Old Mother, Little Cat is a highly readable memoir of Gerber’s mother’s decline in health and how their relationship grew during this time, blended in with Gerber’s finding a kitten and her developing relationship with Max (the name she gives the kitten).
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About the Author
Her story “I Don’t Believe This” won an O. Henry Prize. “This Is a Voice from Your Past” was included in The Best American Mystery Stories.
Her non-fiction books include a travel memoir, Botticelli Blue Skies: An American in Florence; a book of personal essays, Gut Feelings: A Writer’s Truths and Minute Inventions; and Old Mother, Little Cat: A Writer’s Reflections on Her Kitten, Her Aged Mother . . . and Life.
Gerber earned her BA in English from the University of Florida, her MA in English from Brandeis University, and was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fiction Fellowship to Stanford University. She presently teaches fiction writing at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.
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Old Mother, Little Cat
A Writer's Reflections on Her Kitten, Her Aged Mother ... and Life
By MERRILL JOAN GERBER
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 1995 Merrill Joan Gerber
All rights reserved.
Old Mother, Little Cat
On this particular December morning, I am having enough troubles as it is: troubles of the heart that can't be fixed as well as ordinary troubles that can be. Even as I kick an old towel around on the kitchen floor to sop up the leak from the dishwasher, I'm thinking of what I need to take to my mother today at the nursing home: mints, a small pillow for her paralyzed arm, the sharp scissors so I can give her a haircut—if the nurses have been able to convince her to sit up in the wheelchair for a while. I'm also making mental lists of the errands I have to run afterward.
In order not to flood the floor, I grab the dripping towel and run with it to the back door. I do this automatically—I wring it out and hang it over the pool wall, I gather up the dry one from yesterday in order to lay it down under the leak. J., my good husband and man of the house, definitely plans to fix this leak, but I don't think he has the faintest idea of what is wrong. Still, he says he's not ready for me to call a plumber. He wants to think about it a little more.
My mind is everywhere at once; I need to do food shopping at the market after I see my mother. My college girls are coming home for the Christmas break in a few days and I'll need lots more grains and vegetables (J. and I haven't quite given up our meat and buttered potatoes diet, though we've improved).
I stand outside near the pool for a moment, watching the water drip from the towel, looking around at the bleak winter view, at the dead leaves on the deck, at the pecans from the tree floating like black beetles in the icy water.
A squadron of crows descends on the lawn, calling out with loud caws for others to join them to forage for newly fallen pecans. In this gray morning hour, the large birds, bent forward over their task, look like black stones on the paltry stretch of winter grass.
And it is then, just then, that I hear the cry. It seems to come almost from the tips of my toes—the saddest, most forlorn moan I have ever heard.
"What is it?" I cry automatically.
But there is only silence. Did I imagine it?
I look around now, alert and aware; I sense nothing but the faint movement of the trees in the chill winter wind (a cold wind, even for California) and the occasional clack of a crow.
I am about to go inside when the sound comes again. It's an urgent sound, as close to a plea as it can be without words. Is it our old cat, Kitty, hurt or trapped? Even as I imagine this, Kitty appears on the pool wall, walking in his slow, majestic way, his great old gray coat thick and fluffed with winter fur. When the cry repeats itself, we both hear it. Kitty freezes and stares at my feet. Nothing is there but patterns on the darkened cement—the splotchy water stains that are dripping from the towel.
"What is it, where are you?" I say again. The cry is vocal now, loud, full of pain, desperate. Then I see something just behind the wire screen that covers a square opening under the house, a crawl space to a place where no one ever goes. Something is pressed against the grids. I kneel down and see a pair of round green eyes looking back at me. They are both like little mouths open in terror.
"Oh my God," I say to Kitty. "It's some kind of creature."
The creature opens its mouth to cry out as if to verify this, and I hear the sound clearly and recognize it for what it is.
The meow of a kitten. Oh no. No, I won't think of it. Absolutely not. I won't consider it. I am done with these matters. I don't have the strength for it. I've done my duty: three children, a dog, dozens of mice, fish, birds, and two cats, one of which (Korky, the Beloved) we buried two years ago in the back yard at a solemn funeral rite. Only old Kitty is left, and when he dies, which J. hopes will be in our lifetime, we can finally travel somewhere without endless arrangements and worries.
The hackles are up on Kitty's back; he wants no new friend, either. Fine. We're in agreement.
Go inside and forget about him. The next time you come out he'll be gone.
Even as I'm thinking this, I'm trying to pull the screen away from its frame, saying, "Shh, shh, don't be afraid, little one, you'll be fine, no one is going to hurt you." (Whose voice could this be? It can't be mine, not when I'm thinking something else entirely!) With a great heave of my arm (I wrench my back doing it), the rusted old screen comes away and the green eyes withdraw and vanish. I get a glimpse of something hopping, bunny-like, away into the dark recesses under the house.
My heart is full. I feel passionate, a long-gone sensation I barely recognize. I'm energized, full of purpose. I rush into the house and get a bowl and fill it with milk. I shake some of Kitty's dry food into a plate. I don't say a word to J., who is reading the paper at the kitchen table. This will have to be a secret between me and Kitty, who has followed me into the house and whose eyes are narrowed as he watches me.
Outside again, I set the food dishes down in the place where I first saw the green eyes, in the hollow dark place under the house, on plain dirt. In the twenty-five years we've lived here, I've never really looked into this hole, into the cavernous darkness there. How could a kitten have gotten underneath, into this inhospitable cave? And why did he stay?
I wait, watching the food bowls, but there is no sound, no motion. Even Kitty, seeing that I have set out food, and having a passion for almost nothing else, does not try to venture there.
I look at him, fat and furred, in his thick gray coat. His enormous paws are like cartoon drawings. He, too, appeared in our lives as if by design on a day at least twelve years ago, now. J. was in the driveway with our daughters, all of them washing the station wagon. The tiny gray kitten wandered shyly up to the bucket of suds and pitifully began to lap at the soapy water. J. shooed him away, and a chorus of protests arose: "Ooooh, the poor thing." "Look how hungry he is!" "Oh, see how he's shivering."
"Don't anyone feed him," J. warned, "... or he'll never leave."
Exactly! Our three daughters, as if by signal, dropped their rags, ran into the house and in half a minute brought out a feast: cream and raw eggs and bits of salami. The kitten ate ravenously, making gasping, almost sobbing sounds.
"He shouldn't eat so fast," said my youngest. "He might have to throw up." She then saw that the kitten had seven toes on one paw, and eight on the other. "Oh no, he's a misfit," she cried. "We have to adopt him, so he'll feel loved."
"Don't even consider it," J. said. "And don't give him a name."
"We'll just call him Kitty," she told him, as if to reassure him that a generic title could prevent ownership. And so she did call him Kitty. And so did her sisters. And so did I. And so he has been called ever after.
* * *
Now I say to him, after all these many years that he has been called, merely, "Kitty," "Don't worry, Big Kitty, we love you, too." And I realize that by naming him thus, I've just made room for one more.
At the break of dawn I am out of bed and looking around the pool deck, tying tight the belt of my pink plush bathrobe. It's freezing out here. I bend nearly upside-down to see into the crawl space, but it's dark under the house; dirt and spiders abound, it's totally inhospitable, frightening in some childhood-terror part of my mind. To think that any small, living creature is under there, shivering and starving, is almost too much for me.
"Kitty, Kitty ..." I call softly. "Here, Little Kitty."
I hold my breath to witness nothing, the absence of sound, a negative certainty. The newspaper delivery truck comes by, its headlights washing over the pool wall, and there's the thunk of the newspaper hitting the front walk.
"Kitty?" I call again. I am almost relieved. Fine, my problem has evaporated. He's gone, run away to some other house, or found his way home. But, of course, I can't let it alone. What if he's just wandering the streets, lost and hungry? Or worse, is frozen dead under the house. How will I ever know? I imagine months passing—and in the spring, when it's warm, I will smell his decomposing body!
Now I wonder who could have turned him loose. Or possibly deposited him near or even (purposely) at my door. Has he, by some accident, escaped from a loving home and is someone at this moment grieving for a precious pet? But then—isn't it unlikely that so small an animal could dash out a door, come so far?
I suspect that someone, too kind-hearted (or too cowardly) to take a kitten, or a litter of them, to the pound where in a few days they might be gassed, would take a chance, set them down in a promising place and drive off, trusting to fate.
In this light, I assess my neighborhood; it looks pleasantly middle-class, the lawns are well-kept, the trees are old and handsome. Surely it looks as if those who live here could afford a can of cat food a day; most of us in this neighborhood do have pets.
But this is all academic. Clearly the kitten is gone, and I'm through worrying. One less problem in a life of many problems.
I go inside, stir up some frozen orange juice, start the coffee. I hear J. get up and turn on the heat. In the laundry room, I set the washing machine and hear the water start to fill. In the enamel tub are six or seven robes of my mother's that I told her yesterday (when I didn't get to give her a haircut, after all) I would launder and bring back to the nursing home today. Even though her name is written in black marker on the collar of each robe, she doesn't trust the nursing home laundry. "They steal everything they see," she says with perfect confidence. "Nothing is safe here."
* * *
The halls of the nursing home are decked with boughs of holly. This is her second Christmas in residence here—we know, my mother and I, what a fuss they make about Christmas. She's totally scornful: "They tell me Santa Claus is going to visit me! Do I care? Do I want to see some old guy in a red costume?"
People are flowing through the halls; this is an enormous place, this convalescent hospital. There are nine wings, comprising levels of ... is it fair to call it ... hell? Probably not; there are days it seems a decent place, a kind of necessary solution, if not exactly a home, for me in some ways as well as for my mother. The lower-numbered wings (l00, 200, 300) are the locked wards which house the totally incompetent, the Alzheimer's patients, the violent, the aged-insane. Patients seem to be segregated by degrees of helplessness, mental and physical. In the 900 wing are just very old people (and some heartbreakingly young) who are there because they walk and fall, or have no legs at all, or because they need oxygen at all times, or because their hearts are failing or their blood vessels are too narrow to accommodate an adequate blood flow.
Many of them still socialize with one another, sit outside and talk, smoke, go to chapel, walk the halls, holding onto walkers or the handles of their wheelchairs. In the lounge there is a piano, on which, when my mother could still use her two hands, she used to play Beethoven. But my mother hasn't been in the 900 wing since August, when, by a series of accidents, she lost what she considered her human life and began, according to her, her life "as less than an animal."
Today, as I come in, the aides are punching in and out at the time clock in the hall, the aides-in-training are filing into chapel, where during the week they take classes instructing them on how to take care of the very old, the very sick, the very weak, the senile, and the dying.
I greet the receptionist at the desk, I wave to Noreen in her wheelchair—she is the MS patient who has been here for twelve years, and who has an easel and paints in her room. I pass by the beauty parlor, the little snack bar, and finally I'm at the 500 wing, the Medicare wing, where my mother is recovering ... or not recovering. It's where she lives now, in one single bed, and occasionally sits up for an hour or two a day in a wheelchair.
She is staring at her feeding tube pump as I come in. She watches the circular arrow travel its course, round and round, twenty-four hours a day. She watches for fear it will stop spinning and she will starve to death, even though she has been assured many times that any malfunction in the equipment will set off a loud alarm. Still, she doubts the alarm will work when the time comes.
I pass by her roommate, one of many she has had, who is sleeping with her mouth open.
"Ma?" I say tentatively.
Her head moves slowly in my direction. I feel the beacon of her eyes settle on me; she takes me in, her daughter, her eldest. She opens her mouth in a soft toothless smile, not really a smile but a start of her lawyer's argument; I see her pump up her energy, up to the top of the thin tube of her body, up to her mouth, where the words gather and wait all the days between my visits or my sister's visits.
"You're just in time. I'm so glad to see you," she says, "because if I didn't have you or your sister to talk to I would lose my mind. Because otherwise I'm like an animal in a cage. Days pass and I don't have another soul in the world I can tell my troubles to."
The food bowls are empty! The ones I set out yesterday morning were still full when I came back from visiting my mother, but this morning they're licked clean!
"Kitty?" I call, but, as I expected, there's no answer. Is he exceptionally wary? Or gone? Did another creature eat the food? A possum, a raccoon? Maybe an army of termites? Still, my heart lightens, I find myself cheerfully dicing a few slices of leftover roast beef and setting the tiny pieces on a plate in the crawl hole opening.
Then I go inside to slide my feet around on the towel in front of the dishwasher. The leak is very mysterious; about three ounces of water appears at odd intervals—and not necessarily when the dishwasher is running or filling or rinsing or draining; it just happens, arbitrarily, on some private timetable of its own. J. seems to be doing a psychological study of its intentions. A plumber isn't what he thinks the leak requires; perhaps a dysfunctional-kitchen therapist. I am running out of patience, not to mention old towels. But you can't hurry a husband into action any more than you can hurry a kitten. In time, in time. All in good time.
* * *
My mother has always been my interpreter of reality. Her pattern over the years is to tell me first what happens, and to tell me next what it means. Yesterday she told me that an aide came in and hid behind her curtain in order to watch a soap opera on my mother's little TV, and that the meaning of this act was that "they don't want to work, why should they, they're paid nothing." When she sees life through their eyes, she's sympathetic; when they don't work in her behalf they're "lazy nothings."
Today she tells me about her shower. "They put me in a shower chair. They wheel me through the halls. I sit there naked while they talk to one another. Then they scald me. They burn me. Or they freeze me. They don't know hot from cold. They're not like us."
"What do you mean, Mom?" I say. "They're not humans?" Certain remarks I can't let her get away with.
"What do they know?" she says. "They're immigrants."
"You weren't an immigrant?"
"Certainly not," she says. "I was born in this country."
"But your parents, they were immigrants. They came here from another country, speaking another language."
"That's right," she says. "And what did they know? Nothing!"
Today my mother lies in her bed, her white hair blending with the white of the white pillow, her pale white face faded, her old eyes watery, swimming in some deep pool of anger and memory. Her paralyzed arm is limp on the sheet; the nurse has placed a roll of gauze in her palm to keep her fingers from clenching into a claw. This woman, my mother, was once a classical pianist. "Was once" is what everyone here once was.
"So, Mom, guess what? I think a kitten is hiding under my house."
I consider this appropriate material for conversation. I always come armed with some news, after carefully editing out what might unduly disturb her, confuse her, cause anxiety, upset her. Even the leaking dishwasher is not a subject for discussion here, since she already believes nothing works as it should, and ... if one machine can malfunction, then her feeding tube machine can also fail.
Excerpted from Old Mother, Little Cat by MERRILL JOAN GERBER. Copyright © 1995 Merrill Joan Gerber. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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