each other for the first time in many years. Even after our daughters moved on, the nest was never totally empty. There was always a cat or two and/or a dog to marvel over and to care for. It was during this down time that I found myself reflecting on the history of my relationship with pets. Many of you have your own pet stories, probably more entertaining than mine, but you’ll have to indulge me because I have the microphone.

               I grew up in a pet-less home. The first and second-generation immigrant families in my neighborhood lived in fairly cramped quarters that weren’t conducive to adding another four legs to the family census. There was also a sense, dating back to shtetl days, that pets just weren’t a Jewish thing. One of my best friends, Jay, had a dog, a cocker spaniel named Cindy, and I loved the days when I could go over to Jay’s apartment after school to roll around on his shag rug with Cindy and her flappy ears. But I never entertained even the slightest hope or desire to have my own pet. Jay’s situation was not “normal” for our neighborhood. He lived with his mother and older brother. Not only was there no father in evidence, but his mother “went to business,” a woman with a job living in a sea of housewives, so Cindy was just one more oddity that put Jay and her in a different category from the rest of us.

               There was one late exception to our pet-less state. Sometime in my teen years, my parents went to a wedding from which they returned long after I had gone to bed. I woke to find a bird cage containing a small parakeet resting on the kitchen table. The story was that each table at the wedding had one of these bird cages as a center piece instead of the usual floral arrangement. Taped under one chair at each table was a card which earned the inhabitant of that seat the rights to the bird cage. My father took a shine – yes, that’s what they used to say – to that bird and named her, of all things, Cindy! On occasion, I caught him talking to Cindy through the bars of the cage during her residency which must have lasted about a year. One morning she was dead in her cage and that was the first and last pet to grace our apartment.

               I don’t remember giving another thought to pets until my first date with Rosellen, my not-yet wife. In my second year of graduate school, I parked my bike in Harvard Square and walked the rest of the way to her apartment to pick her up for our first date. She and her two roommates lived in a cramped and seedy apartment with holes in the wall and one unheated room that was cold enough to hang meat in, but there was enough room for a cat named Conrad, an odd creature. She had been rescued from an abusive owner who was in the habit of tormenting him by dangling him by the tail out the window of an upper story apartment. Conrad bore the scars of that trauma but was a welcome and doted-upon presence among the odd human configuration of roommates.

               Somehow, Conrad became our model for what constitutes a complete household, so as soon as we were more or less settled in a stable living arrangement, we went off to the shelter in Boston to draft a future feline housemate. Chatul (Hebrew for cat) came home with us in a cardboard box, mewing all the way, beginning a streak of 56+ years during which we’ve shared our home with a cat or dog or both. I want to note here that I reject the binary of cat vs. dog lovers about which much ink has been spilt. We love them both and our decisions to adopt one or the other have been the result of practical considerations like the amount of travel we’re planning to do or whether we’re living in a house or an apartment. Cats are just more convenient when you know you’re going to be away a lot and when you want to avoid walking a dog because you’re living in an apartment without a yard located in a zone of long, cold and snowy winters.

               Chatul accompanied us on our wanderings from Boston to Mississippi – a long car trip with an unhappy cat whom we allowed to wander in the car, a practice we don’t encourage, as she climbed on me while I was at the wheel. Three years later she accompanied us back north to Brooklyn, where she died on the same day our younger daughter Elana was born. After the delivery, the nurse found Rosellen crying in her bed and asked how she could be in this state on such a happy occasion. Rosellen informed her that she had just learned that our cat, to whom we were deeply attached, had died. Uncharacteristically for devoted rationalists like us, we came to believe that Chatul’s spirit was transferred to Elana at birth. She acquired the nickname TCH – The Cat Herself. To this day cats follow her in the street, as if she were one of them.

               I’m not going to burden you with a complete rundown on every cat in the line of succession, but here are some highlights.

  • Karen and Smock, formerly Carrots and Smog, joined us in Houston. I can’t say for sure what happened to Smock, but before Karen – a name with bad connotations in recent times – died, she delivered a litter of three, one of whom was, unaccountably a Siamese. We kept only Annie, who delivered two litters. From the first we kept one kitten, whom, in a misguided moment, we named Tuck after one of our favorite children’s books, a story about a girl wrestling with the decision about whether to accept the offer of eternal life. All our cats in Houston were indoor/outdoor cats and the jinxed Tuck was killed by a car atthe young age of six months.
  • Annie’s second litter consisted of three cats – Coriander, Joey and Lilah, so we shared our Houston years with a sizeable menagerie. Mother cats don’t seem to have life-long attachments to their offspring, so once her kittens were weaned, Annie abandoned us for a neighboring apartment complex where one of the residents outbid us by putting out raw liver to win her over. Annie came to a sad end when the owners of the complex decided to eliminate its population of strays by putting out poison bait.
  • We left our trio of kitties in the hands of a house sitter when we went off for what we thought was a year’s leave in Chicago.By the time we decided that our move was more permanent Lilah had died, but Coriander and Joey joined us in Chicago, where they made a smooth transition to becoming strictly indoor cats. Coriander surely welcomed this new and safer life for her later years because in her outdoor days she had been run over by a car backing out of a driveway and attacked by two vicious hunting dogs whose owner’s empathy level was a match for our current president’s. He couldn’t see what the big deal was. If she dies, get another one, he said. Fortunately, Coriander recovered, and she and her brother lived in indoor luxury to the age of 19.
  • Cinnamon – getting the spice-naming theme? – attracted our attention at the Anti-Cruelty Society shelter because of her beautiful, asymmetrical calico markings. She came home with us after an adoption interview as rigorous as I imagine many child adoption interrogations to be. She spent her first weeks with us hiding in a closet, sneaking out only for surreptitious trips to her food bowl and cat box. “We’ve adopted an autistic cat,” my wife declared, which wasn’t true at all. Cats are territorial and once Cinnamon felt safe in her new space, she was a warm presence in our lives for 18 years. Early in the pandemic months she began to fade and one of the paradoxical advantages of the quarantine enabled us to be with her all the time as she approached her death.
  • The Treehouse is a lovely, humane cat shelter in the Rogers Park area of Chicago.  After our appropriate period of mourning, we were feeling the need to have someone to take care of besides ourselves. We studied the photos on the shelter website and were drawn to a cat with the unfortunate name of Barbie. At our in-person visit we were more drawn to a cat already carrying out our spice naming pattern, so Pepper came home with us. She was small and compact, like Cinnamon, and all went well until the first day we opened all those closed doors that cats abhor and gave her free reign of the entire apartment. We’re not sure what triggered her reaction, but as Rosellen was passing, Pepper leaped on her and tore some serious gouges in her leg. We decided to wait and see if this was some unaccountable one-time reaction, but a few days later she attacked me as well, so back she went to the shelter, a truly humane place which doesn’t put any animals down, where she was placed on anti-anxiety meds.
  • So, sitting here watching me as I type her story is the re-named Nutmeg, a year-old black and white long-legged kitty who must have inhaled all the tranquility that escaped from Pepper when she was abused by a previous owner. We are once again attentive to feeding schedules and cat box cleanings – she is a prodigious crapper – and marvel at the cycle of sitting and sleeping places she chooses each day. We thrill at finding her eagerly awaiting us at the elevator door when we return from fetching the useless mail that awaits us every day.

And just why is all this important and worth recounting? We are in the middle of watching a most unique documentary on Netflix called My Octopus Teacher, about the almost sensual friendship between a man and an octopus, a creature on the surface bearing no connection to human life. The film is having the same effect on us as the book by our wonderful friend Sy Montgomery called The Soul of an Octopus, about a similar cross-species friendship. Both experiences have been paradigm-shifting in the way they broaden our understanding of ways of being in the world and of the mysterious ways in which we are interconnected with all living things.

Being with our cats is a lot less exotic than relating to octopuses and the centuries of domestication have interfered with cats’ ancestral relationships with the living world. Yet having pets has allowed us a front row seat for observing a different way of engaging with your environment and the friends and foes who inhabit it. If you possess a modicum of curiosity and an openness to feeling, you will be able to appreciate the deep attachments that pet owners have when they step, at once, outside and into these deep boundary-crossing relationships.

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Marv Hoffman

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