I love stray cats. I’m not talking about the feline variety, although I do like them. Nor am I talking about the band from the eighties. I like them too. The stray cats I’m referring to are all the misfits of the world. The ones who don’t belong. Or haven’t found their home. The square pegs. The oddballs. Weirdos. Freaks. Under dogs. The ones called last to the team. Or not at all. These are my favorites. I have a huge place in my heart for this motley collection.
I don’t remember when my heart first opened up to let the strays in. From the very beginning of me, it seems. Like Lady Gaga, I was just born that way. I also think that Ma and The Old Man were born that way too. Maybe it’s in our family DNA.
Little back story. Over the years many stray cats found a place at the table at 204. Or on the couch. Sleeping bags in the backyard. Rusted out vans in the driveway. Everyone from cute young hitchhikers to the lost girls I met at school. The travelers. The seekers. The Emotionally wounded. Those consumed by wanderlust. And the temporarily homeless. All were welcome.
One girl comes to mind readily. Although we haven’t spoken in decades, I have never forgotten her. To the best of my recollection, and photographic evidence, we met for the first time in grade eight. We were an unlikely pairing. Yin and yang. I was painfully shy, quiet and introverted. She was naturally outgoing, loud and gregarious. One day she would blossom into a beauty but in grade eight there was very little to suggest that this would ever happen. That was an awkward age to begin with. For all of us. One look at our grade eight class photo says it all. Not one raving beauty in the bunch. In all fairness, we were transitioning through that God-awful uncomfortably homely stage where our body parts hadn’t quite jelled. You could see it in our grim expressions. If there were smiles at all, they looked tentative and forced. We were a collective mess.
But in her case things were even worse. Add a high forehead. Acne. Lazy eye. Thick glasses. Not a pretty picture no matter what lens you use. Too bad there weren’t more crystal balls around back then so we could have seen the swan emerging. There were hints of course. Perfectly even white teeth, great smile and beautiful legs. I didn’t have a lazy eye nor a high forehead but I did have acne flareups, thin lips and skinny bowed legs. So I could relate.
Beneath her wise-cracking-gum-smacking-nothing-bothers-me veneer, she was also angry. I was too. Another thing we had in common. Except she probably had more cause to be. I was angry at the world for its lack of equality. I moaned and groaned at how unfair life was. And she was my case in point. Her mother died when she was a little girl leaving her and her older sister to be raised by their alcoholic father. The Old Man was an alcoholic too but he was a saint next to this guy. They lived in a tumbled down weather beaten house on the fringe of our neighborhood. I don’t recall ever going inside. The outside looked like one of those scary haunted houses in horror movies. That was enough for me. The ramshackle nature of the place, and her father, both embarrassed and humiliated her. Like many alcoholics, especially those who are gooned most of the time, he was unpredictable. She often sought refuge at 204. Like in the Dylan song, we gave her “shelter from the storm.”
Ma and The Old Man loved this girl. Flaws and all. They saw past the loud, often obnoxious behavior to the insecure girl crying out for love and attention. And for whatever reason, I just plain flat-out liked her. She was hilarious and fun. Spontaneous and full of surprises. Every day was a new adventure. She took me places that I would never have gone otherwise. Introduced me to people I never would have met. Widened my circle. Broadened my horizons. Expanded my universe. We may have had a few close calls along the way. But it was worth it. All relatively innocuous when I look back on it now. She dressed up my drab life and I am grateful.
She added thrills and spills to my life and I kept her out of trouble. When she went to the edge of darkness, I had her back. Took care of her when she got drunk. Held her hair out of her face when she threw up in the revolting toilets at the Arena where the weekly teen dances were held. The smell of the urine soaked concrete is permanently embedded in my head. I also made sure we got home safely to 204 before things went too far.
Ma saw herself in this motherless girl. She understood profoundly the craving for a particular kind of love. That only a mother could satisfy. The truth is, this girl was a snap to love. She was abundantly affectionate and demonstrative. Hugged hard. Squeezed the love right out of you. She expressed her rainbow of feelings without hesitation or self-consciousness. Who wouldn’t be drawn to a person like this? Ma, The Old Man and I were like bees to honey. She had us at the first hug and tight squeeze.
Some people bring out the best in you. Others just bring you out. That’s what she did for me. I always felt more courageous when I was with her. Less inhibited. More myself. I liked who I was when she was around. We may have been yin and yang but we were also two peas in a pod. We were more alike than we were different. I think that’s true of most people. If we dare to peel back the layers. We find ourselves there too.
It’s what’s on the inside that counts. Most of us are taught that at our mother’s knee. Tired cliche. Overused platitude. Hack-kneed homily. But cliches don’t become cliches for nothing. Within their lackluster facade are essences of truth and wisdom. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Another cliche. Also true. It’s hard not to judge people. Especially when they are different. All the more reason to pause and open your heart and mind to what it feels like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Another cliche. Again true. It changes you when you do. I have proof. Sitting in the front row of our grade eight class picture. The only one wearing boots. My unlikely friend.
What did Ma, The Old Man and I see in this girl? Quite simply. Ourselves.