I didn’t realize until I first watched Grey Gardens as an adult that sharing my childhood home with a platoon of feral cats might be something people find alarming.
I’d always thought it was cool.
As far back as I can remember, we had cats living under our deck, inside my plastic playhouse on said deck, and in the woods just behind our house. My mom put out dry cat kibble for them every day—sometimes I would help if my seven-year-old motor skills were up to the task. My toddler sister and I would sit on the deck, watch the cats eat, and try to pet them if they would let us. Sometimes, my sister would eat the kibble, taking handfuls with her chubby baby hands and shoving them into her mouth like cereal.
Don’t worry, she’s fine. Did not affect her SAT scores at all.
All of the cats had names, most of which were picked by yours truly. There were several Simbas and Nalas, Aladdins and Jasmines. I took my naming duties very seriously. The cat’s name and disposition had to complement each other perfectly.
The meanest cat, the one that always hissed and tried to bite us, her name was Barbara. I named her after my ballet teacher.
I didn’t think anything of the fact that I couldn’t use my plastic playhouse on our deck, because the feral cats were hunkered down inside. Sometimes a kid would come over and give me a weird look when they asked if we could play in the playhouse and I said, “No, that’s the cats’ playhouse,” but I never thought anything of it.
The cats’ playhouse was actually my second playhouse. The first one was picked up by a tornado.
Every Thanksgiving, we had a lot of leftovers, since we never had many people over, and I steadfastly refused to eat turkey every year. I ate a bagel with strawberry jelly instead.
Not wanting anything to go to waste, my mom would march down the deck steps and into the yard, holding the turkey carcass high in front of her like a sacrificial offering, and set it right on the boundary of our house and the woods, so the neighbors wouldn’t see.
My sister and I would watch from the window as the cats emerged from the trees and under our deck and inside my playhouse, followed by crows and ravens and hawks that would squawk from their perches on the power lines, waiting for their turn, and more and more cats would descend onto the carcass until we couldn’t see it anymore, just the fog of cats and the ring of cawing birds above them, and by the morning, the turkey would be completely gone.
We moved to a new house after I started middle school. It was in a nice subdivision, with manicured lawns and identical mailboxes and no trees higher than a few feet. Our cat colony had dwindled by then, most of its members taken to the no-kill shelter or given to friendly homes by then. My mom declared that she wasn’t going to feed feral cats at our new house. Our new neighbors would never stand for it, she said.
But there was a single empty lot at the end of our street. And even in the most sterile of subdivisions, we heard coyote howls and occasionally saw a scampering fox at night. So every Thanksgiving, as soon as it got dark, my mom would sneak down the street holding the turkey carcass high in front of her. The empty lot was a good quarter mile away, and she was always terrified that one of our neighbors would drive up and see her in their headlights holding a platter of meat and bones, but she got enough of a hustle going even with the heavy turkey to avoid detection. I usually accompanied her with a flashlight, which I was only allowed to turn on once we’d reached the lot and the coast was clear. She’d set the carcass down behind a pile of dirt or in a shallow hole to hide it, and then we’d run back to our house like we’d committed a crime. Before dawn, all the evidence would vanish.
Of course, after a few years that lot was bought and a house was built on top of it. We watched the construction through our window, and my dad said, “Should we tell the new owners about all the turkeys?”
My mom said, “Absolutely not. Don’t even speak to them. You’ll sing like a canary.”
So, my parents only wave to those neighbors.
And every time I go home to visit and drive past that house, and wave to the neighbors working on their perfectly manicured lawn or picking up the mail from their identical mailbox, I say to myself, “That house is built on top of at least seven turkey skeletons.”