Cat Talk


It is the last full day of summer, the longest and driest in the 24 years, off and on, I have spent in Washington State since 1980, and certainly in the five years Delia, our 18-year-old cat, has lived here. She has lived with us for the past 14 years, during which time she has adapted to living with humans and struggled with communicating with us, or at least teaching us to interpret Cat. She hasn’t always been quite so vocal, but during our frequent travels over the past few years, she has had ample time to observe other cats, among her fellow guests at the Just Cats Hotel, and to duplicate their vocalizations, particularly, such phrases as, “I’ve used my litter box: clean it now!” And, “It’s 4:30am—time to make a fire and sit by it.” Language, after all, is but a sequence of sound tokens and context, with meaning a mutual understanding among the speakers and listeners. And, cat talk has a simple grammar—every statement is a demand for some action on the part of the human half of the conversation.

Most of her conversation is in body language, though, and we have learned that, as a pad between her and a lap, she likes quilts best, having lived in a household where quilts are made: before she was banned from the sewing room, she would crawl onto the sewing table and lie on the half-finished quilt top as the blocks were sewn together. Her next favorites are handwoven wool coverlets, a fairly new addition to the handcraft repertoire. The crocheted afghans, gifts from “Auntie Bing,” on which she spent so much time earlier, are now rejected outright as too claw-catching. We are frequently beseached to join her in the living room to provide a platform for proper use of a quilt, preferably in a recliner by the fire. However, this summer, I have put a screen in my office window and placed her scratching platform next to it, so she sometimes consents to be “office cat” to be near her people as well as near the porch.

This summer, while recovering from open heart surgery, I spent less time rushing about or sitting at the computer, and more time sitting on the porch, to the delight of the cat. Our current base camp in our life journey is a 1920s bungalow, of the classic design where the porch is under the natural roof line rather than a mere covered entryway, forming a room with three sides open to the outside. Delia has always enjoyed the porch as a place to get out of the rain while trying to get our attention to be let back in after her daily inspection of the grounds, but quickly adopted it this summer as part of our living space.

Of late, since I have recovered enough to focus on other tasks, Delia has indicated more and more that, no, she doesn’t want in, she wants us to come out, to sit with her on the porch to enjoy the mild summer. So we go, with lunch or books, and enjoy the sun and fresh air. She sits under our chairs or the patio table we moved up for the season, or on a convenient lap.


So it was on this last day of summer—she all but begged me to come out and sit with her. Judy was busy in the house, so Delia sat in her chair, the one in the sun, where she could look out over the low wall toward the street. I had sat there, but Delia indicated that, no she didn’t want to sit on my lap, she wanted to sit in the chair, so I moved back to “my” chair on the other side of the table, whereupon she curled up in Judy’s chair and assumed that regal stone lion pose seen on the entry to libraries and great houses, while I was left alone with my book.

As the afternoon wore on and the sun moved around behind the house, the breath of Fall settled on the porch, prompting me to retreat to the house. Delia remained, and pleaded with me through the office window to rejoin her. I put on a jacket and went back outside, but soon felt the deepening chill with the sun falling below the hill and shadows lengthening. This time, Delia reluctantly followed me into the house, closing the door on summer one last time.

At nearly 18, summers are precious to a small cat, something that I, in my 70th summer, can also appreciate. The rain came at last, but briefly, during the night, and fall colors began to appear with the gray dawn. Winter is coming.