{ The Den Mother }
Cindy Yogmas
photo: Sara Kuntz

the den motherItís obvious that Alexander is the man of the house. It has something to do with the way he pushes his power around, cozying up to the females and bullying the less boisterous, the humble, the meek. And almost every morning, like clockwork, heís the first in line for breakfast because no one has the tenacity to challenge his persistence. Dolly and Roí, siblings with life stories so sad theyíd break your heart twice, were brought in during their infancy, malnourished and beaten. Two years later, they hardly communicate with anyone other than each other, spending their days together in the basement, scurrying upstairs only for meals and the necessary bathroom break. Edwin came in with a broken leg, still bleeding at the time. Today, fully recovered, his bright-eyed charm captivates all.
   Cathy will occasionally sigh and shake her head in disgust while telling these stories of the inhabitants of her foster home. Her heart, grown full with devotion to the point of over-obsession, canít always handle the carelessness of people who abuse and abandon their own responsibilities. So, when a new addition shows up at her door, she simply cannot say no. But from her descriptions, sometimes itís not immediately understood that sheís talking about cats, not children. Cathy is a cat lady. They are her children.
   I came to know her because I found a stray found roaming on the street in front of my old apartment building. She was a beautiful brown tabby who expressed her gratitude by sleeping on my feet and purring constantly. Though I wanted very much to keep her, my landlord and roommate were vehemently opposed. I hung up fliers and asked around, and finally, I reluctantly gave her to a friend of a friend of a friend. Two days later, Cathy called me.
   She told me about her little halfway house and how she takes in strays and abandoned animals. All at once, I struck up a kinship with her, wanting to meet her and somehow help her in any small way that I could. It seemed like human nature. We agreed to meet. What I didnít know or expect at the time was that I would observe the unraveling of a lifeline of circumstances, some might say unfortunate ones, that led her to this passionate standard of living. I didnít know or expect that my initial visit would only be the first of a series that each time fascinated and confused me about this woman and how she seemingly abandoned all aspects of normality to rescue cats. I didnít know that I would become her friend.

* * *

It was early fall; the vibrant leaves were just beginning to dull and a faint chill hung distant in the air. She lived only three streets away from me at the time, so from her description of the place, I already had an idea that Iíd noticed it before. We lived in South Oakland, and her place was in the crummiest section. It was perpetually littered with beer bottles and garbage from the carelessness of college students and resignation of the elderly who also lived there. Her front porch was a mťlange of plants in various stages of growth and deterioration, bags of cat litter, and medieval-looking cat traps. Several pairs of little eyes peeked through the front window at my conspicuous figure; when I tapped on the glass to announce my arrival, they darted away and hid.
   Cathy opened the door and shooed two cats that tried to make a run for it back inside. She was in the middle of making them lunch, and I offered to help.
   Sheís insulted when people gag at the smell, but unless you checked your nose at the door upon entering her one-bedroom apartment, itís unavoidable: A pungent stench of cat food and urine fermenting in four small rooms for several years creates the sort of aroma that few cannot immediately recognize. You can cover your nose, breathe through your mouth, let your eyes water for a bit—it will still bowl you over. Eventually youíll get used to it, but it will always linger. Cathy doesn't even notice.
   David R. Baker of the San Francisco Chronicle studied the psychological diagnoses of cat hoarders in an article dated May 27, 2001. "Researchers call them 'hoarders,' people who for mysterious reasons collect more animals than they can possibly handle. And they have become a recurring nightmare for neighbors, animal rights advocates and shelter operators.... Although cases pop up regularly throughout the country, hoarding remains little understood. Researchers have identified some psychiatric disorders that may play a part, but they do not apply to every case. Nor is it easy to tell someone who merely loves animals —a lot of animals —from a hoarder."
   Some evidence describes it as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder and some claim that itís a form of dementia. Itís doubtful that Cathy, as peculiar as her appearance and personality may be, possesses such extreme conditions. And the fact that she is aware of her own eccentricities makes it even harder to see this as a mental condition. The more I get to know her, the less evidence I find. I see the good intentions in her. I try to empathize. There are cats everywhere. A white one in the dresser drawer. Three tabbies in the closet. Two shy Persians behind the stove. Two young kittens nestled together in a shoebox. Some are hiding and some are curious about this new intruder; they examine my shoes with their pink noses and whiskers, and I know I passed the entrance exam when one begins to rub against my leg. I reach down to pet its head. Cathy smiles. I try to figure out exactly how many animals she has, but I lose count somewhere in the twenties.
   My eyes dart around her tiny apartment. Six scratching posts, nine litter boxes, toys, beds, and food in every possible foot of floor space. I have to watch my step. The cats seem to have seized and reinterpreted the function of an old dusty piano wedged between the refrigerator and oven. Itís now a sort of jungle gym/bed/hiding place. I donít even think to ask Cathy if she still plays. Inside a small bedroom closet: two measly suits, about half a dozen blouses, two pairs of shoes, and a single dress. Itís obvious who takes top priority here. No family photographs—just a few magazine clipping collages, some of dogs and cats, one with the cover of the George Harrison issue of Time, and one in particular has a sign that reads "No dogs, no boys allowed." No pictures of her youth, her history, her love. Her walls are completely void of record, as if she passed through time without being noticed by even the least intrusive lens.
   While taking everything in, my mind strains to make sense of the ridiculousness of her life. Four tiny rooms, easily thirty or more cats, no husband, no cable television, no music collection. Surely something awful catapulted her into this somewhat reclusive lifestyle. But no, after hearing her story, it becomes clear that she made a chosen acceptance of all of this.
   Itís hard to get a clear and straightforward story from her, and her past still seems to be a sore spot—something she hesitates to discuss and gets flustered and regretful when she recalls it. From the brief snippets that she told me, I gather that Cathy was, at one time, a typical, rebellious young woman. She and her ex-boyfriend, Don, ran away to Georgetown in the í70s, where they spent much of their early twenties gallivanting to local discos and being a young, wild couple in love. Her parents often had no idea where she was, and she kept her cohabitation a secret. After they moved back to Pittsburgh, she came across several stray cats on her daily jogs. Being a kind-hearted soul, she brushed them off, fed them, and eventually took them in. Then she started collecting. It happened that fast. Don grew more and more disgusted and fed up with her new "hobby," as it began taking over time, money, and attention. He finally gave her an ultimatum. One or the other. She didnít hesitate to choose.
   When the cats started piling up at the door, Don closed it forever. It cost her any sort of possibility of having a normal life. But through existentialist theory, it could be said that she is what she made of herself. She could have taken the cats to an animal shelter or even tried to have them adopted, but she wanted to mother them. She could have stopped taking them in when it started to get unmanageable, but she never said no. If she wanted to be with Don, she could have done any number of things to keep her life in order, but itís almost as if she knew she was intended for this particular place in life. So she hung up her high-heeled disco shoes and velveteen dresses and traded them in for frumpy clothes encrusted with cat fur; large, plastic-framed glasses; gray hair; and some forty pounds or more.
   Is something wrong with her? The fundamental question becomes whether this could be linked to some sort of psychological disorder, or whether itís a level of compassion most are not capable of possessing. The metaphysical embodiment of a hoarding tendency, or the product of a fine-tuned sensibility between two species. If you ask her, sheíll probably argue both.
   Her cats are all given human names, and come with descriptions like "inquisitive, generous, and loving" rather than "fluffy, gray, and chubby." At the same time, she cusses out her own eccentricities with frank self-discontent. She views her life as a series of missed opportunities, ones that are long gone and unattainable. Sheís embittered and trapped by her choice, but sheís still too young to fit the stereotype. Think cat lady. Think pitiful, 72-year-old, childless widow. Sheís not even halfway through her forties. Sheís working on her doctorate in social work. She doesnít work or drive because her life is confined to school and cats. She frequently expresses frustration with her current status, blaming herself for her own unhappiness, but feels that it too late to make any changes.
   I finally asked Cathy what she would have wanted to do instead, if she had known then what she knows now. She sighed again, and then listed various paths, from pursuing her piano playing and joining a jazz band to going to school earlier and working closely with needy people instead of needy cats. Her eyes narrow and look shamefully, almost angrily at the mess on the floor, "This is a far cry," she says, "from that."
   Still, when Alexander jumps on her lap and curls up for a nap, Cathy seems to forget what could have been, and contentedly resigns herself to these small, but unequivocal comforts.

* * *

Cathy gave me two garbage bags filled with her old clothes from her younger days that no longer fit her. A constant battle with innumerable health maladies left her with thinning hair and constant weight gain. I pulled out a beautiful, sexy, black gown, too small for my own figure; five or six leather belts decorated with outrageously large metal buckles and embroidery; several silk blouses with matching skirts; and a pretty brown velour dress with a large lace bow fastened to the back zipper, size six. Straight from the í70s, each garment was hip, wild, and exquisite, like how she once described herself as being. I tried, but I couldnít picture Cathy in that sleek black gown, waiting at a nightclub in Georgetown to go gallivanting with Don. I tried seeing as her young, thin, and pretty. I tried picturing her without all the cats. I wanted to, but I couldnít.

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