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All My Relations
Living with Animals as Teachers and Healers
By Susan Chernak McElroy, Connie Bowen
New World LibraryCopyright © 2004 Susan Chernak McElroy
All rights reserved.
It was a long time before I knew her name, so at first I just called her "the pussycat." We had been living in a small, San Diego trailer park for several weeks before she made herself known to us. Some of her story is hard to remember, because I was only four years old then. I had just started wearing my hair in "pinktails," my own word for the short braids my mother plaited into my straight brown hair each morning. But much of my memory of Misty is as crystal clear to me as the air in Southern California was in those days.
Trailer park living in the late fifties was then as it remains today: The domiciles were not and could not be called "mobile homes" or "coaches," and the term "park" was used not to describe the looks of the place, but rather what you did there with your trailer. My father was a cook then, a chef years later, and he and my mother had decided to try and assemble a life on the West Coast. Since all my German aunts and uncles lived in San Diego, it seemed as good a place as any to start, and so my New York City apartment days ended with a three-day train trip out west in the middle of summer.
For the next few years, home was an eight-by-thirty-eight-foot yellow and white trailer that moved along with us from park to park as my father searched for good, steady work. When I look at old black-and-white pictures from those days — the kind that came in those small cardboard folders with saw-tooth edging — I am amazed that we all fit in that trailer for so long. My father was tall and big-footed, my brother is no shrimp, and my mom is slender but not petite. I slept in the hallway in a top bunk above my brother, and my parents were crammed into the real-wood-paneled cubby hole of a bedroom in the back. Between us was a bathroom so small that even I could reach from the toilet to the sink — my first memory of multitasking.
I loved my bunk bed. It felt like an indoor tree house. One night, I dreamed I was a fledgling robin in a nest, and Mother Bird was chirping to me to "jump, jump!" When I opened my eyes, it was early morning with the sun glancing off the narrow hall, and I was perched on the railing of the bunk, ready to take my first flight. Apart from the sleeping dreams, I carried with me one special waking dream that I shared with my family if not every night then at least weekly, and several times a day as holidays approached.
In my special dream, "someone" had left for me a small, black kitten in the closet across from the bunk beds. I thought if I told that dream loudly enough, vividly enough, and often enough, "someone" would hear it, and answer.
As it turned out, someone did eventually hear me, but the someone didn't quite get all the particulars straight. The cat who came to us was no kitten, was not black, and did not show up in the closet. Mom says I was never a fussy child, and so I was of course delighted to take any cat, of any color, from anywhere that someone chose to send her to me. At the time, I thought she must have been sent by Jesus. Now I believe the someone who sent her was the cat herself.
Teepee Trailer Park, where we were living at that time, was separated from a line of more elegant, colorful mobile homes by a tall cyclone fence. All these mobile homes had covered back porches and tiny lawns that faced our trailers. Our park had no shade, except for the striped awnings some trailers sported, and no grass. Running the length of the cyclone fence was a shallow concrete gutter, which I adopted as a makeshift river on hot days, when it would be filled by the lawn sprinklers on the "fancy" side of the fence.
That was where I first met the pussycat. Stooped over my river, I was pushing a paper boat down the little stream when I felt something brush my back. I turned to see the yellow eyes of a slender cat, even with my own. Instinctively, I froze. The only cats I had seen in my life were the feral cats who lived in our New York City dumpsters, and they had taught me that swift moves made for swift flight. But this was no feral cat. She was calm, still, curious, and eager to sniff my hands and elbows. She gently rubbed her delicate head against my knee. Her face glowed with grace and knowing. From her presence alone, from her sensuousness, I knew she was a "she."
The pussycat's whiskers were as long as grass stems, and just as soft. She was the loveliest color — a soft gray tabby with narrow zebra-like stripes. Of course, I told myself this was the kitten who was supposed to be in my closet. She was larger than I anticipated, but that was no stumbling block as far as I was concerned, and the stripes were fine — good, really.
Still in my low crouch, I extended my hand and began backing with painstaking deliberateness toward our trailer. I could scarcely believe it when she followed along at a trot, tail up. My mind was racing ahead to the milk I knew we always had in the refrigerator. Along the way, I was struggling to invent some story to tell my mother about how I just knew the pussycat had come to be ours. I was prepared to say anything to convince my family and myself that this was indeed my dream cat come true.
Yet this was to be one of the few times in my life I can remember when the resistance I imagined, and then perhaps evoked, was not there. Mom met us at the trailer steps in flat shoes and an ankle-length skirt. Crouching low, she called to the cat in her softest baby talk, and the pussycat met her outstretched hand with a rumbling purr. "Hello, pretty one," my mother cooed. "Who do you belong to?" I blurted out that it would be really good if she could belong to us, since she had been sent by Jesus. Mom smiled and stepped backward into the trailer, and I heard the refrigerator door click open.
I want to be able to find the perfect words to explain how the click of the refrigerator door brought all the heavens down upon me with a wild and raging surge of sheer child power. You've had moments like that, too, haven't you? Moments where dreams collide with reality at a perfect intersect point, and you feel as though somehow you have made magic happen?
We call this "magical thinking" and tell ourselves and our children that wishing does not make it so, and that our thoughts do not make things happen. But haven't you had moments when you knew you had done it? You had thought it and it was made true? Well, this was the first time I knew I had done it. I had called the pussycat to me, and Jesus had made it so by the power of my desire. And then to top it off, the huge, otherworldly strength of my thoughts had propelled Mom trance-like to the refrigerator for a bowl of milk! I had done this. I could do anything. I was in control of the universe. I knew it. I was exhilarated and terrified at the same time, and very full of myself, too.
So imagine my shock when Mom explained to me that this pussycat looked far too well-fed to be needing a new home. Imagine my disbelief when she said that this pussycat could visit, but could not live with us. I stood there on the porch, watching the cat wipe the last of the milk off her whiskers with a gracefully curved paw, and I felt the heavens collide in my young brain. Confusion, frustration, rage, hopelessness, numbness.
Make no mistake about it — I had felt the power. It was real and true. I had been the creatress for a divine instant. The pussycat was mine. Wasn't she? Even now, the proof remained in the form of my mother at the kitchen sink, washing an empty milk bowl — the bowl I had invoked. But now the cat was turning her back to us, tail arched into a question mark, and sliding like smoke under the trailer. I sat on the porch, spent, all my soul-circuits blown, and saw her turn once and look into my eyes with amusement. Her ears flicked. Then she was gone.
But not for long. The next morning, I awoke to a faint but insistent mewing. At first, I imagined it was coming from the hall closet — hallelujah! — but no, she was waiting at the front door. I held open the screen, and she rushed past me and headed directly toward the back bedroom. She knows this place, I told myself. She knows our house. Picking up speed at the end of the hall, she vaulted onto my parent's bed, landing with a purr I could hear all the way into our living room. I heard my mom laugh and my dad grunt, and I ran in to join them. Atop the covers, the pussycat was humming loudly and doing something I had never seen. Her whiskers were pulled forward in a slight pucker, and she was bent from the shoulders, pushing her paws forward and back on my mother's quilt-covered chest. I leaned close to her small cat face, and saw that her eyes were near closed in bliss, and that a small droplet of drool hung like a crystal from her lip.
"What is she doing?" I whispered to my mom. My father chuckled, "Suwee" — his forever name for me — "she's making patti-paws."
I can still feel that morning, all soft and sleepy with the sounds of cat feet treading the quilt with a comforting swish-swish, and my parents giggling, and the love twinkling around the room like invisible stars. And there were many more mornings just like it, with the pussycat appearing regularly and hurrying in to "make bread" on my parents' bed.
Sometimes she came at midday and visited with me. I would pretend she was my baby and wrap her in scarves and carry her around for hours, and she would lay back like a princess, as heavy and relaxed in my arms as a water balloon. Sometimes, caught up in the wonder of her fluid-like body, I would curl up with her and relax every muscle, and we would nap, intertwined and loose-limbed like two cotton ropes. She taught me what a good stretch really is and how to flex your toes and yawn until your mouth is as big as the rest of your face.
Because the pussycat was my pretend baby and babies do not have whiskers, I took the liberty one day of clipping them all off. I thought it made her look rather elegant and streamlined. My mother was horrified, and told me that now the pussycat would not be able to crawl through tight spaces because her whiskers were her "feelers."
I felt wretched about what I had done. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last time in my childhood that I did something that was hurtful without meaning to. I believed that when I was a grown-up, such things would not happen anymore because I would know better. But I still don't. I am over fifty now, and I tell myself that perhaps when I am dead and on the other side I will know better.
"Her name is Misty," my mom told me one afternoon. "She lives in the house just across from us, over there." Her finger pointed to a blue and white mobile home with bright green carpet tacked neatly on a back porch covered with wavy, fiberglass panels. My heart clenched.
The remains of my child-power shriveled up like a prune, locked to those words that were telling me that the pussycat never was mine, never ours. I had only imagined I had done it, that I had conjured her, beckoned her, called her with the power of lightning flashing from my fingertips. I could hear Jesus laugh.
"Her owner says we can share her ... Misty," Mom continued. "She knows Misty comes to visit, and she's happy to share." I hung my head and felt my pinktails brush against my cheek. Tears dribbled off the tip of my nose. Forgive me, Jesus. I was not happy to share. It felt wrong. Misty was not to be shared. But no one but me seemed to feel this sense of imminent doom. Certainly not Misty, who continued her morning visits like clockwork. Certainly not my mom, who set out the milk dish on the back porch each day.
Many days later, I curled up in a small aluminum folding chair out back with Misty of the Two Worlds. Her whiskers were beginning to grow back, and they prickled like a hairbrush against my arm where she rubbed her head. She was not a cat who was afraid to look anyone in the eye. Often she would hold my gaze with her golden eyes, and it would be I who turned away from the intensity of our wordless communion. She carried her soul in her eyes, an old soul saturated with life, peace, and an aura of delightful wisdom. This day, her paws worked in ceaseless, luxurious patti-paws, and her purr rumbled in my chest. In the fleeting spaces between the beauty of those precious moments of simple presence — the silkiness of fur; the slant of the afternoon sun; the smell of hot, dry pavement; the sweet, anchor-shaped smile of black cat lips — my mind created and dismissed tactics for assuming full ownership of this cat. All the ideas had their holes, their fatal flaws. Kidnapping Misty and running away from home seemed about the best alternative, and at only four, I couldn't see any long-term success in it.
"The other person has kept her long enough. They don't love her as much as we do. It's time for her to be ours now. She would rather be ours." These were the kinder thoughts I harbored about my shared-cat conundrum. Childhood passions can be raw ones, red and crazy ones. They come from a space of less domestication, before culture has entirely overtaken us, and they are full of creative juice, tender and dripping as a fresh wound. With a final cavernous yawn and a curl of her tail into that characteristic question mark, Misty slipped off my lap in the late day shadows and skipped away.
So very far away.
The next morning, she did not come to the door. Nor the next. My frantic pleadings sent my mother to the cyclone fence for a whispered conversation with the neighbor. Mom returned with her lips tight. Misty was dead. She had been curled up sleeping in the wheel-well of her other family's car when the woman drove off to work in the early morning, jamming on her brakes when she heard the shriek and the thump as Misty's body rolled completely beneath the tire.
I was inconsolable, bereft, literally sick to my stomach with grief. Except for a tiny frog and one goldfish, this was my first experience with tragic death, any death. I was not able to see the pussycat's body, or to participate in her burial. She had been taken to the dump after being wrapped in a plastic bag and placed in the trash. I had no concrete proof of her parting, except for her absence from our door. Sometimes I told myself that they were hiding her. It was a comforting and enraging thought. I even called for her at the cyclone fence for several days, self-consciously, my voice just above a whisper.
But worse than the pain of the loss — if anything can be worse than the pain of that loss — were my feelings of rage and anger at Misty's family for killing her, and at my own family for not taking me seriously when I tried to tell them that something about sharing Misty was not right. She would not have died in my care. I could have kept her safe. I can keep anything safe. This was my childhood credo, my vow, my truth.
Indeed, as the weeks of missing her slipped by, there hardened in me a deep belief in certain paradoxical truths and lies. In four short years I had formed for myself, as every child does, an interior culture made up from the bits and pieces of my life and its stories and from the silent language and urges of my own soul. Fusing soul and story for me in her own unique way, Misty was the bestowing vehicle for certain powerful conceptions created at the time of her life and loss that I would take with me for many, many decades — concepts I came to life to explore, embody, and transcend.
These, as plainly as I can say them, are the beliefs that Misty ushered into my life: That I am both all-powerful and, at the same time, powerless as a speck of dust. That anyone, anything, is safe ever after in my care. And that nothing — myself included — resides entirely in my care.
These concepts would loom before me for years, like a blackened lighthouse, calling me to slam upon the rocks and sink or to relight the tower — whichever I was capable of at that moment in life. I have many memories of both, mostly of slamming against the rocks and sinking. But sometimes I have felt as though I were holding up a fragile torch high in the sea winds, finally and torturously touching the candle wick at the top of the lighthouse stairs and sending brilliant light cascading into tens of thousands of handmade glass lenses that lit up the ocean with the color of a cat's yellow eyes.
These beliefs still reside inside of me, sometimes like black boulders of clotted lava, sometimes like flashes of brilliant light. They rest like a cat curled on my lap, and when life sends me crashing to the rocks with questions about power, control, and responsibility, these beliefs press like patti-paws on my chest, comforting, irritating, inviting, challenging. The rocks beneath the lighthouse are black-with-gray, and the waves rise over them in a curl like a question mark. These are the colors and textures painted for me as a child, and when the waves break and settle again, they are gray and Misty.
* * *
HONORING OUR FIRST STORIES
"Remember only this one thing," said Badger. "The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away when they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memory. This is how people care for themselves."
— Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel
Excerpted from All My Relations by Susan Chernak McElroy, Connie Bowen. Copyright © 2004 Susan Chernak McElroy. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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