Brimful of Zoe

It’s been a week since that last very sad day with Zoe, and I finally feel able to pay tribute to her and celebrate her short life by sharing a few anecdotes. I suspect many people will think this is too much grief for a pet (I probably felt the same way before having her), but she was much more than that to me. I apologise to those who read my Twitter thread, for I will be repeating many of the same things, but Twitter is transient and I wanted a slightly more permanent way to commemorate her uniqueness.

She was my first pet and I had to wait over 40 years to get her. I had always loved cats, but my parents refused to allow any pets in the house. I would wander forlornly in the vacant lots behind our house and feed stray cats there in secret. When my friends got me a kitten for my 18th birthday, they made me return her to the owners of the mother cat. Once I left my parents’ house, I was either too broke, or living in student accommodation/ private rentals, moving every 6-12 months, often in-between countries, to even contemplate getting a pet. Once I got married and had children, I kept being told by parents, in-laws and husband how unhealthy it would be for babies to grow up in a house with cat hair and excrement. Plus, I was travelling a lot for work, my husband made it clear he would not look after an animal in my absence, and moving abroad continued to happen.

In the conservatory.

She became my symbol of ‘breaking free’ and not caring what other people thought. In January 2014 we were living in France and I had just ended an extremely busy year of travelling for work. I was cutting back on my professional obligations, partly for my own sanity, partly to spend more time with the children, but most of all because my husband had issued an ultimatum that he couldn’t bear to take over the childcare and household responsibilities any longer (needless to say, I was still doing most of these whenever I was at home, and organising with other mums and after-school clubs for the rest of the time). I was also starting to feel very lonely, resentful and sad in my marriage, but my husband kept telling me there were no problems, no need to do any counselling, and I should just snap out of my totally unjustified depression.

I decided it was now or never to get a cat and visited the local shelter, where I saw a shy tabby trying to avoid all the other cats. The people at the shelter told me her sad backstory and it took me just a couple of days to complete all the paperwork and adopt her on the 4th of February. As soon as I brought her home, my husband (who had hitherto served his usual ‘you do as you please, dear’ response) started complaining (this was his typical MO). He claimed he was allergic to cat hair, but luckily he was incapable of going for a doctor’s appointment without me in tow to translate for him, so we soon debunked this. He never fed or stroked her, but the boys were by now old enough to help and they fell as much in love with her as I did. In fact, they immediately composed a lullaby for her, which they used to sing till she fell asleep (it didn’t take too long, she loved napping). It always seemed to calm her down (maybe she just loved hearing her name repeated a lot), so I sang this song to her a lot during her final few days.

For the past eight years, our Christmas pictures have always featured all three ‘children’.

She knew exactly when to come onto my lap. For the first six months or so, she was friendly but cautious and slightly aloof. She took a while to sit on the sofa, and always only on a little green blanket that we put there for her. She allowed herself to be stroked, but hated being picked up and never came onto our laps.

All this changed on a single day. In mid-July, we took the boys to the airport to fly as unaccompanied minors to their grandparents in Greece. We paid quite a high sum for this service (we had done it before with other airlines/airports and it had worked beautifully), only to find that the Swiss made us queue with them (no Fast Access lane), take them through security, take them to the gate, wait there until their flight was airborne etc. I went to complain about this lack of service, which clearly embarrassed my husband, as he then proceeded to complain about me in the car on the way home, saying I was impossible to live with, and no wonder he had been having an affair for the past year.

I was so shocked and hurt by this sudden news, especially from someone claiming that my unhappiness in the marriage was illusory and everything was just fine, that I ran into the guest room (which was Zoe’s domain, as she was not allowed in our bedroom) and threw myself onto the bed, sobbing uncontrollably. After a while, I felt a little paw on my back. I turned, sat up and Zoe crawled onto my lap, and she has been there ever since. It was her favourite spot, but she seemed to have knack for knowing when I was especially sad or upset or ill in the many tricky years that followed, and she was always there for me.

I don’t have many pictures of the two of us together, but this one shows her doing ‘sucky-sucky’, i.e. kneading on my lap while also sucking her blanket. She would sometimes meow at me impatiently to get into position for her to do that

She was the best-behaved darling. The day after I brought her home, I already let her roam all over the house. I went cross-country skiing on the 5th of February with some friends, and they told me: ‘Oh, no, you’ll come back and all your furniture will be scratched, she’ll have peed on the sofa, jumped up on the counters, smashed your vases etc.’ But she didn’t do it that day – or ever. The most she ever did was climb up occasionally to sleep in my younger son’s bunkbed, and she would always jump down from it guiltily when we intoned: ‘Zoe? Are you being naughty again?’ That didn’t stop the boys or me, of course, from blaming her whenever something was missing in the house: ‘Zoe must have taken the nail clipper or my school tie or left the door to the garage open.’

She was starting to get a bit cheekier in the last year or so: jumping up on the kitchen counter if we forgot any food there. We would hear a telltale loud thump when we were in the living room, watching TV.

She was a bit of a hunter back in France, and would explore the garden and all the way to the end of the close. Once we moved to England, however, she became far more cautious (possibly because of the loud road at the back of our garden) and never again troubled the wildlife. In fact, she rejected the advances of two of our neighbours’ tomcats, who competed for her French demoiselle graces by bringing mice as offerings on our drive for the first few weeks after we returned to the UK.

She was Mummy’s Girl but also had a delightful complicity with the boys. Her preference for me was so marked that even the boys had to admit that it might be about more than just me feeding her. The boys often spoke in ‘her voice’, saying: ‘Maman est la meilleure.’ She even forgave me within a couple of minutes when I had to give her worming and tick liquids, or take her to the vet. As for when I had to put her in a cattery once when we went on holiday, she was utterly miserable there, and when we got back home, she brought in two mice, a bird and two lizards that day, as if to tell me: ‘See what a good provider I am? Please don’t put me in that awful place again.’ [It was the most expensive and exclusive Swiss cattery you can imagine, but hey- ho…].

She was a bit of a celebrity, since she was included in a colouring book Forty Real Cats From Around the World by Pamela Hodges, where she represented France, with her stripey pattern, a beret and chasing butterflies (she never caught on that it was impossible to catch them).

Watching TV – or should that be my eyes while watching TV.

In France, we would take the shortcut through a neighbour’s garden and an orchard to walk to school, and Zoe would often follow us there, but stop short of the road. She liked to pretend to be spying on us, but she was rubbish at hiding, so we could see her when we came back from school too, waiting just by the horses in the field. Aside from pretending to be James Bond, she also liked to pretend to be a dog: she would dash after the bouncy miniature toys that we threw, but just sat beside them instead of bringing them back.

Back in England, she knew what time the boys would be back from school and jump on the windowsill in my study, which overlooks the front door, to wait for them about five minutes before they arrived. She would then run downstairs to chat to them about her day, and try to trick them into feeding her: ‘Maman hasn’t fed me in years, look how skinny I am!’ [She was a plump little girl, who sometimes got stuck on her back like a beetle while rolling, and had to be put on a diet. Which made the last couple of months, when she lost more than half her body weight, particularly heartbreaking.]

She was a gifted linguist, an excellent reading companion and perfect for exam revision. Although she seemed to respond best to the French language, over the years she picked up English, Greek, German, Romanian, Japanese, Spanish and Italian as we either learnt or spoke those languages or during Family TV Time. She loved me reading to her in bed, I don’t think she’d have minded me sitting there all day. And she was always there to help the boys revise for their GCSEs and A Levels. Her particular areas of expertise were the Weimar Republic, Stalinist Russia and hot deserts, although she was starting to differentiate between Sartre and Camus recently.

My favourite example of her French bias came when we were watching Casablanca. She was (for once) not on my lap, but on the windowsill next to the TV and when the Marseillaise was sung, she jumped down and stood to attention in front of the TV. Alas, not captured on camera! She also tended to prefer the team dressed in blue whenever we watched football: ‘Allez les Bleues!’

And in case you are wondering where the title of the post comes from, it’s from this song by Cornershop, which was everywhere around the time I came to live in London and is a homage to the things you love and that made you what you are today (in this case the music from Bollywood films).

49 thoughts on “Brimful of Zoe”

  1. A lovely tribute to your Zoe Marina Sofia. I’ve been away from twitter and the blogosphere for a bit so please accept my late condolences. It’s not too much grief for a pet – if the love is real the grief is real, and Zoe was clearly loved very much. Take care, xx

  2. What a very wonderful thing it has been to have YOU in my life and to have met the real Zoe. She helped you to create a home that was warm and brilliant, in spite of all the many non-stop challenges the ex- provided for you. I loved reading the backstory to Zoe’s time with you and about all her dear ways. In love and friendship – Jen xxxxxx

  3. I am so sorry for your loss. She was clearly a special lady and you are right to remember her so fully as she was such an important part of your life. xx

    1. She really was an essential part of the family, the boys would share secrets with her when they didn’t feel ready to talk about it with anyone else, and she clearly helped them too during the divorce and lockdowns.

  4. Losing a beloved pet is almost tantamount to losing a member of your family. Your endearing descriptions of Zoe are a wonderful tribute to a happy life shared ( the husband apart).
    My heartfelt condolences Marina.

    1. Thank you, Wally – she had been ill for a while, but I never thought it was that serious, so I kept hoping till the very end that we would find a way to cure things.

      1. Would you consider getting another cat. It is always difficult deciding since it does hamper ones freedom a bit if one travels around, as you do. Although cats are much more independent than dogs and need less attention. It would, however, dampen the sorrow you are feeling at this time. Whatever you decide, my dear, know that my thoughts are with you. Do take care of yourself…..and think about coming back to France for a visit……

        Much love   Wally

        1. Yes, I probably will get another cat eventually but don’t feel up to it right now. And I hope to come to Luberon soon. Maybe March or so.

  5. Zoe sounds like the most spectacular cat. I’m so sorry you’ve lost her. I too had a cat that did the kneading thing and she had a feral kittenhood. She wasn’t as gentle as your Zoe though! It sounds as if you’ve been very lucky to have spent the time you did with her. I love your description of her response to Casablanca. What a cat!

  6. A lovely tribute. No animal is ever ‘just a pet’ for me but so many think that way. Really sad. When I still worked at a corporate company there was occasionally someone coming to see me to speak to me about their cat’s death because they didn’t dare tell anyone else. So sad.

    1. There is apparently an animal charity here Blue Cross that has counsellors to help you through your grief, a friend of mine sent me the link. I haven’t even mentioned her loss to my parents, who would be incapable of understanding my grief.

      1. Cats Protection also offers a service, I think.
        My friend Sarah whose cat Zucco disappeared three years ago faces the same reactions from her family. They simply don’t understand that she’s grieving so much. In spite of their faults, my parents loved animals very much. They always grieved our and later their respective pets very deeply. Zoe sounds like such a sweet cat, I can imagine how much you must miss her.

    1. We would have spoilt her rotten if we could, but the truth is, she was not very demanding at all. Just a little bit greedy with food (understandable if she didn’t get much of it in the early days).

  7. What a lovely tribute to Zoe, Marina Sofia! She really must have been a delightful companion, a balm to your soul, and an important part of your family. That’s thing about beloved animals; they really are members of the family, so grieving their loss is natural. I wish you well as you move on and I’m happy for you that you have so many wonderful memories of Zoe. Thank you for sharing some of them. Those photos are fantastic.

  8. Such a beautiful love letter to Zoe, Marina. Made me cry. Thanks so much for sharing. Sending you lots of hugs ❤️

  9. What a lovely tribute to a really special girl. I don’t think there is enough recognition of the real grief of losing a cat – it’s certainly caused me more genuine grief than any of the humans I’ve known who’ve died.

  10. Such a lovely tribute, Marina. As a fellow cat lover I know the loss well. I imagine you will open your heart to another furry companion in time, but that does not reduce the space Zoe will always hold—it simply makes your heart larger.

    1. It’s a bit like having children – when I was expecting my second one, I wondered how I could ever love someone as much as my first – and needless to say, it was perfectly possible. But she will always occupy a special place, because she was there at just the right time for me, and I’d been waiting for her for so long.

  11. A really beautiful tribute to your gorgeous girl, Marina. I love how she was always there for you and could sense when you needed comfort and support. She was clearly a very special companion, your rock through various troubled times, and I’m sure she must have known just how much you adored her. My heart aches for you and the boys and the grief you’re experiencing right now – I’m so very sorry for your loss. The Cats Protection consoling service sounds like a very valuable thing to follow up… X

  12. Yes, this is lovely and familiar and sad and joyful and more, as anyone who’s had a pet (and particularly a cat) may well recognise. Commiserations, Marina Sofia, but though no compensation this is such a wonderful tribute.

  13. Lovely tribute to Zoë, the French cat. The Freedom Cat?

    La Marseillaise, eh? Good girl! (Athough now she’d be sick of the royal stuff all over the French media) 🙂

    More seriously. I’ve never had any pet, so I can only imagine how sad you must be. Take care.

  14. Oh, Marina, I’ve only just spotted this post as I’ve been in hospital. I am so sorry for your loss; you clearly loved Zoe and made a huge difference to her life. You have wonderful memories and photos of your time with her, but for now, the space she’s left in your life will feel enormous, so remember how her last years here were made pleasurable by living with you.

    1. It has hit me hard – got her ashes back on Saturday and that was a tough moment again. But at least I have so many wonderful memories of her!
      Hope your hospital stay was not too bad or long, and that you are on the mend now?

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