Sunday, February 22, 2009

Of Feral Cats & Men

Aunt Rose Burrall lived in the country far from my concrete experiences on 27th Street. She died when I was just a kid, but not before she taught me how to embroider. I learned John Deere green and how to ride one. Her property was the first place where I saw wild flowers blooming. She taught me the Black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne's Lace, and I can't see a summer-sky-blue, chicory weed blooming without thinking immediately, "Aunt Rose."

Living with her a few weeks one summer, only, I learned all of those interesting things. But, the most interesting was the wild, orange tabby cat with whom she shared her carport. I never knew of feral cats. I thought all cats lived with people, in houses, and begged to be petted and fed. Theirs was a fascinating relationship.

The tom had no name, or if he did, he didn't share it. Aunt Rose respecting his independence, called him simply, The Cat. Every evening around the same time, The Cat stalked across the field to the carport to await his meal. Most evenings, Aunt Rose had it waiting. I don't think Uncle Bob even had his meal waiting for him when he got home, but The Cat did.

The first evening, she directed, "Holly, you can't touch this cat. Don't go near him. You can watch him. But you have to sit quietly or he'll take off. He's not a pet. " I was eager to meet The Cat. And did my part by sitting on the other side of the carport while he made his way up to his bowl.

I remember the stare he gave me. Hard. Suspicious. He stood frozen which held me frozen in the chair. Eventually, he turned his back, dismissing me, and tucked into his meal. As soon as it was done, he was gone. My aunt seemed perfectly fine with that. I wasn't. "Aunt Rose, why does he leave? Doesn't he want to stay with you and Uncle Bob? Where does he go? Why can't you pet him?" On and on the questions flew out of my eight-year-old face.

I was a blend of surprised and indignant. I couldn't help it, "Gee, you pay money to feed the stupid thing and you can't even pet him or love on him?!" She laughed. "I don't know where he lives. I don't know where he goes when he's gone. I feed him because I can. Sometimes he visits with me. He's not my cat. The Cat belongs to nobody. It's all right that way, Sweetie." And, for Aunt Rose, it was truly okay. I certainly didn't get it but, for the two of them, it worked just fine.

I had the chance to watch The Cat, after becoming a bit more comfortable with me, stay for a visit after he dined. I remember him sitting next to my aunt's chair while she watched the red sun drop down into the fields; The Cat unblinkingly watching with her. You could sense some ethereal tie between the two. And, when his feline clock struck the hour, The Cat evaporated without a sound. Marking the end of another summer day.

My aunt died shortly after my visit. She endured a long hospitalization, never making it back home. When she left for the hospital, one of her requests was to make certain The Cat had food each day. Uncle Bob found the time to do that. The Cat came every evening, ate quickly and promptly left. However, on the day Aunt Rose died, The Cat didn't come. The great orange tabby was never seen again.

How did The Cat know? I can only guess that the wild heart which beat in that feral feline was, in fact, in deep relationship with Aunt Rose even though it looked like no relationship at all. Impossible to define in usual terms yet, genuine.

Melissa and I were talking about men we've dated. How some, seemingly with the best intentions, believe they want to settle into a relationship, only to learn that they hate it. Domestication begins to change them. They lose their fun nature. Eventually the whole thing falls apart.

She was with a great guy for four years before they came to an understanding; they're meant to be dear friends, not lovers or mates. It took him awhile to conclude that he doesn't want to be in a relationship and he became less and less himself in the process. It grieved them both to watch the change and not understand why. Once he knew what he wanted and, more importantly, once Melissa was willing to acknowledge she wanted more, things got better. For both. He now knows he only wants a casual string of encounters with others. He doesn't want a 'girlfriend'; he questions if he'd ever want to marry. At least for now. So, they've gone off to pursue separate lives but, they saved their friendship which is important.

I can relate. I once had a torrid physical relationship; Jeff was intriguing and fascinating. We were fabulously compatible- physically. But, after our moments of romping and conversation, he'd evaporate until the next encounter. With a kiss and a sly smile, he'd quietly slip away just like The Cat did every night after dinner on the carport.

At the start, I was absolutely in sync with the parameters he had set. He was clear about what he wanted and what he was willing to provide. More importantly, he was absolutely honest about what he didn't want. He didn't want the entanglements of a relationship. I heard what he said. Considered it closely. I was busy with my life, career, and finding out who I was after my marriage ended. It seemed like a good deal and for quite a few months it was...

Seemed like. Because, here's the rub...most women can't stay casual about deep physical relationships. Without it being our direct intention, women begin to bond with their lover. On emotional levels we can't predict ahead of time. Try as we might, if we have continued, sustained contact with a lover, we become emotionally enmeshed.

Once it happens, we begin hoping to change The Cat's nature. We discount what we know and stop listening when we're reminded that he isn't looking for a forever home. We delude ourselves, "If everything between us feels this good, I know we're headed toward something lasting." We dismiss what we've been told; worse, we begin to believe we have the power to change his mind. And, that's when the problems start.

Without intending to, I began to invest myself. I began hoping for more from Jeff even though I didn't recognize it. Sensing the shift in me, he pulled the plug and walked away. As fun as the sexual relationship and friendship was, he needed his freedom more. And, in leaving, he taught me a very valuable lesson.

I learned that I have to regularly evaluate a contract. Make sure I'm still willing to accept the original terms. Be open to renegotiate when things, for me, have changed. And, be ready to shake hands and walk away if the other person isn't. I have to be honest with myself and them when I'm no longer able to live with terms as originally defined. And, that takes courage.

Aunt Rose and The Cat accepted that she could stop feeding him if she cared to, just as The Cat could decide to not come to her address each night to eat. The odd relationship worked because both understood they had a voice in how it went.

A feral cat deems to share a sliver of its life, but it will never live with you completely at ease. It will always demand to know, even if it comes inside, that it can easily make an escape. Above everything else, even the need for food and comfort, a wild cat needs space, the open sky and all the perils life on the outside brings.

Share aspects of a feral cat's life but don't attempt to domesticate it. Do not believe you know better than The Cat. You have to accept that the relationship will be mostly on its terms and could change without notice. If you can't handle that, or dream of changing the cat, best let it go elsewhere to find its meals and few moments of comfort.

Aunt Rose was an exceptional woman in many ways. I'm grateful for her lesson of allowing a spirit to come and go as it needs to without trying to hem it in and change it. She was never heart broken when The Cat left. She accepted it and didn't fret about when she would see it again. And, she cherished the moments they shared, but she didn't live her life hoping The Cat would do more than visit the carport.

If you are in a relationship with a feral male, leave the door to your heart ajar. The Cat will always need to slip off without notice. A man who says he doesn't want to be in a relationship isn't mistaken. He's telling you his truth; take him at his word. Accept what you hear and make your determination to play or pass based on what you've been told and not what you hope you can make of it.

Having a feral relationship can teach the lessons of acceptance, living in the moment, and listening. All of which are good things. But, understand, when it comes to love it's not all that you'll need. Or, all you will want. Still, I hope you experience the secrets The Cat can provide. It will give you lots of special, fascinating moments to hold close. More importantly, it can teach you to want more for your life and love. And, the courage to continue the quest to find it.

Namaste' Till Next Time,


Eileen said...

Smart woman that Aunt Rose ... and I love the magic that happens so that The Cat knew when another dinner spot would have to be found. Brought back memories of a feral cat that took up with my family in South Carolina when I was in the 7th grade ... another orange tabby. With 6 kids and a husband away in Okinawa my Mom wasn't willing to take on adding a pet to care for ... magic happens ... we got a sliver of a pet in just having this feral cat hang out on our carport at some point every day.

jkc said...

Your aunt sounds like my aunt...even so far as to have a cat named Cat. Their relationship started exactly the same way. Loved the story and the message.

melissa said...


Fortunately, I have 3 (real) cats that enjoy being my companions...and they like having their feral human around to play with. Also, there are tame boys out there that are looking for homes. You just have to learn which ones you want to try and pet...


Erin said...

My Grandmother Mille had a cat that adopted her in much the same way as The Cat with your Aunt. He was actually a pet of a neigboring family, but apparently he liked Mille's quiet company better. Over the years she fed him, after a while, he garnered a name (Mr. Speaker or Newty after the then speaker-of-the-house) later he started coming in the house, and in the end before she died, he was with her every day.
Jim and my relationship started out much as the one you described with Jeff....but this "Cat" decided he wanted to stay...just like good ol' Newty.

And as for Newt's fate? After my Grandmother passed, my Mother took him in. He didn't last a month without Mille. :o) Together again....


Opie said...

I prefer "wild rover" to "feral cat" thank you. *woof* I've been told to read this post in particular a few times over the past couple of weeks, and now I know why... ;)

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