I buried the cat in the garden
This was the phrase that Fr. Tigar had us recite when we were having elocution lessons at Osterley. Osterley is in West London and it was a place where late vocations to the priesthood could be vetted and introduced to the mysteries of Latin (essential in the fifties), reasonable English and even Greek. It was part of our initial training in preparation for subsequent ministry. We had to recite the phrase again and again, each time emphasizing a different word in the sentence. This was a clever exercise and designed to show how a change of emphasis could change the meaning of a statement. Try it and see! To an outsider who didn’t understand what we were up to, it was a crazy exercise because we were made to stand in various parts of the large garden to ensure that our voice could carry good distances. Unfortunately part of the garden ran alongside the rear of a row of suburban houses. On at least one occasion the patience of one of the neighbours in an adjoining garden, reached its limit and he shouted some extremely rude words at us! He probably thought that we were all detained under the Mental Health Act.
Anyway that is not the subject that I want to talk about. Burying animals in the garden is my chosen topic!
Since I have always had a fairly large family, sometimes larger than others, for one reason or another the demise and disposal of pets has always presented problems and of course opportunities; but more about that later. In my time, the duties of parenting have included the burial of three cats, four hamsters, one rabbit and a fish. Each interment involved simple and respectful rituals, designed by myself – I got quite good at it. They all died with dignity I am proud to say! Even when the Vet offered to dispose of the remains the answer was always a horrified No! A suitable period of mourning was always allowed. It also provided an opportunity to increase the number of flowering shrubs in the garden since each grave must be suitably marked. I ought to point out here that we have had the pleasure of at least three gardens over the years so our present fairly small garden does not qualify as a crowded cemetery!
I think I would like to tell you about the most recent committals and what led up to them. Some thirteen or so years ago my wife and I were married. We had both been married previously and both of us had been widowed. But that is a story of its own. Suffice to say, it meant that our still youngish joint family suddenly increased to nine, five girls and four boys. A thoughtful friend, in order to provide some comfort to four of my wife’s daughters on the loss of their father, gave them a pair of kittens.
These were a couple of extremely interesting cats. One, black and white, was christened Charley, and the other, white and black, was called Ceri. The distinguishing thing about them was that they were twin sisters. Ceri boasted a very unusual crooked tail. This I was assured was not due to overcrowding in their mother’s womb, but personally I have never been so certain of that. As you will see, they presented an interesting contribution to the nature/nurture debate. In the early days, they both had the loathsome habit of trying to mark out their own personal territory and this indoors! It was usually the television set that drew most of their competitive attentions. They must have assumed that since it was a centre of concentrated attention by all, it was an important object of some kind of worship. Anyway they were clearly of the opinion that whichever one of them could spray on it first enabled some kind of dominance over the sister! If left unshielded overnight this led to serious consequences for the electronics of the TV set and/or the video machine. Not to mention the typically pungent smell of cat piss.
Anyway to proceed with Charley’s and Ceri’s contribution to the nature/nurture debate. Charley, the black and white cat, had ostensibly a very affectionate disposition. She seemed to thrive on physical contact. She did not like leaving the house and had to be persuaded (occasionally physically!), to perform the whatsits in the morning. She had a highly sensitive disposition, being scared stiff of anything and everything. I remember an occasion when I discovered them both at the back of the house. They were both concentrating their attention at each end of a long wooden plank leaning lengthwise against the wall, Charley at one end Ceri at the other. I realised that a poor little mouse was trapped in between. Eventually the mouse must have recognised that its future was uncertain and made a dash for freedom; fortunately for the mouse, at Charley’s end. When the mouse shot out, Charley leapt a good two feet in the air with shock and the mouse made its escape. Ceri registered appropriate contempt.
The two cats seem to have had little affection for each other and would often engage in quite vicious battles if they passed each other in a confined space. Although when they were very young they had sometimes been seen to snuggle up to, and even wash each other.
For most of their life together the two cats could hardly have been more different. Ceri was the complete extrovert. She spent as little time in the house as possible and occasionally could be found wandering some distance away. On those occasions she would studiously avoid recognition of any relationship with us! She was an adept at climbing any accessible roofs in the neighbourhood. She had no hesitation in engaging in vicious combat with any local cat entering her duly marked territory. Much to our displeasure, she would very occasionally attempt to catch small birds. Once or twice she succeeded. Indoors, she avoided physical contact with the human incumbents and didn’t particularly enjoy being stroked.
However all this was to change!
Charley at an advanced age (for cats anyway), began show its inevitable debilitating effects. She began to look for dark corners in which to nestle. It was plain that the end was near. The vet said her kidneys had failed. The kindest thing was to let her go with an injection. Even those in the house who were not too keen on cats, felt a little sad. The body was carried home in a suitable box, a last photograph was taken and a sensitive rite prepared for the interment in a corner of the garden. A flowering bush was planted on the grave (which presently draws comment on its fecundity!).
Ceri was on her own.
And so begins the most interesting period for the student of feline behaviour. Ceri was no longer interested in wandering outdoors. She was reluctant to leave the house. In the days after her sister’s death it was as if she was entering a state of deep grieving. She seemed to be looking everywhere for what was no longer there. She became unhappy and unsettled whenever she was left on her own and would yowl loudly if there were no one about. She survived her sister by another two years or so. Throughout that time it was as though she was experiencing a complete and fundamental change of personality. Always she needed to be touched and to nestle on anyone’s lap, even mine! She had tended to avoid me sedulously before this! Finally she began to submit to the encroachment of old age. She probably outlived Charley because of her previous healthy active life outdoors.. She grew increasingly thin. Her diet was limited to a most expensive menu! She had difficulty even in climbing up onto the settee. There were times when we thought she had gone to join her sister already. Eventually we all agreed it was time to help her on her way. However she died naturally, without any assistance, on the vet’s table.
Another grave to be dug. Another ritual to be composed. Here is the combined adieu we made to them both:
We are grateful for the life of Charley, our cat. She loved to lie on laps and to be touched.
We are also grateful for the life of Ceri, her sister. In her earlier days she loved the outdoors and was quite independent. As she grew older she needed company and touch. They brought to our family joy, companionship and comfort in our grieving.
One day may we all meet each other again in a life of never ending happiness and peace.