For Christmas, a good friend gave me a Crazy Cat Lady Action Figure. On the cover of the box in neon orange letters is stamped the question “How many cats do you have?” Five, I answered to myself and smiled knowing that instead of an impersonal gift card, my friend had put some thought into the gift: I'm special, I thought. Initially, I couldn’t wait to tear open the package and arrange my new little family on my desk at work. There are six varieties of felines, ranging from the menacing solid-black to the primarily white Siamese. And of course, there is their mistress, the Crazy Cat Lady, donned in her military green bathrobe with matching headband, blue plaid pajama bottoms, and forest green house slippers. Did she just get out of bed? Yes and no. She never leaves the house. But wait! What is that poking out of her robe pocket? Out both sides of her shoulder length hair? Cats. So, she has eight, not six. I adore cats. I always have loved them. And once in awhile, I joke with friends that one day I will indeed become Crazy Cat Lady. I think it’s safe to assume she needs no introductions, but in case there is the one soul reading this who is clueless to the Crazy Cat Lady’s existence, I will briefly summarize a typical day in the life of this unique woman. She wakes, feeds cats, brushes cats, strokes cats, talks to cats, watches cats, plays with cats, sings to cats, and oh, cleans litter boxes. In return, this mighty species provides her with companionship and occasional entertainment, on its terms, naturally.
But let’s move on to my fascination with the Crazy Cat Lady. Earlier, I wrote that I jokingly predict I will assume the identity of the Crazy Cat Lady. Yes, I love cats. I have five cats. Presently, my elderly mother lives me, a Crazy Cat Lady living condition I previously failed to mention. But I really don’t spend all of my time with my cats or any felines. When I am home, all of my cats are home, so needless to say, sharing the same space does make us rather intimate. There is a dog on the premises, which I think goes against the Crazy Cat Lady creed: nothing before or after cats shall I know. And I love my dog. I do leave my house, every damn day. And by god I do change out of my military green bathrobe every day as well. So, what’s the problem? I should be happy with my gift. I am. I cherish my gift. Find it funny. Endearing. And I'll admit, while holiday shopping, I saw the Crazy Cat Lady Action Figure in my local independent bookstore and almost bought one for myself. But it’s different when someone else buys you this gift. At least it was a friend and not the neighbor who recently moved in next door and knows nothing of you except that you own a military green bathrobe and five cats. But I am most decidedly not the Crazy Cat Lady, now or ever. To quote Edie Beale, "Raccoons and cats become a little bit boring. I mean for too long a time."
Then why all the thought about her?
A few nights ago I watched for the first time the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens by cinéma vérité artists Albert and David Maysles. I had some idea of what I was getting into, but after the viewing, I had to be alone, to process the images and to tease out all I was feeling. Grey Gardens of East Hampton was home to Edith Bouvier Beale, a.k.a. Big Edie, and her daughter, Little Edie. If the name Bouvier sounds familiar, it should; the two women were aunt and cousin to Jackie O. In a desperate state of disrepair, the 28-room mansion was close to being condemned in 1973 due to Suffolk County Health Department codes violations when Jackie O hired industrial cleaners to tidy up the place. The Edies lived in seclusion for over 20 years until the elder Edie died in 1977. Little Edie passed in 2002. While they were alive, mother and daughter spent almost every waking moment together, cooking corn on the cob in Big Eddie’s bedroom and subsisting mainly on ice cream and pate. Until reporters began stalking her, Little Edie spent time on the beach, sunning and swimming. Otherwise, the ladies lived together in the past, Little Edie rehearsing her dance moves, and both ladies singing tunes from their days as socialites in New York of the 1930s, reminiscing over old photographs of themselves. Both women had dreams of starring on stage. And of course, there were the cats. Cats coming and going when they pleased, using the home as they pleased, being served luncheon by Little Edie at the behest of her mother. Wall to wall cats, reproducing at their pleasure.
Both women were drop dead gorgeous; Little Edie’s beauty far surpassed that of Jackie O’s. And they were freaks. That’s why I like them. Their men betrayed them early on. Although, the legend is that Little Edie in her twenties set her hair on fire to ensure no man would ever want to marry her. They were talented, intelligent, creative women who could act every part except that which their aristocratic family wanted them to master. As Little Edie once said, "They can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday.” Their inheritance was denied. In later years, when both women were appreciated by artists such as Andy Warhol, many regarded Little Edie as a fashion icon and philosopher, a court jester of sorts.
After allowing these women to live in me for a week, I feel protective of them. I imagine many familiar with the Beale's story judge the women and work hard to pinpoint their pathology. Dysfunctional, co-dependent, and all of those other psycho-diagnostic terms often used to “understand” people. But even in their fragmented world, I see Big and Little Edie not only as survivors but as creators; who in this world is perfectly adjusted? Perhaps to be complete is to be inhuman.
Why my fascination? To me, the story sounds perhaps a little familiar, which accounts for my attraction and repulsion, but overwhelmingly attraction. My great aunt Dorothy was often compared to Faulkner’s Miss Emily, although the body in my great aunt’s house was never found. Actually, she ran him off in 1930 when her prayers could not dry him out. For a few years, Dorothy had her own radio show in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She played a beautiful Chopin as well as “acceptable” selections from popular music. When her mother became ill, she told her brothers she would continue to live at home as she always had and nurse their mother. In the late 1950s, Dorothy was an air traffic controller until the stress of the job led to a final meltdown, and she never left the Duane Avenue family mansion again. The past was always alive for her through her music, her photographs, her memories. A past that remained beautiful in her mind.
My family history is rich with the mother-daughter dynamic, but it hasn’t ruined any of us. In 1964, after my father belted her across the face for the last time, my 19 year old mother came home and stayed home. My grandmother threatened to shoot my father if he even came near the block where they lived. She loved as she wanted, lived as she wanted, and although I have always resented her for the ways her lifestyle impacted me, I also admire her and accept that at the time, she had to find some way to breathe. Even with memories of a very often painful and frustrating life, my mother's conversation of late consists of one part present and nine parts past.
As Grey Gardens opens, we see Little Edie on what barely passes as the front lawn of the mansion. She glances into the lens, then away, and back again. Half smiling she reflects, “There is a fine line between the past and the present.” Who decided there are rules for what sustains us? Eccentric, schizophrenic, bi-polar, creative. It might not be so bad to flirt with being the Crazy Cat Lady, at least now and then.