It was 5:51 on a Wednesday evening in October. I wrote while waiting for a coat of bright red paint to dry so I could finally finish the opening side of a new compost bin. I was also waiting for approval of cost for plants to be installed in a new Brooklyn backyard garden. My cat, Nuit, lay very still on the sofa, breathing heavily.
So often I've been surprised when asked about the cats in my email address (email@example.com) or in my garden design web address (veronicatsgardens.com). It happens that my first name ends in CA and my last name is Tyson-Strait. It also happens that I love cats and they have been a major part of my life for many years. The garden near my apartment building is home to several stray cats, most of which find shelter in a space created below the concreted area where the soil was not sufficiently compacted. My boys and I have rescued abandoned newborns and fed pregnant and nursing moms. I am careful when watering so as not to soak a new litter. Some cats are a bit fearless and disregard me as I work and one young cat bravely came under the stream of my watering hose during a hot summer day.
About twenty years ago when I first met my ex-husband, Marc, he belonged to a gray long-haired Persian silver tip mutt named, JayJay. They had both lived in Key West before moving to New York. I very easily fell in love with JayJay and we spent a lot of time chasing each other around Marc's apartment on 72nd Street. He was a lot of fun. I loved how he would raise his ears and resemble an owl when he wanted to be left alone. He liked being held on my shoulder like a baby and when Marc held him, he chewed on his long hair. JayJay accompanied us on our first date together. While holding on to Marc's shoulder he panicked about the traffic noises and by the time we got to Central Park, Marc's shirt was covered in tiny holes and little red blotches. JayJay carefully investigated the park keeping just a few yards away from our picnic blanket. I remember with some horror how JayJay behaved whenever a particular friend of Marc's first visited the apartment. There was lots of hissing as soon as the guy entered the apartment and a refusal to let him move in any direction. After drawing blood again on the second visit, the "monster cat" was locked away whenever this evident enemy came by. I had never seen anything like it and JayJay never behaved like that with any one else.
On the evening before he was to be emasculated, we had taken JayJay to the lower East Side to a friend's apartment to house sit and watch his cat. It was the first time that JayJay had been around another cat and it was a girl cat. He tried to be nice but that cat hated him and immediately retreated to her post on top of a seven-foot wardrobe. We watched with amusement and disappointment as JayJay walked from one end of the apartment to the other, while the perched cat hissed each time he neared the cupboard. After about the 99th time JayJay leaped, swatted the stunned cat in the face, jumped down and ignored her the rest of the night.
We lived in an old apartment building in Williamsburg and Marc was in the habit of smoking in the hallway where JayJay often followed him. One day we were horrified to see JayJay scamper into to apartment followed by a young adult pit bull. The dog held JayJay in his mouth while pressing him against the inside of the door to the apartment. Marc repeatedly hit the dog with a broomstick while JayJay hissed and growled but the dog held on and remained almost motionless while I stood in terror thinking that Marc would be attacked next. JayJay hissed and growled. After what seemed like hours the owner of the dog managed to push his way into the apartment and yank the dog who promptly released the cat. JayJay hid for hours. He later resurfaced but did not appear to be hurt.
Marc surprised me one day when he opened a cardboard box to reveal a jet black kitten with yellow eyes. I reached to touch him and he melted into a corner and hissed at me. Nuit was one of a several kittens in a litter at a nearby deli. He was a wild one and spent much of his time hiding. I made a plaything from a piece of plastic tied up with a thin leather strap and threw it in his direction. Surprisingly, he ran after it and carried it a few feet in his mouth. As the weeks went by he began to jump higher and grabbed the thing out of the air and often brought it close to me. He was a retriever. I loved how he sat on the window sill and growled at sparrows and pigeons with a throaty "ahahahahahah". Although he remained a thin cat all his life he was a foodie. I have an old photo of him as a baby swinging his head from side to side, trying to dislodge a pilfered fried chicken drumstick from his front teeth. I often chased him from the kitchen after finding the crusts of my pies nibbled and teethmarks on the cheese and butter. Nuit also loved my house plants. He nibbled on the Hakonechloa aureola grass and cooking herbs growing in my window boxes and my poor bromeliads, orchids and Christmas cactus suffered due to munched leaves capsized pots.
Both JayJay and Nuit got along well from the beginning and it was very amusing to see them wrestle and chase each other. Once we took them on a trip to Ashfield, Massachusetts to visit our friends, Jeff and Bruno. There were two cats at the house. Beast was a black, long haired cat with fierce-looking orange eyes with black specks. Pinkey, a white short-haired cat who drank from the kitchen sink and liked water on her head. Both cats were hunters and spent most of their days outside, often proudly returning home with live treasures of birds, chipmunks and garden snakes which were released in the house. They hunted even in winter and Bruno would call to them when night approached. Those cats ended their days curled up in comforters with Jeff and Bruno or found their way into the beds of house guests. Upon their first encounter, Pinkey terrorized my already shy Nuit and he vanished. For days we walked around calling out to him. We searched along the country roads and through the field with horses and old barn, through the apple field calling for Nuit but never heard a meow. JayJay dutifully followed Marc wherever he went and sometimes we could only tell where he was by the movement of tall grass. Nuit finally appeared after a few days, just in time for the trip back to New York. He had been hiding under the house behind the firewood all the while.
At the time of our separation, Marc and I decided to keep the cats together, with him. The boys and I moved to a third floor walk-up about twenty blocks away on the border between Williamsburg and Bushwick. A couple months later a little furry thing, no longer than a few inches stepped in as we opened the door on our way out to school. I said "No way" but the boys pleaded and to avoid being late I took the scraggly thing upstairs and placed him in the bathtub and left. We returned home to find a very dirty cat and tub and immediately gave both a bath. The same happened the following day until the weekend allowed some time to attend to the creature. We named him GiGi after a black cat played by Phil Hartman in the Hayao Miyazaki film, Kiki's Delivery Service. The boys love all Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli films and the Cat Returns is one of Orion's favorites. Orion immediately adopted GiGi as His cat and we guessed his birthday to be in July, the same as Orion's.
Perhaps GiGi's earliest days with us is responsible for his water-loving tendencies. He almost ran me over a few times and I worry about squishing his tail in the doorway as he rushes to the bathroom each time he thinks I'm heading there. Like Pinkey, he allows the water to run on his head when drinking from the tap in the sink and he sits and waits in the bathtub until I cave and open the bath faucet a bit. I'm always caught off guard when he shakes the water off his head. The water in his dish is used for cleaning his paws. GiGi is a good companion and spends his nights in my bed and sits nearby when I'm in the kitchen or painting or writing, like at this very moment.
Sink-full of GiGi
JayJay was about sixteen when he died suddenly following a stroke five years ago. Marc and I agreed to move Nuit from Williamsburg to be united with GiGi in my apartment in Harlem. Two short-haired black cats, one old and thin, yellow-eyed, sometimes paranoid yet super friendly (constantly surprising and pawing visitors with his demand for incessant ear scratching, which was often rewarded with a quick, painless but always surprising bite). He had a habit of sitting with one front pay extended and someone once called him the Gestapo cat. The other, young, soft, green-eyed, feisty and a bit aloof. Visitors to my apartment often think it is deja vu when another black cat suddenly walks by. They romp around, keeping each other company, coughing up fur balls and vomiting house plants.
Nuit and Gigi
Beast was rather old when she did not return home after Bruno's many calls. Pinkey was at the door, trying to get inside when the end came. She was the victim of a vicious attack by a fisher marten, (Martes pennanti or Martes americana) a fearless creature that may be behind the disappearance of Beast and many other cats in the area. It is said that a fisher would even attack a porcupine by somehow getting under it and ripping open its stomach. Also, a neighbor in the town once found the nest of an owl that cradled a cat collar. My Nuit had been spared but we never took the cats back to Ashfield. There are now three other cats at Jeff's and Bruno's house. Orfew is a feisty long haired black cat like Beast. He is also a hunter and looks lovely perched on a some rock while Jeff is working in the garden. Pepita is a chubby 13-year old tabby often seen rolling around the lawn and there is also a new orange cat that I've never met. This orange cat is a recent addition to the family since the disappearance of Ismael, a sweet and reserved muscular gray tabby. Bruno loved Ismael a lot and it is sad to loose him, not knowing how he died.
Nuit snuggled up to a sleeping Orion
My Nuit died on the morning of October 11 while lying on the sofa with me talking to him and stroking him behind the ears. He was almost twenty years old. Although he never hung out with the strays in the garden he is finally free to roam there, chase birds and take bites out of hundreds of plants. I planted a Magnolia stellata shrub in the garden to mark his life. At the moment it is leafless and covered in yellowish fuzzy buds. When I touch them I'm reminded of his paws.