The LONG extra snowy winter of 2015 afforded me ample opportunity to observe our two cats’ effect on people, esp. on my husband Jigger. This essay just won an Honorable Mention in the 2016 Writers-Editors Network International Writing Competition. Not exactly a Pulitzer, but we take what we can get!
To Please Spouse, Be Catty
Last night during a shoveling break from winter storm Juno, my husband Jigger stood in our kitchen with his arms outstretched like a scarecrow. Then he twirled his wrists in a circular motion and uttered some soothing incantations.
This exercise was meant to restore calm after a long stressful day, and I smiled as I watched him from my vantage point at the counter, where I engaged in one of my own blizzard coping strategies – making weird soup (in this case minestrone with parsnips, white beans, and apples).
Jigger’s novel pose and gentle words pleased me, for they are a departure from his normally serious, purposeful demeanor. Besides, shoveling heroic amounts of snow, not to mention spending 30 years behind a desk, exacts the predictable toll on his 50-year old, 6-foot frame.
But his was no restorative yoga pose. Like his reserved and hearty Norwegian forebears, Jigger is stoic, dogged, and suspicious of anything too cushy. (He’s never proclaimed, “yoga is for sissies,” but my wifely ESP detects that message loud and clear.) To wit, Jig’s idea of recreation is rowing 25 miles of open ocean, alone, or competing in grueling randonée ski races in subzero temps (although he eschews the spandex that the really serious competitors sport as they race full-tilt uphill as much as downhill on skinny skis, since spandex is for sissies, too).
In Jigger’s mind, shoveling, even for 90 minutes, is nothing. Like walking. No big deal. The stretching spectacle I witnessed was not for his well-being. It was for our cats.
I’ve had cats my whole life and thought I understood their pros and cons as well as any feline fan. But as I stood there regarding Jigger and his cat ministrations, entire new dimensions of psychological and emotional prowess possessed by these eight-pound creatures of flesh, fur, and personality were on display. (I wonder whether Chan Marshall had this in mind when she chose her stage name, Cat Power.)
Certainly, the cats of my childhood taught me much. Heidi, my first, was an all-white short-haired model of grace and forbearance who retained a regal but obliging air even as my sister and I dressed her up in our doll clothes, dragged her around the house wrapped burrito-style in our blue blanket, or “helped” her master her gymnastics front flip maneuver off the back porch.
She taught us how to vent and gracefully receive punishment when, domino-style, an exasperated swat that started from my mother to me, cascaded into one from me to my sister, and then from my sister to Heidi. Miraculously Heidi held on to her dignity and composure throughout this ordeal.
Alas, she also taught us about the cycle of life and how to grieve when we found a sullied pile of her fur in our back yard, one particularly dry year when coyotes came down from the foothills in search of food. Though Heidi had achieved octogenarian status in cat years, my sister and I were devastated to learn that she did not in fact possess eight more lives.
Jigger, on the other hand, never had a cat until we brought home two from the animal shelter when we were first married. Maxine and Willy, a tabby sister and brother, were our “demo” kids, little furry balls whom we hoped would teach us as a young couple how to take care of living things. They were immediately a big hit in our close-knit neighborhood, so much so that we named them after two brothers next door, Max and Willy.
One Thanksgiving, while we were out of town and Willy the cat was grazed by a car, Willy the boy’s mom didn’t hesitate to interrupt her own family holiday to spend half the weekend at the vet. When Willy the cat, who miraculously wasn’t seriously hurt (despite his dangerous penchant for chasing cars on “his” street), wanted to rest in our new baby’s crib until we returned, Willy the boy’s mom readily obliged him, checking in on him throughout the weekend.
Jigger was impressed by this, of course. But it was mostly admiration for the mom, versus concern for the cat. Or so it seemed to me.
At the time, he was in the midst of starting a company; we were spending date nights at Home Depot and re-shingling our house ourselves; not to mention getting accustomed to life as parents of human offspring with the arrival of our first son. Particularly late at night, when Maxine and Willy crowded his desk and inspected his paperwork as he tried to pay bills, Jigger would mutter under his breath, “fucking cats.”
My husband is not a beast. He’s just not a cat person, I thought at the time.
Two cats, two boys, two companies, two houses, and two decades later, things are different.
Now Jigger stands in the kitchen twirling fleece banners on the end of sticks for our two cats, Marco and Harley, who are suffering a severe bout of cabin fever during yet another blizzard. (Controversial as it is, we are proponents of indoor-outdoor cats, but winters in New England, particularly this insane one, are undoubtedly tricky.)
No one asked Jigger to do this. Our boys are away at school, after being at home with the cats all day I have begun to tune them out, but Jigger senses the second he walks in the door that they are edgy and bug-eyed with their pent-up energy. A little cat calisthenics is just the trick. Like a conductor, he waves his batons in the air, tantalizing the cats to jump ever higher to snare the flying fabric in their claws.
“That’s it boys. You got it. Show me what you can do,” he cajoles.
Marco, black and white with a swirl pattern on his cheek that makes him look like he’s perpetually smiling, stops his jumping, and beams at Jigger expectantly, all but saying, “Aren’t you proud of me, and please scruff my neck in appreciation now.”
Harley, who is arrestingly black and resembles a sleek puma, briefly flashes his liquid amber eyes Jigger’s way, but then just as quickly reverts to his characteristic aloof, “I’m way too cool to seek your approval” mode. Playing right into his hand (paw?) Jigger bends down and gives Harley some additional private words of encouragement and an extra scratch behind the ear.
Over candlelight dinner the human/feline communion continues. Each cat takes turns jumping up into Jigger’s lap, to be petted, stroked, and spoken to lovingly. “Hello little silly boy. Are you happy? Life is good to you. Are you cozy? Make sure you get comfy.”
On the sofa after dinner, the four of us settle in to watch a movie. Each cat vies for his patch of prime real estate, defined as anything touching Jigger, preferably with as much furry cubic footage as possible.
Marco’s favorite position is sitting in Jigger’s lap or the crook of his arm Buddha-like, with his white protruding belly resting atop his extended hind legs, which he looks like he wishes would reach the coffee table like Jigger’s. If Harley beats him to this cozy nook, Marco retreats to his other customary high-rent district perch: extending his entire bulk lengthwise along the back of the sofa directly behind and above Jigger’s shoulders. Draping a fully extended forearm and paw, Marilyn Monroe-like from the spine of the sofa down toward Jigger’s head and occasionally flicking a lock of his hair, completes Marco’s pose.
Bedtime brings yet more jockeying for Jigger. Within seconds of his head hitting the pillow, Jigger can count on a fur foot warmer (Harley) and neck muffler (Marco). Sweet nothings ensue. “You’ve got to get comfy. Prrrrrrrrrrrrrrr (from cat and husband). You’ve got it made, don’t you?” When I try to get a hug (or more) in edgewise, I often get a mouthful of fur thanks to these trusty bodyguards.
Jealousy is not the right word here, but envy is a part of it. Wordlessly, these cats seem to “get” Jigger and he gets them. Their displays of affection for each other are spontaneous, effortless, and adorable. The joy this man provides these cats, and vice versa, is unmistakable, and the positive circle of affection in this love triangle repeats itself daily. No planning, calendar clearing, or negotiating required.
Am I imagining it, or are these cats modeling purrrrfect loving behavior?
Before I married him, Jigger’s quick mind, ready laugh, and stunning sculpted back muscles were the first things that occurred to me when I thought of him. After 21 years of marriage– a marriage I believe we would both describe as happy—terms like dutiful, responsible, stoic, provider, father, and entrepreneur are the first that spring to mind. While this evolution (or is it a devolution) of descriptors is perhaps all too predictable, and natural even, in a relationship of such length, should it be?
On this snow day, when the Governor declared a state of emergency and encouraged all non-necessary workers to stay home, I wasn’t surprised in the least when Jigger donned his ski goggles and gaiters, and armed with his laptop in backpack and shovel in hand, waded out into the drifts to walk to work and tunnel his way into an otherwise empty office building. But what might have happened had I draped myself fetchingly on the couch and implored him to pet me?
Just as I shudder to think of how some of Jigger’s knee-jerk impressions of me have changed over the years–carefree California Girl to nagging nearly Yankee Wife?–who’s to say that Jigger wants to be inextricably saddled with or identified by his middle-age attributes and grown-up responsibilities? I can’t help but think he’d prefer to be petted, pampered, and whispered sweet nothings. Or dispensing such affections.
Have I lost my mind, or is treating my husband like a cat, or how he treats the cats, the key to a loving relationship?
As far as Marco and Harley are concerned, Jigger is a rock star–an enchanter, a warm lap, a best bud, a soothing voice, an expansive chest to snuggle on or a dependable pair of feet to affectionately nudge. A veritable port in a storm.
And for Jigger, the cats are similarly best buds, snuggle aids, and worshippers of his powers who rush to greet him with unabashed pleasure the minute he walks in the door. They don’t assault him with a To Do list, ask any questions, or vent about their day. They merely adore.
This long winter filled with interminable snowstorms has given me ample time to study how our cats and Jigger treat one another with love. Not just any kind of love, but a very specific one I aim to emulate.
I could say that I am striving to practice a more non-judgmental, unconditional, uncomplicated, pure love. But those are lofty words that can easily set me up for failure. Instead I’ve set myself an entirely achievable goal.
I’m working on becoming more catty.