My Mother’s Cat

I always thought the Pruett women sounded like dreadful people. But my mother, for a reason it took me decades to discover, thought well of them.

In the mid 1920s, the Pruett women were a curiosity in my mother’s town of Shenandoah, Iowa. They rarely left their house, which was a block from my mother’s on an elm-lined street. The curtains remained drawn in all seasons and only the wind made any use of the swing on the front porch. 

It was the “Roaring ‘20s,” but the Pruett women dressed as if untouched by time. In all the years since Mr. Pruett died, the only change they made from a year of wearing black, was to wearing gray—long, gray dresses with starched white collars buttoned to the throat. They wore their hair in tight buns, concealed by unadorned bonnets. When they left the house, they did so with the mother in the lead and her daughters clamped to her elbows, their heads held high, eyes straight ahead, lips drawn down into fine lines of secret disapproval. They went about their business knotted together so tightly, my mother told me, you couldn’t have split one off with a scalpel.

I first heard the story of the Pruetts when I started school. There was a beautiful little girl in my class with thick red hair. She already knew her alphabet and could read a little, had both her front teeth and was the teacher’s pet. I didn’t like her and, at 6, found that hiding her crutches before recess compensated for my unremarkable start in first grade. Our teacher called my mother and Momma rolled out the Pruetts.

The little girl had polio, she told me, and though she wore braces on both legs, she still needed crutches. While I was growing up whole and normal and ignorant of the alphabet, this poor girl was confined to a bed with nothing better to do than practice her letters. From now on, she scolded, I was to never tease or do anything to make life more difficult for anyone. Think of the poor Pruetts, she said. It might have been just one person’s unkindness, one act of cruelty that caused the Pruett women to withdraw. They may have closed out the world, not because they really wanted to be isolated, but because hiding was preferable to risking the pain of exposure. I was never, she warned, to be the one who caused a heart to slam shut.

I was in junior high school when my grandmother was put in a nursing home. Momma dragged my sister and me up to visit her every Sunday. Most of the old folks loved us, but there was one woman, crooked and usually toothless, who gave us nasty looks, and once jumped at my sister from behind a door. I despised her.

You can’t hate her, my mother said, because you can’t know what made her so miserable. Perhaps she was never loved and cared for. 

After that, Momma made me bring her an orange from our tree every week. Before the old woman died in the second year of our visits, she gave my sister an antique doll with a china face and gave me a picture of herself as a lovely young girl. She signed the back: To my dear friend, little Ginny.

When I was 22, the boy I was in love with died in a plane crash. For the next three months, I left my apartment only to go to work. I stopped answering the phone calls of friends trying to lure me out, and ate canned Franco American spaghetti every night for dinner.

Grief is a good thing, my mother said, if it helps heal the heartbreak, but if you are going to use it to become a martyr, then you need a bun and a bonnet and starch in your collars.

When my mother was a girl in Shenandoah, people walked after Sunday supper, talked to their neighbors, and exchanged niceties. But when they passed the Pruetts’ house, they fell silent, and their eyes were drawn to the curtained windows and empty swing as if they might glimpse an unguarded moment: see the mother take a pie from the oven, spy a daughter at a dresser brushing her hair. 

On one such Sunday, my grandparents and my mother came out for their walk to find a crowd had gathered on the sidewalk in front of the Pruetts’. 

The mother and her two daughters were in their front yard. The older daughter was at the bottom of their porch steps next to a freshly dug mound of dirt. Her hair, long and full and blond, had come loose from its bun and hung over her shoulders and down the front of her dress, which was stained at the knees with dirt. She held a spade at her side. The other arm was thrown across her eyes.

The mother and the younger daughter were on their knees by the mound. The daughter’s hands covered her eyes and she wept loudly. Her mother had crumpled into a gray heap, as if she’d been crushed and cast beside the pile of dirt. Her wispy gray hair hung in long thin strands.

My mother and her parents joined the gape-mouthed neighbors at the edge of the Pruetts’ yard. My mother said, Mrs. Pruett saw them first, straightened and composed herself enough to pull her youngest daughter close and smooth her hair, then turned, her face glistening in the dying light. “It’s our cat,” Mrs. Pruett said, lifting her hands, palms up to the gathered congregation. “It’s our cat,” she sobbed.

The neighbors nodded, bowed their heads, and went away. After that day, the people of Shenandoah spoke when they saw the Pruetts out. And the Pruetts began to respond.

My mother told me this story long before my boyfriend died, before I’d had any experience with grief. She explained that Mrs. Pruett asked her neighbors to understand, and they did. Their loss was personal, grief is universal.  

her hair done, and play bridge with her friends, but I could see in her eyes, she thought only of the cancer.

“Try not to think about it, Momma,” I said one day when she forgot what she was saying and stared off into space. “Think of other things.”

She looked at me, tears welling in her eyes, and took my hand. “Try to understand, honey, this is my cat.”