Gray cat in the manger

imagesMy grandmother was loving, kind and self-sacrificing. Margaret, my grandfather’s lady friend with whom he took up after my grandmother’s death, was none of that. Margaret did have lovely skin, as she often pointed out. She was from New Orleans, but the sun had never touched this lovely skin. Her devoted husband had done every outside chore for her; hats, gloves and long sleeves kept the rays away even in that heated city.

When Margaret moved in with my grandfather, his home became unwelcoming to his children: my mother and uncles. This was not Margaret’s fault, of course. The problem was her cat Bobby who was rendered “anxious” by the presence of  “visitors,” a term which applied exclusively to my mother and uncles. Bobby must not be anxious. That was the rule. Bobby had “asked” for peace and quiet in the house and my grandfather either couldn’t or wouldn’t endure a face-off with Bobby.

Hence my grandfather’s ninetieth birthday party in Houston was a tad tense. My mother, father and I had come in from another city, but had to stay in a hotel. The  party was at a friend’s house because of the Bobby problem. Over coleslaw, seven layer salad and barbequed chicken, the air crackled.

I had never actually seen Bobby since grandchildren were even more “visitors” in the house than children. “He’s gray, so of course he has an ‘M’ on his forehead,” was Margaret’s opening gambit when I asked about the peremptory cat.

All gray cats have an ‘M’?”

“All of them.” When I asked why, she regarded me with disdain, indicating that Bobby’s low opinion of me was more than justified. “The ‘M’ is for ‘manger,’ because there was a gray cat in the stable when Christ was born.” I said I’d never heard or seen references to this cat. Because I’m an ignoramus, her look suggested. “There was a gray cat. It’s well known.” Well shut my mouth.

My father pointed out that “manger” wouldn’t have begun with an ‘M’ in Aramaic. Margaret said she knew that, but to repeat, “manger” starts with an ‘M’ in English. Apparently gray cats were linguistically advanced, anticipating the development of English at the time of Nativity.

Trying to diffuse the air, my mother said that stables often had cats to keep down rodents. Her father kept cats on the farm for that reason. Margaret was not pleased and pointedly did not pass around her seven-layer salad. “There were no rats in the stable. It’s well know.” The divine gray cat had another function. My father asked what that function might have been, passing the seven-layer salad to my mother who pointedly said, thank you, she didn’t care for it.

“When baby Jesus cried, the gray cat put his paw on the babe’s chest and baby Jesus ceased his crying.”

Now the big knives were coming out. “Baby Jesus did not cry in the manger,” my mother declared.

“Of course he did,” Margaret snapped. “All babies cry.”

“Not Baby Jesus,” my mother shot back. “It’s in the Christmas carol. ‘Little Lord Jesus, no crying he made’.”

“Martin Luther wrote that carol,” my father added loyally. “He must have known.”

“Luther didn’t know anything.” Margaret thumped the seven-layer salad out of reach. “He lived hundreds of years after Jesus. What did he know?”

Pamela Schoenewaldt, historical novels of immigration and the search for self in new worlds: WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, SWIMMING IN THE MOON, and UNDER THE SAME BLUE SKY (all HarperCollins).

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One comment on “Gray cat in the manger
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