The Cat Lady of Jones Park
“Come on now, baby, don’t be afraid,” her grandmother called.
Five-year-old Neffie moved forward from the side of the parked car. She hesitated, and paused, grabbing at the hem of her jade-green sweatshirt with both of her delicate, small hands. She peeked up at the elder “Neffie” — Grandma Neffie to family members — and tilted her head. Her multitude of narrow braids, woven with delicate gilt ribbon and tiny agate and lapis beads, hung down on one side past an ear; the pure gold and stones gleamed in the morning sun. A single green gem in the child’s earlobe sparkled.
A moment of anxiety passed across Grandma Neffie’s face. She was dressed in an apple-green nylon jacket and sweatpants, her gray-speckled black hair pulled straight back into a short puff. The dozen or so cats and kittens that danced and wove around her legs continued to meow in a variety of voices. “Hush, all of you,” she looked down and said. “Line up right there, so little Nefes can see you.”
And they did. A scraggy long-haired gold and brown tom with luminescent golden eyes, a tuxedo boy with black haunches and white across his shoulders, belly and paws, a tawny tabby with spots and stripes, a silver, black, and white short-hair female with a round, wide face, a lithe youth with fur like orange mist, a pink nose and ringed tail, two tortie kittens, and a sleek young male with blotches of fawn, cream, and gray, among others — they formed a line at Grandma Neffie’s feet and sat, their tails curling around their legs. “Nefes, honey, don’t be afraid. You love all our kitties at home. These are no different. Did you know, that my grandma started taking me with her to look after the homeless kitties when I was about your age?”
“No Grammy,” the child said. She straightened and looked directly into the multitude of slit-pupil eyes that gazed back at her.
“Why I was no bigger than you, when I started going with her, and then I took over her job when she got too old to do it.”
“Did my Mamma do it too?” Young Neffie asked. She took another couple of short steps. Her pretty white athletic shoes with the sequin trim looked out of place next to the mud, scrabble, and overgrown weeds and grass of the abandoned lot.
“No, honey, it wasn’t her callin’. It wasn’t her turn. But you’re her eldest girl, and … we’ll see….” She reached out one wrinkled and veined hand. “Come on, now. Talk to them. “That’s Bobo, and Pasha, Sweeny and Lorelei….”
“How do you know their names, Grandma,” the child asked.
“They told me,” her grandmother answered. “Now get on over here and get to know them, talk to them, but show respect. It may look like they’re beholden to us, but we serve them. I’m going to get the food and water from the car.”
Five-year-old Neffie turned in place, twisted around to watch as her grandmother passed between the cats, and limped towards the trunk of their old Chevy parked just off of Caseyville Avenue. She sprung back, facing forward, and held out her arms towards the felines. “Hello kitties,” she said, and took short steps in their direction. When she was about a foot away, the cats broke rank and flowed in circles around her, rubbing against her jeans, mewing and purring. One of them … a marmalade male with a solid tail … raised on his hind legs and reached to the child’s waist, holding a paw as if pointing at her nose. Neffie giggled.
Her grandmother paused as she hefted the plastic jug with the kibble — the box of aluminum pie-plates heaped with meat, and the five-gallon can filled with fresh water, already rested beside her muddy galoshes on the dirty and weed-choked gravel. She shifted her eyes just enough so she could see, as her granddaughter circled in an awkward way, tottering a little, laughing among the cats. The old woman sighed with relief and closed her eyes briefly, lifting her face to the sky as she said a prayer, something she was taught by her grandmother, who was taught it by her grandmother before her, going back untold years into the depths of a history she could hardly comprehend. Through ancient wars, and centuries of slavery, in different countries using different tongues, until this very day in East Saint Louis, Illinois, USA, her family had preserved the phrases. “Beloved mistress of happiness and bounty, daughter of the Sun, welcome and protect another child of the light into your service. Grant her the joy of dance and song and watch over her in the lonely places she must walk….” She smiled, and then tears rolled from the corners of her eyes. She sniffed quietly and quickly wiped her cheeks with one sleeve.
By the end of the afternoon, the two of them, grandmother and granddaughter, had driven up and down many broken streets and ghostly two-lane dirt-roads half obscured by underbrush. They’d stopped by vacant, derelict buildings, and worked through the overgrown and littered yards of abandoned frame houses with smashed windows and tar-paper roofs. They’d seen dogs, too, longing for food and love, but the elder taught the child how to bow to them and apologize and explain, “We serve the cats, the eyes of the Lady on earth.”
They found the cats by crumbling cinder-block walls and broken chain-link fences, crouched and huddled under rotting, splintered porches and in piles of debris and corroding appliances. In thickets and clumps of vegetation grown wild, beside bushes, trees, and plants that once landscaped property and now erupted jungle-like, feral cats hid, and lived.
They checked the wooden and stone shacks and shelters that the elder Nefes had built over the years, and refilled food and water containers she’d left before. They stroked heads and backs and scratched under ears and chins. The child was smart and learned quickly, and of course had a natural flare for the work; by the time they ran out of food for the day, young Neffie had discovered her talent for making the most antisocial and skittish of the felines trust her.
It was just past four when they pulled off of Lynch Avenue, and drove under some trees to the gravel driveway beside the community garden. “I think we must have fed almost fifty cats today,” the grandmother said as she parked, and turned the ignition key.
“Do we have to do farming now? Can’t we go home now?” the child asked from the back seat.
The older Neffie observed her granddaughter in the rear-view mirror; the five-year-old was securely buckled in, and wasn’t even fidgeting. “No, baby, we still have our farming to do,” she answered.
“Ohhh,” the child said, making an exaggerated frowning face. She kicked her feet.
“Unbuckle yourself, and lets do our share. You know you always have a lot of fun,” she added.
When they were ambling along the path towards the Jones Park Community Garden, the old woman rested a hand lightly on the top of her granddaughter’s head. “You are blessed today, child. I’m very proud of you. You will be the first-of-women one day, when I’m gone. At least for this branch of our family. Don’t know where any of the other lines ended up.”
Young Neffie jumped and skipped, moving ahead, leaving her grandmother’s hand dangling. “Gonna be first, gonna be first,” she chanted. She stopped and hopped once, then pirouetted gracefully as the older Neffie caught up. “What does that mean, Grammy?”
The refurbished greenhouse and fences surrounded the rows of vegetables, fruit, beans, and corn, came into view. “I’m not really sure,” old Neffie answered. But I think we are descended from someone special, who once supervised an entire city that was dedicated to loving cats. My grandmother used to tell me, that the pharoah of Egypt once knelt before her.”
“What’s a pharoah, Grammy?” She looked up at her grandmother’s face.
“He was a king, baby. A mighty king in very olden times. But he knew that all health and happiness depended on being nice to his cats.” She stopped, afraid the conversation might get too complicated, and contradictory to the teachings of the Reverend Withers, and the child wouldn’t be able to understand. Several of their fellow garden volunteers appeared ahead. “Look, Neffie, there’s Mr. Lawrence from your school,” she said by way of distraction.
“He’s a teacher,” she said, lifting her arm and slipping her hand into her grandmother’s, smiling when she felt the older woman’s fingers tighten around hers.
“That’s right! You’re such a smart girl!” her grandmother exclaimed. “Now see that lady over there…?” She pointed at the large woman wearing a straw sun hat who was about to enter the greenhouse. “She’s in charge. Run over there and ask her what you can do to help.” She watched as the child bounded off. She inhaled and held her breath, then slowly exhaled. “Thank you Great Lady, thank you,” she whispered. She heard a sweet meow, then another. She glanced at the grass below … two of the garden’s resident cats reclined beside her right boot, their tails slightly flipping. They were both black and shiny, lean, with narrow heads and large ears. They gazed serenely up at her, their yellow eyes full of praise. She bowed her head slightly. “Thank you,” she murmured to them. “Thank you. And please accept and protect my granddaughter, Nefes. My duty will be her duty, and her future will be mine.”
One of the cats sprang up and then sat, legs in front like two pillars. He lowered his head in turn and said “Mrowrr,” and then rose again, followed by his twin. They trotted away, in the direction of the greenhouse.