Sunday, 8 February 2015
My mother's garden seems woefully empty without the presence of our two cats, who have been living with her for the last seven years. When my partner and myself were obliged to move from the lodge in Hampshire, and found ourselves temporarily billeted at Turnpike Cottage in Somerset, we were unable to take the cats with us, as the front door of the cottage opened directly onto a busy road, and there was no garden at the back. Besides which, it had been stipulated that pets were not permitted. If we had had more time in which to find a place to live and had been in a healthier position financially, we would never have moved there.
My mother spoke up at once, offering to harbour the cats until we were able to afford them sanctuary, and welcoming the then three displaced animals into the home of herself and my father.. Within weeks, both sons had settled, but Alice, the restless mother, always consumed by wanderlust, and who had been leading a feral existence until becoming a member of our household at the lodge, had disappeared, much to my mother and father's concern. There was no sign of her; her departure, sudden and unexpected, was complete, and we conjectured that she had attempted to make her way back to the lodge, to the one fixed abode in her peripatetic life. We searched, and grieved and worried, but to no avail, for she never returned. I dream about her still, and, each time I see a plump, grey and white cat, my heart misses a beat, even though I know that I shall never see her again.
My partner and I moved once more, leaving the tiny , damp, dark cottage with relief, although I had been able to make some of my best drawings there, and found a rented house in the small market town of Frome nearby. I enquired about the possibility of having the cats to live with us there, and seem to remember that we were granted permission, but I was forbiddingly anxious about catching them, and disrupting their new life with my parents. Years passed, years that were often painful for me, as the journey of recovery from depression was long, seemingly without end; I was frequently cast down, and bitterly homesick. During these years, until my mother's accident, the cats had lived contentedly with my mother and father, enjoying the extensive garden, those of the neighbours, and the quiet allotments lying beyond the bottom fence.
I saw them when I visited, and did my utmost to maintain the bond between us afraid that they would forget me; worse, that they should become shy of me. They never did. Each time I made visits to my mother and father, and then to my mother, they would greet me, request my attention, accompany me in the garden, sit by my feet before the fire in the evenings.
When our mother fell, and was first confined to hospital and then to the downstairs portion of the house, there was much discussion between myself and my sisters about her future. We were concerned that none of us would be able to stay with her continuously until she was fully recovered, and I was desperately worried about how she would fare with the cats; for some time I had been afraid that she might trip and fall over them, particularly Minos, the black cat, who has a habit of running close alongside one before suddenly dashing ahead thence to arrive at a standstill. I had been coming to the conclusion that I would have to seek afresh our landlord's permission to have the cats live with us. Still I hesitated, my mind exercised agonisingly by doubt and anxiety. It was like a revelation when my youngest sister said, " Take them with you. This is your chance to realise a dream".
Both my sisters undertook to catch my nervous cats and load them into baskets; my younger sister provided baskets, cat litter, litter tray and a complement of soothing remedies to help the sensitive animals undergo the transition. On the afternoon of their capture, a cold, golden afternoon in January, my younger sister and I were in the garden, she pruning the apple trees, myself picking up the cut lengths of timber and removing them to the bonfire heap. I was conscious of an all encompassing unrest, as from previous experience, I knew that the cats could be challenging to catch, and I was painfully anxious that something in our well thought out campaign would go awry. I felt also a great sadness for them, as they would be leaving a place that had become their home, and the garden would be bereft without them. Both cats were in the garden throughout the afternoon. oblivious to their coming fate, Minos shadowing me as I moved about the lawn collecting sticks, Silas, the tabby, disappearing with fluid motion into the undergrowth on business of his own.
Just before sunset, my sister and I repaired to the house, made up the fire, kept watch for the appearence of the cats, whose habit it was to come in at close of day and take up warming positions in front of the fire. Despite my fears to the contrary, they did appear, both, and my sister quietly got up and shut the back door, thus confining them indoors.
The ensuing capture proceeded as planned, myself absented from the fracas to the front room by my sisters , and without further ado, my partner and I set off for Somerset with the cats safely stowed in their baskets in the back of the car. I had expected much evidence of distress, but they were, for the most part, quiet.
During the first few days of having them with us, I felt overwhelmed by responsibility, and was given cause to reflect upon the responsibility I had laid at the feet of my mother, a responsibility that she discharged dedicatedly and without qualm. I almost wished that I had asked the RSPCA to take them from us as kittens, and rehome them, as they had initially offered, so overpowered did I feel. For a while, these unwelcome feelings took the place of any pleasure I might have felt in their company, and when I visited my mother in the meantime, to care for her, leaving the cats behind in their new home, I found myself weeping at the too empty garden, missing them, half expecting to see them, moved beyond measure at the sight of the two delicate curving paths they had made in the lawn, ghost tracks which would disappear without their continuing footfall. I grieved on their behalf, as the garden of the rented house in Somerset is far smaller than that of my mother's, there are no adjoining allotments, and the neighbouring gardens are just as small as our own.
Given time, the sense of loss is replaced by the more welcome feeling of delight in their presence, the overweening burden of responsibility lifted, as we slip into a routine of care and companionship. I remain profoundly relieved that my mother is no longer at risk of falling over the cats, and deeply grateful to her for having provided without hesitation a loving refuge for them. That she will miss them I know, but I hope that she has many memories to sustain her , as I have both a storehouse of images of them in my mother's garden, and am beginning to build the same of them in our very different home.
Just a few days into January, my mother takes a fall in her home and sustains a complicated fracture of her right shoulder. She is admitted to hospital where it is deemed appropriate to replace the shattered joint with an artificial one fashioned from titanium. The evidence of her increasing frailty is borne heavily upon myself and my two sisters, and we each have serious concerns about the suitability and safety of her beloved house and garden , although she herself is determined to continue living there as long as is possible.
There are no words to describe the measure of alarm and anxiety that I experience on her behalf when I consider the house and garden in the light of her return from hospital. Much needs to be changed to render both safe and comfortable, some of it beyond our scope both financially, and in terms of our collective skills. Not for the first time, albeit not without a jolt of disloyalty and grief, do I wish fervently that she was already installed in a house of more modest size, with garden just enough for her to enjoy her array of ornamental pots and containers, which she has a genius for making beautiful with bright annuals and spring bulbs, in a smaller, less unfriendly town, with amenities to hand, the thriving, busy heart of a welcoming little town within walking distance.
In my mother's garden. snowdrops are beginning to flower in their customary places; discrete gatherings beneath the old privet hedge, sizable colonies in the lawn. Crocus are also showing pale spears above the lean winter grass, and the hellebores are a mass of creamy, roseate blooms. I feel keenly for my mother, who has been so far unable to go out into the garden to see them. Walking in the garden, a heavy frost glittering upon the lawns, lonely without the the company of our two cats, who are now, for safety's sake, removed to Somerset, I am overcome by a storm of conflicting emotions. I am painfully aware, that despite my mother's vigour of mind, and great love, the bequeathed garden is too big for her to manage on her own, yet my heart quails at the thought of her having to give it up, to tear the roots that bind us all to this place. Reason instructs me that perhaps it is time to allow a younger family to live there and love it as we have done; we have had our day, yet our mother, although she has confided to each of us in turn her own fears concerning her abilities to continue to live there, is most unwilling to relinquish the house and garden, which harbour so many memories. Speaking with my sisters, I find that my youngest sister and I are united in our feelings of heartbreak, although my younger sister , the sister in the middle, has attuned herself to the eventual relinquishment of our family home, and that all three of us share the desire to see our mother settled contentedly in a safer, more suitable environment.
The first month of the new year passes with much unsettling change and challenge, and in a flurry of visits to our mother. The days lengthen appreciably, the garden is alternately rimed by frost and scoured by bitter north easterly winds; a couple of times the lawns are dusted by the sparkle of light snowfall. The garden appears at first glance to be steeped in slumber, yet closer insepection reveals the presence of a multitude of elegant, pointed buds on the Ribes, the clusters of fragile, early flowering bulbs, the ruby red tips of the emerging peony buds. Our garden chairs remain almost in the positions they occupied throughout the months of Summer and Autumn, when my mother and I sipped wine in the long light evenings, took tea and coffee during breaks from our labours. I cannot help but wonder whether we shall do so again, and I know that this thought is not far from my mother's own mind. I take a photograph of the chairs, pools of water frozen in each, as a keepsake, my heart full to bursting within me, for at present it is well nigh impossible to believe that we shall be able to resume our former relationship with the cherished garden.