Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Two weeks ago Saturday, I paid a visit to my cousin, Dorothy. She's my second cousin, I believe. I'm not quite sure how those things work, though, so she may be my cousin once removed or twice removed or forcibly extracted or something like that. In any case, we're related, at least so far as I can figure out.

The visit was spurred by my Uncle Jim in Florida, who I'm pretty sure is actually my uncle, although I don't have any DNA to test, nor do I want any, thanks. Dorothy is my probable uncle's cousin, thus my inability to figure out exactly how we're related. Anyway, Uncle Jim told me that he had been speaking to Dorothy on the phone, and that she had mentioned having a large stockpile of photos and other family memorabilia. Since I have, by dint of writing this blog, become the default family historian, he suggested to her that I should probably be given these treasures. She agreed.

I phoned Dorothy. We set up a time to meet. It would be at her place, since I was more able to get to her than she was to get to me. Anyway, she was the one doing me a favor, by giving me the scrapbooks and such, so...

I hadn't seen Dorothy in quite some time. I believe the last meeting was about 10 years ago, but it may have been longer. On the phone, I suggested that we might go out for dinner when we met, but she said that she was on a strict diet and didn't go out to eat.

Dorothy is in the neighborhood of 80. She has had a partial mastectomy. She now has cancer in the other breast. She is bothered with macular degeneration, as well as osteoporosis and arthritis. Her heart is none too good - she's had 5 or 6 heart attacks, near as her doctors can figure - and she weighs 72 pounds. She is very petite, but that's still an alarmingly low weight. And, oh, yes, she also has lung cancer.

(That's how she said it to me, when I asked her about her medical conditions. It was an afterthought. She had truly forgotten about it for the moment.)

Having given you the bare facts, and probably alarmed you beyond belief concerning this woman's condition, here's something interesting: She still smokes. And why not? As the doctor told her, she's not going to get better, so why have the extra aggravation of quitting?

Better still: After visiting with her, I'm of the opinion - utterly non-medical, but I'll stand by it - that Dorothy isn't going anywhere soon. She's sharp as a tack and has interests that keep her going. She isn't confined to the house and she gets around very well, all things considered. No walker, no wheelchair, nothing like that. Not even a cane. If she hadn't told me about her various conditions, I wouldn't have known. She gives very little outward sign of being ill.

And then there are the cats.

If there is one thing that will keep Dorothy going, it's her being The Mad Cat Lady of Franklin. She says that's what some of the people in town call her. She says it with a smile. She knows full well that what she does, concerning cats, is something that could easily be considered insane. She knows, but she does it anyway. The reason? She's a very nice woman.

See, there is this pack of feral cats that lives in the woods behind her condo. Dorothy feeds them. She has names for every one of them. She also provides them with shelter from storms. Twice a day, she goes down into the woods and brings with her about 15 cans of cat food, as well as a jug of fresh water. There in the woods, she has set up a small shelter for these animals. She pours water in bowls for them to drink. She opens all the cans of food and puts the contents into bowls, laying the bowls in the shelter.

She does this all out of her own pocket.

There is a feline humane society in her area, and they have provided some help. They buy some big bags of dry food every so often, and that stuff is stored in tightly-lidded trashcans near the shelter. Dorothy gives the cats some of this dry food along with the canned. Also, the cat people try to catch some of these cats and spay or neuter them. Dorothy helps them to do this. Once spayed or neutered, the cats are released back into the wild - back into Dorothy's care.

She buys 220 cans of cat food a week. She is on a fixed income.

Crazy? I suppose it depends upon your own mindset. I think what she does is a lovely thing. She truly cares for these animals. Without Dorothy's help, most of them would be dead, or at least living in a way that shouldn't be called living. They'd be starving and diseased, as well as breeding more starving and diseased brothers and sisters. Instead, they have a guardian angel named Dorothy.

(I have to mention this: Dorothy isn't smiling in any of these pictures because she is missing some of her lower teeth. She feels she doesn't look very good when she smiles. I disagree, but I respect her desire to be photographed as she wishes. She is not as severe as she appears in these photos.)

Dorothy can't do much about her own situation. She's terminal - as are we all, when you get right down to it, of course. But, so long as she cares for the cats - so long as she keeps them alive - she has purpose and is useful. And is, one would think, worthy of some sort of special dispensation in the eyes of God. At least, if I were God, she would be.

As I say, she's sharp. She has no delusions. As a matter of fact, she is one of the most delightfully self-aware people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I wish I hadn't spent so much time not being in her company.

I’ll tell you the truth. I had some trepidation concerning seeing Dorothy. As mentioned, I hadn’t seen her in quite a while. I thought she might think the only reason I wanted to visit was so that I could get my hands on the family memorabilia. And, to a certain extent, it was true. She’s blood, but I had never been tremendously close to her. She’s almost 30 years older than me, for one thing. When I was a kid, we didn't visit her branch of the family as often as we did some others. Just one of those things, I guess.

Well, as soon as Dorothy answered the door and we started talking, I knew it had been a mistake to not be in touch with her. She was very close with my Dad when he was a youngster, and she remarked that I looked very much like him. I took it as intended, a compliment.

I was there only a few minutes when Dorothy said that she had to go feed the cats. I knew this was coming, as we had talked about it on the phone. I knew I was going to be arriving at her place close to feeding time. I was interested in seeing the cats, truth be told. I’ve always liked cats, and the idea of 25 or 30 of them in a wild pack sort of intrigued me. So, Dorothy loaded up a sack with cans of cat food, filled a jug with water, and off we went into the woods.

As we approached the area where the shelter was, I saw glimpses of various cats, but none of them were coming very close. Dorothy explained that, while the cats came right up to her and rubbed her leg and such, they probably wouldn’t come too near when they saw a stranger. A couple of them came within about ten feet of us, but most stayed a safer distance away. I saw them all around us, most staying semi-hidden among bushes or other camouflage. There were striped tabbies, tortoise shells, grays, orange and white spotted cats, and just about any other combination of colors you might imagine. One big solid black cat, obviously a Tom - and also obviously the king of this pack - sat on his haunches in the open, about 20 feet from us, staring imperiously, ready for whatever might happen, and no doubt expecting that, whatever it might turn out to be, he'd handle it. Damn regal-looking cat, he was.

I helped Dorothy open the cans and spoon them into the bowls. Being used to how house cats come running when food becomes available, I was somewhat surprised when these cats held their places. Dorothy took the lid off one of the big trashcans of dry food and scooped some out. She added that to the canned food. Then she poured water for them. One smallish cat, which must have been very hungry, then jumped up into the shelter and started eating, but she was the only one. The rest still wouldn’t come near while I was there. The King just stood his ground, staring at me disdainfully. After we began walking back towards Dorothy’s place, depositing the empty cans in a dumpster as we went, the cats cautiously made their way to the shelter. I assume The King waited until the others had jumped on things, so as to make sure he wasn’t walking into a trap. You don’t get to be The King if you’re stupid.

Dorothy explained that every week she drove to the supermarket and bought the food. Many times, people would see the amazing amount of cans in her cart and ask her how many cats she had. She would then explain about the feral cats. Sometimes folks were incredulous. Other times, they gave her money right there in the market, to help her defray costs.

As you might imagine, not everybody is thrilled that Dorothy feeds the cats. She said that there is one woman in particular, another resident of the condo, who raised quite a fuss about it. However, this problem was partially solved when a fence was erected near her apartment’s yard. The fence kept most of the cats from her space, so the war was pretty much in a cease-fire, at least for the time being.

On the other hand, there is another resident who takes over the feeding on those rare days when Dorothy is unable to carry out her self-appointed rounds; when Dorothy is having some sort of medical procedure, for instance.

Well, I’ve told you a lot about her cats, but that was only a small part of the visit. We spent a lot of time sitting on the couch together, poring through family photos and old newspaper clippings, and trading small stories concerning one relative or another. We laughed a lot. We both smoked our fool heads off. It was a real old-time family visit. No TV on in the background, nothing to distract a couple of relatives from catching up.

                      Dorothy in her teens
I feel as though I may be doing Dorothy a disservice by telling you so much about the cats, but not about her. She is a former schoolteacher, with a Masters degree in education. She’s not just book smart, but also intelligent and witty. She was, until her various infirmities made it near impossible to keep up, a daily communicant in the Catholic Church. I may be misremembering, but I don’t recall her saying an unkind word about anybody – and some of the folks we talked about deserved a few unkind words, too. She is very much a lady, in the sense of the word which should convey a picture of a person with manners, someone who cares about other’s feelings, and who, at all times, carries herself with grace.

A Mad Cat Lady? Not for my money - and I gave her some, too, when I left, to help with the feedings. Maybe you feel as I do, that she’s a sweet woman to be caring so deeply about them. The fact that she KNOWS there are a whole bunch of folks who think she’s slightly cracked, yet she does it anyway, speaks volumes to me. She could abandon the cats and save herself some ridicule, but she continues to do what she feels is right; what she feels, I assume, is God’s work. I admire that greatly.

Her physical heart isn’t in such good shape, but her spiritual one is strong, beating steady, and full of love.

I hope I’ve captured our visit accurately, and portrayed Dorothy as the smart and caring person she is, because I’m going to send her a copy of this. I want her to know how much I truly enjoyed visiting with her, and that I’d love to stop by again, soon, and help her feed the cats. I’d like that, a lot.


Soon, with more better stuff.


Stu said...

Sully, that was *magnificent* - I'd be prouder'n'hell if you were *my* second-cousin.

John-Michael said...

A bit of a challenge, Jim, typing through a fog of tears ... but waiting to express my appreciation of this piece is not an option. I salute and applaud your embracing of all that Life gives you. And sharing with all of us, your loving and oh-so-tender account of your magnificent Heart's experience. You touched and blessed me.

I thank you, SulDog.

Love you, My Friend.

Jeni said...

That was, beyond a doubt, a really great post! Dorothy is much to be admired for her attitude about her own problems and her willingness to care for these feral cats. If only more people reacted and responded in a like manner to the animals around us and to the people around is sometimes in need too. How many problems a day would that solve? I think a whole lot -worth a try to emulate Dorothy's methods, for sure!

Hilary said...

What a beautiful tribute to Dorothy. She sure sounds like a wonderful, caring and intelligent woman. No doubt you and she are both proud to call each other "cousin."

lime said...

she sounds like a formidable woman, all 72 lbs of her. i wouldn't dare chastise her for her devotion to the cats.

thanks for introducing us to her. :)

Anonymous said...

Nice to hear about Dorothy. Hope she continues to be "well". She looks a lot like Aunt Pat - at least to me, anyway.

You are a tender and loving person and your mother is soooo blessed to have you for a son.

Balcony Gal said...

I liked this a lot Suldog. Must say that I *knew* there had to be a cat lady in your line, though. Just knew it ;). How great that you took time to see her and that you realized the importance of the time.

SandraRee said...

Sorry about the above...

Dorothy is one beautiful lady, then and now. In her younger picture, she looks like Geena Davis! For a man to write about a woman this way, only shows what a strong, awesome male you you for this post Sul.

Unknown said...

i bet you'll just make her day when she reads this. what a lovely way to let someone know they're loved...

Buck said...

I hope I’ve captured our visit accurately, and portrayed Dorothy as the smart and caring person she is...

Well, you certainly DID capture the essence of the lady (in every sense of the word, as you noted), as far as I'm concerned.

I'm most impressed, Jim, with both Dorothy and you. Excellent post.

Pat - Arkansas said...

Dear Mr. Suldog,
Our human read your post outloud to us (at least the cat parts.) We collectively send our warmest regards, and deepest thanks, to your cousin Dorothy. It makes us purr way down deep to know that someone cares enough about God's little creatures to feed our homeless relatives.

We think you're nice, too; we'd curl up beside you any day.
Squeak, Missy and Sweetie Pie

P.S. Our human said your post was wonderful all the way through.

Cath said...

Jim I think she would love this. Once I lived somewhere where my elderly neighbours were considered "mad cat people". The cats were in their house though as we were in town. They cared for every one of those cats and bought food from their own pension. They were (and still are) truly kind people - two elderly sisters.

Your aunt is a beautiful person and the photo of her when she was younger shows that beauty physically. I hope you get to spend a lot more time with her. You wrote a wonderful tribute to her. You most certainly have captured her very essence.

Chris Stone said...

Great post and kudos to Dorothy! I've heard of the catch (neuter) and release program. Very good idea.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dorothy:

Today, my friend Sully introduced me to you, although you didn't know it.

I hope when I grow up I am exactly like you.

Suldog is going to tell me how I can help contribute a few cans of food; being as I am so far away, I need to figure out how to get the food to you. Maybe he will let me PayPal him a bit of money to go towards a case of food?

Thanks for being in the world. I think it is a better place because of you.

Thim :)

Suldog said...

Thim (and anyone else interested):

It was not my intention to solicit funds for Dorothy, but I've received a few offers to send her cash and whatnot. Thank you very much. I have some very generous and caring readers.

I don't want to give Dorothy's address here, in public, as I never know what nutjob might get hold of it and do something I'd regret. If, however, you trust ME to deliver to her, I'm not afraid to give out MY address:

93 Winsor Avenue
Watertown, MA 02472

Feel free to pass it along, if anyone else is interested. And THANK YOU!

David Sullivan said...

I agree with your mom cuz. The first thing I thought of was Aunt Pat when I saw the pictures. She's not crazy...she'd be crazy if she let them all live in her house!

Janet said...

Dorothy is my hero. Somewhere St. Francis is smiling. That neighbor should realize what you pointed out - if Dorothy weren't caring for those cats there would be A LOT more of them, and they'd be rummaging through trash bins. I've been told a few times that I'm going to be the crazy cat lady when I'm old. If I can be like Dorothy that will be OK. (Well, maybe without all the health problems. I have enough now.)

I swear your word verification DOES NOT LIKE ME. 8 letters today. sheesh.

Melinda said...

I love the way you write about people - all of these things that make ordinary people so special to those who know them. It's a great reminder that there are a lot of wonderful human beings out in our world and to look beyond first appearances...

Unknown said...

Her physical heart isn’t in such good shape, but her spiritual one is strong, beating steady, and full of love.

God love her, she sounds like the person that every person in this world should aspire to be -- selfless and genuine. thanks for sharing her, I really enjoyed reading about her and the time you spent together!

Suldog said...

You are ALL lovely people. Thanks so much for the kind comments. I'm going to print these out and send them, along with the piece itself, to Dorothy. I'm sure she'll like your loving wishes.

Unknown said...

wow... what a really nice, heartwarming post that makes you smile and be thankful there are people like her in this world to make our days a bit brighter and that actually cares about the world and those around her... once again you have proven why you are my favourite blog... kudos!

david mcmahon said...

Mate, we all need guardian angels like Dorothy.

Sandpiper (Lin) said...

This is a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it.

Sandi McBride said...

I would claim the beautiful Dorothy as a cousin whether or not she fact I think she may be my sister...being a "crazy Cat Lady" myself...I wish I could hug her...would you please e-mail me so that I might send you my address to give to Dorothy? I would love to communicate with her and help her a bit if I can

Jo Beaufoix said...

Wow, that was wonderful. What a fantastic lady, and what a beautifully written post. So glad David sent us over here. Have a great weekend.

Ali P said...

My husband stopped me at 4 cats because he didn't want to be known as the guy married to the crazy cat lady. Now we are down to 2 again and I swear there will be NO kittens coming home until my girls are done and gone, but that doesn't stop me from feeding the odd stray that comes by. It annoys the girls to no end to have an interloper on their turf AND have me feeding and protecting it from their abuses. Currently is a nursing tortie mother who actually came to the door meowing Friday night. She's very skittish so we were surprised at this behaviour but she was also very hungry.
I think Dorothy and I would be quite the kindred spirits.