Domestic Bliss

Back when Steve and I made the offer to purchase the house we now live in, our contract negotiations included the requisite home inspection. On a sunny spring day we met our realtor and the inspector at the house for a walk-through. I was taking measurements in the living room when Steve followed the inspector outside to look at the gutters, leaving the front door open behind him. Within moments a pretty calico who we’d seen lounging on the porch a few times pranced up the steps and marched right through the door into the foyer as if she owned the place.

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Our realtor shooed the cat before she could get very far, but the incident made me wonder if the calico had belonged to the people who’d lived in the home before us. There was a cat door in the kitchen, and anytime we’d been by to look at the house, she was camped out in a sunny spot somewhere on the property. The last two times I’d moved into a new home, it had come with a cat. It was looking like this one would, too.

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The Art of Moving — or, Paws, Claws, and Compromise

We hear the moving truck before we see it: the tell-tale whoosh and squawk of air-brakes. Wait—air brakes? I step outside onto the porch, Steve right behind me, as a tractor trailer filled with all my fiancé’s worldly belongings pulls up to the curb in front of our new home. The truck must be over fifty feet long, so tall it takes out a branch from a full-grown maple as the driver backs it up.

moving_truckI glance at Steve with a raised eyebrow. “Um, they didn’t fill the whole truck, did they, honey?”

Day one of our multi-part move-in, and I don’t know if my heart is beating so fast out of love, excitement, or fear.

A bit of all three, I suspect.

♥ ♥ ♥

Navigating a mid-life marriage brings a number of challenges, not the least of which is figuring out whose sofa stays, and whose goes. The biggest challenge for most folks who marry (or re-marry) later in life is the blending of families with young children. On the whole, Steve and I have it easy in that regard: his two sons are grown, college-age and just-post-college, the same age as the students I interact with regularly in my job as a professor. In contrast, when my brother and sister-in-law married twelve years ago, each brought two children to the household, all four under the age of thirteen. If that sounds intimidating, do the math. For one parent living full-time with two children, there are 4 possible total relationship combinations, 3 for each individual: all three together, parent and child 1, parent and child 2, and child to child. Six people, however, share 57 total possible relationship combinations, 30 for each individual. Merging a family of three with another family of three doesn’t merely double the relationships—it multiplies them ten-fold.

It multiplies the love, too. Still, the sheer thought of navigating that many relationships in my own house sends my inner introvert into the corner, trembling.

Steve’s sons are each settled into their own places now, and hanging out with them means sharing good wine and lively conversation, not Sippy cups and alphabet songs. The bigger challenge in merging our households? Our three fur kids.

Imoh

Imoh

Steve is owned by Imoh, a sweet-natured Jack Russell terrier/beagle cross. Imoh has a big bark but zero bite, his most notable feature (aside from adoring and adorable brown eyes) a penchant for giving hugs. His snuggles are melt-your-heart cute.

I am owned by felines Charlie Kate, a bossy if big-hearted Norwegian Forest cat, and Lola, a solid black love-bug. Both adopted me as strays, and both adore Steve. They are, we were not entirely surprised to learn, less fond of Steve’s dog.

Charlie and Lola

Charlie and Lola

We had a great plan for introducing the animals. They would meet for the first time in neutral territory, maybe outside, Imoh safely leashed, the cats in carriers or on the other side of some kind of sniff-through barrier. They would meet and greet a few times for short stretches, with the hopes that curiosity would outweigh any territorialism or threat. As they got used to each others’ presence and scents (already somewhat familiar, from sharing their humans), they would grow more relaxed, easing the final transition when we all moved into a new home (more neutral territory) together.

The best laid plans o’ dogs, cats, and humans gang aft agley.

With Steve in a town an hour away, finding a way for the animals to hang in a neutral space for fifteen minutes at a time proved impossible. When his house sold, the pressure grew to get not only him but both his sons packed and re-settled, so the animals took a back seat. Then, our closing was delayed when the seller didn’t finish some key repairs. Granted occupancy for stuff but not humans or pets, Steve had to move in with me while we waited for things to sort themselves out. Imoh came with him.

In my cats’ eyes, one morning, life was normal. By afternoon, there was this creature, this dog-thing, hanging out on the sidewalk in front of their house. Why was their Steve attached to it by a string? Why did it wiggle around and sniff at them? And—wait—why was it on the porch now? Why was it coming inside? Sitting on the sofa? What was this insufferable indignity?

Imoh and Lola

Seriously?

To be fair, Lola was content to express her disapproval with a disdainful stare, an arched back, and sideways hops accompanied by a well-timed hiss. Charlie Kate, well.

Imoh is pretty much terrified of her. I can’t say I blame him.

Charlie likes to park herself in Imoh’s path and stare at him while he attempts to look anywhere but her direction. If he moves too quickly for her liking, she takes a swipe. We don’t think claws have made contact more than once or twice, but as Steve says, ‘Moh seems to recognize that “those things come loaded.” He yelps just the same.

For days we took ‘Moh with us every place we went, or one of us stayed home to keep a watch on the beasts. The constant vigilance was exhausting. If that’s what it’s like to have toddlers, I’m not sure I could have survived raising human children. Enduring the cats’ accusing looks was hard enough. And felines know from punishment: denial of affection, refusal to purr.

♥ ♥ ♥

Now we’re half in (Steve’s half) the new house. With Imoh mostly there and my kitties mostly at my house, the critters have achieved a temporary détente.

We thought it was tough to get the animals to play well together. What about the furniture?

Somehow, I never noticed that Steve had an end table fetish. Every chair has at least one. Sofas, two. We haven’t even moved my furniture yet, and there’s a surplus. Then there’s the double dining tables. I don’t care much about mine—I bought it used and don’t mind selling it. The problem: I’m not crazy about his either, especially the uncomfortable matching chairs.

Steve dislikes my grandma’s porcelain swan lamp. If I were a guy, I would too, especially the insanely frilly shade with pink roses and ivory frou-frou I made for it. His giant flat-screen television looks like a big black hole. If we put them in the same room, will the TV swallow the swans?

Perhaps there are advantages to getting married young and, between the two of you, owning barely a pot to p— in at the start.

We own so many books. And I have two beautiful barrister bookcases purchased with an inheritance from my maternal grandmother. Steve loves them too, and we both want to feature them in our early 1900s, Federal-style home. If we showcase them in his front parlor study, should they house only his books? If they hold some of mine, too, will his study not feel entirely his?

Daunting, but doable

Steep learning curve: daunting, but doable.

It takes a few days, then: what if we combined all of our fiction, arranged it all alphabetically, put it all in the bookcases, together? We are, after all, fashioning a new life, together.

Of course, books, unlike dogs and cats, don’t bark or bare claws.

Fear gnaws, but rarely bites.

I’ve lived alone—except for cats—for over twenty years.

One day at a time. One day at a time.

On Commitment and… Cats?

For my Eliza Jane, and all my feline loves, on Pet Memorial Day

ElizaChristmas2I’ve been missing my big kitty Eliza Jane, whom I lost back in February due to complications from diabetes and what was likely kidney cancer. As fiancé Steve and I get closer to the wedding, and thus to moving to a new home together, I’ve grown wistful thinking about leaving behind my little purple house and all the memories it holds.

When I moved to Virginia, I arrived first with two of my cats in tow, Roscoe (also dearly departed in 2013) and Eliza Jane. My big girl had had a tough road trip, complete with car-sickness that earned her Roscoe’s usual spot in the front passenger seat. As I set her carrier down in the foyer of our new home, she let out a plaintive wail that echoed through the whole empty house. She calmed quickly once our (her) furniture and things arrived, with their familiar smells and textures. She was only three years old then, so most of the memories we made together are bound up with this place.

Eliza 2Eliza wasn’t an easy cat. Neither was she, by traditional standards, a beautiful cat: she was overweight for much of her life, though her head and legs remained tiny, rendering her proportions out of balance. Her short fur was coarse, her tail average, neither long nor particularly expressive. With asymmetrical coloring and a lopsided mustache, she sported a perpetually wide-eyed, startled expression (the cat equivalent, maybe, of resting-bitch-face?) and rarely exhibited the zen-like contentment many cats do. After a cancerous growth returned the third time on one of her back legs, we had it amputated, and she became a 21-pound tripod.

And though a sweet (at least to me) kitty who grew ever more cuddly and expressive as she aged, she was always reserved if not aloof, and, if we’re honest, inconvenient. As she got older, she had increasing trouble managing the hop into the litter box, and she struggled to keep herself clean. There were butt baths, lots of cat-bed washings, almost daily mopping. Sometimes I felt like the house always smelled vaguely of kitty accident. And it grew expensive, buying special food to manage her diabetes, boxes of extra-large pee pads, syringes and vials of insulin.

But I loved my Liza Belle. And when I adopted her, I’d made a commitment to care for her and love her for life.

Elizaonshoulder3Love, commitment, devotion: it’s not always convenient, not always pleasant. Sometimes love is hard, annoying, even smelly. It’s real. It’s being glad to do tough things, put up with inconvenience, because the love outweighs the irritation. Because that is the love, the practice of love: being there, being of service, being as much a constant as possible even in the face of fear, failure, decline. Being a constant presence, a constant heart.

In the last years of her life, Eliza was hard to fall in love with, and she and Steve did not bond as deeply as he has with my other two cats. I understood: he hadn’t known her as I did. When I looked at Eliza, I didn’t just see her matted belly and her kitty dander, experience her cool reserve. I saw the kitten who used to ride on my shoulder around the kitchen. The cat who played fetch and chased the laser light under the closet door, where she thought it lived. I saw the kitty who loved to cuddle her big brother, the kitty who’d warned me of an intruder by hissing in the middle of the night. I saw the—yes, beautiful—cat who’d borne up under so much and brought me so much joy.

Elizakitten2Eliza was some-kinda-cute as a kitten, for sure, but “cute” was all I really knew when I committed to adopting her back then. I didn’t know then whether she’d be cuddly or cool, how she might grow and change, what pleasures and pains and challenges would come. Once I said yes, though, my commitment didn’t depend on her staying cute, or being a perfect cat, or an easy one. Once I committed to her, we were in it, for life, together.

The truth is, the longer I loved her, the more beautiful she became to me, the more of her beauty I could see. It was only through committing to the long haul that I was blessed to get to know her fully and deeply, and the more I knew, the more I saw how beautiful she truly was. When I looked at her, I saw all the shared history, all the love; I saw her young and old, healthy and ill, cuddly and cranky. It was all there, and the layers made me love her all the more.

Even now, after she’s gone from this world, she keeps teaching me. Cheers, my lovely Eliza. And thank you for showing me the wonder, complexity, and meaning of real beauty and commitment.

Eliza and me: one of our last pictures together

Eliza and me: one of our last pictures together

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The Other Love of My Life

Two years ago, on Good Friday 2013, I lost my sweet Roscoe kitty. Roscoe, a tuxedo tomcat, was fifteen when he died: fourteen years after I brought him home from the shelter, thirteen months beyond the vets’ predictions for his lifespan, and one month and five days after I met my now-fiancé Steve.

The timing, I’ve long felt, was no accident.

Meeting Cute

Roscoe had been my buddy since January 1998, when he adopted me at Cat Welfare, a no-kill cat shelter in Columbus, Ohio. I’d lost my cat Tiko to mouth cancer in December, and though I was buoyed through the holidays by travel and the presence of family, when I returned to the Midwest winter and an empty apartment, the loneliness was all-encompassing. I’d thought I might wait a while longer to find a new feline, but I was bereft.

Tiko had been solid black, and I knew it would be too hard to have another black cat; he’d been older when I took him in, too, and losing him after only six years broke my heart. So the plan was to find a kitten, black-and-white. When I arrived at Cat Welfare, they didn’t have any kittens. Some cats there roamed freely, having earned their floor privileges, while the newer additions resided in cages. I visited with most every black-and-white cat I saw, but I really wanted a kitten. As I readied to leave, thinking I’d try the Humane Society, the woman at the front desk asked if I’d seen the tuxedo cat in the second room. I hadn’t—he was sound asleep, curled up in the back of his cage. Oh, he’s a sweetheart, she said, and only about a year or year-and-half old. He’d been caught in one of their traps—sometimes, when the shelter was full, people dropped animals off outside anyway, hoping the shelter would find and take them in. This tuxedo kitty had been so lucky.

She pulled the sleepy cat from his cage and put him in my arms. Almost immediately, he rolled back into the crook of my left elbow so that I held him like a baby. He wore a slightly askew black mask and had a soft white belly, his clear green eyes framed by white whiskers. The pads of his paws were multi-toned, some gray, some pink. He began purring and gave me a long, slow blink, then reached his chin up and rubbed my chin with his.

Oh, boy. Continue reading

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When Love Means Letting Go

for Eliza Jane 2002-2015

I have a blog calendar, and I typically plan my posts, or at least my topics, well in advance. I’ve had the “cats and weddings” topic from Tuesday on the calendar for at least several months (you can actually see the post-it on the calendar in “(Not Too) Much A-Do About Being”), even though I wasn’t sure exactly what direction the post would take until I worked it up last week. The timing, as it turns out, was either terribly perfect or perfectly terrible, because today, I lost my beautiful Eliza Jane.

I’d planned to write about something else for today’s post. And I cannot, at this juncture, be anything approaching eloquent on the subject of her loss. But to post about anything else feels disingenuous, and she taught me so much about love and life that writing seems the best way to honor her.

My Liza

Eliza Jane is the only cat I raised from a kitten. She came to me under coercion: a stray calico took up residence in my parents’ storage shed and gave birth to a litter. Eliza was the only black-and-white kitten, and I already had tuxedo cat Roscoe. My mother informed me Roscoe needed a friend, so the Holstein kitten with the half-mustache and perpetually startled expression would be mine.

Eliza snuggling Roscoe after a biopsy in 2009

Eliza snuggling Roscoe after a biopsy in 2009

Roscoe adapted pretty quickly. Eliza loved to snuggle with him, even after she grew too big for both of them to fit comfortably in one bed. As a tiny kitten she would hang out on my shoulder for short stretches, but she was never much for being held. She’d sit next to me, on rare occasions in my lap, but she was always more aloof and independent than her big brother. And feisty—she earned herself a star on her chart at the vet, and it was not for good behavior.

Eliza was the only cat I’ve ever known who played fetch. It was almost unbearably cute to watch after my mom bought her a kitty toy football. Touchdown! Continue reading

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On Cats and Weddings

A day or two ago, a post about CatCon LA showed up in my Facebook newsfeed. Sporting the tagline “It’s like Comic-Con…but for cat people,” CatCon LA is “part expo, part symposium,” and will, according to its website, feature “the world’s top cat-centric merchandise including furniture, art, toys and clothing for those of us who possess a great love of the feline.” There will also be speakers, including Simon Tofield, the creator of the brilliant Simon’s Cat animated cartoons. I’ve never really understood the appeal of Comic-Con, but CatCon kinda makes me wish Los Angeles weren’t so far away.

Go ahead, roll your eyes.

One of the unexpected benefits of being engaged: I can embrace my love of felines without fear of being labeled and dismissed as a stereotype: the single middle-aged crazy cat lady.

Charlie in the window

Charlie in the window

I’ll just be a married middle-aged crazy cat lady.

For the record, there is nothing wrong with being a cat lady, or a cat person, single or married, crazy or crazier. Though I confess: I cringe whenever I find myself at the grocery checkout, buying a stash of microwaveable meals, a couple bottles of wine, and 20 cans of cat food. Add chocolate, I’m a walking cliché.

And yet: my cats are really the only creatures who’ve been my constant companions, day in and day out, greeting me every morning, welcoming me at the door every night. I have wonderful friends and human family I love dearly, but none of them wakes me up purring with a chin resting on my pillow, or perches in the front window, anxiously awaiting my arrival home. Continue reading

Marry? Scary! On Fairy Tales and Fears, 2

Some days the thought of getting married terrifies me. And I’m not talking about the fear of making bad decisions, like inadvertently hiring a DJ who insists on doing the chicken dance in full costume, or the inevitable wacky wedding day mishaps: a dropped bouquet, forgotten socks, a delayed bagpiper (ask my brother about that last one). I’m talking about the actual marriage part, specifically the 24/7 commitment to sharing not only my heart (which I give gladly) but also my bathroom and my brain-space.

I love Steve and always enjoy his company—as well as the company of his two smart and funny grown sons—and it will be nice to have someone else around to take care of scary spiders. But it does make me anxious to think about bringing not one but three people onto my permanent radar, into the closest circles of my heart and head. After all, aside from felines, I haven’t had a long-term roommate since 1995. At times I’ve been lonely, even profoundly so, but on the whole, I enjoy solitude, and as an introvert and a writer, I require a fair amount of it to function. I spend a lot of time in my head, reading, thinking, processing and, well, writing, and I’ve grown used to devoting much of the brain-space and energy not claimed by work to creative endeavors.

I’m also what’s known as an HSP, a Highly Sensitive Person. There are lots of great articles that describe what it’s like to live as an HSP, as well as an online diagnostic tool for the curious. In brief, HSPs are extremely sensitive to and deeply affected by sensory stimuli, which has both advantages and disadvantages. For example, HSPs tend to startle easily and often cannot tolerate loud or constant noise, and they may feel overwhelmed by visual excess. For example, when I’ve visited my brother and sister-in-law’s very full house (2 parents, 5 kids, 3 friends, 2 dogs, and 3 cats, plus grandparents at its peak), the sheer number of people and sources of sensory input—conversation, computer games, clinking dishes, cat meowing,  television, piano music, a Facebook video on another computer—make for an intense experience. There is also much love and warm laughter—a truly beautiful sound and something I feel privileged to share. Still, after a while, Aunt Sandee needs to fold up in a quiet corner to recover and re-boot!

On the positive side, HSP’s heightened sensitivity also increases our awareness of subtleties. We tend to pick up immediately on the emotional tenor of a group of people when entering a room, and we often experience art, literature, foods, and the environments we encounter more deeply. My keen color sense is no doubt attributable to being an HSP. And there’s a somewhat counter-intuitive flip-side characteristic: HSPs may crave and seek out new and intense sensory stimuli that is pleasurable, because it is a powerful natural high. I have an almost physical response to a pleasing color combination or a beautiful line of poetry. I even love wandering down a big city street, absorbing the cacophony of crowds and cars and shops and signs—but only for short periods of time. A little goes a long way.

Thankfully, one reason Steve and I work so well together is because he understands how much I need to be alone. In fact, long before he ever proposed marriage, he proposed something else that told me he was a keeper. “If we had a house together,” he said, “maybe you could keep a studio or an apartment that you could go to when you needed some alone time.” You would do that for me? I thought. You would be willing to invest in something like that so I could have us AND solo time and space? Of course, he would get solo time and space in the bargain, too, which–an introvert himself–he also enjoys and requires. But that’s when I knew he really understood me. Continue reading