A hot Indian summer day—in the 90’s. From the bedroom window, I can see my two mixed Manx and tabby cats—Castor and Pollux—rolling in the dirt. They press their backs into the earth, arching them, or they rub themselves against the concrete patio, twisting their bodies one way, then the other, reminding me of myself doing yoga or stretching exercises. I watch them and feel pleasure, some identification, a delight in their innocence and freedom. They take me out of myself, into unfamiliar terrain. Not even childhood parallels their world.
Often I’ve wondered why I devote myself to these animals. I especially asked this question our first winter together when both had ringworm and had to be quarantined in the garage for three months. I’d only had them for that long; morning and night I had to go over their bodies, inch by inch, seeking the abrasions, covering them with medicated ointment. They would squirm, not wanting to hold still for so long, scratch me, cry. Nor did they like me putting a pill down their throat twice daily, a way to attack the fungus internally.
Anyone who has been around ringworm knows how infectious it can be, so I had to cover myself from head to foot when I handled the cats, concerned that I might bring the virulent spores into the house where my step children would be infected. As it was, even though I disinfected my hands each time I touched the cats, and took other elaborate precautions, the kids did get the fungus, and so did I.
But this piece isn’t about ringworm and how to avoid it. Rather, ringworm becomes a metaphor for what we can’t avoid “catching” from cats: the ones I’ve had have become deeply attached to me, and I to them. This deep attachment, this unique kind of love, seems pure somehow, untainted with the type of negative associations we might have for humans we’ve loved, though even this idea doesn’t capture the quality I’m after. The kind of love we experience for and from pets, while it partakes of the love we have for humans, has its own nature, just as cats do. These feelings can penetrate past our usual defenses, past all the walls we might erect with humans, because animals don’t have an agenda. Cats enter our pores as the ringworm fungus does, in their absolute innocence capturing our hearts and perhaps more.
Six months before I found Castor and Pollux, I had lost my previous cat in a fire that destroyed my home during a Thanksgiving holiday. A long-haired black, I named him Spook because he spooked easily. (I was in Canada at the time of the fire or I might have experienced the same end as he did since it occurred in the middle of the night.) At my son’s urging four years earlier, I had looked at a litter of kittens, all long-haired blacks with some brown in their fur. One interested me—his shyness mirroring my own. The owner gave me permission to take the kitten home for the night to see if we’d bond before I committed to keeping him. I hadn’t lived with a cat in years, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take on the responsibility. Just five weeks old, he clung to me in the car, sitting in my lap while I drove, utterly dependent on me in this new world he’d entered, separated from his mother for the first time and the rest of the litter.
But once inside my cottage, he leaped from my arms and dove behind the stove. There he stayed for hours, creeping out later and racing around the edges of the rooms, afraid to venture into the center. Then he retreated behind the stove again, looking more grey than black now, his fur covered with dust balls.
Later that night, when I was working on the computer in my study area, he joined me, climbing onto the open desk drawer and making himself a bed on top of my files. There he stayed, contented to be close to me while I worked. In the morning, I called his owner and asked, “What kind of cat food have you been using?” Spook had found his way into my heart.
While Spook gradually grew bolder and lost his spookiness with me, whenever someone unfamiliar entered the place, he fled into the bedroom, hiding under my bed until he felt it was safe to come out, his yellow eyes glowing in the dark. Eventually, he would join us, sniffing the person’s clothes and shoes, gauging her trustworthiness. Somehow this behavior felt familiar to me. I might not literally act this way with strangers, but inwardly I’m reserved until I’ve checked the person out and feel comfortable with him/her.
Initially, Spook didn’t sleep with me: I’m a light sleeper, and as a younger cat, he was up and down a lot at night. However, night after night he would stand outside my closed bedroom door, meowing and scratching until I finally had to give up my sleep and let him in. Then he was contented, settling always by my feet, turning out to be a considerate bed partner. By pushing past my defenses, he helped me to enlarge my capacity, to feel something of his world, the kind of innocence I described earlier. Watching cats, for those of us who love them, provides endless wonder and identification with the delight they take in chasing a butterfly or snoozing in the sun. It gives us a whole new frame of reference, permission to take cat naps, to pursue what captures our curiousity.
Over the years, not only did my relationship with Spook grow and change, as a relationship does with a human, but he pushed past some last barrier in myself and thoroughly penetrated my life and heart. Losing him affected me deeply. After his death, I dreamed of him frequently, awakening a couple of times because I was certain I’d felt him land on the bed. And, of course, in a way he had. He’s continued to live on in my memory in spite of his death, like ringworm, leaving its mark.
Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.
My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing. I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all. I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week. We are so fortunate here at the Lake now. The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript. Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.
Here is a synopsis:
Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.
A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.
Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.
In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.
Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.
But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.
Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.