Fifty years ago this month, my parents told my brother and me that we were to emigrate to the United States in November. Within weeks, our cat Monty, who had been on this earth two years longer than me, died. He didn’t die in order to become a symbol of the wrenching changes ahead of me; his life just petered out. Still, we can’t help finding significance in simultaneity.
Here are six brief passages about Monty from my unpublished memoir:
As a wedding gift, Grandma Spratt gave my parents a cat from a litter born in her yard. He was black except for a white stripe on his chest, and they named him Monty. When I was born two years later, he stood guard over my playpen. Mum and Dad said they’d worried they’d have to give me up if Monty didn’t take to me.
I couldn’t imagine home without Monty shadowing Dad around the garden, curled up under his chair when we ate our meals or crouching before the back door as he waited to be let out. Monty didn’t have words for his thoughts, but there was no mistaking his assessing look each time he entered a room or his glare when I stroked him once too often.
A little before eleven on a bright April morning just after my tenth birthday, Dad, Mum, my brother and I set off by foot. The movers had come and gone, and our home of six years, 9 The Drive, was empty. Monty skulked in a box that Dad carried to the Rayners Lane station, then on the Underground. Next to us on a seat on the mainline train out of London, though we talked to him all the way, he yowled and clawed at his prison. By the time we pulled into Sheffield’s Midland Station that evening, I, too, longed for the familiar surroundings of our old home.
The houses on our new street were elevated even in relation to the road. Each driveway angled sharply down from the garage to the public path running along the high garden wall, then farther down between what I called the “islands” to the road. The islands were mounds of trees and packed shrubbery. Through each island ran a bumpy mud path on which I loved to ride my Raleigh.
It was when Monty found his way to the islands that he became his old self again. Until then he’d looked lost, prowling from room to room in the house, then sniffing around the back and front gardens. The islands gave him more territory to range over than he’d had in Harrow.
Mum and I would be walking on the path on our way to keep a hospital appointment, and I’d glance around to see his sleek back trailing us through the island shrubbery. Turning the corner onto Woodholm, I’d look again to find him at the end of the last island, his whiskers curling away from his concerned face. Mum would call, “Bye, Monty,” and I’d add, “We’ll be back soon.” Sometimes he’d be waiting at the same spot to escort us back home.
In a letter to me while I was at boarding school, Mum wrote: Monty is scratching my arm as I sit in my usual place at the tea table. Now he is trying to sit on your letter and is rubbing his head against mine. I’m sure he wants me to send you his love!
I encountered Monty coming down from one of the islands in front of our home. I called his name. He glanced at me but kept going, dragging himself up the driveway. He was such a human being of a cat that my feelings were hurt. But I could tell that, suddenly old, he was in distress.
A few hours later, while Mum, Dad and I were playing Scrabble, he crept under Dad’s chair and died.
In the long twilight of that northern hemisphere summer evening, Dad dug a grave in the back garden, behind where we set the wickets when we played cricket, and Mum, Tim and I watched as he lowered Monty’s box into the hole. It felt wrong to me that no government official or minister was in attendance.
Monty’s was the first loss that felt like everything to me. That evening, I started on my road to adulthood, the part that is about experiencing and handling loss and the feeling of isolation that accompanies it.
I’m struck by my bewilderment at the absence of officialdom at Monty’s burial. The boy I was assumed that every significant event came with some sort of sanction: Weddings and funerals on television were presided over by ministers, each school day began with morning hymns and prayers in the assembly hall, surgery was heralded by nurses wielding trolleys that reeked of anesthetic, birthdays and Christmas came with presents. Monty’s burial, with Dad as the gravedigger and the other three of us watching on, gave me my first inkling that big events, like small ones, could happen without ritual or fanfare.
Nowadays, like many people, I worry about privacy in a world where George Orwell’s Big Brother is a growing realization. Yet we want officialdom to take note when we get married, when we have children, when we or our children graduate from each level of school. We seek the sense of belonging that comes with the rituals that traditionally mark the stages of our lives. We even want the world to know when we pass away, though it seems we wouldn’t care by then.
Our move to America was to be marked by the issuance of passports and green cards, customs agent questions, airline crew greetings, and any number of other rites. But, as Monty’s burial prefigured, the true consequences of our emigration would be opaque for many years.
My memories of Monty also give me glimpses at Mum and Dad that I wouldn’t otherwise have. There’s another in the continuation of the last above passage from my memoir:
Next day Mum and I went for a walk to visit one of her friends. Each step felt heavy, and I wondered what the point of anything was if a life as precious as Monty’s could come to an end.
“There is a saving grace,” Mum said, as we turned onto Bents Drive. “The flight to America.” We’d been worrying how Monty would manage in a cargo hold. “He’s been spared the ordeal.”
It was true. Had Monty lived a few more months, he would have been trapped again in a box, this time with no one nearby to hear him and with no heat from the passenger cabin against high-altitude subfreezing temperatures. With her words, Mum had helped me think past grief.
While writing this post, I remembered Monty had green eyes. It’s tempting to think he reminded me, but that would mean he’s been watching this whole time. One thing for sure: Preservation of his memory hasn’t required officials and records; just reciprocated love.