This excerpt is dedicated to my parents, my heritage, and to my birthplace Ottawa, Canada.
I love cats. I’m a cat person and have been since I met my first cat when I was three years old. I truly believe that my house isn’t a home without a cat. My parents weren’t really into pets. Being the children of immigrants who had fled to Canada during the Russian pogroms in the early 1900s, survival and integration into the new community was the focus in the new country, not pets.
My roots are exactly as portrayed in Fiddler on the Roof. My grandfather (my mother’s father), was a tailor who traveled the Russian countryside, from village to village, with his sewing machine. When life got too difficult for the Jews, he left for America, landing at the port in Halifax and somehow ending up in Ottawa. A few years later, after setting up a small tailor shop, he sent for his family. My mother, his youngest child, was born in Canada. My father’s side has a similar story. My grandfather was a shoemaker who went from village to village repairing and making shoes. He also came to Canada with the escalation of the pogroms and sent for his family when he was settled. Like my mother, my father was also born in Canada.
Growing up was difficult for my parents. Their homes were a safe refuge for Jewish immigrants fleeing from the discrimination in Russia and then from Europe. They made sure these refugees saw a friendly face, had a warm meal and comfortable place to sleep. The Jewish community in Ottawa was in the early stages of development and growing with the influx of new immigrants. Many families in the community were offering such support with a safe haven for these new immigrants until they found a job, and the relationships turned into friendships when their loved ones joined them.
Both my parents told me about the endless flow of new arrivals that appeared at all hours on their doorsteps. Many only had the clothes on their backs and scared faces from the horrors they’d lived through. They said that, at their young age, it was difficult to see people in such distress. They didn’t really understand where these people had come from and why they endured such hardships. My parent’s lives never included pets as members of the family. They saw them just as hungry mouths to feed out the back door, whenever there were any leftovers. With sporadic food available, the cats didn’t hang around so neither of my parents understood the concept of a pet.
My mother was very close to her father. As a young girl she spent endless hours in the synagogue, sitting with him as the men prayed and discussed the meaning of passages in the Torah, the Jewish Bible. She even studied the Torah herself. She was taking classes with the young boys preparing for their Bar Mitzvas, the ceremony that welcomes them into the synagogue congregation when they turn 13. But just like in Yentl, the famous Barbra Streisand movie, by that age my mother was restricted from these classes and from being in the men’s section of the synagogue. She was no longer a child and had to accept her adult role with the women of the congregation. The women sat separately from the men, and in those days, the women were in an upstairs balcony overlooking the men below.
Unlike Yentl, my mother didn’t dress as a man to continue her studies. She accepted the situation and channeled her energy through the Red Cross, eventually helping with the injured World War II solders returning from Europe. Her parents had instilled a sense of compassion and community that translated into decades of working with the Red Cross. In hindsight, I can recognize my own sense of community which is directed towards cats. I am fortunate that in retirement I found a way to exercise it with Lanta Animal Welfare, an animal rescue in Thailand, and not just by donations to animal charities.
One day when I was only three years old, I was playing in the yard when a neighbor came by and said she wanted to show me something. Like the good kid that I was, I told my mother where I was going, and went off with the woman to her house. We went down into her basement, and she showed me a box of tiny furry things. I had no idea what they were but knew I had to have one. She said she knew I’d want one, but I had to wait six weeks as they were just born. They didn’t look like cats. The neighbor told me they were baby cats, called kittens, and that they would grow up to be cats. It was the first time I’d heard about kittens or even understood that cats weren’t always the way they were. It was all quite a revelation for my young mind.
The kittens were so tiny, with clenched faces and curled up bodies. I was mesmerized with these little balls of fur and couldn’t wait to have one to call my own. I went home and told my mother that I was going to get one of these kittens in six weeks. I visited the kittens almost daily and followed their progress like an inspector. The weeks passed slowly, and it was all I talked about. I was obsessed with this kitten and felt so special that soon it would be mine. The morning I was to pick up the kitten I was up bright and early, eagerly waiting on the neighbors’ porch for them to wake up. The neighbor told me to feed the kitten baby food and water, and to keep it safe in the house until it got a bit bigger and could then go outside.
I held my precious kitten tight against my chest and went home. I had to knock on the door with my knee when I got home as my arms were full. My mother opened the door, surprised to see me holding a tiny fur-ball. She said that I couldn’t keep the kitten and had to take it back to the neighbor.
I wondered, where had my mother been? Why was she so surprised? This kitten was all I’d talked about for the past six weeks. At breakfast that very morning she knew why I was up so early and where I was going.
I made my first life decision that day, at only three years of age. I told her that if the kitten wasn’t going inside, neither was I. I sat down on the porch steps, still holding my kitten and contemplated life. I figured I’d wait until my father came home from work and he’d help me find a solution. My mother would open the door every 10 minutes and tell me to bring the cat back. This went on until mid-day. She finally relented and let us in, “only until your father comes home.”
What can I say? By the time my father got home the kitten had captured my mother’s heart. She had even named him Calhoun, her favorite Irish name. He had his own food and water bowls in the kitchen, had already explored most of the downstairs, and was snoozing on the pillow bed my mother set up for him in the living room. Calhoun was with us for 18 years as a full-fledged member of my small family. My parents had two kids: a crazy red-headed daughter and a regal-looking gray and white feline son. My love affair with cats was born the day I met Calhoun and has continued throughout my life.
Excerpt from “Retired Way Out There: My Evolving Life on Koh Lanta”, Amazon target release August 2022.
This excerpt was first published in the WordSmith US Magazine, April 2022.