Thursday, 27 September 2007
My Aunt Sadie, the Cat Lady
By Celia Jones
My favorite aunt by far was my Aunt Sadie. She lived in New York City in a small fourth floor apartment and worked in a sweatshop sewing clothes for a pittance to raise four kids on her own.
She had a husband, a no-hoper-scam artist, who would only appear when he was short of money. His main source of income was from the N.Y. Metropolitan Bus Company. He would carefully place himself under city buses, fake an injury and sue for compensation. He did this successfully many times until that fateful day when he miscalculated and went under the monstrous wheels of the bus for real.
Sadie didn’t really miss her husband. I think Sadie was a little bit of the black sheep of the family, had at least one abortion and illegitimate child before she got married. She was the eldest of five children with three brothers and a sister (my mother). My grandmother gave the two girls much love and affection and openly favored the boys in the family over the girls
Sadie was tiny with black, curly hair like my mother’s. Her thick bottle glasses magnified her cerulean eyes. She reminded me of those Keane paintings of children whose eyes covered half their face. And could she talk! She was fairly deaf even with a hearing aid and would speak very loudly as she told and re-told her stories.
Her idea of a holiday was a trip up to Monticello to stay a week or two with us in the Catskills in upstate New York. Mama had mixed reactions to my aunt’s visits; they were convenient for her as Sadie kept me company while Mama worked long hours as a hotel chambermaid.
However, Sadie couldn’t resist provoking Mama’s anger by telling her how to rearrange our chaotic household. This was a major irritation to Mama, and would inevitably result in a stoush. Sadie’s large glasses magnified the mischievous glint in her eyes as she loved a good spat with her little sister.
I loved Aunt Sadie’s visits because unlike other relatives, she would genuinely talk to me, not in a patronizing way as other relatives did. We’d go for walks and she would buy bargain short sets for me at the five and dime which she ironed meticulously so they looked expensive. I reveled in the attention she paid me and fantasized a little that she was my mother as I felt an intimacy with her that I missed from my mother.
I heard many family stories of Sadie’s eccentricities. My father stayed over at her apartment one time when he had a job in the city. He told us how she scared him to death one night when he got up to go to the bathroom. She liked simple health remedies and believed that enemas and aspirins could cure anything.
One night, my father got up and headed to the toilet, where he was taken aback by an apparition holding up a hot water bottle in one hand and an enema bulb at the other end. Her face was rather sunken as she had taken out her false teeth and put them in a glass on the kitchen table. He said she looked like a ghostly Statue of Liberty.
Aunt Sadie wasn’t used to having company stay over. She lived alone; her kids visited infrequently. She couldn’t resist being an interfering ‘yente’ in their lives, and they’d heard the same old stories many times.
She used to pick up stray cats from the street and carry them up the stairs to her apartment for company and treated them kindly. Many of her stories evolved around her cats. She kept them indoors as she thought it was too risky for them to wander down all those flights of stairs and into the crowds and Brooklyn traffic.
I never tired of hearing Aunt Sadie’s cat stories, especially the one she repeatedly recounted about how the cats had saved her life. When a little fire started in her apartment as she slept, her large tabby jumped up on Sadie’s bed while another small white cat, who was also deaf, meowed loudly until Sadie woke up and put out the fire.
Another favorite cat story was the one she told me about how one of her cats fell out the four-storey window. In her Yiddish accent, she said: “It vas a nice day so I opened up the vindow to get some air. The cat vas sitting on the vindowsil taking a nice sun bath. A bird flew by, very close, and my ketzie put out a paw to try to grab it. He leant out too far; oh vey, and fell down to the street.”
My aunt’s matter-of-fact tone in telling the story surprised me as I knew how much she loved her cats. I felt a genuine sorrow envisioning the cat falling to his death while he relaxed in the sun.
“Oh, no, Aunt Sadie! What did you do?”
Looking at me as though I was a little bit dim, she said, “Vell, I valked down to the street, picked him up and took him back up here. I gave him a couple of aspirins, he was just fine.”