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When Cleo was delivered weeks later, she had no way of knowing that her new family had just been hit by a tragedy. Helen was sure she couldn't keep her--until she saw something she thought had vanished from the ...
When Cleo was delivered weeks later, she had no way of knowing that her new family had just been hit by a tragedy. Helen was sure she couldn't keep her--until she saw something she thought had vanished from the earth forever: her son's smile. The reckless, rambunctious kitten stayed.
Through happiness and heartbreak, changes and new beginnings, Cleo turned out to be the unlikely glue that affectionately held Helen's family together. Rich in wisdom, wit, heart, and healing, here is the story of a cat with an extraordinary gift for knowing just where she was needed most.
"A remarkable memoir. . .I realized that Helen Brown didn't break my heart at all--she opened it."
--Beth Hoffman, New York Times bestselling author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
"An absolute must."
"The next Marley &Me. Even non cat-lovers will be moved."
A cat chooses its owner, not the other way around.
"We're not getting a kitten," I said, negotiating our station wagon around a bend the shape of a pretzel. "We're just going to look at them."
The road to Lena's house was complicated by its undulations, not to mention the steepness. It snaked over what would qualify as mountains in most parts of the world. There wasn't much beyond Lena's house except a few sheep farms and a stony beach.
"You said we could get a kitten," Sam whined from the backseat before turning to his younger brother for support. "Didn't she?"
The backseat was usually the boys' battleground. Between two brothers aged nearly nine and six the dynamic was predictable. Sam would set Rob up with a surreptitious jab that would be rewarded with a kick, demanding retaliation with a thump, escalating into recriminations and tears-"He punched me!" "That's 'cos he pinched me first." But this time they were on the same side, and my usual role of judge and relationship counselor had been supplanted by a simpler one-the Enemy.
"Yeah, it's not fair," Rob chimed in. "You said."
"What I said was we might get a kitten one day. One big dog is enough for any family. What would Rata do? She'd hate having a cat in the house."
"No, she wouldn't. Golden retrievers like cats," Sam replied. "I read it in my pet book."
There was no point recalling the number of times we'd seen Rata disappear into undergrowth in pursuit of an unfortunate member of the feline species. Since Sam had given up trying to become a superhero and thrown his Batman mask to the back of his wardrobe, he'd morphed into an obsessive reader brimming with facts to destroy any argument I could dredge up.
I didn't want a cat. I probably wasn't even a cat person. My husband, Steve, certainly wasn't. If only Lena hadn't smiled so brightly that day at our neighborhood playgroup when she'd asked: "Would you like a kitten?" If only she hadn't said it so loudly-and in front of the kids.
"Wow! We're getting a kitten!" Sam had yelled before I had a chance to answer.
"Wow! Wow!" Rob had echoed, jumping up and down in his sneakers with the holes I'd been trying to ignore.
Even before we'd met Lena I'd been in awe of her. A willowy beauty with an eclectic fashion style, she'd migrated from Holland in her late teens to become a highly regarded painter. Her portraits invariably contained political comment about race, sex or religion. An artist in the deepest sense, she also chose to live independently from men with her three children. Personally, I wouldn't have been surprised if Lena had summoned her offspring from some parallel universe only she and Pablo Picasso had access codes to. I wasn't about to make a fuss about a kitten in front of her.
* * *
Raising a pair of boys was proving to be more demanding than I'd imagined back when I was a schoolgirl watching baby-shampoo ads on television. If there'd been an Olympic medal for teenage-mother naivety, I'd have won gold. Married and pregnant at nineteen, I'd smiled at the notion of babies waking up at night. Those were other people's babies. Reality struck with Sam's birth. I'd tried to grow up fast. Midnight phone calls to Mum three hundred kilometers away hadn't always been helpful ("He must be teething, dear"). Fortunately, older, more experienced mothers had taken pity on me. With kindness and great patience they'd guided me through Motherhood 101. I'd eventually learned to accept that sleep is a luxury and a mother is only ever as happy as her saddest child. So in those closing days of 1982 I was doing okay. They were gorgeous boys, and put it this way: I hadn't been to the supermarket wearing a nightgown under my coat for several months.
We were living in Wellington, a city famous for two things-bad weather and earthquakes. We'd just managed to purchase a house with the potential to expose us to both: a bungalow halfway down a zigzag on a cliff directly above a major fault line.
Minor earthquakes were so common we hardly noticed when walls trembled and plates rattled. But people said Wellington was overdue for a massive quake like the one of 1855, when great tracts of land disappeared into the sea and were flung up in other places.
It certainly seemed like our bungalow clung to the hill as if it was prepared for something terrible to happen. There was a faded fairytale appeal to its pitched roof, dark-beamed cladding and shutters. Mock Tudor meets Arts and Crafts, it wasn't shabby chic; it was just plain shabby. My efforts to create a cottage garden had resulted in an apology of forget-me-nots along the front path.
Quaint as it was, clearly the house had been built with a family of alpine goats in mind. There was no garage, not even a street frontage. The only way to reach it was to park the car up at road level, high above our roofline, and bundle groceries and children's gear into our arms. Gravity would take care of the rest, sucking us down several zigs and zags to our gate.
We were young, so it was no problem on sunny days when the harbor was blue and as flat as a dinner plate. Whenever a southerly gale roared up from Antarctica, however, tearing at our coat buttons and flinging rain in our faces, we wished we'd bought a more sensible house.
But we loved living a twenty-minute walk from town. Equipped with ropes and rock-climbing shoes we could have made it in five. When we headed into the city, an invisible force would send us plummeting down the lower end of the zigzag. Hurtling through scrub and flax bushes, we'd pause for a glimpse. A circle of amethyst hills, stark and steep, rose above us. I was amazed we could be part of such beauty.
The path then pulled us across an old wooden footbridge spanning the main road. From there we could either take steps down to the bus stop or continue our perpendicular journey to the Houses of Parliament and central railway station. The slog home from the city was another matter. It took twice as long and demanded the lungs of a mountaineer.
The zigzag had a sharply divided social structure. There was a Right Side, on which substantial two-story houses nestled in gardens with aspirations to Tuscany. And the Wrong Side, where bungalows sprinkled themselves like afterthoughts along the edge of the cliff. Wrong Side people tended to have weed collections rather than gardens.
The prestige of jobs declined in direct correlation to the zigzag's slope. On the top right-hand side Mr. Butler's house sat like a castle. Grey and two-story, it oozed superiority not only over the neighborhood but the city in general.
Below Mr. Butler's, a two-story house opened out over the harbor, looking as if it would hardly be bothered by mere social comparisons. With eaves graceful as seagull's wings, it seemed ready to take off in the next decent gale to a far more glamorous world. Rick Desilva ran a record company. People said that before they were married, his wife, Ginny, had been a fashion model, New Zealand's answer to Jean Shrimpton. Shielded behind a thicket of vegetation that no doubt could be dried and smoked, they had a reputation for parties.
There was a ridiculous rumor that Elton John had been seen staggering out of their house drunk as a dog, though in reality it was just someone who looked like him. Their son, Jason, was at the same school as our boys. They were perched on the lip of a gully about half a mile farther up the hill, but we kept our distance. The Desilvas had a sports car. Steve said they were too racy. I had no energy to argue.
Our side of the zigzag specialized in recluses and people who were renting for a while before moving somewhere less exposed, with better access and not so close to the fault line. Mrs. Sommerville, a retired high school teacher, was one of the few longtime residents of the Wrong Side. She inhabited a tidy weatherboard house one down from us. A lifetime with adolescents had done nothing for her looks. She wore a permanent expression of someone who'd just received an insult.
Mrs. Sommerville had already appeared on our doorstep with complaints about our dog terrorizing her cat, Tomkin, a large tabby cat with a matching sour face. Even though I tried to avoid her, I bumped into her most days, giving her the opportunity to point out skid marks where boys had been zooming down the zigzag illegally on skateboards, or the latest graffiti on her letterbox. Mrs. Sommerville's pathological dislike of boys included our sons, who were suspects of every crime. Steve said I was imagining things. While she loathed boys, Mrs. Sommerville knew how to turn the charm on for men.
* * *
I worked at home, writing a weekly column for Wellington's morning newspaper, The Dominion. Steve worked one week home, one week away, as radio officer on one of the ferries that plowed between the North and South Islands. We'd met at a ship's party when I was fifteen. A grand old man of twenty, he was the most exotic creature I'd ever encountered. Compared to the farmers who steered us around country dance halls near New Plymouth where I grew up, he was from another world.
His face was peachy white and he had baby-soft hands. I'd been mesmerized by his blue eyes, which glowed under their long lashes. Unlike the farmers, he hadn't been frightened of conversation. I'd assumed that being English, he was probably related to one of the Beatles, if not the Rolling Stones.
I'd loved the way his tawny hair draped across his collar, just like Paul McCartney's. He'd smelled of diesel oil and salt, the perfume of the wider world that was impatient for me to join it.
We'd written to each other for three years. I'd sprinted through school and a journalism course (straight Cs), then flown to England. Steve was literally the man of my dreams-I'd met him in person for only two weeks during the three years we'd been letter writing-and reality had no hope of matching up. His parents were probably unimpressed with his big-boned girlfriend from the colonies.
We'd married in the Guildford registry office a month after my eighteenth birthday. Only five people had been brave enough to turn up for the ceremony. The officiant was so bored he forgot to mention the ring. My new husband slipped it on my finger afterwards outside in the porch. It was raining. Distraught back in New Zealand, my parents investigated the possibilities of annulment, but they were powerless.
About two weeks after the wedding I'd stared at the toilet seat in our rented flat and thought it needed polishing. That was when I knew getting married had been a mistake. Yet we'd upset so many people by insisting on it I couldn't back out. Short of running away and causing more pain, the only solution I could think of was to create a family. Steve reluctantly obliged. Honest from the start, he'd made it clear that babies weren't really his thing.
We returned to New Zealand, where I'd labored through a December night too frightened to ask the nurse to turn the light on in case it was breaking hospital rules. Somewhere through a drug-induced haze I'd heard the doctor singing "Morning Has Broken." Minutes later she'd lifted baby Sam from my body.
Before he'd even taken his first breath he turned his head and stared into my face with his huge blue eyes. I thought I'd explode with love. My body ached to hold this brand-new human with his downy hair glowing under the delivery room lights. Sam was wrapped in a blanket-blue in case I forgot what sex he was-and lowered into my arms. Kissing his forehead, I was overcome by the sensation that I'd never be safely inside my own skin again. I uncurled his tiny fist. His lifeline was strong and incredibly long.
Even though it was supposed to be our first meeting, Sam and I recognized each other immediately. It felt like a reunion of ancient souls who'd never spent long apart.
Becoming parents hadn't brought Steve and me closer together. In fact, it had the opposite effect. Two and a half years after Sam's birth Rob slid into the world.
Lack of sleep and jangled nerves had made our differences more apparent. Steve sprouted a beard, a look that was becoming fashionable, and retreated behind it. Returning from a week at sea, he was tired and irritable.
He became annoyed with what he perceived as my extravagance over the boys' clothes and upkeep. I bought a secondhand sewing machine that emitted electric shocks and I taught myself to cut their hair. I grew louder, larger and more untidy.
The times we weren't sure how much longer we could stay together were interspersed with phases of holding on and hoping things might improve for the sake of the boys. Even though we were drifting apart like icebergs on opposing ocean currents, there was absolutely no doubt we both loved them.
* * *
"Now, boys," I said, pulling up outside Lena's house and heaving the handbrake high as it would go. "Don't get your hopes up. We're just going to look."
They scrambled out of the car and were halfway down the path to Lena's house before I'd closed the driver's door. Watching their blond hair catch the sunlight, I sighed and wondered if there'd ever be a time I wouldn't be struggling to catch up with them.
Lena had opened the door by the time I got there, and the boys were already inside. I apologized for their bad manners. Lena smiled and welcomed me into the enviable tranquillity of her home, which overlooked the playing field where I often took the boys to run off excess energy.
"We've just come to look at the ..." I said as she escorted me into her living room. "Oh, kittens! Aren't they adorable?"
In a corner, under some bookshelves, a sleek bronze cat lay on her side. She gazed at me through amber eyes that belonged not to a cat but a member of the aristocracy. Nestled into her abdomen were four appendages. Two were coated with a thin layer of bronze hair. Two were darker. Perhaps once their fur had grown they'd turn out to be black. I'd seen recently born kittens before, but never ones as tiny as these. One of the darker kittens was painfully small.
The boys were on their knees in awe of this nativity scene. They seemed to know to keep a respectful distance.
"They've only just opened their eyes," Lena said, scooping one of the bronze kittens from the comfort of its twenty-four-hour diner. The creature barely fitted inside her hand. "They'll be ready to go to new homes in a couple of months."
The kitten squirmed and emitted a noise that sounded more like a yip than a meow. Its mother glanced up anxiously. Lena returned the infant to the fur-lined warmth of its family to be assiduously licked. The mother used her tongue like a giant mop, swiping parallel lines across her baby's body, then over its head for good measure.
"Can we get one, please, PLEASE?" Sam begged, looking up at me with that expression parents struggle to resist.
"Please?" his brother echoed. "We won't throw mud on Mrs. Sommerville's roof anymore."
"You've been throwing mud on Mrs. Sommerville's roof?!"
"Idiot!" Sam said, rolling his eyes and jabbing Rob with his elbow.
But the kittens ... and there was something about the mother. She was so self-assured and elegant. I'd never seen a cat like her. She was smaller than an average cat, but her ears were unusually large. They rose like a pair of matching pyramids from her triangular face. Darker stripes on her forehead whispered of a jungle heritage. Short hair, too. My mother always said short-haired cats were clean.
"She's a wonderful mother, pure Abyssinian," Lena explained. "I tried to keep an eye on her, but she escaped into the bamboos for a couple of nights a while back. We don't know who the father is. A wild tom, I guess."
Abyssinian. I hadn't heard of that breed. Not that my knowledge of pedigreed cats was encyclopedic. I'd once known a Siamese called Lap Chow, the pampered familiar of my ancient piano teacher, Mrs. McDonald. Our three-way relationship was doomed from the start. The only thing that hurt more than Mrs. McDonald's ruler whacking my fingers as they fumbled over the keys was Lap Chow's hypodermic-needle claws sinking into my ankles. Between the two of them they did a good job creating a lifelong prejudice against music lessons and pedigreed cats.
"Some people say Abyssinians are descended from the cats the ancient Egyptians worshipped," Lena continued.
It certainly wasn't difficult to imagine this feline priestess presiding over a temple. The combination of alley cat and royalty had allure. If the kittens manifested the best attributes of both parents (classy yet hardy), they could turn out to be something special. If, on the other hand, less desirable elements of royalty and rough trade (fussy and feral) came to the fore in the offspring, we could be in for a roller-coaster ride.
"There's only one kitten left," Lena added. "The smaller black one."
Of course people had gone for the larger, healthier-looking kittens first. The bronze ones probably had more appeal, as they had a better chance of turning out looking purebred like their mother. I'd already decided I preferred the black ones, though not necessarily the runt with its bulging eyes and patchy tufts of fur.
Excerpted from Cleo by HELEN BROWN Copyright © 2009 by Helen Brown. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted September 12, 2010
This book is a wonderful, moving memoir about a cat who helps heal a family after a horrific tragedy strikes them. We get a glimpse into Helen's life after she loses her son, Sam. The family had arranged to adopt Cleo as a birthday present for Sam. When Cleo is delivered to the family, the last thing they were thinking about was giving a kitten a home. They were grieving after losing Sam. As soon as Helen's son, Rob holds Cleo, he smiles for the first time in a very long time. Cleo was indeed home and on her way to becoming a part of the family. I enjoyed reading about Cleo's crazy cat antics. Cleo certainly made her presence known right from the start. Anyone who is owned by a cat knows how insane life can become with a small kitten running the show. You also know how loving a cat can be especially in our times of need. Cleo was no exception. It was as though she knew she had an important job to do and that was to help her family through a terribly trying time. I loved reading about Cleo's adventures with her family. The story is both touching and amusing. The book is not just about Cleo but about a family moving forward after a tragic time in their lives. By the end of the book I felt as though I knew Helen, Cleo and the whole family and had taken the journey along side them. I have always thought that animals possess a healing quality and Cleo has shown me that to be true. I loved this book and highly recommend it, even if you are not a cat lover! Be sure to have Kleenex close by. This book will have you in tears at times, some happy tears, some sad tears and some from laughing so hard at Cleo's shenanigans. I enjoyed Helen's sense of humor. Pets and laughter can be the best medicine of all! This book will stay with me for a long time to come.
5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 8, 2010
I don't ordinarily read this kind of book, but I have to confess, I was drawn to it because I myself have a black cat named Cleo whom I got as a kitten, so seeing the cover was startling and I knew I had to read the book.
I have to admit that despite my trying to resist, the story of this little black cat and the family who adopted her drew me right in. Unlike many stories of this kind, Brown writes in a no-nonsense voice, pleasantly devoid of excessive sentimentality, and the story never turns maudlin, even when sad events happen. I'll admit to being a little teary-eyed at the end, surprised at how moved I was.
I'm a "cat person" - I've lived with cats all my life - and I have to say, Ms. Brown perhaps anthopomorphizes Cleo just a bit too much - but no matter. I still couldn't put the book down and finished it in a day and a half over the weekend.
One thing that did NOT please me, though, is how the publisher chose to Americanize the spelling and usage for the American edition, as though American readers would not recognize "harbour," "centre," or degees of temperature in Celsius (check the first few pages of the book on Amazon's U.K. site if you want to verify this). Translate from another language, certainly, but we DON'T need a translation from New Zealand English!
Nonetheless, a charming, heartwarming story, if nothing groundbreaking, with particular appeal to animal lovers. Grab a box of tissues and enjoy.
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 1, 2013
Posted June 8, 2013
A must-read for cat lovers. Helen Brown has a wonderful writing style, will make you laugh one minute and cry the next. You will definitely see some of your cat's antics in Cleo. I couldn't wait to read more, but didn't want the book to end.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 23, 2012
Posted November 11, 2012
I bought this book at my local BJS and loved it. Helen never had a thought about adopting a kitten until her sons convinced her to get Cleo, an irrestable black runt. Soon after,Sam, her oldest skn, is tragically hit by a car and killed. Cleo arrives a couple months later, and Helen is about to give her back until she sees Rob, her youngest son, do something she hasn't seen in a long time- his smile. Cleo mends the family through every moment, both good and bad. This story was probably the best I've read since Warriors. 20 stars. I am looking for the sequel, Cats and Daughters, aka After Cleo Comes Jonah.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 8, 2012
I am having a hard time finishing this book. The writer makes a statement and then rambles with comparisons rather than just stating a fact....very hard to follow. i thought this was going to be a heartwarming story..very disappointed.
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Posted January 9, 2012
Posted June 12, 2011
People take life for grantide. So after a huge tragedy you end up blaming yourself. Helen was not expecting a tiny little kitten after the death of someone close (I don't want to give it away). This story is about how something so small could mend a families heart. It is a perfect story that will leave you touched at the end. It is a must read! I do have to say it got boring for a while but the ending was very well written! I would recomend this to anyone, it is a very nice book. :DWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 10, 2011
Cleo is one of the most touching stories i have ever read. It is a very cute sad and happiest stories ever. You should read this book i will get you thinking how lucky you really are.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 5, 2011
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Posted January 26, 2011
Posted December 24, 2010
I bought this book cause my dads name is Cleo lol and i brought it home as a surprise I found that i could not put this down i laughed i cried and i felt every emotion that this family went through this is a must read for any pet loverWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 6, 2013
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Posted October 31, 2011
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