-- by Mike Murray
To the casual observer, there were few similarities between the two. One made it to a ripe old age; the other didn't even reach the mid-point of her life expectancy. One's death was certain; the other's, only surmised. One was a white-haired woman; the other, a calico cat.
Despite their outward differences, however, they were very much alike. Both were plucky. Both defined the word "survivor." Betty lived a couple of doors down the street. Seymour (I named her before learning her gender) called a dumpster home. Each had a generous amount of spunk; each had an iron resolve that helped her cope with hardship.
Aunt Betty (she wanted everyone to call her that) moved into the neighborhood a few years after my wife and I did. Her husband was still alive back then, although his health was already in serious decline. I vividly recall Aunt Betty lovingly placing a plaid blanket on his lap to keep him warm on car rides. He hung on for a while in that feeble state, and then succumbed.
Some of the spring left Aunt Betty's step when he passed. It was plain to see that hers had been an idyllic marriage, one that had spanned the entirety of her adult life. Although stoic in most ways, Aunt Betty turned vulnerable when I'd ask how she was doing in the months following her husband's death. Rather than offer the typical, non-committal "fine," she would honestly reply: "lousy." Then she'd regale me with a fond memory or two.
Aunt Betty was proud of her Irish heritage. And she enjoyed the fact that some of my recent ancestors had hailed – as had hers – from the Emerald Isle. It also amused her that my mother is part Italian – as was her husband. Yet another point of intersection in our lives was the place from which we each started: Cleveland's inner city. It gave us much to jaw about.
My wife’s relationship with Aunt Betty was a mystery to me. All I really know about it is that it involved many occasions on which she would return late from a neighborhood walk with Janna, reporting that they had stopped at Betty’s house to chat. And other occasions on which my better half would announce that she was going down the street to drop off a gift. I don’t know what things she and Aunt Betty discussed while together. But they must have been fascinating, because the “few moments” that my wife said she’d be gone often grew into an hour or more.
With me, Aunt Betty liked to reminisce about her beloved husband. She frequently reminded me that, in his prime, he was a fine figure of a man. Short in physical stature, perhaps, but large in ability. Professionally successful, too. She was so proud of the man with whom she'd shared her life.
Aunt Betty was no wallflower – before or after she was widowed. She gadded about daily, flitting here, flitting there. Her many activities – mostly social, a few volunteer – kept her on the go. On the day that she died, I watched her from my kitchen window, carefully guiding her Buick down the street. Until the very end, she was able to maintain an independent lifestyle – to stay in her own home (without medical assistance), to go where she pleased.
She also had many extended family members with whom she regularly kept company: son and daughter-in-law, brother, grandchildren, and countless nieces and nephews (some actual, many honorary). Most of the time, she had little trouble keeping her spirits – and her chin – up. But she did experience melancholic moments now and then. During one of them, she revealed that Saturday nights were especially lonely. I didn't have to ask why.
Seymour – I eventually came to learn – was somewhat lonely on Saturday nights, too.
I found the scrawny young cat a few winters ago (I gave credit for “his” discovery to my wife in Sweet Seymour – artistic license), while out on a walk with the family dog. She was desperately foraging in a commercial trash container for food. The instant she caught sight of Janna and me, she bolted.
My wife and I took turns searching for the skittish stray over the next few days, and we occasionally caught sight of her. But the scruffy little thing wanted absolutely nothing to do with either one of us. And so all we could think to do to help her was make sure she got something to eat each day. After a week or so of placing food in places where we'd spotted her, we managed to work out a daily ritual. Our meeting place was a large dumpster. The hungry kitty would wait beneath it; we'd pitch a sandwich bag full of kibble to her.
If we made an errant throw and attempted to re-position the bag, we'd get scratched. It wasn't hostility on Seymour's part. It was simply a matter of survival. She'd instinctively shoot a paw out to protect the food that was necessary to sustain life. She was, after all, feral.
We went on like that for some time. Eventually, Seymour would spot us walking to the food-drop spot and come running – sometimes approaching rather closely to our legs. She had learned that Janna (who would often lunge in her direction) posed no real threat while restrained by her leash. We realized that it was impossible to gauge to what degree (if any) the hungry critter was expressing affection. But we enjoyed the close proximity to her, just the same.
Then one day my wife spotted Seymour being chased by two huge cats. The terrified little calico veered in her direction, seeking protection. My wife leaped to her rescue, shooing the pursuers away. Seymour had – correctly – recognized my wife as a friend, as someone who would be willing and able to help her.
It was only a few days after that episode that my wife went on an out-of-town trip. It was a Saturday night, and Seymour was waiting for me and her food. As I approached, she rubbed up against my ankle. Because she had never before done anything like that, I assumed that she was expressing gratitude for the assistance my wife had recently provided – that she had come to see us as protectors.
Encouraged, I gently reached down to her – only to be scratched. And then Seymour recoiled and assumed a defensive posture. She bared her teeth and hissed.
It was plain to see that, although the cat viewed me favorably, she would never be able to interact with me as a domestic cat would. The ensuing months and years confirmed as much. While Seymour frequently repeated the ankle-rubbing episodes with both my wife and me, she never allowed either of us to handle her in any way.
We eventually gave up hope of ever being able to bring her home (even as "garage" or "shed" cat). But we did try to get city officials to trap her, so that she could be evaluated, receive shots, and be spayed. Euthanized, if absolutely necessary (although we hoped against that). We were informed, however, that the owner of the private property on which she roamed refused permission to set a trap – which scotched the idea.
So we continued to feed Seymour each day. Sometimes, very often on Saturday nights, she seemed especially eager for our arrival. On those occasions, she'd eschew the immediate opportunity to chow down, instead preferring to visit for a while. It made a strange sight to passerby, I'm sure: human, dog, and cat, all sitting within a few feet of one another in a parking lot.
Even stranger were the times when Seymour would trot beside us as we left the drop site. Man (or woman) leashed to a dog. And, only a few feet away, a scrawny cat following along. We could never get Seymour to follow us all the way home, however. There seemed to be an invisible barrier – a boundary defining her territory – that she refused to cross.
We came to accept the relationship that we had with Seymour, such as it was. We were happy to help the cute little cat get by. We admired her pluck, her will to survive. Even our mutt, a Rottweiler mix with no previous affection for felines, seemed to warm up to Seymour. (Janna had, in fact, established a cordial connection with the homeless cat – long before my wife and I became aware of it.) All things considered, we were prepared to go on like that indefinitely.
When we dropped off food one day and Seymour wasn't around, we didn't fret. She had disappeared for a day or two in the past. Always before, she eventually returned. But when a day stretched into a week (and then into a month), we were forced to consider the possibility: Seymour might never return. We continued to scour the area for a few more weeks, finally facing the fact that our little friend was gone.
We don't know what happened to Seymour. Perhaps she found new benefactors and better shelter. It comforts us to think so. But such was probably not the case. In all likelihood, Seymour passed away – only a few short months after Aunt Betty did.
They were both such sweet souls. They were also spunky, possessed of a degree of determination that enabled them to carry on through difficult circumstances. My wife and I (and Janna, too) will long remember them – and the way they were.
Copyright © 2010 Michael F. Murray -- All rights reserved.