Each year I find myself crouched underneath the shadowy refuge of a lace leaf Japanese Maple tree, where I plant impatiens—the only annual that will grow under the tree’s shade. I work the soil hoping for earthworms, a sign of healthy soil. On one of these spring plantings, I discovered a constellation of white flakes — the cremains of my daughter’s cat. All I could do was sit on my heels and remember.
“There have to be daisies,white ones.” My twenty-six-year-old daughter had called to update me while she waited outside Kroger, where her bereaved younger sister was buying white daisies for our backyard funeral. “White daisies, like the ones in The Three Lives of Thomasina,” Susanna says.
Of course. The 1964 Disney movie has been a talisman for Liz. She returns to the film for the comfort of its repetition and for its feline personified. Thomasina, presumed dead, is laid-out on a bed of daisies in a wheelbarrow, where a local “witch” finds her. The woman detects a weak heartbeat and takes Thomasina home to a cabin in the woods. Disney-style moments of recognition and reversal will, of course, lead to a happy resolution.
Unlike Thomasina, Whiskers will not resurrect. Her mourners will NOT march to the moan-and-wail of a bagpipe dirge. Nor will they sing, “Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond,” lochside. This child-cat saga ends here, in our urban garden, below the lush umbrella of feathered branches under which Whiskers so often basked and will forevermore.
There are three of us at the ceremony: My two young-adult daughters and me. Their Dad has been excused from the ceremony. He is at work. The ashes are ready and so is Liz. She wants this ritual to be quick and quiet.
Liz folds her chin to her chest while Susanna shifts uncomfortably. On a tree trunk, I have propped a photograph of Whiskers beside a garden statue. Liz does not acknowledge the photo; she curls into herself. She wants me to be still and quiet. Finally, with the box of ashes cradled in her hands, she approaches the back of the garden where, with bare fingertips, she has arranged daisy blossoms around a divot in the soil.
Standing in the garden, near a clump of impatiens, Liz removes a swollen baggie from the scarlet box. She holds the baggie at eye-level and studies its contents. Ashes should be fine, soft, and gray. But the ashes of our cat look like coarsely chopped breadcrumbs. The cremains scatter heavily from my daughter’s hands into the daisy-decorated topsoil.
I try to remain silent. I long to describe my surprise at having loved a cat. I want to say I will miss her yowling at me each morning. I want to say I will miss the morning routine when Whiskers arrived at the window with her eyes fixed on mine, waiting for me to abandon my coffee cup for a can of Fancy Feast. I want to reminisce about her cirque-de-backyard feats — how she perched on the top of our narrow wooden fence like backyard décor. She was adept at precarious acts of leap-and-balance, until she wasn’t.
For this cat funeral, there will be no bagpipes or lamentations, no wailing hymns of grace amazing. While I stand quietly, I think there must be more. More than the scattering of ashes. A eulogy of sorts.
Liz turns her face downward; I can feel her wince.
My younger daughter and I are a contrast. Elizabeth is cat-like. She is self-assured, dignified, and cautious. She studies her surroundings carefully and rarely lets strangers pet her. I would like to become more catlike. Bask in the sun. Feel the soft breeze on my skin. Observe the world with knowing eyes. Look beautiful without trying. Be always serene and self-possessed — careful not to trust too little or too much. In contrast, I am a panting Labrador — sociable, eager to please, trusting, and a bit too expressive.
Liz and Whiskers taught me the virtue of silence. I remember one particular morning. The cat and the child were three and eight-years old, respectively. In the emerging light, I walked into my daughter’s room where Liz lay with her freckled face pushed into the pillow. Next to her tangle of honey-blonde hair sat Whiskers. My child remained asleep while the cat stretched elegantly, then began to pace like a lioness across my daughter’s back and shoulders. She stopped occasionally to knead Liz as if she were a loaf of bread. Push, push, prepare the dough. First one paw and then another. Time to rise!
“Humph,” Liz grumbled.
“Look at that cat, walking all over you,” I said. “I just can’t believe how much cats like you — always have — it’s amazing. Cats never liked me,” I said. “But then, I never had one since Grandpa hated them. He liked dogs. Well, cats killed the chickens on his farm when he was a kid and ever since, all he wants to do is kill them.” I paused. “Did I ever tell you the story about my four-year old birthday party when Grandpa chased a cat out of the yard with a broom?”
Whiskers hopped off the bed and disappeared into the hallway.
I wondered aloud at the cat’s ability to pounce so gracefully. “Isn’t Whiskers a cool cat?”
Liz turned her head slightly, glared at me with feline eyes and said, “Cats like quiet people.”
Liz was a cat-lover from birth. As a baby, she babbled and pointed at all things feline — photos of playful kittens unraveling balls of yarn, a cat sunning in a front window. When Liz was four years old, she named the cat she would never have. “My cat will be Whiskers!” she proclaimed. I chuckled at her confidence. Her father dislikes cats ardently.
It was one early weekday evening — the “witching hour,” when mothers of young children multi-task the cooking, homework, laundry, and dishes, while negotiating requests for cups of apple juice too-close-to-dinner.
My husband John walked in from his workday. “I found a cat for Lizzie!” he said.
I surely stopped what I was doing — chopping, stirring, folding, pouring.
“But,” I said, “You don’t like cats.”
“No, I don’t. But, Lizzie does,” he said. At that moment, I loved my husband with courtship warmth. Fatherhood to two little girls had often pierced his Prussian shield. My rule-oriented husband, descended from hardy German farmers, had become the type of person who would invite his pre-school daughters to ride on his “big shoulders.” With a child aloft, he sang heartily the “Elephant March” song from The Jungle Book. Hup. Two. Three. Four. Keep it up. Two. Three Four. We are marching here to there. And it doesn’t matter where.
I never expected John would initiate cat ownership.
Soon after my husband’s decision, we visited the cat custodian’s home on a Sunday afternoon. Liz was unaware of our purpose. The woman, who had rescued a stray pregnant momma cat, brought out a yellow-striped, white-patched, amber-eyed kitten. Liz sat suddenly erect in her chair.
“Would you like to hold the kitty?” the woman said. She handed the kitten to my little girl, who cradled the cat with a sublime expression.
“What is your kitty’s name?” Lizzie asked the woman.
“Her name is Whiskers,” the woman said.
Liz startled. Her eyes registered the shock of coincidence. “That’s what I’m going to name my cat!”
“Yes, I know,” the woman said. “This is your cat.”
[author breaks for a short cry]
That was the first day of Whiskers’ life in our family. And, as I stand beside my daughters at Whiskers’ funeral, sixteen years later, I see her within the frame of so many remembered experiences — Whiskers under the Christmas tree, atop my sleeping daughter, dressed in American Girl clothes, curled into the cardboard house Lizzie made for her. So many memories of life with children include this cat. I cannot be the quiet person the cat and my daughter prefer. I must speak when my daughter cannot.
“Whiskers was my first cat,” I say. “She taught me the importance of sitting still. She taught me to try to be quiet. She is part of our family’s story.”
About the author — Kimberly Crum MSW, MFA is sole proprietor of a writing instruction studio where she teaches memoir and personal essay to aspiring writers who want to write for publication or posterity. She is the co-editor of The Boom Project: Voices of a Generation (Butler Books 2019) — a literary anthology of essay, poem, memoir and fiction by Baby Boomers of the Ohio River Valley. Work-in-progress — A segmented memoir titled Slouching Toward Self-Actualization.