Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Nellie Belle: A Tribute

Nellie Belle

The kids and I went to the SPCA for the thousandth time, it seems, to adopt a kitten or two or three as a remedy for my heartbreak after losing my boy cat, Satchmo (aka CooCoo) to old age. I didn’t really think any one cat could possibly replace him. So I told Olivia and Stephan, (who were nine and six respectively) that we would find a couple of kittens. I wanted to enjoy the next 19 or 20 years with them.
The kittens were in a large glass enclosure with toys and hiding places. We asked to hold one, but the little fellow was so frightened by us that he shook and cried. Obviously these kittens were feral, and would require a household much calmer than one with dogs and kids. I could see how disappointed my kids were that the little cats were afraid of them, but I didn’t feel good about adopting one. We turned away and there behind us was a cage out in the open, not against the wall. In it was a small , fuzzy black and white cat with white whiskers and paws called “Lexi,” who had turned her full attention to us, ignoring other people milling about the cat room, and who was meowing plaintively, interspersed with vivid purrs.
“Lexi” reached a paw out to me, rubbed against the cage and continued to purr loudly. Her chart read that she was about three years old, was apparently good with other animals and children, and was not yet spayed. She had been surrendered for financial reasons.
For a three-year-old, she looked tiny, but she’d had at least one litter of kittens, so it’s likely that her stunted stature was a result of early motherhood. Her coat was short but thick, and seemed to have been recently shampooed. 
We asked to hold her and she purred even louder and cuddled with each of us. Not only was she unafraid of the kids, she seemed utterly delighted by them. She smiled at each of us and seemed to say, “OK, you’ll do just fine. Take me home!”
We did.
We renamed her Nellie Belle. She grew into a long-haired beauty, and lived another fifteen years with us.

I have shared my life with several cats over the years. As an adult, my first cat was Lily, also a “tuxedo cat,” whom I found as a very tiny kitten in the middle of Highway 101 (Ventura Highway) in Oxnard, California. Lily eventually moved East with me and we lived in Connecticut, New York, and finally New Hampshire. She was the somewhat grumpy matriarch of a slew of kittens, including the aforementioned CooCoo, Lulu, ChaCha, Freddie, and Gigi. Lily lived to be nearly twenty. When she died, my final connection with the previous life in the West seemed to be permanently severed. Of the rest of our cat tribe, Freddie and Gigi were victims of the great outdoors, racing out too early in the morning when predators are rampant around our wooded acreage, and never returning. The others lived well into their teens.

As difficult as it was to allow cats outdoors, I felt that overall they lived better, healthier and happier lives. Some disagree, and I realize, too, that if you live on a busy street, it’s not wise to let your cats out. But we live on a quiet street, surrounded by woods. With care, I kept most of our cats safe. The two who did not come home were both wilder than the others, and wandered too far afield. 
In consideration of all of that, I decided that, after a reasonable amount of time had passed, I would let Nellie out under supervision. Her first time out, I watched her carefully, and followed her as she explored the back yard and, inevitably, the woods. I got nervous as she disappeared and called her name. She turned around came back to me. Never before had a cat actually come to me when called. As a reward, I fed her. She seemed bottomless and was always ready to eat. From then on, if I needed her to come in, I’d call to her to come eat and she made her way home.
About a month or so after she had come to live with us, we were sitting outside, enjoying the summer sunshine. Our collie, Teddy, was romping about the lawn with the kids. I sat on the picnic table to keep an eye on Nellie and the others, but she had quietly slipped to the side of the house and into the woods. Her tuxedo coat, which was growing long and bushy, helped her blend into the shadows of the trees. She was still wearing her SPCA collar with their name and number on it, but it was a dark color that also vanished in the shadows. I became a little concerned, then worried, and finally alarmed. I called, offered food, but after an hour she didn’t return. 
I was organizing a search party when the phone rang. It was our neighbor, Roblyn, asking if we’d just adopted a little black and white cat. “She came to our door and meowed, so we let her in and fed her.” Roblyn exclaimed. “But then we noticed the collar and called the SPCA. They told us she belonged to you.”
“Oh! I’ll come get her!”
“She left already,” Roblyn said. “She slipped out the door. I’m so sorry.”
Our homes at that time were connected by woods, so I wasn’t too concerned about the road, but still was upset that she had left unattended. Just as I was again going to get the kids into the woods with me to look, along came Nellie, looking just as happy and sweet as ever. She meowed and purred, then asked to go inside to eat. 
After that, she wore a collar with her name and phone number, and I asked all neighbors to ignore her pleas for food.

I don’t believe Nellie disliked anyone, ever. We even came to suspect that she had befriended the mice who were moving into our home and devouring her food. We did occasionally find a deceased mouse, so that may not have been the case, but it wasn’t hard to picture Nellie happily sharing her bowl with a tiny rodent. 
She enjoyed company, always making an appearance to say hello, unlike our other cats who used to skedaddle during parties. A former friend had declared once that she hated cats (thus, former), and yet Nellie even rubbed against her leg, and stood to push against her hand. Hate was not an emotion Nellie could fathom. She loved so abundantly, that negative feelings just evaporated in her presence.

Hurricane Katrina brought us our yellow lab (named, of course, Katrina), adopted by Stephan, then 10 years old. When our collie Teddy died of cancer at just eight, I decided again that we should adopt a companion for Katrina. I’m not sure Katrina agreed, being totally smitten with Stephan and perfectly happy to avoid all dogs, but I ended up choosing a smallish black dog whom we named Sophie. Sophie was three years old, had been surrendered because of fighting with larger dogs, had apparently never been house trained or leash trained, but was crate trained, unlike any other dog I’d ever had. Obviously, her upbringing produced an anxious, frightened, and aggressive nature that presented itself fully about two weeks after we brought her home. She was easily riled up and was almost impossible to walk on a leash. She liked Katrina, but was highly aggressive with other dogs. I had kept her away from Nellie, fearing the harm she might cause, but one day Nellie, on her own, walked by her, tail raised, and gave her a little rub—just enough to get her attention. Sophie looked at her, wagged her tail in response, and then looked away and sighed. I was dumbfounded. Here was this aggressive, difficult, paranoid little beast, who had never, according to her chart, lived with cats, wagging her tail at one!
That was the beginning of a long friendship. The two frequently slept side by side, occasionally played gently, and even ate out of the same bowl (Nellie liked dog food as much as cat food). Katrina was indifferent to Nellie. Her attention is on her people rather than her fellow animals. But Sophie and Nellie formed a quiet, permanent bond.
When Nellie died, Sophie sniffed her still body, and followed us out to the little grave we’d dug, watching the whole process. Katrina never even woke from her morning nap.
Now Sophie is sixteen years old; Katrina is fourteen. We will have a difficult year and have to make some tough decisions. But I am grateful that we enjoyed Nellie and her loving nature for fifteen years, and more, that Sophie had a real friend who didn’t judge her or try to change her. The years have softened Sophie’s aggression and fear. Her body just isn’t up to lunging after other dogs or causing much mayhem. I had discovered, much too late for the sake of our carpets and rugs, that she happily used “pee pads” to do her thing, so that her so-called accidents are no longer a cause for reprimand. At this point, who cares? Nellie had never used anything other than the cat box or the outside for her business. Katrina has never had an accident. So two out of three worked out well in that regard.
This last year in Nellie’s life, she withdrew more and more from the company of others, except me. We would still nap together, and she often slept with me, under the covers, her diminished weight making her more subject to a chill. As her weight kept declining, her energy decreased. On Christmas, she had felt ill and wasn’t moving much, but rallied to join the dogs in their ritual of opening stockings treats, reaching up next to them as Stephan opened the edible presents. I had hoped she’d make it through the holidays, and she did. So I got greedy: I begged her to make it through the spring so that she could enjoy the warmth again. Our spring was rainy and cold, but she enjoyed an occasional bounce around the yard. So I begged her to make it through the summer, as well. She concurred, and enjoyed her last day outside on September 1st, sitting under the giant Azalea bush, purring enormously.

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