July 8, 2020

From Tess to Nora — Thirty Years in the Company of Cats

By Stuart Mitchner

What greater gift than the love of a cat.

—Charles Dickens

For the first time since Saddam invaded Kuwait there are no cats in the house. I’ve been adjusting to that enormous absence with the help of In the Company of Cats (British Library 2014), featuring “illustrations through the ages” and choice quotations from poets, writers, and philosophers celebrating feline “mystery and magnificence.”

I’m thinking about two generations of tuxedo cats dating back to Dizzy (1990-2003), the runt of the litter brought into the world against all odds by the ill-fated, small but mighty tabby Tess (1989-1999), followed after Dizzy’s demise by the adopted twins Nick (2003-2018), and Nora (2003-2020), who died June 25.

Like her namesake in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, tawny Tess had seen a novel’s worth of adversity when she first showed up at the back door. Because my wife was severely allergic at the time, we fed and housed the little vagabond in a make-shift shelter on the deck. After disappearing for more than a week (we feared we’d seen the last of her), she showed up pregnant and fiercely determined; now there was no keeping her outside. Our household version of Saddam’s “mother of all battles” was an invasion by the feline force of nature storming from the deck into the kitchen, through two strongbox barricades and up the stairs to this room, where she accomplished her mission on the evening of August 2, 1990, in the same roomy tartan plaid canvas suitcase I’d used on my first summer in Europe.

Tess still haunts this space. A few feet to my left is the spot where she delivered Dizzy and his four siblings, all of whom eventually found homes in the community, except for the jaunty male tuxedo whose place in our family had never really been in doubt. It was for love of Dizzy that my wife finally overcame the allergy that had doomed every previous attempt. Since none of the statements in Company of Cats applies to Tess and her plight, I’m borrowing a line from Mark Twain: “If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”

Dizzy Atmosphere

Given that Dizzy was born the day Iraq invaded Kuwait and died during the onset of the U.S. invasion of Iraq 13 years later, I’m having second thoughts about Twain’s remark. None of the infamies wrought by mankind during that time “deteriorated” Tess or the gift of 30 years in the company of cats her invasion of our home made possible.

While the quote that best fits a tuxedo named for jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie might be Saki’s “The cat is domestic only as far as suits its own end” and “will not be kennelled or harnessed nor suffer any dictation as to its goings out or comings in,” Dizzy was actually the most devotedly domestic of animals, and the most endearingly dog-like, with his jaunty Scots terrier posture, and his way of cocking his head in your direction prior to herding you into bed and curling up beside you. Of course if we’d been able to “kennell” him indoors, he might have lived as long as the homebound siblings Nick and Nora. 

Nick at the Window

Although he shared something of his trumpet-playing namesake’s hipster ambiance, Dizzy’s charms had nothing to do with music. And for all Nora’s youthful balletic fantasias and madcap feats, she never pulled off anything comparable to her six-month-old brother’s evening duets with unseen birds in the bushes outside the dining room window. A sudden burst of birdsong would have Nick on his hind legs, both forepaws pressed against the screen, at once fascinated, frustrated, mystified, and delighted by the teasing pleasing sounds, primed to pounce on the singing bushes, until, as if inspired by all the mystifiction, he began making his own music, quick, shrill little cries, pipings and peepings in some realm of sound or song beyond mere

What Nora Knows

Nora didn’t sing, she rarely mewed, but in the last mellow decade of her life, her silent meow became more engaging, more precious, more melodious than her brother’s singing, which was rarely repeated. Nora’s music was in the depth of her presence as she harmoniously matured into the purest essence of companionability, a living, breathing absolute, remaining perfectly compactly completely what she was without ever losing the aura of mystery suggested by Jules Verne’s theory that cats “are spirits come to earth who could walk on a cloud without coming through.” On the other hand, Montaigne’s observation that “you’ll never know as much about your cat as your cat knows about you” speaks to those moments when she’d look up at me with a gaze so steady and potent and direct it seemed to transcend animal-human boundaries, so much so that I couldn’t see it without recalling the over-the-shoulder look my mother gave me the day she died. 

No doubt the quotation from In the Company of Cats that comes closest to Nora and my conception of our relationship — her devotion to the ritual of joining me on the chaise by the study window, her sensual appreciation of the contours and textures of the landscape of books and paper always there for her (and for me, the materials for articles-in-progress) — is Erasmus Darwin’s “To respect the cat is the beginning of the aesthetic sense.”

Wait, not so fast, “respect” doesn’t fairly convey the mixture of admiration and appreciation that made Nora a visitor in previous columns on Joyce and Schubert. Although she and Nick were named for the witty couple played by William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies, Nora also has no-nonsense qualities in common with James Joyce’s Nora, the love of his life and the inspiration for Molly Bloom. No matter how contentedly she’ll be nuzzling and purring, no matter the depth of those soulful looks, she would plop off the chaise in an instant and walk away. It’s also easy to imagine her scoffing Molly-style (“Who’s he when he’s at home?”) at the likes of Erasmus Darwin. In the end, she’d see through all these foolish attempts to transpose her into a world of words. Montaigne’s version, the Nora who knows me, might say “don’t get so serious, stop it with the aesthetics and all this anthropomorphic denial: you’re miserable, you’re missing me, so cheer up, remember the games we used to play when I was a kitten! Just look at the cover of the book you keep quoting from, those two cats in nightshirts having a pillow fight, and think how much fun I had pouncing on the shifting shape of your foot under the blanket on those early days when anything that moved was good sport.

Nora at the Window

Headed “Tableaux Parisiens,” the Company of Cats image evoking my happiest moments with Nora is Baudelaire’s Cat, an etching from Les Fleurs du Mal showing a man and a cat gazing out a window together at a smoky panorama of Paris. It doesn’t matter that the view from the window she and I were looking through was of a cul de sac in Princeton. Winter or spring, summer or fall, whether watching a few flurries of snow, or leaves falling, she’d be perched on one or another of the various books on the chaise, as often as not the one I was reading or writing about. She shared her step-uncle Dizzy’s fondness for paper, which all our cats preferred over the various gifts of catnip and kitty toys.

Nora’s Music

The only real advantage of knowing in advance that an animal you love is going to be mercifully, gently, compassionately put to sleep forever (she hadn’t eaten for over a week; the once peerless acrobat was barely able to get up on the sofa) is that you’re able to savor every last moment in its company. I can’t claim that Nora shared my awareness of how precious our cuddling sessions were. We had many such times together, but these had a quality she seemed to acknowledge every time she looked up at me. What I realize now is that Nora’s “purest essence” was something beyond companionability. What she above all else is, still is, will always be, is music.

For weeks now I’ve been humming, whistling under my breath, hearing in my head a single stream, or strain, of melody, the “beautiful night of love” barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman. I didn’t know what a barcarolle was until I went looking for the source of the lilting, buoyant, naggingly familiar melodic setting of Bob Dylan’s new song, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.” All I know is the music made a fitting farewell lullaby, along with a selective choice of lines from the lyrics like “I’ll see you at sunrise, I’ll see you at dawn, I’ll lay down beside you when everyone’s gone, a love so real a love so true…”