For months now, the top of my ideas board has been occupied by the following yet to be explored (until now) idea for a blog post:
“Taking inspiration from the things you see around you every day (myself as murder victim or suspect – what could the police tell about me from my house?)”
For some reason, I kept focusing on the bits and pieces tacked to my refrigerator including photographs of and drawings by various nieces and nephews. And, of course, what these things say about me is that even though I’m single, I am part of an extended (and still growing) family and I am loved. But recently something happened that made me realise I’m too close to the subject matter. Not able to see the forest for the trees.
Because being an aunt is not my defining characteristic and upon entering my house in the event of my unnatural death or to arrest me for someone else’s, the fridge is not the first thing the police would notice.
No, the first thing they would notice is the nine cats.
Now please let me assure you that I don’t normally have nine cats. I normally have three. I recently saw someone on television telling the viewing audience that having any more than one cat makes you a crazy cat lady, so I can’t avoid the tag anyway (although I prefer cat woman). And it’s understandable.
But calling me a crazy cat lady and just leaving it at that ignores the multiple events over a rather long period during which I became known in this way.
At the end of this story, I’ll still be a crazy cat lady. But you’ll be able to see why. You’ll be able to see my character development, if you like. And hopefully when you do look at the people around you and think about using them for inspiration in your writing, you won’t just make them stereotypes; you’ll give them depth, multiple dimensions and a back story worthy of you as a writer.
My Name Is Louise and I Am a Crazy Cat Lady
Until I got my first cat, I always thought of myself as a dog person. My parents bought me a Pomeranian cross when I was six months old and his name was Boffy. He was with me through my parents’ divorce, multiple house moves, finishing primary school and heading into the scary world of high school. The Easter before I turned fourteen, I was staying with my dad when my mum called to tell me that Boffy had died. I was devastated and I had no desire to replace him.
I was twenty-eight when I bought my first house. When one of the other residents was moving out, a note appeared in all the mailboxes asking if someone would take her cat, a tortoiseshell named Torti. Because I didn’t consider myself a cat person, I didn’t even really think about it. Until about four days after my neighbour had moved out and I found Torti living in my garden under a cover I used to protect my bike from the elements. My neighbour had gone and simply left Torti behind.
And that’s how I got my first cat. I didn’t understand how anyone could just abandon a pet, an elderly pet at that. I certainly wasn’t going to be that kind of person.
My house was a unit in a suburb that had something of a stray cat problem – not hard to understand why given my former neighbour’s actions. I had volunteered to become the property manager of the twelve unit complex to save the owners, including myself, some money. And one of the most common complaints was in relation to the stray cats.
The local council offered a free service. Humane cat traps could be borrowed and when a cat was trapped, you simply called the council. They would come to collect it and take the cat away. I’m not naïve. I know that in all likelihood the cat would be determined to be without an owner. I also know that over 50,000 cats are put down in Australia every year.
It only took a day or two and we trapped a thin black cat. The council came and took it away.
A couple of days later, the tenants of one of the units complained about a noise coming from underneath their floorboards and asked me to investigate. And when I crawled under the house, I found four black kittens no more than a week or two old crying for their mother. The mother I had taken away.
I took the kittens to the vet to see what could be done for them but I was told they were too young to survive without their mother unless I was prepared to become their full-time carer. And that meant full time. Newborn kittens need to be fed every one to two hours. But I worked full time. And Torti did not react well for the hour or so the kittens were in my house before I took them to the vet.
The vet said the kittens would have to be put down. He took them away, out of sight to the back of the surgery and that was the last time I saw them. I cried all that night and I am crying now as I write this because that was the moment that I failed. That was the moment that I was asked to step up and didn’t.
I refused to trap any more cats after that. Instead of trapping them, I started befriending the stray cats that would turn up and another neighbour did the same. That’s how Kiwi came to live with me. He was a big all-black male and he had clearly been somebody’s cat because he was tame and desexed but he never left our property.
Torti died after three years with me, most likely because she was old, after a short illness. Her lungs kept filling with fluid and she couldn’t breathe properly anymore. She died in my arms the night before my sister’s twenty-first birthday party. I was inconsolable for months and determined that it would just be me and Kiwi from then on.
But one morning six months later, as I was putting Kiwi out before heading off to work, I noticed a tabby and white cat in my garden emerging from the kennel that was supposed to be for Kiwi during inclement weather. And when I went down to have a look in it, there were two black and white kittens in there, staring back at me.
They were older kittens, old enough that they were no longer feeding from their mother. I managed to grab one but the other escaped. Kiwi and the kitten bonded immediately. I don’t know why because Kiwi is normally a jealous brute but he loved that little boy. I christened him Jock because he was so active.
The other kitten continued living in my garden but it was wary, knowing I had snatched Jock away. It took another two months to catch Jock’s sister, who my youngest sister adopted and named Lexi. I assumed the mother was owned by somebody in the area because she was so tame and so friendly that she approached me from day one and seemed comfortable around humans.
It was only a couple of weeks later when I looked at the tabby and white cat, which was continuing to come by my house every day, and I realised she was fattening – pregnant again. Clearly, even if she was owned, it was by someone not familiar with how to be a responsible pet owner. I let her into my house and she never left. That was five years ago.
Mama Mia gave birth to five kittens and I found homes for them all but she stayed with me. Three cats. Kiwi, Jock and his mother, Mia. And I was, and still am, very determined that I can’t have any more cats. I might be a softie but I’m not a lunatic.
I’ve since sold my first house and bought another in a different suburb that doesn’t have a recognised stray cat problem. I’ve been here for over four years and barely seen another cat. Until six weeks ago.
I don’t know how she found me. But Sunday morning six weeks ago, I was woken early by a young tabby vocalising at my front door. For those who don’t know cats, vocalising is a lot like a child crying. It’s hard to ignore. I went downstairs to investigate and my three cats were all sitting at the window by the front door looking out and the tabby was sitting on the other side looking in and making an awful racket.
I opened the door and she ran. Not tame, then. But she came back the next day. And the next. And the next. I gave her a little food. She started coming back morning and night. This routine established itself for two weeks and over that period I noticed that her stomach was getting rounder and rounder on the sides.
I don’t know how but I knew she was pregnant. So I steeled myself and made the decision. I grabbed her by the scruff of the neck on a Monday morning. She wasn’t happy about it. I put her in my garage, made a nest out of old bedding, and gave her food, water and a litter tray. The next day I took her to the vet to check for a microchip. Not surprisingly, she didn’t have one. But she was healthy, he told me. I asked if she was pregnant. He couldn’t tell – if she was it was too early for him to be able to confirm it.
But I knew. And three nights ago, Tabitha – as I have named her – gave birth to five kittens in my study. So now it’s me and nine cats; Kiwi, Jock, Mia, Tabitha, three tabby kittens and two black ones.
Friends and family who I’ve told about this look at me in a way most people don’t want to be looked at. Nobody seems to understand that had I shooed Tabitha away and washed my hands of the situation, there would now be six stray cats roaming my neighbourhood instead of just one. And six quickly becomes more than you can count on two hands because cats apparently have no problem mating with their brothers and sisters as soon as they reach sexual maturity.
Neither Tabitha nor the kittens will remain living with me any longer than I can manage. Kittens can leave their mother at twelve weeks and I’m already telling everybody I know and having them tell everybody they know that there are kittens needing good homes. If I can’t find homes for all six of them, I know of a cat shelter that has a “no kill” policy, taking as long as it takes to find homes for cats. My neighbour’s mother told me she follows them on Facebook and one featured cat spent over forty weeks at that shelter.
So, short version, I’m a crazy cat lady. And I’m going to be a little bit crazier than normal for the next three months. But it all makes sense if you know the long version. And maybe I’m a little bit less of a stereotype than the label suggests. I certainly hope so.
From One Crazy Cat Lady to Another
Of course, there’s a crazy cat lady just a little more famous than me. I refer, of course, to the original, the inimitable, the one and only Dr Eleanor Abernathy MD JD. Who? Well, she’s much better known as Crazy Cat Lady from The Simpsons.
The creative honchos responsible for this long running cartoon have admitted that she was meant to be a one-off character. But they liked her so much that they began to give her a back story. It turns out that she was a bit of a smart child. By the age of 16, she was studying to be a lawyer at Yale and by the time she was 24, she had also earned an MD from Harvard. But by 32, she was burned out and had turned to alcohol.
As a result, Eleanor now suffers from alcoholism and mental illness and is constantly surrounded by her many feline friends. And the fact that we know all this about her makes her so much more interesting than just being Crazy Cat Lady. Instead of simply laughing at her and judging her, we love and understand her.
As writers, this should be our goal for all characters in our writing, from the supporting cast to the main players. I apologise for using my own long-winded crazy cat lady story to demonstrate it but really, would you have done any different if you were me? Would your characters have done any different if they were me? And if they would have done something different, is there something in their back story that logically explains why? I hope so. And your readers will, too.