Sitting on the Porch with Cats, or Maybe a Dog

No matter how depressed I get, summer season only, there’s an instant remedy–lifting one of our two (out of three) cats who’ll tolerate a sit on the back deck, and carrying her (they’re all hers) out with me. The deck itself stands rather high off the ground. The bench at the back of the deck (there’s no roof or awning except the towering silver maple) at this time of year is wreathed with flowers–red hot pokers, purple pansies, yellow and gold marigolds, petunias (always some of the only kind that smell–midnight blue) and various spiky white and pink things whose names I forget the minute they’re potted.

With Julia, the black and white, lying at my side, my hand stroking her from ears to rump and flicking off the gathered fur, I stare into the deep backyard, trying to make out what birds are on the mid-way “fountain” feeder, meaning arms that rise up like fountaining water, and carry with them various kinds of bird feeders. The two types of familiar woodpeckers–downy and hairy–push themselves up and down the center pole–don’t ask me why–then flit to the suet and fruit cakes. Chickadees with their chick-a-dee-dee, undulate from the dying apple tree–kept especially for their staging area–snatch a seed from the round “just for them” feeder, and undulate back. Arguing finches–gold and purple–land in groups on the sunflower feeders.

Yesterday, Julia and I (she’s named an honorary bird watcher) followed an intensely yellow goldfinch fly in, grab a seed, fly back to the apple branch where it met its wing-fluttering, whining offspring, who did not let the parent out of its sight. If the golden glow of the parent sped to the feeder and did not return within a minute, the gray-brown child followed, perching on the top knot of the feeder, doing its wing-flutter beg.

Are these creatures my real family? Or is their ability to charm and delight a factor of how little I resemble them, but how much I love them? Probably the second. How I came to the cat thing is not a surprise. When I was in first grade, I “rescued” a meowing baby tabby cat as I walked to school. Carried him to my teacher who had the sense to call my mother rather than insist I release the varmint outside. And my mother had the sense to walk herself and my smaller sister the seven long blocks on foot from the Old Citadel in Charleston, S.C., where we lived, to the three or four houses that the lower school of Ashley Hall used for early grades. This kitten grew into a cat, but didn’t live long, as I dimly remember. Still he was my cat, my first rescue.

These days with “rescue” animals all around us, we are familiar with the obvious human (or maybe American) need to do right by wounded, lost, defeated, abandoned animals (usually domestic). But in the 50s when I was in school, such an idea did not exist. We might take in a vagrant cat or dog and make it our pet, but we did so as individuals. We could not join a group dedicated to such activities, as has my neighbor, a single woman with a house of her own, who has left corporate America to write for a rescue organization. Now she works at home with her two rescue dogs and various puppies she fosters toward new owners.

Yet my mother, who was far from sentimental except about Italian tenors (she married one), seemed to grasp my need for that cat I rescued. But she never fed the birds, though she appreciated the cardinals who sang in her Charleston back yard, the fifteen years she sat every evening with her “Chummie,” a low-to-the-ground mutt, with crinkly fur and an entirely friendly manner. The fifteen years she lived alone after my father died. I do not live alone, but I need to foster, feed, watch, enjoy the birds I can draw to my yard, and we humans in our house love our three cats, even the ever timid Tilly who would fight any attempt to take her outside for a sit on the back porch.

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