Just As You See It

Photograph by Sarah Commerford, All Rights Reserved 2016

I couldn’t tell you exactly why the whole thing started, but I do know that taking in stray cats became the reason I got up in the morning. I have lived in this town, and in this house, most of my 82 years. I married my husband, Ed, when I was nineteen, because he got me pregnant, and there was nothing else to be done about it. We raised three children here, but mostly, I did the work because Ed never showed much enthusiasm as far as I could see. In fact, if pushed, I’d say my kids never appreciated me either. Lazy, distant and soft, that’s how I’d describe their personalities: flat — like when you hear a long, dull song on the radio that doesn’t move you to do anything except change the station, hoping for better. You can see from my son, Jon’s room, there wasn’t a lot of imagination there.

Photograph by Sarah Commerford, All Rights Reserved, 2016

Ed died of a heart attack five years ago. I guess I missed having another person in the house, but we didn’t have much to say to one-another in the first place, so having the quiet without the bothersome thought that something trifling should be said, simply to fill the room, was a relief. When he wasn’t watching the news, Ed sat in his study, off the dining-room we never used. He was an accountant, but he put in a lot of time writing letters to politicians he supported, like Ronald Reagan and George Bush. They wrote back, too, and sent along autographed pictures, as a thank you for the donations he made to their campaigns. I never got involved in politics, and preferred to read novels, so that was just another thing we didn’t talk about.

Photograph by Sarah Commerford, All Rights Reserved

A few years ago, on a cool spring day, I heard a cat mewing in my back yard. There’s no mistaking the sound of an animal starving — all that primal need and hunger rising up, howling to be filled. I put a plate of tuna and bowl of milk out my back steps, and before I knew it, one cat turned into ten, and ten doubled to twenty. In the beginning, they brought rhythm to my day, and soon, I was driving to Shaw’s to buy the biggest bags of dry food they sold, and canned food when it was on sale. I named them all: Brandy, Petey, Socks, and too many others to remember. Many of the cats were too wild to be pet, but as months went on and the weather turned cooler, the braver cats came inside to be fed. I set up a litter box, and laid soft blankets on the floor where they could sleep, and suddenly, kittens were born. What could I do? I fed them and did my best to keep them happy.

Photograph by Sarah Commerford, All Rights Reserved

Somewhere along the way, I lost control of being in charge. The cats came and went as they pleased. They got into my kitchen cabinets and tore open whatever containers they could claw their way into. They climbed my curtains, and sharpened their nails on my couches and chairs. They walked on the counters and drank from the toilet, and soon, I couldn’t keep up with changing the litter box, so they urinated on my rugs. Some of the bigger male cats fought, and often I’d come across dead or injured cats in closets, or under furniture. They brought in mice and dead birds, and generally took on the attitude that I was in their way. Neighbors became concerned, and some stopped by to check on me, but I wouldn’t let them in — I knew things had gone too far, but didn’t want them in my business.

It was right around Christmas, when bad turned to Hell. The cats had chewed through some of the wires in the basement, and I lost my electricity. The smell in the house was so acrid, that I didn’t dare open my windows, for fear of my neighbors knowing how things had gotten away from me. I didn’t have enough food for the cats, and they were turning mean. Some nights, I couldn’t sleep, just trying to keep the cats from walking all over my bed and me; they’d lick my face, chew my hair, and scratch my legs, leaving ugly sores that festered. I moved to another bedroom in the house, thinking they’d be happy to have my room all to themselves, but before long, they found their way into the ceiling, and tore out the tiles, jumping from the strapping onto my bed. They knocked all my books off the shelves, and shredded the curtains — nothing was beyond their reach. By then, I’d lost count of how many there were, but I knew for sure I was outnumbered in power.

Original Photograph, Sarah Commerford 2016

I think it was my neighbor, Lu, who called Elder Services. She had always been kind and genuine with me, and although I denied needing help, I could tell she knew there were big, big problems — something my children never bothered to concern themselves with.

This morning, two people with practiced, well-meaning smiles knocked on my door, and it was all I could do to get past the cats to let them in. They said they were Social Workers, but they didn’t have to utter a word, because even if they could have ignored the smell of urine, they couldn’t have gotten past the sad desperation that I had become. To be honest, and as hard as it was to let go, I was relieved to get the help. Sometimes, things that take a long time to get tangled, can be undone in no time, when you find the starting point. They located my insurance documents, neatly filed in Ed’s office, along with my purse, and assured me that I would be safe and cared for. I wasn’t certain what would be next, but anything was better than this. Other than that, we left the cats and everything in the house, just as you see it.