When I was a little girl my family had a very patient and wonderful cat named Patches. Patches was a female calico my mother had rescued from the side of the road as a kitten (long before I was born) and rushed to the vet to mend her broken bones…the victim of carless owners who had thrown her from a speeding car into the ditch of a northern MN town. I grew up with Patches sleeping at my feet and tolerating the antics of a precocious growing human being. What I never realized until last night was that many of the life lessons I learned were directly related to my interactions with this cat.
When I was a little over two I decided to feed the cat, I originally started out with some food on a fork and I started tottering over to the cat who was sunning herself in the living room, she saw me coming at her with a pointy object in my hand and fled for the perceived safety of my parent’s bedroom. I went chasing after her and she darted underneath their bed. I promptly got down on my hands and knees, the food long ago fallen off the fork, and proceeded to crawl after her. She kept scootching back until she hit a wall of shoe boxes and then her ears went flat as I kept approaching her in the near darkness. Right as I was getting within reach of her face she decided she would be able to flee past me and find her sanctuary elsewhere now that the safety of the bed had been compromised. As she started to bolt past me I moved my hand across my body to try to get the fork to her mouth (two-year old logic…right?) and instead hit the bottom of the bed, my hand and subsequently the fork bounced back and I grazed my eye with the metal prongs, scratching my cornea. I immediately start bawling and scootched back out from under the bed. My mother, who had been switching the laundry over came running to see what was making me cry. She asked me what happened and I told her I was trying to eat the cat…I meant feed but I was two and my eye hurt so my ability to communicate was a bit limited…and I had crawled under the bed to get her and poked my eye with the fork. She told me that there was a reason cats hide under furniture, because they are scared, and if an animal is hiding from me than I must be doing something inappropriate. She told me that trying to impose my will on others, even animals, wasn’t a good thing. She tried to explain that only people who are insecure will try to control others, although the majority of what she said didn’t make much sense to my budding lexicon of knowledge. The jist was that I should respect other’s wishes and if they want to be left alone I should let them be alone until they feel ready to come back out and socialize. That was basically the last time I tried to chase an animal or drag it out from its hiding spot just because I wanted them to interact with me. It’s a lesson I have often applied to people too.
When I was a little older, and we had moved into a brand new house, that wonderful cat taught me another lesson. The basement was kinda finished but there was no door yet installed at the foot of the stairs. I was an independent four-year old hell-bent on exploring the basement…except that the basement was kinda scary to be in all by myself. My mother was getting ready and I was supposed to be watching sesame street but I decided to take the opportunity to head downstairs to familiarize myself with that level. I decided I would take the cat down with me to keep me company. I got downstairs and set the cat down, she started to head back upstairs. I grabbed her again and started looking for any door I could close that would keep her down there with me. I noticed there was a door on the dryer that I could open so I did and put the cat inside. I was talking to her and had just started to look around the laundry tub when I heard my mother calling me to come upstairs because we were going to the store or the library or somewhere I wanted to go and I got super excited and dashed upstairs, completely forgetting I had put the cat in the dryer. We got home about two hours later and luckily my mother decided it was time to do laundry. She immediately found poor Patches yowling from the dryer. The distraught cat was happy to be out but in her stress she had let loose her bowels and my mother was not happy about having to clean shit out of her dryer. I got a stern talking to about how it wasn’t condonable to imprison cats in dryers, or to imprison them anywhere they couldn’t access food, water or their toilet. She asked me if I would like being confined to a tiny dark space full of my own feces. I thought about it and imagined how I would feel if someone tried to force me to spend time with them and put me in a scary and uncomfortable position. I decided I wouldn’t appreciate that and ever since I have never forced my company on animals or people either. If someone doesn’t want to spend time with me, who am I to make them? Of course this whole philosophy may not apply to any future children I have, but I feel like this was a great lesson to learn, even if I carried guilt around with me about how I traumatized that poor cat for years.
Fast-forward another couple of years. I’m almost 7 and decided the cat could use a make-over. She was a short-haired cat so I didn’t think I could cut her hair, but decided that her whiskers were far too long and a quick trim would make her look cuter. I had just finished cutting one side of her whiskers when my mother came out of the bathroom and I heard her horrified “noooooooooo!” that froze me in my tracks. My mom yanked the scissors out of my hand and threatened to cut off my toes. I immediately started to cry and protectively curled up to hide my feet from her. She was never going to cut my toes off but felt I ought to know that by cutting Patches’ whiskers I had taken away her ability to stabilize herself and to make informed decisions regarding her movements. She explained that cats are configured differently from me and other animals but they were made exactly the way they needed to be. Just because I thought something wasn’t aesthetically pleasing didn’t mean it needed to be changed. I could decide how I looked but it wasn’t my place to try to change other’s appearances. I can’t say I’ve never judged anyone based on looks, but I can say that I’ve never tried to impose my style on any other animals or people after that.
It is entirely possible that I learned more than these three lessons as a result of that endlessly patient animal enduring my antics, but the origins of most of my outlooks on life are lost to the fogginess that history can bring to memories. I understand that my mother played a huge roll in shaping my mentality on right and wrong, but had we not had that cat I don’t know that some of these lessons would have been learned.