Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Queen of Katzenstrasse

Saturday night, three families from Katzenstrasse gathered in a kitchen for a evening of warm friendship. Our neighbours across the road, Sigrid and Gerard, who with their eight-year-old daughter had recently returned from a week in Barcelona, cooked a pan of paella and made sangria. Hannes and Edith, their neighbours next door were there, and Himself and I were made to feel very welcome.

With Tom Waits and Bob Dylan playing in the background, conversation around the candlelit table flowed with the wine until late in the evening. In German and in English, as well as my own stammering ‘Germlish’, talk ranged from the merits of analog over digital recordings, the romance of tube-powered electronic amplifiers, Barcelona hotels and cafes, American policy toward Cuba, the Tea Party movement, theatre, pregnancy and birth – I now know the German for a Caesarean Section is Kaiserschnitten – emigration and immigration, languages, lineage and ancestry.

Sigrid and Gerard, Edith and Hannes, were very kind to move so freely between German and English, switching fluently and frequently between the two, so Himself and I could join the conversation. Himself is better at German than me. I recognise some percentage of words in any sentence, but their sense lies just beyond my grasp, tantalising and mocking me. I can tell by the context what's being discussed, but sentence by sentence, I don't understand it.

The German speakers, on the other hand, were interested in the differences between American, Irish and British English. We discussed words that have different meaning in each culture. ‘Bold’, for instance, generally means courageous or audacious in American English. In Ireland, however, a ‘bold’ child is one who ignores or challenges adult authority. Or one might be ‘as bold as a dog’ and behave contrary to community standards. These usages clearly share a common source, but the nuances of their meaning have shifted.

We talked about cats, too. For cats were among the assembled. Jimmy, the ancient cat of Sigrid and Gerard, came in the sliding door, wandered toward his dish, and ate briefly. Then he stood at the door to be let out again and, not long after, stood looking in the glass door to be let back in. Jimmy, at 95 in human terms, limps with arthritis now; he sometimes stands stock still for minutes on end, as if wondering why it is he has come into the room, what it is that has now slipped his mind.

Hannes’ and Edith’s Mona, the queen of Katzenstrasse, was there too, threading her way between our feet and majestically inspecting the room. An established member of the household next door, Mona is famous for making herself at home in Gerard’s and Sigrid’s house as well as in ours. Nearly daily we have found her on our step, pressing herself against the door frame as we fumble with the key. We are used to her presence most mornings at the bedroom window as she waits on the deck over the garage, ready to curl up on the bed at our feet. That very afternoon we had returned from the grocery market to find her on the doorstep. We unlocked the outer door and then, seeing Sigrid in the street, stopped to visit with her.

‘Die Katze wartet,’ she said, greeting us.

Indeed, the cat did wait. When we climbed the stairs with our groceries after chatting briefly, we found Mona, regal and serene, reposing on the chair outside our flat door. She came in with us and settled on the cushioned breakfast bench. She was still there, three hours later, and we had to carry her downstairs to put her out when we left the house to join the dinner party.

At dinner, Edith told of the fish Mona had brought into the house that afternoon, bait stolen from one of the fishermen on the lake behind the house. Hannes recalled finding another fish, still flopping, on the living room floor. He took it to the lake and tossed it in. Moments later, Mona returned and laid the same fish at his feet. There were tales, too, of her gifts of the creeping, fur-covered things from the wood next to house.

Himself and I reminded Edith and Hannes of the week they were in Rome over the summer. Mona, always ready to be held and cuddled, presented herself at the door even more frequently. We left the bedroom window ajar each night; each morning we would find her, a grey lump at the end of the bed. Waking, she would catch at our feet moving under the covers, capturing toes with teeth and claws. At breakfast, she found her place between us on the breakfast bench and, rolling onto her back, graciously presented a wide, white belly to be caressed.

Telling these stories, we joked that Mona must be surprised to find her three families assembled in one room. ‘What are you doing here?’ we imagined her saying. When she went through the sliding door and out into the darkness, we bid her goodnight. ‘See you, Mona!’

Near midnight, the dinner party broke up and, saluting each other with pecks on both cheeks, we said goodnight. The fledgling friendship between us, the foreign recent arrivals, and the long-time friends and neighbours, had strengthened. We parted, promising to meet again soon, the next time at our house. Discussing the evening the morning after, Himself and I remarked on how thoughtfully the others had included us by speaking both English and German. And we recalled with great pleasure the liveliness and intelligence of the conversation.

It was Gerard and eight-year-old Olivia who found Mona, on Monday morning sometime about 8. She had probably darted out from behind a wall just as a car pulled away. The car couldn’t have been going fast, not from the end of the street. The driver, whoever it was, probably doesn’t realise he or she hit the cat.

I saw Gerard from our kitchen window as we were eating breakfast. He was standing at a ground floor window staring uncharacteristically into the street. It turns out he was considering phoning us with the news, but he decided to wait until my husband came out of the house on his way work so he could tell him in person. My husband rinsed clean the site with our garden hose, then came back into the house to tell me.

As with all news of sudden death, there was that instant, lasting seconds or microseconds – who can say – of a kind of dual reality; I was momentarily numb and dumb in that short space during which the apperception of a piece of information I didn’t want to acknowledge as other than fiction gradually became real. Mona would never again jump onto the breakfast bench beside me or stand on the step arching her back into the door jamb or knead my stomach as I petted her or stare into the bedroom window, waiting to be let in.

On the street, I stood with Edith and Gerard staring down at the place in front of our house, now washed clean and terribly empty, where Mona had lain. Behind us, Hannes busied himself with the shovel. Our eyes were raw and our expressions wondering. How could this have happened? Katzenstrasse is a safe street, remote from traffic and, with its wood and nearby lake well stocked with fish, a kind of paradise for cats, as Gerard remarked. How could Mona have been hit?

Mona, the queen of Katzenstrasse, was bold in both the Irish and the American sense of the word. It was as if, more than most cats, she acknowledged no master or authority. She moved between the three families in the three houses with an attitude of entitlement, secure in her welcome in each. She found her way onto the deck beside our window and waited calmly until we let her in. Once inside she headed to her favourite spots. If we sat next to her, she calmly inserted herself onto our laps and nudged her head into the crook of an elbow, her front paws kneading away. I kept a towel for her on the chair in the living room where she liked to watch as I did my morning stretches. Then, when breakfast was over and Himself had left for work, she’d sleep for two hours or more as I worked.

Mona was round and soft, obviously well looked after, so we didn’t feed her. But if she was in the kitchen as I prepared a meal, she would jump down from her favourite perch on the bench and weave her body between my feet, loudly meowing. If I had meat out to thaw and left the kitchen, she would boldly jump onto the worktop and seize it, once wrestling the plastic-wrapped treasure to the floor. She was audacious in going after what she wanted.

Mona was our first guest in the house, and she knew it intimately from the time when the previous tenants, a family with children, had welcomed her. She frequently ran up the stairs to sit at the attic door, waiting to be let in. We’re not sure what attractions it held for her. Jacob, the man who carved the doors and ceilings of walnut and cherry, had his workshop there. Himself often joked that she was drawn there by his ghost. Maybe now, he says, Mona’s ghost is there along side Jacob’s.

Perhaps her ghost will keep us company. This morning, though, we were aware of the empty space between us on the breakfast bench. The sun shone through the window behind me in the office, but Mona did not leap up to sit in its warmth. The chair next to my yoga mat was empty too, the grey towel folded and pointless beside it. And each time I pass the bedroom window, I look away from it, not wanting to see the blankness there.

On Monday morning, as Gerard, Edith and I stood in the street remembering Mona, we recalled with a smile our joke the night of the dinner party, when all three of her families were gathered in the same room.

Edith said, ‘Maybe she decided her work was done. Maybe she thought, “I’ve brought them together now, put them in one room, pointed them toward friendship, and that’s enough.”’

Perhaps she’s right. Mona did draw us together. Sigrid and Edith take care of each other’s cats when they travel; the first real conversation I had with Gerard and Sigrid was about the strange grey-and-white cat who came into our house with such assurance. The friendships grew when I was able to look after the cats when both families were away on the same weekend. By making herself at home in our homes, she wove three households into a community.

Now, with Mona’s death, our shared sadness draws us together even more. As our friendship flowers, the dinner party will be just the first of many evenings of shared conversation and laughter. And when we meet, we’ll remember the queen of Katzenstrasse.

To Mona. Prost.’


  1. Dear Lorraine,

    thank you SO much for your wonderful, loving, touching and brilliant view on what happen(ed) in Katzenstraße!!
    Thank you for loving, hosting and honouring Mona! I feel in a very few days I will hear her soul meowing at me "invite the people from my three houses to a party!" So then "Prost to all of us! And thank you for being here!!! I feel very grateful about it.