Biography of The Cat from St.Petersburg The Cat from St. Petersburg
Shoelace was probably born in a thriving feral cat colony livingin the courtyard of some old brick apartment blocks on the East side of Pilutova Street inthe farthest Southwest corner of St. Petersburg. It was the beginning of July, 1994, and Ihad just arrived in Russia. I was taking a year's leave from the University of AlaskaFairbanks, where I work as the costume designer and a professor of theatre. I landed atthe home of my friend, Milla an artist, who happened to live on theWest side of Pilutova street, at what would be (in American size blocks), about a half ablock distance from the "Courtyard of Cats".
I planned on staying with Milla for a few days `till I found anapartment. I ended up renting a room from her for the whole year, and we became constantsidekicks. As we returned home one night at the end of the month, a tiny one month oldtabby cat, liberally coated with fleas, halted our entrance to the building by placing herclaws in the bottom of my jeans, yowling, and refusing to let me budge. I was never a"cat person" but one would need to be an audio-animatronic dummy at Disney to beoblivious to such a plea. On the ground around her was a shoe box, crudely made into asort of home-made doll bed out of grass and leaves, and next to it was a bowl like a catdish---also filled with grass. It was immediately obvious what had happened:
We had a sort of feral-child colony in our own building yard, abunch of 2-4 year old kids with shaved heads and torn clothes who had alcoholic parentswho ignored them all day. These kids played together with the toys they could pick up fromthe dumpster, they wandered the neighborhood throwing sticks for the stray dogs, andmucked about in the "park" next to the building making mudpies. Clearly the tinycat got separated from her mother, meowed, as cats do to give mom a sonic bearing on herlocation, and the tots intercepted her, "rescuing" a lost cat. So they tried tomake her a little bed, and to feed her (they'd obviously seen cats chewing grass), andleft her outside the building door, since the drunken parental units were unwelcoming.
So we found her. Milla, who, being a "cat person" tookcharge, brought her up with us, cooked her an omelet, determined her sex, and then, whenthe cat had decided to sleep in the shoe-rack, named her Shoelace. Two days later the catwas sleeping in my bed, not the shoe-rack, and I was in love. Like most non-"catpeople" I had no clue how the little furry beasts manage to work their way into yourheart. So, Milla and I made her cat toys, and
designed more,beyond our means to make, and the cat learned useful tricks like climbing the drapes,climbing me, and sitting on my head to play with the "chandelier".
In August I made the cat a special hat for head climbing, and wore it down to the street, whereupon the feral-children pointed andsaid "It's our cat!" And were much amused to see that the crazy American ladywith the painted clothes had the missing cat, alive and well, on her head.
The cat, however, was not amused at either the outdoors or thechildren, so I cut her visit short.
Shoelace's only scars from her difficult kittenhood experienceswere a slight limp and a strong agoraphobia, the latter of which we attempted to alleviatein September by a weekend visit for a
Mushroom Hunt at afriend's dacha. Shoelace learned to step out of doors in the three days there, and wouldgo as far as 15 feet in any direction from the cabin to hunt bugs.
Click Image to see Shoelace's window bag of screening,which I devised so she could sit on Milla's 8th floor balcony without danger of falling.Years before, Milla had a cat that fell from the balcony and lived!
Shoelace and I stayed in Russia for a year. She got neutered ata nice Russian clinic where she was later also immunized and given medical papers fortravel by Finnair, (and for Russian customs regulations.) Russian customs gave her a briefand friendly examination to ensure she was not an endangered species being smuggled outfor nefarious purposes then gave us a big official looking form for export with lots ofstamps and signatures, that was the delight of all the customs officials for the durationof our trip.
After a night's stopover in Finland we flew to San Francisco.European airlines are much more decent than U.S. ones in their treatment of cats: Shoelacewas assigned her own seat, and got to sit in it, or in my lap, for all but takeoff andlanding. Attentive stewardi brought her milk.
In California she was not even required to leave her carrier forimport to the U.S.; minutes after customs we were being driven by my Dad to Terra Linda inthe family Pickup truck. In California, Shoelace immediately overcame her agoraphobiainher eagerness to climb trees. For a month in Terra Linda she imitated Tarzan to my Mom'spanic and my amazement. She was so addicted to the outdoors that when we moved to anapartment in Alaska I learned how to take her on
trips to the woods,so she could get her thrills in while I mushroomed in the forest.
When the snow fell, Shoelace had to be an indoor cat again, andso she trained me to play with her in an assortment of cat aerobics: bead hockey, rubberband retrieval, fling the mousie, cat tag, spin the kitty, sunbeam chasing, etc....
UAF costume shop some days.She still hates driving, but tolerates it to get to work or the woods.
Shoelace has died.Wejust yesterday got the bad news from the vet who thought at most she had a monthor two to live from a fast-growing inoperable tumor.Today she died at home in my arms, "From complications ofsurgery" as they say, about an hour after coming home.Although between tests, X-rays, and surgery, we have had a little over aweek to prepare for this awful news, the blow is still hitting just as hard asId always feared it would.
Shoelace came into my life at a point where I was sorock-bottom in my emotional life I had actually decided to take a year off fromwork, go to Russia, and live like a hippie till I figured out how to not bedepressed all the time.The year inRussia did in fact pull me up and out of my funk, largely due to Shoelaceadopting me when I had been there a month.I wrote my play "Kiosk Man" two days after she adopted me, andI've had a pretty steady stream of inspiration and mental health since sheentered my life nearly 11 years ago. I am justifiably petrified that Im aboutto be flung back into the pit, most especially since Ive been pretty muchfighting an uphill battle for staying cheerful this last year between my owncase of cancer, another family cancer, my (possible but never able to bepinned down) heart problems, the onset of menopause, and of course, theelection.
Keeping a smile pasted on my face has been hard, yetShoelace has unquestionably been my shield against unhappiness taking over mylife, as she has been for over 10 years now.When I went to Russia my life was so alone and loveless I could barelycope to get through the semester preceding my trip.I tried to make a bargain with the universe and myself: Iwanted to love someone and finally have him (or even her) love me back.I told myself I wouldnt quibble over who it was, whether he was goodlooking, financially secure, willing to be faithful, even not a he, etc. Nolimitations, just accepting it if I found it.Instead it found me one night as I walked home and consisted of about 8oz of flea ridden starving street kitten with an attitude like a spoiledprincess.I thought it ironic, asit became apparent that it was what it was, that my true love should turnout to be a cat, but I accepted it. However knowing her life was likely to beshorter than mine, every loving glance, every play session, every good moment,was slightly shadowed with the fear of this horrible moment when it should cometo knowing it was her end.
And now it has come.Ifelt last night as though I wanted to grab her and run away, away from thisawful thing that would hurt and kill her.Iwished there was an afterlife so we could go there together.All night while she was recovering from her surgery at the vet I missedher physical presence the same way Ive missed it any time Ive had totravel away from her---yet ten times worse, knowing that soon I would never holdher again.Now, with her death, Ifeel like love has truly left my life for good.Shoelaces expressive face, her adventurous attitude, her demandingpersonality and high intelligence all made her more human-like than cat like.It is like having a S.O. die, not a pet.I speak from experience, Ive buried many birds, fish, rats, mice, andthe great dog I grew up with, and even he never came close to being anemotionally equal partner like this tiny (7 lbs) cat has.
I want to tell you stories to illustrate how wonderful shewas, but they are all inadequate.Thereis the fact that she would jump through the air through a hoop in the costumeshop for the fun of showing off, or that she figured out how to escape from ouroriginal plastic-fencing enclosed cat porch by climbing it, hooking her limbsthrough the holes, like a marine climbing cargo netting, or when she saved myneck by alerting me to a kitchen fire like a feline Lassie, or how sheliked as a kitten to be swung gently in a pillowcase, or climb and balance onthe top of my head.But those areall parlor-tricks.The real thingis her clear-eyed stare at you from across a room that said I love watchingyou, and the loud purr she makes when you picked her up and cradled her onher back like a baby, staring at one with loving and intelligent eyes.Her love rescued me from the lonely sadness that plagued me a decade ago,and now I dont know what I will do without her.
Just two nights ago, before her surgery I coaxed her intoplaying with the bed mouse (my toes wiggling under the covers) and sheseemed so much her usual happy self.Peopleare always telling me how lucky Shoelace was to have found me, yet I alwaysobject when they do.Ive alwaysknown that the luck was mostly on my side.She was love and happiness incarnate, her gaze all unconditional love,her purr the most instantly heartwarming thing Ive ever heard.
Please don't send condolences, I can't handle it.Just find someone you love and remember since you won't have them foreveryou need to tell them now, and every day you have them, how much you love them.I did this with Shoelace and it is the only thing making all thisbearable.
Tara Maginnis, 3/16/05
A letter to a friend (sent in reply to a letter of concern)one week later:
Please dont panic.I did, after all, write that letter the night my Shoelace died.In the world I live in (theatre people, artists, etc.) the necessity ofbeing able to share and clearly articulate matters of emotional importance is amajor part of what we do.Shoelacewas the official mascot of our theatre, and known to most of the older studentsvery well.Her passing, and anyunusual behavior on my part such as crying at odd moments (Im considered oneof the most unflappable folks where I work) or snapping at anyone, requiresexplanation.Hence my sharing thebad news was the sort of thing that barely caused a ripple among our set.
I routinely get verbal monologues of angst (and otheremotions) from my fellow faculty, and the students, at normal group occasionslike dept meetings, birthday parties, post mortems (post show analysismeetings), in classes, while passing in the hall, etc.This is not to say there is weeping or hysterics, rather there is clear,heartfelt, articulation of ones feelings and ideas, and discussion andanalysis about where these feelings fit into ones sense of self, of onessystem of belief, and in ones life choices.Ones deepest most intense feelings are, after all, the raw materialfrom which we all work to make art, so taking these feelings and bringing themup for discussion, in my experience, is not only a great way to get a grip onthings and bond, but also a great way for us all to make better art.This sounds more cold-blooded than it is, but it is perfectly true thatany artist in theatre who actually is an artist will take whatever pain lifegives them and try to find a way to use it to create something moreconstructive.
So, as a result of my sending this letter out to ourstudents, and by my being open in my classes this week about my feelings, Ivehad several good discussions with students Ive had little emotional contactwith previously who connected with me on this matter because of also goingthrough similar feelings themselves with pets and/or people.A former student wrote to tell me he had spent his evening following myinstructions and spent hours hugging and bonding with his wife, baby son, andtwo cats, then went on to say I should write a book or play on my story withShoelace.Far from being alienatedfrom my fellow humans because of my feelings, expressing them in this mannergives me the chance to connect to others who have similar feelings.I can also, by articulating these feelings in a sincere way and sharingthem, help others who have these feelings, yet who cant easily find words toexpress what they feel.They readit and think, That is just how I felt when my dog died or whatever, and itis comforting to know that there are others who understand, who have felt thesame pain, and who ultimately heal.
I feel that I have healed a good deal in the weeksince she died (even though there is far to go yet) since today I was able toview a video Id taken of her 2 days before she died (I needed to advance thevideo so I could tape record something without taping over that clip) not onlywithout crying, but with fondness, and even a bit of joy.It called to mind her as a living being, who was wonderful,and who I was lucky to know, rather than the image I had of her at the very endwhere she was suffering from her surgery.Icould speak of her calmly and fondly to a class of students and be left onlywith a warm feeling to be thinking of her.I not only find that I can look at pictures of her (and othercats) without pain, but that looking at these things helps lessen the pain.Soon, very soon I think, there wont be pain at all, just rememberedhappiness at her incredibly positive effect on my life.
I probably will end up writing a book about the year sheadopted me in Russia (Ive always thought I would, I am just waiting for theperspective of time to make sense of it) since it was such an artistic andemotional re-birth for me with long-reaching consequences.I also kept a detailed daily diary at the time, which I have beenrereading as a method of coping.WhatId never noticed before in the chronology was how much her actions towards mehad a tendency to generate art.WhileKiosk Man (my play) was largely inspired by my friend Andrei, I actually wroteit 2 days after she entered my life, while she slept in my overall breast pocketover my heart.My diary entries forthe year all go like played with the cat for an hour, then wrote a newchapter for
The Manifesto orCold today so I sat in the kitchen and wrote a Press article with the cat inmy lap.Nearly every outputexcept for photos taken at sites away from my apt is tied to a cat nudgeof affection.I worry a bit thatwith my furry muse gone that Ill find it harder to create for a while,but ultimately I know that the change she made in me was permanent.
I am very far from closing my heart to others overthis; on the contrary Im hoping to keep a bit of a rein on my actions in thenext few months so I dont either get a boyfriend or another cat on therebound.I am hoping I can waitfor this to happen naturally once I dont still feel a dull pain when I comehome and she isnt at the door or when I wake up and realize shes not atthe foot of my bed.It would becolossally unfair to whoever follows in my life to start up a new relationshipbefore Ive had time to mourn the loss of this old one.
I definitely dont believe in any excess of feeling sorryfor ones self.It is a stupid,helpless, whiny way of dealing with the world.It is also, in this instance, wholly inappropriate.I was so flipping LUCKY to have had her as long as I did.In fact I told her every day I am the most fortunate of humans tohave such a princess of kittyness who has chosen me as her handmaiden. Woodgie,woodgie, woodgie and similar nonsense sounding phrases.The thing is, I never really thought of it as nonsense.I meant every bit of it.Istill do.Every crumb of love weget in the world is a feast.Onlyidiots nitpick and want it perfect.(Ofcourse the world is filled with idiots who do exactly that).
In my perfect universe I will someday find someone tolove best who will do as Shoelace did: stretch me as a person, convince meto do things I did not think possible, introduce me to new ways of feeling,thinking, etc.I honestly dontcare if he is well off, sober, faithful or fits into some sort of mold.Indeed it is better if he is as unusual and surprising as possible, wartsand all.A fun female friend isworth loving too.And as for cats
There will never be another Shoelace.She was unique.But I certainly do not believe she will forever be the onlycat to make my life better.Hertremendous force of personality was an appropriate thing to pull my life intofocus at the time, at other ages and other times perhaps another cat will demandof me something similar, or different, but that will be her/his choice. InRussia they say You do not adopt a cat, a cat adopts you. I believe it.Im just so glad she did adopt me, did help me through so many roughemotional times, did love me and let me love her back.And in over 10 years together we were never bored with each other.Love, in addition to being patient, kind, un-envious, un-jealous,protective, etc, is by its nature not boring.We can never grow tired of telling those who we love that we love them,and we can never grow tired of hearing it.
Our stage director lately keeps telling us about howChekhovs wife, actress Olga Knipper, (who because of living in a differentcity from her husband spent most of her marriage writing him each day,)continued to write him daily for two months after learning he had died.I find myself saying I love you to Shoelaces photos around thehouse the way I would to her when she was alive, because it still feels good tosay it.If, as one of my friendsput it She is hacking up hairballs in heaven she might like it, and ifnot, it does no harm.
Thanksby the way for writing with such concern for what may seem to be such a smallmatter as the death of a cat.I doappreciate the concern, and your sentiments, and always have.I enjoy all your letters and do in fact think we have much in common.3/24/05
The Mystery of Edwin Drood, ourmusical playing the same weekend as the cat show.