Two weeks ago, Clea Simon told us about her fictional cats in The Cats in the Pages. Today, she shares some of the stories of her real life cats with us.
Guest post by Clea Simon
Before James came into my life, I knew too much about certain areas of life, but in terms of cats, I was feline ignorant. Roughly eight years old when my older brother brought home the black-an-white tom, I’d lavished my affection on turtles, hamsters, and one particularly fine toad (named Dyatt), finding my best family in these four-legged creatures. But never, before James, was my nearest and dearest a cat.
James, when he came to us, wasn’t particularly my pet. My brother had adopted him at college and, as is so often the case, only discovered afterward that cats are not allowed in dorms. Thus, his next trip home he brought the large thumbed cat to stay with us – only temporarily, we were told. But James – full name, James from Nashville (no, I don’t know why) – soon became a full-fledged member of a family that was, in many ways, odd.
Like so many cats of that era, this being the ‘70s, our family’s approach to James was very live and let live, a condition that I might now associate with neglect. In many ways, this was symptomatic of other elements of my family, which had been disrupted early on by the schizophrenia of my brother and my sister, and my parents’ inability to communicate, or cope. But in the case of cat care, I suspect it was largely out of ignorance that we let James wander at will, and soon he – an intact male – was getting into fights. Half the kittens in town resembled him, or had his big mitten-like paws. The other half resembled the hated “red cat,” whom we would see in our yard on occasion and against whom we united as a family, often yelling at the orange-red tom to scat even when James was happily napping on one of our beds.
James returned our hospitality by keeping us well stocked with a variety of prey. The local voles, we discovered soon enough, didn’t agree with him, and after a while he would bring those in whole. We couldn’t figure out why we were only the recipients of squirrel tails, however. Was he only able to catch onto the end of these fast arboreal rodents? We were disabused of this rather silly notion when we found his cache, under a dormer window. He was bringing us the tails – and keeping the rest for himself.
His freedom would bring him to tragedy. A fighter as well as a lover, he often disappeared for days, often coming back with wounds that we’d wash and try to treat, usually from animal combatants, sometimes of more mysterious origin. I still remember the morning he slunk in, covered in motor oil and heavy green paint. Sick, listless, and heaving, he’d obviously tried to clean himself, with disastrous effects. After attacking my mother in a panic when she’d tried to rinse him off, we wrapped him up in a beach towel and rushed him over to a neighbor. She had been raised on a farm and would brook no nonsense from a cat. While we watched, wringing our hands, she submerged the howling tom in a basin of soapy water and scrubbed him clean. By the time she was blow drying him, all the while holding him firmly by the scruff of his neck, he wasn’t even mewing. My mother got a tetanus shot. Our neighbor, Jeannie, undoubtedly saved his life. When he went missing before a ferocious summer storm, several years later, we waited for such a return, calling for him all around the neighborhood. He was gone.
But we were hooked, and James was followed by Thomas, who was hit by a car. A neighbor brought his still body to us, crying, and influenced forever my “indoors only” policy. Tara was next, the cat of my teen years, and I missed her more than I missed my family when I went to college. When I returned after my sophomore year, for a brief break, my mother broke it to me that my tuxedo’d pet, had died in a freak accident weeks earlier. Later that day, I was told that my brother had died, too, during my absence – committing suicide after years of disappointment, of hospitalizations, and dashed dreams. I remember my shock and disbelief, that these essential beings were gone – and that I hadn’t known – but my family has always been silent, and I didn’t question my parents further. I returned to college quietly devastated, and determined to avoid the kind of toxic secrets my family held onto so tightly.
Small wonder, perhaps, that after graduating, some of my closest bonds were with my cats. First, there was Cyrus, my eminence grisé – a longhaired grey who served as confidante, comforter, and wise counselor for sixteen years. A quiet cat, Cyrus was a gentleman from kittenhood on. In fact, the only time he ever bit me – when I was trying to remove a piece of Styrofoam from his mouth (he did have a bad Styrofoam habit) – was an accident. He looked at me, then, as shocked as I was, and swallowed the foam pellet. It passed through him safely, and until the day my husband and I had him put to sleep, he remained a devoted and sweet companion.
Musetta, as my readers will know, is every bit as sweet. But compared to Cyrus’s gentlemanly behavior, she’s a regular riot grrrl – a rowdy punk rocker of the feline world. Where Cyrus would rarely mew, perhaps gracing us with his near-silent open-mouthed “meh,” Musetta is a chatterbox. Demanding, too, and capable of an amazing range and volume when she wants something or simply has something to express. She also, I am embarrassed to admit, likes to bite. Not hard – never hard – but after a morning spent watching squirrels out the window, she’ll display some displaced aggression by pouncing on my foot, throwing a paw over it, and neatly nipping at where my foot’s spine would be, were it in fact a small independent animal. Should I have trained her otherwise? Possibly so, but I confess, after so much loss – after my own silent childhood – I love my cat’s freedom of expression. I love the joy she takes in life, her spirit. Her will.
At times, I think I love all the cats in my life for all the ways they are themselves, for they are the model of what I aspire to be.
Be sure to check out Clea’s brand new release, Grey Matters, the second book in the Dulcie Schwartz series. And you’ll get a chance to ask Clea questions about her books, her cats, writing, murder mysteries, and more during our teleseminar on Tuesday, March 30 at 8pm Eastern.
Clea Simon is the author of the Dulcie Schwartz and Theda Krakow mysteries and the nonfiction The Feline Mystique – On the Mysterious Connection Between Cats and Their Women as well as several other nonfiction books. For more information about Clea, please visit her website or her blog.