“They called me Ketsishe Rose.”
The afternoon sun crowned a nimbus of light around my grandmother’s silver hair. Her back to the window, she sat in one of the dining room chairs, the ones with the brocade pattern I used to love to trace when I visited as a little girl. Her slightly swollen feet were stuffed in boxy orthopedic shoes and firmly planted on the potato beige carpet of her apartment. I had asked my grandmother what life was like when she was young.
Behind and to her right, an empty birdcage hung from a stand. My grandmother’s most recent parakeet had died not long ago, and she was too heartbroken to consider another one, or store the cage away. Crowding the surfaces of the end tables, the familiar faces of my aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins and assorted other relatives peered out from varied picture frames.
I turned to my mother, hoping for some interpretation. “Ketsishe?”
“Mom,” she said. “Is that like ‘cat?’ Something to do with cats?”
“Yes, yes.” My grandmother nodded. “They teased me, those boys. Ketsishe Rose! Ketsishe Rose!” Her voice took on the mocking tone of schoolyard bullies and her eyebrows creased inward with sharp angles.
“It would be like calling her ‘Cat Lady Rose,’ I think,” said my mom. “Is that right?” She looked at my grandmother, whose face had gone from hard straight lines to a curving smile.
This was news to me; I looked to my mom for confirmation. “Grandma a cat lady? I thought she didn’t like cats. How come I never heard this story?”
When I was growing up, we had a dog, a rabbit, a guinea pig and several white mice — all rescued, or adopted from unexpected litters — but we were never allowed to have a cat. This was due to to an apocryphal incident from my mom’s childhood in which a cat claw-slid her way down the living room curtains, leaving parallel lines of supposedly horrific damage. I had always found the image amusing, but “They’ll ruin the drapes,” was the Q.E.D. that proved beyond doubt we’d never have a cat in our house.
Fast-forward several years after the last of my brothers left home, the ban was lifted when my mom took in a series of homeless cats, loving each of them fiercely, and, when it turned out one of them was diabetic, learning how to administer insulin.
“Grandma, who were those boys? Why did they call you…” I struggled with the marbled feel of Yiddish in my mouth. “…Ket-sish-eh Rose?”
“They threw her out the window!” My grandmother’s voice was hard and angry. Then it softened: “A little ketzeleh. So small.” She cupped her hands as if cradling a tiny kitten.
“They were neighborhood kids, right? In the tenement?” My mom must have heard this before.
Ptu. Ptu. My grandmother made the universal Yiddish spitting sounds one produces when speaking of evil. “They lived in my building. A stray cat had kittens in the basement. I saw them take a kitten up the stairs and throw her out the window. I ran down to look for the poor thing.” As if loosened up, the sentences rolled off her tongue as she described finding the tiny creature and rescuing her from the boys.
I pictured the scene in black and white, mirroring the photos of the era. It was the early part of the nineteen hundreds, and my great-grandmother Celia had lost her first husband, a window washer who fell to his untimely death on one of the streets of New York, leaving Celia with four children and no income.
A tale my grandmother told me many times underscored the desperate situation that her mom was left in. Celia brought Rose, her brother and two younger sisters to an orphanage, believing it was the only way they would be fed. Rose saw a room full of children with bald heads; they had been shaved to help prevent the spread of lice. “Even the girls!” my grandmother would recall with horror. Crying, she begged her mom not to leave them there. Unable to go through with it, Celia brought her children back home.
It wasn’t an easy life; my great-grandmother had a series of live-in boyfriends who contributed to the household, and some of them were cruel to Rose and her siblings. My grandmother used to reminisce about the time she had diphtheria and was admitted to the hospital; she had three good meals a day. Three! She almost didn’t want to come home.
It is this Rose who rescued the cat: the child who didn’t have enough food, who remembers a hospital stay as a luxury, who was one step away from the poorhouse.
“Grandma,” I asked. “What did you do with the cat?’
“I kept her away from those boys. I fed her, looked after her.”
“What did you feed her?”
“This and that. Whatever I could find. I shared.” Her own food.
The kitten recovered from her injuries, and my grandmother continued to feed her when she could. She kept an eye on the boys, not trusting them to leave the cat alone. As for her, a fatherless girl was fair game for teasing and taunting.
“‘Ketsishe Rose,’ they called me,” said my grandmother. “Even as I got older. They would tease me as I walked down the sidewalk. Sometimes they would corner me in the stairway. But I always got away.”
“And the cat? What happened to the cat?” I wanted to know if the young thugs tried to hurt the animal again.
“They knew better than to mess with Ketsishe Rose!” My grandmother laughed. “I went after them with a stick.”
This was a new side of Rose. I thought about this woman who trained her parakeet to hop on her finger and sing, who once encountered a burglar in her home and thinking he was lost, offered to help.
“Later on,” my grandmother continued, “when I was a young woman, one of the boys tried to get friendly with me. But I never forgot. I didn’t talk to him. I wouldn’t even look at him.” Ptu Ptu.
I felt like ptu-ing the other day when I walked past the row of crates lining the aisle of our local PetSmart, and pulled up short in front of a forlorn looking dog curled up within one. The rest were filled with adoptable cats.
“Funny-looking cat.” My husband had seen the dog too.
I read the tag on the crate: Toby. “What’s his story?” I asked the woman from the rescue group who was standing nearby.
“His owners left him when they moved out of their apartment. The landlord brought him in just as we were pulling some cats to rescue.”
“How could..? Why would..?” I wasn’t able to finish the questions because the concept of leaving a dog behind was so wrong.
“He’s with a foster now. Gets along real well with the dogs of the house — and the cats.”
“Dogs and cats?” I glanced back at my husband. He knew exactly where I was headed, but bless him, he didn’t flinch. I turned back to the volunteer. “Really? Both?”
“He sleeps with the cats. He’s really sweet. But he’s afraid of wood floors. We don’t know his whole story, but something bad must have happened in that apartment.”
“I want… I need…” Again I couldn’t finish my sentences. I didn’t look back at Brian, though I could feel his presence behind me. And I could tell he was drawn in, too.
I told the woman that I have three dogs and four cats. That I blog about my pets. That I have a warm and caring and loving home and a dog like Toby would fit in beautifully. But it takes a lot of time, money and love to care for my pets. Love, I could spare. Money and time are currently a bit scarce in our household.
“If it makes you feel any better, we have three applications already in on him. So he’ll find a good home soon. Don’t worry.”
I could feel my heart, which had begun racing, start to slow down. The dog would be cared for. He would be safe. He would be loved.
But I had to make sure.
I handed the woman my Life with Dogs and Cats business card. “Promise me you’ll let me know if those homes fall through.”
She nodded. I stuffed some cash in the donations jar. As I dragged myself away with Brian, I thought about that how the dog must have felt, abandoned and on his own, with nothing but the empty and terrifying floors around him. What kind of people would hurt a dog to create that fear, and then leave him behind like a broken lamp that wasn’t worth taking when they moved?
Ketsishe Rose would have gone after them with a stick.
The day I learned about Ketsishe Rose, after my grandmother told me the story, she returned to a more ordinary topic. “Are you hungry? Want some mohn cookies?” My grandmother’s poppyseed cookies were a favorite.
“I baked some special because I knew you were coming.” Bracing her hands on the arms of the chair, she pushed herself up. With a slight side-to-side lilt she shuffled toward the kitchen.
My mom and I followed in her wake.
Happy Mother’s Day to everyone who’s a mom to someone.
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