Lady and Cocotte
Lady and Cocotte
Artist: Eva Skierska
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The Cat Lady′s Daughter

by Lisa Renee Sprague

The kids who live in Sunny Meadows call my mother 'The Cat Lady.'

She seems to enjoy her title. Sometimes after hearing a small child clamoring awkwardly up the wooden stairs outside and a soft knock on the metal screen, I will open the door to find a raggedy kid from the neighborhood gingerly holding out a ceramic or plastic cat figurine. The rowdier ones who lack inhibition and social skills will open the door without bothering to knock or stand at the bottom of the steps yelling, "Hey Cat Lady! I got you a cat!" However they come to her, my mother appreciates the gesture. She never fails to ooh and ahh over the gift. Invariably she will take the child by the hand and lead him or her to the shelf where the cats are lined up in silent rows. She will always ask for the child's opinion as to the best placement of her newest prize. While leading them back across the small rug that covers our living room floor, she hugs and thanks the kid, genuinely touched. They always leave grinning ear to ear, turning to wave at my mother who watches, not venturing out from behind the metal screen.

My mother is a novelty where we live; our only claim to fame in the Sunny Meadows Trailer Park. Once after a new family moved into Lot 16, I listened through my bedroom window as a skinny boy with red hair and dirty teeth talked to the new girl and her sister while their parents carried taped-up boxes into a gray and white trailer. He pointed to our light blue home with the flower box in the front window and said, "The Cat Lady lives there. She has about a million cats and she never leaves the house." The new arrivals seemed both intrigued and impressed.

My mother collects cats – live ones and the kind that do not move from the shelf. At last count she had thirteen of the living variety and well over a hundred cat and kitten figurines. Most of the unmoving collection came one piece at a time from the neighborhood kids who go with their fists full of loose change to the dollar store in town. The live ones just appear. When I was younger, my mother said the cats let each other know where to go. I always imagined one of our fat, contented felines at night behind the trailers or out in the field whispering to a group of scrawny, ragged cats hunting for something to eat. I could see them pointing toward our trailer, a small warm light in the midst of the surrounding dark.

Our trailer is always lit thanks to my mother's insomnia and the fact that she is afraid of the dark. My mother believes that most bad things happen in the dark, so she keeps our house perpetually lit, like a giant good luck charm. When I say house, I am referring to the blue and white trailer. People who live in trailers consider their trailer a house, which it is if you are taking house and home to be synonymous.

Not all of the cats came of their own free will. Some were left by our door, and others were abandoned in empty trailers by former residents who knew the Cat Lady would come to the rescue. The most cats I remember having at one time is sixteen. Sixteen cats in a four-room trailer are a lot of cats. That is what the caseworker from Social Services who comes to check on my mother tried to tell her. I said the same thing many times, but my mother did not listen to either of us. She pretended to take into consideration what we were saying, especially the lady from Social Services, but she never really took us seriously. Mostly because she was scared of her, my mother promised the social worker she would get rid of some cats. Of course she never did. A few left on their own, and Pinky got hit by a car, so now we are down to thirteen cats. In my opinion, it is still too many. The caseworker agrees with me, which makes me feel better despite the fact that I know my mother has no intention of giving even one cat away.

So we live together; me, my mother, thirteen cats, three canaries and a dog we keep tied to a stake between our house and the lot next door. When I walk through the door after school, it is like entering the pound. With thirteen cats, the meowing is constant. I see cats on the couch and on the back of the chair. There are cats wandering aimlessly and cats swatting at the birdcage that hangs over the kitchen table. There is a cat lounging on my bed and one drinking from the toilet. Some of the cats are unaccounted for. They are outside, wandering somewhere in search of mice or possibly stretched out in a patch of sunlight on the thin grass struggling to grow between the uneven rows of trailers.

Aside from the never-ending noise, the thing I hate most is the cat hair. It is everywhere and impossible to keep vacuumed. My mother asks why I do not like cats. I answer that I love cats, but thirteen is too many. She laughs on purpose to make me mad which always works. Then she says for the thousandth time that one can never have too many cats.

Along with being guardian angel to stray cats, my mother is agoraphobic. I learned this word from the mental health caseworker, not the same one who comes from Social Services. The caseworker from Mental Health is a man named Mark. He shows up once a month to check on Mom and make sure she has not gone completely off the deep end. If you can forget about the cats and the fact that she is petrified to leave the house, my mother is fairly normal. She cooks dinner and straightens out the house. During the day, she watches soap operas and talks to the cats. When I come home from school or my job at the grocery store, my mother asks me to tell her about my day. She always listens intently, fascinated and confused by the world outside Sunny Meadows. She asks me about what I learned today and what I plan to do over the weekend. She questions me about who came into the store, how they are doing, and what if anything they had to say.

At night, after her favorite shows are over, my mother reads romance novels. I buy them for her at the Tops supermarket where I work and get an employee's discount. The corners of our living room, which also serves as Mom's bedroom, are piled high with stacks of romance novels. My mother has read hundreds of them. After finishing a book, she finds a corner and adds to the ever-growing piles. Once I tried to bring her a mystery novel for a change of pace. She read a few chapters just to be polite before telling me that it was not her cup of tea and she would rather stick with the romances. I never read any of her books, but I sometimes skim the back covers. I laugh and joke with her about the characters' exotic names. Brock. Alexandra. Maeve. Sunrise. It is hard for me to imagine my mother with her knotted hair and bad teeth relating to these beautiful, rich people whose major concerns seem to involve whether to have sex on the beach in Malibu, the garden in Paris, or possibly the chalet in Switzerland. Leather or mink? How will Monique decide what to wear on New Year's Eve in order to seduce Damian in the limo? Fantasy I can understand, but compared to her real life in LeRoy, New York, Monique's world must seem to my mother what my art teacher calls surreal. Sometimes when I am lying in my bed staring at my poster of Picasso's Dove of Peace, surrounded by softly purring cats and listening to the sounds of the screaming and cursing that come from the man in the next trailer who beats his girlfriend at 11:30 every night like clockwork, I find myself wondering if my life is actually surreal while the characters from my mother's novels and television shows are normal. I do not wonder about it often, but when I do my whole body is overcome with an uneasy feeling that I am somehow detached from reality. It is hard to describe the feeling accurately, and luckily it does not happen too often, because it really gives me the creeps.

My mother's hair and teeth are a major area of concern for the caseworkers. She refuses to leave the house, so a hairdresser and dentist are out of the question. My mother always kept her long, straight hair clean until two years ago when my father left to take his eighteen-wheeler on a run to Georgia to pick up carpets and never returned. There was an accident on some highway in North Carolina. Apparently he fell asleep at the wheel and caused a major pile–up. My father was not the only person killed. A woman from Wilmington, N.C. and her little girl died also. Because my father was found to be at fault, the family of the woman sued my father's estate, which consisted of my mother and me. All of my father's insurance and death benefits went to them. We did not have a lawyer, and Mom had no desire to fight.

It is a very strange feeling to know that someone you loved and knew to be a good person was responsible for the death of innocent people. My mother says it was a gift that my father did not have to live knowing a woman and child died because of his mistake. I miss my father every day, but at the same time I know she is right. It would have destroyed my father to live with the fact that he caused the deaths of two people. We also know that he would have wanted the families to have whatever little money there was, which is why my mother gave it up willingly. Realistically, I know that those deaths had nothing to do with my mother or me, but at the same time we must bear the guilt because we are the only living connection to the man who did not live to carry the guilt himself. My mother keeps a newspaper clipping with a picture of the dead mother and daughter folded in our bible. Sometimes at night when I get up to check on her, I see my mother holding the creased clipping on her lap and saying the rosary.

My father was far from being rich or even middle class, but he was always responsible. My mother relied on him for everything. He took care of the bills and he kept my mother going on a relatively stable path. Now we live on the $650.00 we receive every month from Social Security combined with food stamps and the money I earn at Tops. There are only two of us, so the money we have is enough to cover the rent and utilities. Food stamps and my employee discount help give us enough people and cat food to survive.

It was after my father died and my mother gave up hair care that her head became a major area of concern to the caseworkers. I am not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point she stopped brushing out her hair. At first it did not seem like a big problem, but eventually a snarl started to form on the back of her head. I did not notice right away, and it seemed that suddenly the snarl was there. It gradually grew bigger and more tangled until it turned into the full-blown hair disaster it is today. My mother continues to wash her hair every day, which makes the snarl worse. Now it has gone way past the point where it could be brushed out even by a professional with a vat of conditioner.

The caseworkers can only imagine how bad the situation has gotten since my mother started covering her head with a blue bandanna. She will not let anyone but me look at her head, and in my opinion, the only way to get rid of the massive snarl now is to cut it out. It is tangled so tight and close to the back of her head that a major hair style change is going to be necessary. Mom refuses to let anyone touch her head, so the situation continues to get worse every day.

Even more disturbing to the caseworkers than the giant snarl is my mother's poor dental hygiene. Since my father's death, she has lost two teeth, one unfortunately in the front of her mouth. That combined with the incredible growing hair snarl creates quite a picture. The kids who live in Sunny Meadows are unaffected by the sight of my mother when they come bearing gifts of plastic cats. Having grown up in the trailer park myself, I can say with confidence that it takes more than bad hair and teeth to rattle us. The caseworkers, on the other hand, approach our house with trepidation, looking as if they are trying to prepare themselves to face what they know will ultimately be another losing battle.

It is the November of my last year in high school. During the past few months, the caseworkers have been taking a more than passing interest in my education, which makes me a little bit nervous. They never come on the same day, but I assume they must talk on the phone about my mother because they both make references to what took place during the other's last visit. I am a pretty good student and I can imagine them on the phone discussing how to most effectively rescue me from my current situation - being stuck in a trailer with my mother. I like both caseworkers, and I realize they are trying to help my mother and me, but I get frustrated with them. They have no real understanding of my predicament. They see things as cut and dried. Maybe I should too, but reality for me is not at all simple.

The facts are that I want to be an artist, and fortunately I have a talent for art. My art teacher has displayed some of my paintings in area shows and she is confident that I can get a scholarship to NYU, which is my dream come true. My financial hardship makes me eligible for all kinds of grants and loans, so money is not the problem. I am an A student, so I am pretty sure I can handle college work, and I have no fears about being out on my own. These are the facts the caseworkers and my teachers are considering when they tell me I have it made. These facts make the situation seem simple.

But there are other facts I cannot ignore. I am the only person my mother has left. When I turn eighteen, my $348.00 from Social Security will be cut off and my mother will not have enough money to pay the bills. My mother has not left the house in eighteen months and she relies on me to buy the food, pay the rent and deal with virtually every other thing that comes up. These are the facts I cannot ignore. To me the situation is anything but simple.

On Mark's last visit he called me an enabler which made me laugh. I don't know why. He did not think it was funny, and he asked me if I knew what it meant to enable my mother. I told him I understood perfectly and he was probably right, but what were my options? Not pay the rent and get evicted? I have heard life on the streets is not all it is cracked up to be. Not buy food for us or the cats? I guess that, if push came to shove, we could eat the cats. Of course we would have to roast them over an open flame since once I stopped paying the rent we would not have a stove. Mark said I was being overly dramatic.

I reminded him that he did not know my mother before my father died. She was not exactly a rock of stability even then. She never held a job, and she went from being managed by her parents to being managed by my father. Without my 'enabling' she would fall apart. I let him know in no uncertain terms that he was living in dreamland if he had visions of my mother stepping up to the plate and straightening out her own life after my help was withdrawn. He said I had to start thinking about myself. I laughed again and walked away. I did not say what I was thinking, which was that it sounded beautiful as long as you were talking about someone else's mother.

Last week after work I started painting a portrait of my mother. I am almost finished. I plan to show it in the senior class spring art festival in May. I painted my mother sitting on a kitchen chair staring out the window. Buffy, her favorite yellow cat, is sitting curled up on her lap. Her blue bandanna is pulled back so that wisps of light brown hair are falling on her forehead. I am calling it "The Cat Lady – A Portrait."

Much to the dismay of the caseworkers and my art teacher, I gave up the scholarship to NYU. My mother cried when I told her I was going to stay. She said she was sorry, but she did not tell me to go. In a way I am sad to let that part of my dream go, but at the same time I feel relieved. I know in my heart that I could not be content going to New York and leaving my mother behind. I am happy because as it turns out, there is a way for me to fulfill part of my dream. Next fall I will attend a college in Buffalo where I can major in art. I plan to go part time and commute as long as the car my father left us holds out. My mother called the Psychic Friends Network, and she assures me the car will make it for at least six more years. I am hopeful.

I can keep my job at Tops, which will continue to feed us, and along with Mom's Social Security help pay the bills. The social worker figured out a way that my mother is eligible for a housing subsidy, so we will not be evicted next month when I turn eighteen and lose my Social Security. Just when it seemed like everything was perfect, things got even better. Mark found a hairdresser willing to make a house call, and after a few short weeks of cajoling her, I convinced my mother to get a haircut.

Word spreads fast in Sunny Meadows, and everyone knew my mother was getting her hair fixed. A little girl from a few trailers down came to the door to offer her support. She is a bony little thing about four years old. She came up the stairs barefoot and dragging a dirty pink blanket. When I went to the door, she held out a white plastic cat with a shamrock on the collar. She looked at me seriously as if she were delivering a message that would affect the fate of the world, before saying simply, "Tell the Cat Lady I know she can do it."

The hairdresser arrived with Mark looking confident. If she was shocked at the sight of my mother or the cats, her expression never gave it away. She had the patience of a saint and by the time she had packed up her bag to leave, I am sure she had earned a place in heaven. I thought my mother would back out and send them away when it came time to take off the bandanna, but I was pleasantly surprised. Her legs were shaking. With one hand she squeezed my arm, and with the other she clutched the cat with the shamrock collar, but she did not give up. When the ordeal was finally finished, my mother was sporting a new short haircut and a big smile. I opened the door and let in seven or eight little kids who had gathered on the stairs to see the new hair. They cheered for my mother, and the bony little girl who had brought the cat with the shamrock jumped up and down clapping and shouting, "You did it, Cat Lady!"

I finally finished my mother's portrait, and I am satisfied. It is leaning against my bedroom wall. I stare at it as I lie in bed. My door is open and light from the living room falls on the painting. I hear my mother whispering to the cats as she shuffles around the trailer. In the dim light, my painted mother looks almost like royalty sitting straight up on her throne with a cat on her lap and her eyes fixed on something outside the palace window. I stare at the painting, squinting my eyes, and the bandanna on her head looks like some kind of fancy headdress. I laugh to myself at the thought of my mother as a queen.

In a way though, in the tiny world of Sunny Meadows, my mother is a queen. A lonely queen who forever lost her king. A crazy queen, paranoid to leave her palace. A well-loved queen who graciously accepts gifts from her people. She is queen of Sunny Meadows. Queen of ragged children. Queen of stray cats.

I listen again as she settles onto the couch with her latest novel and her rosary beads. I hear the canaries fluttering in their cage. I can visualize the cats sleeping around the room. Next door, the neighbors are fighting as usual. I pull the covers tightly around my shoulders, and I realize consciously for the first time that I am proud to be the Cat Lady's daughter.

Lisa Renee Sprague grew up in rural Western New York State. She has been an elementary school teacher in the Rochester City School District for the last eleven years. Lisa lives in LeRoy, NY with her two young children Lucia and Rocco. "The Cat Lady's Daughter" is part of a collection of connected short stories that she is currently developing, titled Home of Jello. In 2007, "The Cat Lady's Daughter" was a finalist for the first Glass Woman Prize.

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