LOVE AT THE LAKE
By Rosie Sorenson
"Two-legged food dispenser" is what Sweetie-Pie, Green Eyes and Blackberry call me behind my back. I'm sure of it.
I fell into this role thirteen years ago after one of my daily strolls around the small lake near my home. I saw a man walking down the blacktop path calling, "Hey, Babies, hey Babies," while jangling his keys high in the air. The "babies" came running--up from the gully and down from the scrub covering the rim of the lake.
As I approached, he scooped up a fluffy black and white kitty into his arms. "She's my baby," he said and kissed her neck. "I figure she's about thirteen."
"Really," I said and extended my hand slowly toward the kitty. She hissed. I withdrew.
"Takes time," he said. "I've been doing this for seventeen years now." He tickled the kitty under her chin, and introduced himself as Nick Manelli. Up close I could see that he was about seventy and not very skilled at dyeing his own hair. He had missed several tufts of white at the back, but if the kitty minded, she had the good manners to keep it to herself.
Without thinking much about it the next day before I went out to walk, I grabbed a bag and filled it with cat food. That's the amazing power of cats--you find yourself doing things you hadn't intended. After a few weeks of feeding them, and after the cats began to come when I called, I was hooked. Soon, they all had names. I would like to think, as T.S. Elliot once said about cats, that they had revealed their names to me. I, in turn, became Auntie Rosie; Nick became Uncle Nicky.
By the time spring arrived and fur bellies began to swell, I learned something else. It wasn't enough to feed them and pet them; the next step was to fix them. Correction. The next step was to learn how to trap them, and then get them fixed. Nick told me he had been using the services of Fix Our Ferals in Berkeley, but now the job was too much for him. I contacted the non-profit group which offers free spay and neuter clinics every couple of months, and borrowed a trap. I took it to the lake the day before the clinic, set it as instructed and called for my kitties.
Green Eyes was the first to catch a whiff of the tuna I had placed on the spring-loaded metal plate at the back of the cage. He strolled right in and--wham!
One very frightened kitty, whirling around inside the cage like a skunk gone mad-- one very frightened woman bawling as she flung a towel over the cage.
The Fix Our Ferals folks said that the cat would calm down if the cage were covered. They hadn't offered a remedy for the woman who felt at that moment like the Zodiac cat torturer. When I fetched him after his surgery, I cried again. He was sitting up in the cage, eyes dilated. I suddenly understood the origin of the idiom "frozen with fear."
We went on that way for six years, Uncle Nicky and I, caring for the cats. "Hey," he would say when I ran into him, "have you seen Fluffy Gray today? She hasn't come around for a while."
"Not to worry," I'd reply. "I saw her yesterday--she's fine."
"Good. I was beginning to worry."
As long as we discussed only the cats, we were buddies, but once during the 2000 election, I let it slip that I supported Al Gore. When he heard me say that, Nick suddenly stopped and made a wild throwing gesture with his free hand. "Why, those blankety-blank Democrats," he snarled. "Wouldn't give a plugged nickel for any of 'em." I paused in mid-protest, sensing that to argue with him would be like throwing a flame onto dry grass.
"I'm Italian," he said later. "I go off like that sometimes."
One day, realizing that I hadn't seen Nick for a few weeks, I called his home and left a message. We had exchanged numbers so that in case one of us had to go out of town, the other one could double up on the feedings.
His daughter called back to say that Nick had died. He'd been stricken with Guillain-Barre, a rare neurological disorder, and never made it out of the hospital. I explained his disappearance as best as I could to his babies. By this time, they were so used to me that they often came out just for petting and conversation, their bellies no doubt already full of field mice.
All but Tuxedo, Nick's favorite black and white kitty, seemed to adjust. Over the next few weeks when I came to find her, she would look around me as if to say, "Where's my Nicky?" At nineteen, she no longer sprang out from her favorite bush, but instead emerged with hesitation, appearing ungroomed and frail.
Two months to the day after Uncle Nicky died, when I saw that Tuxedo was too weak to run from a dog or raccoon, I scooped her up and drove her to the vet. I bawled all the way to the clinic, bawled during the injections, and bawled after she lay still on the table. I consoled myself with the thought that she went off to kitty heaven to be with her Uncle Nicky.
Afterwards, when I returned to the lake and the furry babies came running up to me, I realized that Nick and I had become much more than two-legged dispensers of food. We were two-legged recipients of four-legged love.
About the Author: Rosie Sorenson, recovering psychotherapist, is now a writer. She won the 2009 Muse Medallion Award for her book, They Had Me at Meow: Tails of Love from the Homeless Cats of Buster Hollow from which this chapter is taken. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Angel Animals Network Newsletter, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and others. In addition, she won Honorable Mention in the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition for 2007. She is also a monthly humor columnist for the Foolish Times. Her essays have been broadcast on KQED-FM, the popular San Francisco NPR affiliate, in its "Perspectives" series. In 2006 she won the Listener Favorite Award.
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