© Copyright 2005 by Judith Nakken
She loved her cats and kittens more than she even liked me. In retrospect, it is entirely possible that my little sister felt the same way about me and my reading. I hid from my dysfunctional home with my nose in a book, except at table where reading was verboten. Nancy lavished her sweet heart on dogs and horses and cats. Especially cats.
I escaped the loveless prairie household before I was sixteen; left her and her feline friends to fend for themselves against the stepfather monster, our mother, the silent beauty, and a spoiled young half-brother. Without a backward glance, I began an emancipated life and accumulated husbands, children and homes in several states. In none of those houses were animals welcome; none of those children were allowed to have pets. Especially cats.
A dozen years passed. Sister, husband and small daughter came from Idaho to relocate in Southern California and stayed with us for a short time, the trailer with their possessions parked behind the house. It was three or four days before I realized my sister was making many trips out the rear door, sometimes with a dish held surreptitiously in front of her. The light bulb flashed in my brain. A cat, of course.
“ Nancy ,” I yelled, not gently. “Do you have a cat out in that trailer?”
She put on her best baby face; her eyes twinkled. “Sister,” she cooed, “Would I bring a cat to your house? A mother cat with several tiny kittens? Would I do such a thing?”
She was impossible to resist when she was teasing. “Well, I don’t really care,” I told her. “But they can’t come in the house.”
They soon had their own house, and the kittens were weaned. One Saturday, Nancy dressed her Shirley-Temple-look-alike daughter in the child’s best Kate Greenaway frock and sent her out in the neighborhood with a basket of kittens. Three of them, cute and roly-poly. Little Katherine returned an hour later. Four cute kittens now cuddled in the basket. My sister just chuckled. “The more, the merrier,” she insisted, and didn’t try to give one to me.
Our paths diverged again and another dozen years went by. Divorced and living in Eastern Washington State , Nancy found her best friend. Rimrock’s Siah of Beth-Al was a very spendy, smoked black Persian with a pushed-in face. And Attitude. Nancy ’s original idea was to make piles of money in the Very Spendy Kitten business, and to this end she took Siah to be bred when the regal Persian was of the proper age.
Rimrock’s Siah of Beth-Al didn’t care for the process. Didn’t care for it at all, and at the top of her royal lungs. After a couple of extra days, the cattery gave up. Siah was not going to provide miniature push-faced dollar signs in this lifetime. Nancy didn’t mind at all, gaga as she was over the black queen. She just had Siah spayed and continued to lavish attention and affection on it.
I was maturing and mellowing, although still a slow learner of the lessons of life. My children were teenagers, but there were no pets in my house. I remember being awestruck at a time when Nancy was temporarily without funds and had just enough coins for a pack of cigarettes. She returned from the store with a carton of cottage cheese for Siah, and a pack of gum. I vocalized my disgust at the time, but can still call up the feeling of admiration that engulfed me at her selfless act. Oh, how she loved that cat.
Robert joined their twosome. His work took him around the west coast and the three of them, litter box and all, lived for weeks at a time in her square, old Volkswagen van. They dreamed of buying property and settling down somewhere, and actually took a sight-unseen option on some land near Bakersfield . Siah grew old, and began to spend more and more time with the veterinarian.
The children grew and flourished and left home. I acquired a cat.
It was a fluke, a comedy of unbelievable errors and omissions, but I had a cat. He was a small, brown Burmese with fur as soft as mink and his purr lulled me to sleep each night, his rough tongue awakened me each morning. He turned up his nose at cottage cheese, but a month had not elapsed before I knew I would forego cigarettes to get it for him if he wanted it. Finally, I had a housemate who wouldn’t leave me
This was my altered state of mind when I opened Siah’s death announcement that winter. Nancy ’s dear friend passed away while Robert was doing a job in Las Vegas . I lay my head on the desk and cried, the little hand-written card clutched in my fist. My poor sister. I didn’t ever want to learn how terribly she grieved.
Nancy was determined to bury Siah on her own land, so they put the body on dry ice in a picnic cooler. It sat in the same place as the litter pan they no longer needed in the van, but occupied more space in the cramped quarters. Robert’s work in Las Vegas ended a few weeks after Siah’s death. Robert, Nancy, Siah’s dry-iced body and the van headed for California .
My scalp crawled when she called to tell me of the Bakersfield experience. “It was horrible, Seester,” she said. “It was about twilight when we got there and the land that was supposedly ours was moving. Moving, swaying back and forth, like a bad dream. The road ahead moved, too. It was huge spiders! Tarantulas, I think, and bazillions of them.” Nancy refused to step out of the van and insisted that her husband forfeit the option monies.
Patient Robert was dedicated to my sister’s happiness. Nancy ’s last words in that phone conversation were, “We’re headed for Spokane . We’ll bury Siah at Kitty’s place.” The Shirley Temple child was now an adult Jamie Lee Curtis look-alike with a home and child of her own. The Volkswagen van, dry ice replenished, turned around to begin the long trip north, to Eastern Washington . I gave CoCoa an extra tablespoon of treat for his dinner and more petting than usual when we retired that night.
If you are unfamiliar with Washington State , your immediate thought when you hear it mentioned is, “It rains all the time.” Then, perhaps you think of lush ferns, beaches and forests of cedar and pine that soften the first, wet image. This is only 50% correct. This description is of Western Washington , from Puget Sound to the towering Cascade mountain range that divides the Evergreen State . Eastern Washington , while not devoid of its own evergreens, is a plain of contrast. Arid desert land and then the lush farmland of the gentle Palouse hills, greets your eyes when you cross the wide Columbia , its ancient power dammed to all but the imagination. A stone’s throw east of Spokane is the Idaho panhandle and the mountain passes that lead to Montana . Nestled between the two rocky heights, Eastern Washington has sun and rain in equal proportions. It boasts fields of wheat in summer to boggle the mind, stone houses, stone fences, stone walls. And clearly defined seasons. Hot summers, frigid winters, sweet springs and autumns that take your breath away.
It was February at Kitty’s. Robert could not get a shovel into any of the frozen earth in her yard. Siah’s final resting place was not going to be in Spokane , not that winter. “Robert has to go back to Vegas,” my sister reported on the phone. Siah’s beloved body had mummified in the ongoing weeks, and dry ice was no longer a necessity. “We’ll find property somewhere,” Nancy determined. She sent Robert off to the pawnshop.
They wrapped her with loving care, placed Rimrock’s Siah of Beth-Al in the nice, nearly-new suitcase Robert brought home and strapped it carefully to the back of the van. Discarding the cooler made the Volkswagen’s interior seem roomy, after living over and around it for so long. They took turns driving and just before dawn found themselves near Las Vegas . Robert pulled into a Denny’s. Nancy patted Siah’s suitcase as she passed by to go to breakfast.
The couple ate leisurely, spoke of areas where they could buy land and of the stone Nancy would paint for Siah’s grave. When they returned to the parking lot, the unbroken lines of the Volkswagen’s boxy rear greeted them, startled their joint imagination.
The suitcase was gone.
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