On Cats, Part One: The Absolution of Lady Madeloone
I am sitting in bed this morning, and even though I have a double mattress, I am on the outer edge. This is primarily because a ten and a half pound animal, curled into a furry, tight crescent measuring one foot at the most, is asleep in the center of the bed. Her forearm is crooked over her face; she is not receiving petitioners just now. A low, eldritch, thin, rubbery hooting sound, like an eraser pushed against smooth paper, or a muted owl sneeze echoes up from her middle. She is snoring.
I have not always had the favor of cats. I spent my early childhood in a city, and it took me a long time to understand the difference between what animals like to do in cartoon-worlds, or when they’re stuffed toys on a shelf and what they prefer as living, breathing souls. My early experiences were not malicious but involved more error, through trial, than success. I eventually learned that cats do not like to wear doll clothes, ride in scoop nets, or have anything to do with a sand box that is not their litter box, especially when it’s wet. Dogs, I think, understood and forgave more quickly; cats took longer.
The 4H club kittens my camp raised every summer seemed to like me as a substitute mom/nursemaid, whenever there wasn’t anything better to do. One year a little grey male spent every chance he could asleep in my arms, sucking on my finger and purring. Adult cats, however, needed more convincing. The fact that dogs liked me, and frequently demonstrated their affection by trying to wash me, covering me with fur and leaving scent marks on my clothing (no, not the kind distinguishable to humans) did nothing to advance my cause with the feline population.
By the time I was ten years old, children my age had made it clear; they were not my friends. They were people who taunted me, got me in trouble, bullied me and made my life hell for reasons that escape me to this day. My mother and I had moved to a prosperous suburb of Boston just before 4th grade. She had fantasies of my playing kick the can with neighborhood kids and going to the movies downtown on weekends, (to be fair) just as she had during her own childhood in the mid to late 40s. (Dear reader, I think you have just spotted the intergenerational disconnect here.) Instead, since apparently I couldn’t play soccer, assist with amateur petty crime, condone cruelty to animals or stop liking books, I was fish food in that town from day one.
My dog Shadow became my best friend, my second mother and in some ways my first child. I would have run in front of a car for her, and I think she knew it. In fact, I think she started passing this on, because not only did I feel that way about any dog not trying to bite me, most of the dogs I run into to this day seem to understand that it’s still true. If they needed me, I would fight to the death for them without a second thought. They very graciously gloss over the fact that at 5″6, as a dumpy uncoordinated person in my 30’s, this death-defying chivalry, while utterly sincere, is worth about as much as the Oxford English Dictionary is on a daily basis to Sarah Palin.
I had, nominally, a cat but she lived with my father. He moved her to his summer-house in Maine and while she enjoyed hunting small animals of every description there, and occasionally suffered to give him affection, she had dismissed me. I was too big to hunt, too stupid to adopt as a surrogate kitten or family member and a dead loss as a good quality servant.
A week after my 20th birthday, my dog Shadow died. I returned to college for my sophomore year, relieved to be away from the town we still lived in and its utter dearth of friends and the house I had grown up in with her. I knew it would be years before I would be able to adopt a pet of my own.
That Thanksgiving, I couldn’t face my house. My relationship with my mother had been deteriorating rapidly, and my father was off to his third wife’s family for the holiday event. A very kind professor invited me to Thanksgiving dinner at her small farmhouse in Western Massachusetts. She had a few pets but, all these years later, only the Empress of her household remains in my memory. The august ruler was a brown mackerel-stripped tabby with a white belly and feet. She was a lady of mature years, with long dignified whiskers that curved down gracefully and yellow eyes. Her name was Madeloone. It should be said that I am not spelling her name right; my only defense is that cats generally rise above such petty distinctive notions like alphabets.
With the exception of the kittens I had helped to tend all those years before, cats had always reacted to me by turning the other way. Usually with emphatic attitude. Elizabeth Taylor and Gloria Swanson are rank beginners compared with the artistic flair in the plumpest, least prepossessing cat’s ability to walk away in disdain.
Madeloone gravely sniffed my fingers, as my hostess asked me about family pets and I explained that my dog had died in August. Then I felt something indescribably light, warm and velvety against my hand. Maldeloone was pushing her densely furred ears into my fingers. She started to purr. Gently, I picked her up and she sniffed my shoulder with the attitude of a dowager duchess inspecting a batch of snails destined for the escargot platters. She continued to purr. It’s difficult to remember the exact progression of events now, but Madeloone continued to make concessions. She sat on my lap willingly. She wove around my legs. She accepted any and all petting or appropriate forms of homage.
The next cat I encountered belonged to a friend. Instead of the usual dismissive glance, I received a thorough finger inspection and rub. The neighborhood cat near my dorm decided to fall asleep in my jacket on cold nights. An ex boyfriend’s cat deemed me lap worthy faster than anyone in his house would have prefered. And so it went.
Madeloone’s philanthropy did not have the obvious result that it would have with dogs. Cats are different. Their domestication appears much thinner, a veneer over the ancient bush and desert felines that wandered into granaries, looking for mice and lizards. In my experience, they look at humans as a threat, as potential Staff, and in instances of great fortune, as companions, or rarer still, surrogate family. Since my Thanksgiving audience, cats have stopped turning away and started making overtures of the kind they specialize in.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the continued friendly approaches by tongue lagging, tail wagging happy furry souls that dogs still gift me with. But Madeloone opened a door into a world of soft-footed steps, wild hunts for killer catnip mousies, strange operatic songs and the outboard motor rumbles of a purring belly. She also gave me something even more dear.
Years after I met Madelone, I went into a small Humane Society shelter in Virginia, originally looking for a kitten. Then I saw a small, black-sand shaded face with enormous jade green eyes and a flaming orange blaze stretching up from a spotted nose. It belonged to the young mother of the last kittens remaining in the shelter; only her babies had been adopted. (Really more of an unwed teen pregnancy case, as she had delivered them before turning 1 year herself.) I asked to meet her and sat down in a rocking chair in the cat-room. The caretaker put her on my knees and the little cat stared up at me. Then she turned herself around and fell asleep in my lap. Now she is asleep in the center of my bed. She is as surely a gift of Madeloone’s largesse as the original blessing of that great lady cat. Lady Madeloone, you should have lived in 12th century Aquitaine as a lovely noblewoman surrounded by adoring minstrels. Perhaps you were. In any case, wherever you are today–and given your age I’m sure it’s somewhere metaphysical–thank you.