Parenting Cats: the Bitter and the Sweet

Parenting Cats: the Bitter and the Sweet


(Written by Sylvia six weeks before the events in March 2011)

Then and Now

The pet supply business has come a long way. Sprouts from the 40s have burgeoned into a kudzu-vine jungle that reaches out to ensnare us in its yeasty embrace.

Unheard of until a few decades ago were kibbles and canned cat foods in hundreds of flavors – vitamin powders and fish oil capsules – ointments and salves – tonics and nostrums – toothbrushes and pastes, ‘tartar-fighting’ fish-flavored chewies – cat shampoos, combs and brushes – snuggy-loos –  toys of every description – fashion apparel – videos to amuse and inspire – voice recordings to cheer the cats in our absence –  perfumed granules and high-tech robotic litter boxes – world-renowned photo portraits of cats – insurance, and four- and five-figure vet bills – prostheses for the lame and the halt – caskets and urns – memorial parks.

In olden times – though still going strong in the boonies – cats subsisted on what they hunted, table scraps and, if they were farm cats, squirts of milk and chicken mash mush.  Cats were lean and their lives brief: a ten-year-old was a Methuselah.  Sooner or later many wandered off into the woods, and were never seen again.

Neutering was unknown. Kittens and puppies were torn from their mothers – distraught as Niobe – tossed in a sack weighted with rocks and dropped in the pond, a barbaric routine too commonplace to be grist for the moral outrage mill. ‘Ain’t no more ‘n whackin’ a hen,’ as the farmers saw it. When sunlight slanted into the ponds in late afternoon, the ghostly feed sacks at rest in the silt suggested that scene from ‘Night of the Hunter,’ where Shelly Winters, done in by the preacher, floats upright in the sun-dappled depths, her hair drifting in arabesques in the watery silence.

Times have changed. Nowadays cats fuel a market revolving around their needs, real and contrived, the latter dreamed up by gifted designers and sales professionals. Entrepreneurs and DVMs who busy themselves concocting new cat foods, forging more links in health care procedures and cranking up the need for feline ‘accessories’ owe their wealth to cats. Modern-day parents do what their grandparents never did: lug home bag after bag of cat food, lugging away into their dotage and years beyond, as stipulated in their Wills.

Commercial Cat Foods and Vitamins

What is it made of, this store-bought fare that costs parents thousands of dollars? Though their composition varies depending on whether they’re based on meat or fish, brands can be compared in a general way. The less expensive are bulked up with unspecified ‘byproducts,’ with something called ‘digest’ (packed-in-lavender PR for puke and manure?), soy meal and cornmeal laced with salt and preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, vitamins and minerals.

The costliest are an artsy blend of meat, fish, sunflower seed oil, vegetable ‘gums,’  pumpkin, carrots (commercial carrots and celery are supposedly laden with pesticides), yams, kale, cranberries, blueberries and herbs, a combo that might be more pleasing to human than feline palates. Whether these colorful flecks of this and specks of that are indispensable, they can increase the chance of gastronomically stodgy cats taking a whiff, shooting their mom or dad a look of dry disbelief, and walking away. But if cost reflects value – it may or may not – the south-sea exotic, flowery labels on these cans, combined with the unfamiliar names of some of the fish, persuade indulgent parents to buy their cats not only a taste-thrill, but knockout nutrition.

And maybe it is. If the labels are truthful, most of these brands are free of dubious additives (though one or two contain rice and food coloring), and fortified with a wider array of supplements than lower priced cat foods. A selling point, if synthetic vitamins are a good thing. Some experts say they’re a cardboard moon compared to the natural  vitamins present in fresh whole foods and – of equal importance – the vital components they’re bonded to, absent in the manmade versions. They also claim that we haven’t evolved to absorb synthetics, which float through the bladder on their way out. The debate is ongoing, stoked in part by vested interests. Some studies show that synthetics show up in the bloodstream – proof they’re absorbed – others that they’re ineffective in bolstering the health or warding off illness. Moreover, some are said to be harmful, even within a normal dosage.

Whatever their merits, their flavor is a punch in the kisser. Unlike the indiscernible presence of vitamins and minerals in unprocessed foods, at least one brand of vitamin powder mounts such a heinous assault on the taste buds, a parent who makes the mistake of trying a pinch of this stuff can fall to the floor and not get up anytime soon. It’s so stunningly vile, artificial flavors in pet foods may not only mask the taint of ‘byproducts,’ but that of synthetic vitamins. As parents know, cats can prefer ‘flavor enhanced’ grits n’ grain pellets to better grade kibbles.

Other than following a healthful diet, is there any escape from imitation vitamins?

The prose style of a scullery maid in Victorian England had more polish and grace than that of some of today’s college grads, and an Englishman in post-WWII upheld the tradition in his book about seaweed, and what it can do for man, beast and veggies. In his classic Seaweed in Agriculture and Horticulture, William A. Stevenson tells us why these coffee-colored, rubbery vines are a bonanza. His book is a page-turner. His flair for writing, and kindly demeanor – his photo is in the frontispiece – suggest he was happy in his work, which deepens the tragedy of his death by drowning at the height of his achievements.

According to Mr. Stevenson, seaweed is brimming with A to Z vitamins, minerals and trace elements, including gold and arsenic. He writes of untold generations of farmers driving their teams down to the tidelands and heaping the wagons with tons of soggy, backbreaking kelp they spread on their fields after the harvest, to soften and revitalize the soil.

With no rotation, rocky outcroppings covered with sea-sand and rotted kelp along the coastal British Isles and the islands off Scotland yielded stupendous vegetable harvests. Gargantuan potatoes thrived in this odd mixture. Flocks of sheep grazed on windrows of kelp, a boon from the sea that also improved the thriftiness, fertility, milk production and disease resistance of other livestock.

Kelp is not only a treasure-trove of nutrients, the Asians discovered its savory tang centuries and even millennia ago. It’s healthful for people – and also for cats. When air dried, it has six and possibly seven vitamins needed by cats, and a wealth of minerals, few or none listed on labels of packets sold in natural food stores. This weed is as far as you’ll ever get from fabrication. It’s Mother Earth real, and might be worth a try.

Back to the cat foods

The fish is a winner among the high-enders. Yet novelty is a skyrocket that bursts into bloom and fizzles out fast, and in two or three days these flavors end up as ho-hum as the old standards. Despite their transitory allure, the jellied herring, and the mussel and calamari in aspic are scrumptious to cats.

Are they worth the price?

The cuttlefish may come from the snowiest, choicest filets. Probably does. Then again, it may also be squid dregs – pulverized innards, suction cups and a feeler or two – a premonition that grabs you by the scruff of the neck when you open a can. Though it doesn’t happen all that often, nerves of steel help when you pry off the lid and peer aghast at what lies half-sunk in the pudding-like substrate: a pair of wee eyeballs peering back at you dolefully. One look, and an animal rights activist would drop in his tracks.

The mussel, for all its edibility, lacks the challenge and ravishing flavor – both in the prying and preparation – of the orchidaceous abalone. Compared to that mollusk, the ubiquitous here, there and everywhere mussel, domestic or wild, is non-U to the nth, an oceanic dandelion, as Paul Fussell prole as a barnacle. [The fun in this tweak-fest is that he pronounces his name FUSSel. :o)].

All this being said, these brands are a lovely reprieve from economy cat foods. And well they should be. They cost 50 to 70 cents an ounce compared to less than a dime an ounce for canned Friskies. Though many parents prefer to steer clear of cryptic ‘byproducts,’ budget-priced cat foods claim to have as much protein as their Fancy Dan betters. If their labels are believable, a few have more.

Yet housecats seldom enjoy their meals, an observation based on only a few – and not on hundreds of – cats. The brand that appealed to them yesterday they disdain today, and prefer minced raw stew meat, cooked jellied chicken, human grade salt-free tuna, fresh shrimp and Gerber’s strained meats to commercial cat foods, bourgeois or genteel. Where cats rule the roost, their parent’s refrigerator is stacked with opened, barely sampled cans, mid-priced and spendy. An embittering sight that normally disappears by evening, when the ferals and strays come looking for their supper.

It’s uphill to love cats decomposed by overindulgence. For that’s how we see them, shutting our eyes to the likelihood that their turning away from what we offer reflects not so much a character flaw as our own self-revering, entrenched double standard: dainties for us and offal for them. Many of us are hard as a rock in what we feed cats, and equally hard in refusing to give a second thought to our intransigence.

In The Vegetarian Alternative, Vic Sussman describes a veal calf’s three or four months of life before slaughter. Since prime veal is pale pink, the calf is malnourished to keep it anemic, and – in common with agri-biz hogs – confined in the dark and semi-immobilized. Unless it is tethered, and with a bar behind its hind legs, it’s fed a diet so low in iron it tries to lick its urine and the metal fittings of its stall for residual iron, a malnutritive reflex the farmers deplore as a ‘vice.’ Because it’s unweaned, the calf also tries to suck on its stall and on itself. Dosed with drugs and antibiotics to keep it alive, it suffers from an unnatural diet, and gains weight in less time when its water is restricted.

When asked about veal in an interview some years ago, a celebrity chef let fly an ear-piercing, flinty ‘Hah!’ and scoffed at the sentimentality of ‘personalizing calves because of their big brown eyes.’ She saw them as something good to eat. Nothing more.

People are hard in different ways. As much as we pet and dandle our cats, we’d flinch to taste the food we expect them to eat with gusto. It’s true they evolved to eat unenticing substances. Many adore their prey’s fur and pinfeathers, tail, claws, beak, teeth and bones, spitting out only the colon: proof they enjoy eating as much as their parents do, and additional proof that what to them is delectable is repellent to us. To further cloud the issue, cats live for years eating nothing but commercial fare, which also proves it contains something that keeps them going.

Commercial cat foods claim to offer ‘complete nutrition.’ Yet hundreds of thousands of cats die of cancer. How many of these deaths are diet related? Some? None? Do canned, bagged and foil-packet cat foods lack both flavor and maximally healthful nutrition?

‘Eat or go hungry!’ is our mantra. And so they eat, when they’re hungry enough, but with little discernible relish. We, who seldom reject our own meals, blame our housecat’s distaste for his on a sedentary life. A lame rationale, when inactive people can overeat and look for more, blissed out by such pleasure they’re happy to trade it for a shorter life. They’d rather binge on everything luscious than postpone the horror of ‘rotting in cold obstruction.’ [Shakespeare]

Every unworkable diet book, weight-loss salon and STD clinic would fall by the wayside overnight if our limbic system could be wired with electrodes. This heavenly hell is inflicted on lab rats who starve themselves rather than eat, a waste of time that would tear them away from a lever they tap all day long and into the night. If mankind weren’t barred from these high-jinks, levers would stamp out the fat left and right, venereal woes and unwinnable drug wars, marriages and divorce courts. The current would shut down long enough for folks to bolt down a four-second snack, then rush back to their levers. No more teary-eyed love songs and consternation. No more diets. No nothing, in fact, but paradisiacal currents frying the limbus.

Starving people will eat cadavers. Unless he’s equally hard pressed, a cat refuses what shocks his nose. Short of dire hunger, his turning away means his meal smells and tastes like swill. The explanation for ‘finicky’ cats sits on their plate.

From Diets to Healthcare

Do evermore complex and open-ended healthcare procedures reflect the highest ethical standards, or something more lucrative? Do afflictions so common the vet may know what they are at a glance warrant hundreds of dollars in tests that are sometimes wide of the mark, or cynically narrow? Is there a reason a blood test for cancer can’t also be used to test for FeLV? While tests may differ, is there a reason blood sufficient for several tests cannot be withdrawn the first time around, without encore withdrawals and separate billings for each? Barring the attraction of its higher fee, is there a reason a surgical versus a needle biopsy is mandatory? Is it only M.D.s who are reprimanded for leading their patients into a medical labyrinth that fattens their purse and flattens their victims’?

In fairness, some clients are hair-trigger litigious, and veterinarians can hardly be blamed for resorting to overkill diagnostics that help them navigate the shoals. Yet they mended and cured dogs and cats decades ago, before the proliferation of tests that may lead to nothing more tangible than additional tests.

The Joys of Adoption

‘It is more blessed to give than receive.’ True, or a bromide? Can giving become a three-ring circus?

The popular media trumpet the joys of opening one’s heart to a dog or cat, especially during one’s ‘golden years,’ which oldsters with attitude – and a remnant of sanity – label the years of rusty tin. According to the promotional hype, dogs and cats are not only surprisingly inexpensive, they have more curative clout than a bottle of snake oil.

To list a few of their attributes:

  • They’re affordable beyond expectation, as set forth above.
  • They improve our sleep. Are we stretched on the rack of insomnia? Disfigured with eye-bags? Do we toss and turn, gnawed by dark thoughts? Not to worry. The soothing presence of dogs and cats is guaranteed to bring us the gift of tonsillary rattlings so robust, our bedstead will quake like Wayne and O’Hara’s.
  • They boost the morale by putting an end to our loneliness (the theory being we’re gibbering hermits).
  • They give our life purpose – they give it direction. (Without them, we’re flotsam).
  • They get us out of our house for fresh air and exercise (before their arrival, we’re fume-wheezing sluggards).
  • They lower our hypertension from its perilous heights to the slack-jawed tranquility of the Dead Sea. (More of this below.)
  • With all respect, these claims cry out in their marrowbones to be scrutinized.
  • Their Surprising Affordability.

First of all, where are the numbers showing the costs of adopting a cat? Because when these numbers are kept under wraps – and their wrappings would look good on King Tut – readers may be forgiven for wondering if such endorsements are churned out by vets and pet supply bigwigs. Where is the source that lays out in columns of cold, hard cash how adopting a cat is for those with a handsome disposable income? Dashingly handsome, unless they’re into zero health care and such pitiless gobs of cornmeal plopped in their dish twice a day, year in and year out, the cats waddle over the Rainbow Bridge looking like corndogs? 

Cats are so far from being a bargain, a parent who tries to offer a home to more than a few – unless he meets people as caring as he is – can look forward to bearing the cost on his own, to struggle along as best he can, disregarded. As they walked in the garden, his student-disciples asked Aristotle to discourse on friendship. ‘Oh my friends,’ he replied, ‘….there are no friends.’

They Cure Our Insomnia

With regard to the blessed repose cats bring, their nocturnal frolics at 3:00 a.m. climax in soaring trajectories, in ceiling-high, swooping parabolas as they fly through the air with megaphone meows of jollity, to and fro the length of the bedchamber, using a bookcase at one end and their parent’s head at the other as launch and landing pads.

They Boost the Morale

As for the boost-factor, the death of a cherished animal can hurl a parent into a private  chasm of mourning so deep he turns away from everything that could help him forget his loved companion. There’s nothing enigmatic in this. It’s plain as day. It’s his tribute to her, it’s how he honors her memory. Because she suffered beyond what he’s suffered – the end of life – his enjoyment of living is put on hold by his loving desire to feel something of what she endured. Because death extinguished her memory of him, he clings all the more, in defiance of death, to the half remaining, holding her in his tender remembrance and telling her, knowing she doesn’t hear, that he didn’t let her journey alone into the dark, that she never left: she is still with him, and he with her. A loyalty reserved for humans? Abysmally wrong. Deserved only by humans? Wrong again, as grieving parents of animals, including Lord Byron, have always known.

While sturdier psyches ‘snap out’ and ‘bounce back,’ the fragile grieve and welcome their sorrow from choice, not compulsion, as Freud observed with a trace of mystification. Why was it, he wondered, they consecrate themselves to the memory of their beloved, refuse to let go and refuse to be consoled? Of the myriad ways people devise to bludgeon themselves: guilt, addictions, spending more than they can afford – the list goes on – grief is one of the most lacerating.

There’s a pop tune that proves the illogicality of this inner suttee. The crooner sings of girls he spots in a bookstore, on a passing train, at a bus stop, in an elevator. He muses over the looks they exchange, over all the girls he’ll never ‘love’ (if that’s the right word for his tendencies). Moral: the world is swarming with girls. They’re everywhere. Which doesn’t help. The bereft see his lost love as unique and irreplaceable. Never mind Freud, who – though he allowed that she was unique – reasoned that she was replaceable. The joy she brought could be enjoyed with thousands of others. 

When a cat can live for two decades, what is its death against the pleasure it brought throughout the years? But grief transcends logic, and parents welcome their sorrow as the measure of their love. Though devastating to those with no family, grief also left a lasting mark on England’s queen.

Predictably, there are chalk and cheese reactions to death. The lyrical, elegiac film – though the law wouldn’t have seen it that way – ‘Summer of ’42’ (a memoir), is beyond uncharacteristic of what the bereaved are capable of doing. Vastly more rubber-ducky unsinkable, some vent their grief with margarine and terpsichorean flings in Paris. But for a while – often a long while – parents who loved their animals are profoundly saddened by their death.

They Stamp Out Loneliness

Friends stay away. They’re allergic to cat dander.

And Give Us Direction

Assuming we didn’t have one already?

Monsters batter and drown their children.

Second in culpability are those down-and-outers all the way up to illustrious thinkers, statesmen, entertainers and artists who have no interest in their children, much less in their infants ‘who drool from every orifice’[Virginia Woolf]. A bleak state of affairs, for children never forget the grownups – a parent or teacher, a Peggoty or an Aunt Betsy – who befriended them. ‘Mr. Brontë was an eccentric recluse whose capacity for parenthood seems to have been purely physical.’ [Rebecca West]

From the bad to the better, dedicated but stir-crazy parents give up a good portion of their lives to their offspring. Unless they have a job or career while raising a family – many have both, some of them blossoming in a workplace that recognizes their contributions, others heroic in their exhaustion – they trade their interest in earning and learning for what they try not to see as the often pallid routine of caring for their children. Many lament the loss of their most productive years. And many want books – they don’t want blocks – and are happy when their children sleep or amuse themselves for half an hour, so they can read or stretch their mind through other activities.

The best of all parents dote on their children, delight in their prattle and little ways, their budding personalities, their glee in learning to talk and to toddle, with derring-do, on their three-inch feet. In the eyes of such parents, the world’s most abhorrent psychologists are those who compare infants and younger children to developmentally challenged adults. Unlike people who revel in mother- and fatherhood, parents who also love their children, but are inwardly stifled – noetically shrunk – by cooings and rockings all day long, plastic tricycles and tiny-tot ball games, feel like ogres. 

When he wants to read, his cat jumps up on her papa’s lap and rubs her lips on the edge of his book, causing the book to swivel around farther than he can swivel his head, not being a whirligig.

She meows at him when he sits down to type, springs on his desk and sprawls on the keyboard, her paws splayed out on keys that make the CPU go bip! bip! and the text split asunder, with hundreds of feet of xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx’s between the pages. Unwilling to wound her by lifting her off, he slides his hand under her feminine chubbiness,  feeling his way through her thickets of fur and coming out near her chin, so he can peck at the keys with one finger, her plume wafting him in the face all the while.

When he wants to tune in to a radio broadcast, she sits on his knee, presses her green-eyed face against his, asking that he focus on her, never mind the radio.

When he wants to build a bat house or a mason-bee condo, she jumps on his workbench and nudges his carpentry tools out of his hand.

Nor can he get away for a weekend without breaking her heart into smithereens by boarding her at a cattery, a yowling nightmare of mesh, concrete and reeking disinfectant. 

If he loves her as much as he knows he should, he’ll set aside what he wanted to do and let her convince him how flimsy it was compared to her special little charms. If he loves her less than she deserves, he’ll still put it aside and caress her until she’s had her fill, guiltily hoping she’ll go to sleep so he can pursue some interest more substantial than a cuddle-fest. Does her habit of making her presence felt mean she’s less dear to him? Not a whit. Therein lies the conflict. She’s dear beyond words. Her dearness is unassailable.

They Bring Us Fresh Air and Activity

This is true. Cats can bring us plenty of action and gusts of wind from unexpected angles.

Without naming names – let us not go there – a certain cat mother peels hundreds of labels, then scrubs and dumps an avalanche of cat food cans in the recycling bin she wheels out to the road the night before pickup. Coastal winters where she lives mean months of atmospheric derangement, so she rolls out of bed at 5:15 next morning, wondering if the bin is still intact.

Since predawn winters are dark enough she can venture unseen into the road to take a quick gander, she yanks on a T-shirt that covers her halfway down to the knees, pulls on men’s rubber boots, and crams a daffodil yellow sou’wester on her head, cinching the chinstrap. Groaning, she forces open the door, leans into the wind and scuttles crablike down the driveway to peer through the gate, aiming the flashlight into the gloom. And O….M….G….the 60-gallon bin is upended, its cans twinkling 300 and 400 feet down the road. Staggering back into the house, she lays hold of a bunch of plastic bags and thrashes her way out the door again. Wind whips the bags into parachutes – not the kind that lower a body to the ground, but reverse the direction with such fiendish muscularity, she’s clutching at bushes to keep from being airborne.

Hunched against the elements, headgear flapping, arms flailing and kneecaps akimbo to steady herself, she lurches into the roadway and crawls under the shrubs to pluck at the cat cans piled against the fence. After an hour of bending, stooping, kneeling, squatting,  plunging headlong into blackberry brambles that bloody her from head to foot, grabbing at cans that twirl out of reach, she cries out to the Cosmos – lifting her voice with croaks of lunatic stupefaction – what did she do that her life should have ended like this?

She already knows the answer to that one. Head to the ground and stern to the wind – cursing her consortium with cats – she gropes through the grass along the road, snatching at cat-cans and staring at more of them whirling down to the riverbank and bobbing out to sea. She’s nearly deaf – her sou’wester has bungled her ears into fortune cookies – and hears too late to duck for cover the rumble of a logging truck rounding the bend, bearing down on her person. Two seconds later its air-horn nearly blasts her over the county line, ballooning her T-shirt in ways she’d rather not dwell upon. There’s more to this. Not a lot – just a bit. But it’s best to move on.

Cats Lower the B.P.

Nor are mountains of cat-cans her only chance to reel through the dark like a banshee, her chest convulsed with that all-too-familiar, systolic-diastolic Drums-of-Death frenzy that swells her veins into tubes the size of a garden hose. The sensation flares up whenever a door is left ajar and her elderly housecat slips out into the night. And the slippage occurs always at night, though ‘always’ meaning only twice – twice being ample to reduce her to a two-legged cicatrix.

In his world-famous fresco, Michelangelo painted a man sinking into the pit, crouching in fear, hands over his face, gaping horrified through his fingers. On each occasion her cat escaped, his mother also crouched and gaped before hurtling outside, visualizing her cat striking out for Puget Sound country, heading back to his old home, running along a hundred-mile freeway through farmland, forests, canyons, strip malls.

Is he already gone? Wherever he is, he’s gruesomely lost, never having been outside in his new location. She stands in the dark, biting her knuckles, palsied with shock – surrounded by silence except for the trilling of frogs and the sleepy chuckle of herons down by the river, where cougars prowl at night. What to do? Where to look? She shines her flashlight under the bushes, calls and keeps calling, stumbles along 600 feet of wood and wire fence, catches her boot on a clod of dirt and cartwheels through the air, plowing into a tangle of last summer’s squash vines. Sprawled in a heap, she blubbers to herself that she didn’t bring him along when she moved so his life could end in the jaws of a predator. Every few nights the silence is rent by the screams of a cat nabbed by a cougar or coyote.  She gets back on her feet and continues her search.

After more futile looking and calling – her eyes bleared and vocal chords raw – knowing he’s gone, pounced on by a carnivore, she aims the flashlight through the gate for the hundredth time and stares with disbelief. There he is – there stands her sooty-faced treasure, all that matters to her in the world during those moments. There he stands 80 feet distant, across the road, his topaz pupils glowing in the beam of light. He refuses to move, not knowing where he is or why. She kneels in the driveway and calls him cajolingly, trying to coax him across the road. But he doesn’t budge. He’s fixed to the spot. She reaches into her pocket, discovers she’s left her keys in the house, bounds indoors and out again to unlock the gate. Too late. He’s gone. The road is empty. 

Smashed as a bug on a windshield, she sinks to the ground, hands in the gravel, head hanging, eyes and nose streaming – brain death approaching. Minutes pass. How many? Who knows? And then she feels something nudging her boots. She gropes around on the ground for the flashlight, flicks it on, and turns to see her cat twining himself between her ankles, delighted to see his mom again, proud and mischievous, his forget-me-not Siamese eyes blazing with joie de vivre. She screeches fit to jolt the dead out of their shrouds, sweeps him up and stumbles blindly into the house, slamming, locking, double-bolting the door, and knows … but there are no words … that to have her elderly kitty-man safe and back in her arms is beyond anything she could ever want or hope for again. Ever again. He’s high as a kite after his outing, and wasn’t he brave, and wasn’t it fun? Kissy-fest follows – that, and prostration. 

Final Dab of Bitter and Sweet

Thanks to her mother, Little Ethel is nearly as toothless as she was the day she was born. She has nothing left but her minuscule felines and incisors. Two years ago a veterinarian had chipped some tartar off her teeth with his fingernail, and said she’d need to have them cleaned at some point in future. Since then her mom had tried to peer in her mouth now and then, and each time her girl had biffed her hard.

Ethel had been a street urchin before coming to Mama’s door one night four years ago, begging for food. She never left. But when another veterinarian saw her last year, he said she tested positive for FeLV, and advised she be kept indoors. Ethel was happy to be a housecat – until, that is, several months ago, when she’d lie in her snuggy loo upstairs and not come down for breakfast. She was listless, with a faraway look. Her mom went into a tailspin, for she thought the disease had flared up again and was killing her.

So in they went to the doctor again, who prodded Ethel here and there, then pried open her jaws and instantly saw the reason she was ill. ‘You’re wrong,’ he explained. ‘She’s not dying of FeLV. She’s well fed, and has a beautiful coat. Her eyelids are pink, so she’s not anemic. But she’s dying of toothache. The bacterial contamination in her mouth has spread and is undermining her health. Look at this,’ and he held open her mouth. Her molars were greenish black stumps partially overgrown by her gums. ‘She can live a good long life without her teeth – but not with them,’ he said.

Can a parent just about collapse with remorse and be overjoyed at the same time?

After a week of antibiotics morning and night, Ethel went back to face the pliers. The fee? Round-trip air-fare from Seattle to Barcelona.

Her poor little gums were so minced and stitched up, Mom thought for sure she’d need a month to convalesce. But not Little Ethel. Grandma gummified as she was, Ethel emerged from her surgery a Born Again Kitty.

Six hours after her ordeal, she wobbled out of her carrying case – she was still groggy – and zigzagged into the living room. As she does when she wants to endear herself, she tucked her head between her shoulders like a stork, stood on tiptoe, puffed out her fur coat and swirled her tail, stroking herself against Mom’s boots as she bent down to pet her girl and lavish her with heartsick apologies.. Purr machine rumbling, all at once Ethel  flew down the hall and up the stairs. The chandelier swung in the living room as she bounced on the beds – judging from the sound effects – ricocheted off the walls and raced back and forth between the bedrooms. Minutes later she catapulted back downstairs, a wavering, black and white blur of fur, and leaped into Mom’s lap. From 3:00 pm until 10:00 that night, Little Ethel, who’d fasted the night before surgery, gummed down a can of calamari, a can of ‘Red Eye’ mackerel, a half can of jelled herring filets, and some lip-smacking scrapings from a beefsteak.

From that day to the present, there have been clattering claws from one end of the house to the other as Ethel chases her pull-toys, sunbathes on the porch and snacks all day long –  Ethel and Mama apply themselves to finding something Ethel likes by opening two or three cans each time.

Does Little Ethel always prevail? She wouldn’t be Ethel if she didn’t.

When her mom is working at something, Ethel knows she has to wait before she’ll stop whatever she’s doing and concentrate on her girl..  When she comes to Mom and says ‘Pick me up!’ her mama replies ‘Not yet, Ethel. Go lie down for a while.’

Whereupon Ethel gives her mother look that distills all the sorrow in the world, walks away and sits facing the wall. A few minutes later she’s turned around, her head in line with the bookcase. Two minutes later, when Mom glances up, Ethel’s scuppernong whisker pads are in line with the floor lamp. Two minutes later, her plume is in line with the sofa. There are no signs of movement. Only this stealthy shift in alignment. Two minutes later, Ethel is crouched three feet from the desk, her ears so flattened they look glued to the back of her head. More sinister still, she’s narrowed her eyelids. She and her mother stare at each other. Ethel’s expression is that of a cat ready to pounce, but those flattened ears and ocular slits are signals that she’s waiting for her Facial Massage. Not later – but now.

She studies her mother for signs of any slight buccal twitch. ‘All right, come ON, you always win!’ Mom booms at her girl.  Ethel, triumphant, leaps in her lap and swoons away, relaxed as an over-moist pudding cake, as her mother glides her face over Ethel’s small forehead, around her ears, down amongst her fluffy cheek-feathers and under her chin.  A few minutes of this, and Ethel is primed for Phase No. 2: the ‘Strum Fest.’

Mom, who by now has hairier nostrils than Olde Father Time, gets down on the rug with her best girl, who’s stretched on her back until she’s over two feet in length, her toes pointed like Margot Fonteyn’s. More lightly than a flamenco guitarist, Mama strums her girl’s dainty pecs and abs with a whispery touch, her midriff fur with its six rosy specks, massages her miniature Rubenesque thighs – their fur so thick they look like frothy white lace pantaloons – gently strums her plump little glutes, then massages her poly-girl’s Triple E, puff-pastry paws. By now, Ethel’s purrs have built to such a vibrato-crescendo they’ve split in two, like the eerie hum of Tibetan throat singers, and she’s drifted away into some luminous realm known only to her.

Back to the wormwoood

Measured against a few stocks and bonds, a couple of home improvements, and a rear-tine tiller were four years of Ethel worth $4,300?

Leaden silence….

Back to the treacle.

In the interest of rationality, would her mom give her up to a good home? To an excellent home?

Freud would sigh, and cast his eyes heavenwards

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