My Feline Familiars by Joyce Zonana

jz-headshotSixteen years ago, I was living alone in New Orleans in a lovely Craftsman’s Cottage I’d purchased the year before. In late December—just around now—a friend called to tell me about a kitten she’d seen at her Uptown veterinary office: “It’s time you got a familiar,” she declared. “I think this one’s perfect for you.” Grudgingly, I agreed to visit the vet’s office and take a look at the little black-and-white female tabby she’d seen. I wasn’t at all sure I was ready, but Mary was my priestess, the leader of our small coven, and I trusted her implicitly.

I’d lost two beloved cats—Charlie and Lisa—a few years earlier, cats who’d made the journey with me from Philadelphia—where I earned my Ph.D.— to Oklahoma—where I had my first teaching job— to New Orleans—where I’d been teaching since 1990. Charlie and Lisa had been a sort of ballast, accompanying me through huge changes of circumstance and locale, loving me and letting me love them no matter what. I’d nursed Charlie through several years of diabetes, giving him daily insulin injections, and my partner had regularly administered subcutaneous fluids to Lisa after she’d been diagnosed with kidney disease. Charlie died in our arms, and we buried him in the backyard behind my little cottage near Bayou St. John; Lisa died less gently, but she too was buried with great ceremony behind the house we later shared.

The kitten at the Uptown vet was adorable, but she’d already been spoken for by the time I met her. I decided to check with my former vet in Metairie. They had a large cage full of kittens, most of whom had been left on their doorstep on Christmas Day. Two caught my eye: four-month-old orange tabbies, deeply bonded male littermates the vet was offering for adoption as a pair. I’d always wanted an orange tabby—but if I wanted a cat at all now, I wanted only one.

After a few days of reflection, I called the vet’s office and announced I would take one. “Because we know you,” the receptionist conceded, “the doctor will agree…But you’d be so much happier with two.” I succumbed—the two kittens came home with me that afternoon, and Mary helped me to name them, a matched set: Ginger and Miso.


Miso and Ginger, Summer 2013

Ginger was the tangy one, the bold, sharp-nosed, angular one; Miso was the mellow one, shier and slower, with a wider nose and more weight on his limbs. But they looked almost indistinguishable as they groomed each other or cuddled together, inseparable, always arranging themselves symmetrically, like bookends. Once, when Ginger accidentally got out and was gone for most of a day, I panicked. Miso spent two hours licking him when I finally brought him back. Although my previous cats had spent time outdoors, I kept Ginger and Miso together inside, telling myself I was afraid of how one might react if something happened to the other. The truth is, I was afraid of how I might react.

When Hurricane Katrina stormed in, less than two years later, the cats accompanied me on my frantic drive North. At each temporary shelter we came to—the homes of generous friends in Lafayette, Birmingham, Greensboro, and finally Brooklyn—they calmly walked out of their carrying case, shook themselves and stretched, then began to explore their new surroundings. “Oh,” I remember thinking, “that’s what I can do.” Living in the present, trusting, open to whatever comes, calmly curious: that’s who I wanted to be, who my cats taught me to be, even as I grieved for a lost world.

For awhile after the storm, I stayed with a friend in South Jersey, then at my brother’s house in the Catskills; for a few months, I sublet a place in the heart of Brooklyn, teaching my scattered New Orleans students online; for six months after that, I rented an apartment in Pitman, NJ, where I’d found a temporary position teaching at Rowan University. Then it was back to Brooklyn, where I finally settled into a tiny studio in Park Slope and began to teach at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Always with the cats, whose gentle acceptance of whatever came grounded and comforted me.

Miso died in late Spring 2018, at the age of fifteen—heart failure after dental surgery. I grieved, but mostly I feared for Ginger, who, after a difficult few months, eventually settled down…and grew even more devoted to me—as I to him. It was as if we’d adopted each other: I was now his new littermate; he was my passion. Although I’m married, my husband and I don’t live together, and so it was Ginger I came home to, Ginger I woke up to, Ginger I slept with every night.

When I made my breakfast, Ginger watched and waited (impatiently) for his own; when I worked at my desk, he slept beside me or walked across my keyboard; when I relaxed in front of the TV in the evening, he immediately jumped onto the couch and curled up in my lap. I prided myself on my independence, my solitude—but in fact I was never alone. My cat familiar was a constant presence in my life, a silent witness to all my acts, my deeply intimate, warm companion.


Ginger at my desk, Summer 2019

And so, when he fell seriously ill the day after Thanksgiving last month, I was stricken. The illness—chronic kidney disease—had been coming on for some time, and I should have recognized the signs. But if I wasn’t in absolute denial, I was in avoidance, not wanting to face the inevitable. When he stopped eating and withdrew, Ginger forced me to face it. He was a finite being, a spirit who’d taken on a body for a brief time, and who was now returning to the vastness of time and space. Mary called him my “guardian angel.” A compassionate and wise vet helped me to let him go. My husband held me as I sobbed.

I write this memorial for Ginger and Miso for Feminism and Religion, and I suspect that some of you may wonder why–why here, why cats, what’s the connection? But for me, these two cats were indeed the embodied divine, the Goddess with four legs and fur, dear creatures who taught me to give and receive unconditional love and to take my place in the web of life. They taught me how much I need physical, embodied intimacy. As I remember them, I want to carry those lessons forth to all my interactions with all creatures and all of nature, to remember, in everything I say and do, the great gifts I have been given. May their memory be a blessing.


Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She recently completed a translation from French of Tobie Nathan’s Ce pays qui te ressemble [A Land Like You], a novel celebrating Arab Jewish life in early twentieth-century Cairo, forthcoming from Seagull Books. She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual and has translated Henri Bosco’s Malicroixforthcoming in April 2020 from New York Review Books.

Categories: animals, Death, General, Goddess, Grief, Nature

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23 replies

  1. What a darling photo. My true love was a 5 pound poodle x named Mattakia for her shoebutton eyes. Still tear up when I think about her. She used to lick away my tears and cry until I had to stop crying too.


  2. Dear Joyce, what a moving tribute to such beautiful animals. I have had Siamese cats for 20 years now and several of them have seen me through some difficult times. The strongest bond was with Odin, a very handsome male who would let me lie on the bed feeling miserable and just hold his big paw. he slept in my arms every night and I adored him.

    Odin died 18 months ago of heart failure at the young age of 7 and I did not know how I would get through it. Then I remembered the title of a wonderful children’s book about death called “Cry Heart, But Never Break.”

    Now I still have Odin’s sister Freya and a new little boy called Ragnar, but Odin’t photo takes pride of place on our hall table.


  3. What beautiful tribute to our feline familiars. Having been inveigled by seal point Siamese I am eternally grateful to Bast and Her Beloveds =^..^=


  4. I have a half-ginger, her tummy and chest is white, also named Charlie. Your post gave me quite the turn! We’ve been together for twelve and a half years. She was a stray and I took her and her mother in, under pressure from my landlady at the time. I was also unsure about whether I wanted a cat in my life but of course have been grateful for her presence in my life. We go on walks together in nature. It was her idea! She must be thirteen now and is as agile as the day I got her.

    I’m very sorry for your loss. The vacuum left will take time to fill. Hope you’ll find another at some point when you’re ready to take in and love.

    She once got stranded in an attic of an unused house a little distance away from where we live. I got worried when she didn’t come home and found her by sheer radar because our bond is so strong.


  5. So beautiful, Joyce! Thank you! I have a story similar to yours, two stories, of two bonded pairs, and how the surviving cats gave and received comfort. My heart is with you! Yes, cats are divine.


  6. I grew up with my mother’s series of little barky dogs, all named Chipper, but shortly after I got married Fred arrived, a tabby-Abyssinian mix who lived with me for nearly a decade and still comes back from the other world to visit me. Since the late 1980s, I’ve lived with Maine coons named Heisenberg and Schrodinger. My second Heisenberg is now almost 20 years old. Right now, we don’t have a Schrodinger. Cats are indeed divine.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ah, here is the lesson “They taught me how much I need physical, embodied intimacy. As I remember them, I want to carry those lessons forth to all my interactions with all creatures and all of nature” – this is what our animals do – they not only teach us about unconditional love they open the door to divinity in nature if only we are sensitive enough to receive the message.


  8. As I began reading this lovely essay, I immediately felt at home with the feeling and sacredness embedded within your words about your feline familiars; yes, indeed … “But for me, these two cats were indeed the embodied divine, the Goddess with four legs and fur, dear creatures who taught me to give and receive unconditional love and to take my place in the web of life.” Every cat in my life has shared their divinity with me, each in unique ways, as have my canine companions. Thank Goddess for their blessings in our lives!


  9. Thank you for this beautiful and moving tribute to Miso and Ginger. My mother and I have a bonded pair, a brother and sister. They are black and are part angora. We got them just before Halloween last year. We got them at our local Humane Society after our two cats died at the age of 17. I only wanted to get female cats since I didn’t want to deal with a male who may have spraying issues. The workers at the Humane Society talked to me about this pair and gave me their file to read. I found that they had had 4 homes in 4 years. Their first owner had them for nearly 4 years but had to give them up after she got divorced. Anyway, I’m glad we decided to adopt them because they are so sweet and loving!


  10. Joyce, your article fills my heart with compassion to your beloved cats and what you went through. Every word written by you, is to me , like I have gone through. Years ago, right after my husband left, one of the two cats, Ginger had clearly giving me a sign that he wants to die, after a few months the other One, Oliver had suffered so much and me was trying to hold on his flickering light of life, I failed that he wanted to go, because I was emotionally so much involved in my coming up divorce. It took me a few years to adopt a new cat from a shelter, I named her Moshu, she has just three legs, one was amputated when she was a baby cat, just like I felt going through this divorce, I felt amputated. So that’s how have bonded and care for each other. Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts.


  11. I am sorry for your loss. Losing a loved one is the worst.


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