Why I Find Solace in Stray Cats
July 31, 2021 / Sonali Menon
My eyes fixated on a dent in the barricade of banana trees lining the backyard of my grandmother's house. That bare spot in the banana grove was the entrance to my wonderland, and I was just waiting for my white rabbit. Except, a white cat emerged from the trees and slinked over to the hollowed half of a coconut filled with milk near my feet, I gently stroked her soft fur. It was cool compared to the sweltering heat of the Indian sun above us. Reaching into my shirt pocket, I revealed a packet of digestive biscuits and snapped each wheat disc into quarters, dropping the pieces to the floor as I walked back inside the house. The cat followed as she ate each morsel, and I trapped her inside.
I had always wanted a pet. I was promised many times that I would come back home from school one day and be greeted by a small, jovial ball of fluff that would love me unconditionally for all its days on Earth. But those were empty promises. A part of me always knew that a pet could never be in my future because I never knew where I would be in the future.
My father is a software engineer hailing from the South Indian city of Thrissur, Kerala, and suffered from the chronic need for change. A need that, to improve our family's lives, he channeled through acceptance after acceptance at various jobs worldwide. My family set off on our first adventure — a trek from India to San Antonio — when I was around four years old. Unfortunately, I don't remember much, save a few vignettes of scenes playing out in our small apartment. Moving was a trend for most of my early childhood as we eventually left from San Antonio to the Bay Area in California, then to the quaint town of Halifax in the UK, and then to Seattle, all within four years.
My nomadic lifestyle gifted me with fond memories of airports, move-ins, and explorations, but I resented it. There was no permanence; therefore, there were no pets.
After three years in Seattle, we packed our bags again and headed to Perth, Australia, but first, we made a pit stop in India to visit family. I said goodbye to Kerala and its language, replacing it with English to fit in San Antonio easier. Losing touch with my mother tongue made it difficult to talk to my family or make friends in India, and my one solace was my grandmother's house and the stray cats who roamed around it. I didn't need verbal language with them, only a sense of presence and touch.
I loved the feeling of short, silky fur passing through my stubby little fingertips. But, one day, my fingers were ripped away with a harsh, "Stop that!" My mother nudged me away from the cat and led me to the sink to wash my hands. "You shouldn't play with strays, you know. They're dirty and don't have a home," she said. A sudden pang struck my chest as I registered her words. Well, neither did I.
Every time my parents mentioned the possibility of adopting a pet, I would google "cats for adoption near me" and sift through images of wide-eyed felines in search of a home. Their big, hopeful, yet disoriented eyes mirrored my own. The white cat that would visit me often at my grandmother's house had those same harsh eyes, except her gaze would soften once I gave her milk and soothed her scalp. She found comfort and shelter with me for a brief moment — only to be scared and confused again when I inevitably had to let her go. The guilt I felt in those moments was insurmountable because I knew exactly how she felt. A nomadic lifestyle is not for the unadaptable. There is a constant fear in the back of your head that the possibility for real, comfortable, and permanent shelter will never come by again.
While I never said it to my mother, she was wrong. Being a stray and having no real home does not make you an "untouchable." If anything, it makes you crave touch even more.
Cats are a loyal species. Once they come to you, they may leave and roam, but they will never forget. I was never looking for ownership but companionship. I lent my paws to others and placed all my trust into the kindness of strangers. Just as I would lure that white cat into my grandmother's house with biscuits, I would lay new tracks for friendships everywhere I went. Affection, touch, and reception from others were all I craved because, at any moment, my mother could yell again, and my fingers would be ripped away from it once more. The memory of those friendships was never lost, and with every move, I remained loyal to them and would use those memories as shelter from new, uncomfortable environments.
When I was 11, I heard the news that I would once again have to pack my bags and leave Australia for a city in Texas called Plano; I felt indifferent. But I never would have expected that my fate had been sealed at that moment, and I would finally find a home.
I resisted it for the first three years. I had an itch to leave the suburbs and roam the streets again, but I now realize that was only because I didn't know how to be fixed at one point. The attachment that the white cat felt to me was not just because I was a kind human who fed it generously, but because I was a reliable source of love. Hopping around the globe made it challenging to realize the concept of "home," as I viewed it as an unpredictable and false idea marked only by having a roof over your head. But now, I can call Plano my home because I found comfort, love, and understanding in others. Without fear of having to let go soon, I formed bonds that would last a lifetime. Moving to Austin after six years in Plano felt different than any other venture because I still had a sense of security with me.
One day on the phone with my grandmother, I asked about the stray cats. She told me the white cat would still come by and wait at the backdoor up until a couple of years ago. Warmth filled my chest. I rested in knowing that the white cat kept visiting my grandmother's house because it remembered me, the milk, the biscuits.
Home. The cat remembered its home with me. Although I was only a temporary home, I became its safe haven from the wild world of Indian wildlife. I know that I can always find a home within my memories of that cat so long ago, and I know now that home can be built anywhere there's a connection. ■
By: Sonali Menon
Graphics by: Diana Perez
Graphics by: Diana Perez