About Cats

Lulu's milk; 15x10 cm., ink, 1999

Lulu's milk; 15x10 cm., ink, 1999

When I was a child my father liked to tell us stories of the different cats who had inhabited the farm he lived on during the summers upstate New York, Little Falls. Very often these stories – while not being exactly moralistic – did nevertheless illustrate a point. For example there was a blind cat that lived in the barn, a good friend to the cows, and caught mice despite her handicap. She also managed to raise a litter of four kittens and when she died of old age the cows stopped giving milk for almost a week. He liked to joke about cats being much more reliable than people since they let you know where you stood in their materialism and wisdom. Moreover their demonstrative warmth showed the absolute confidence, of someone who knows affection to be a birthright.

•	Gatto (Lulu) arrabbiata, 27x12x6, bronze, 2009

• Gatto (Lulu) arrabbiata, 27x12x6, bronze, 2009

Daddy liked to joke about death and reincarnation – I am sure that, although he was officially Episcopalian, his religion must have been a hodge-podge of spiritual beliefs mixed with ideas about nature from Emerson. But he liked to joke that in ancient Egypt they had a more accurate concept of god – at least as far as the cat images were concerned. He warned us repeatedly that he would be reincarnated as a big black cat.

I returned to the US from Italy with my new born son and five year-old only days before my father’s death after a long illness. We traveled upstate, my mother, brother, sister, husband and children to the old Iroquois burial site used by generations of my father’s family: the funeral was small and quiet with an unmarked grave under an ancient oak.  We visited my father’s childhood home, a rambling wooden farmhouse on the edge of an overgrown forest, and then headed back to the house my mother and father had lived in during his illness. This was a small cottage on the outer banks of New Jersey, about 200 meters from the surf of the Atlantic Ocean. It was late August and the island was almost deserted; summer vacationers had headed back to their homes in the city.

When we entered the house there was that familiar beach house smell that you only notice after an absence. Everything was as it had been the day we left except there was an oversize black cat sitting upright on my father’s chair. We looked at each other calmly, petted the cat, put out some chopped meat for him while my husband walked around the neighborhood to see if anyone was missing a large black cat. No one came forward so the animal casually continued on at the house for several days, showing us affection the way cats do until one day he disappeared. We never talked about this but I think my brother, sister and mother took it as one of those special gifts that chance often gives.

My father's house (scrapbook)

My father's house (scrapbook)

This event came to mind a few years later during advent when the parent-teachers’’ association at my son’s grammar school in Florence were discussing what to do about Christmas. Florence is politically to the left and so a holiday like Christmas, most of the parents felt, should be celebrated without much emphasis on religion. But my son’s teacher pointed out – rightly I thought – that the risk was a celebration that had more to do with consumerism than the traditional-cultural significance of the day. I was, though not religious, sympathetic to her view and started to say so when she said that the children in her class were so ignorant in their religious culture that one of them (and my face burned) actually believed that when you die you come back to the world for awhile as a large black cat to comfort the family you leave behind….

My father's cats (scrapbook)

My father's cats (scrapbook)

Years later I was going through a box of books my sister sent me that had been in the family library when my mother left our big old house on Staten Island. Some of these were like old friends, the Ernest Thompson Seton books on wildlife, the James Fennimore Cooper books that took place along the Mohawk River valley of my father’s childhood, the Washington Irvings.  But one I had never seen. A black photo album with small snapshots, several for each page, neatly mounted, labeled in a child’s hand. Nearly all were photographs of cats…Folded notes tucked into the binding included comments or short accounts of each. In the unfocused background a farmscape – barns, pastures, a kitchen. The book ends with the boy – now twelve years old – on the top of a building in New York city.

My father in N.Y.C. (scrapbook)

My father in N.Y.C. (scrapbook)