For a scared Jewish girl, a fluffy blessing that transcends the grave

From the book Cherished, a collection of memoirs from writers about animals they have loved and lost, edited by Barbara Abercrombie. Copyright © 2011 by Barbara Abercrombie. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.

School assembly. Rows of hot, cheese-smelling socks lined up on the polished floor. Outside, hundreds of pairs waited in neat rows. Just thinking about the task of finding my shoes, the ones with one lace shorter than the other, made my hands clammy.

          Inside, voices were raised in song. Lips were parted in perfect O’s. Everyone’s but mine — they were clamped shut as the others sang, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Voices blending one into the other, eyes bright with joy. Yes, Jesus was their savior. Everyone’s but mine. I was small and dark-haired, a replica of my grandmother, Leah, so I had been told.

          Leah was my Hebrew name. I was a descendant of our tribe from a shtetl in eastern Europe, whose offspring had fled the pogroms and found their way as immigrants to Johannesburg, South Africa. I was a Jew. I could not sing the praises of Jesus, so I kept my mouth shut tight and hoped that no one would notice, while Abraham, Isaac, and Moses watched me from above. “Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so!” Hundreds of voices sang the final chorus.

As we filed out of the pristine auditorium, I was relieved that I had managed to keep my singing secret safe for one more school assembly. I was 8 years old, and there were hundreds more weekly school assemblies to come. As I put on my shoes and tied the one with the shorter lace I wondered why my parents hadn’t sent me and my sisters to King David, where all my cousins went.

          But my mother and father were not the sort to send their kids to such a school. My parents were Jews of the delicatessen kind, heavy on noodle kugel and gefilte fish, but light on the Talmud and Torah. My father’s beliefs centered on things that were grounded in the earth. He was pious about politics and religious about smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, Rothman’s filtered. My mother mentioned God only when she was in front of her vanity table. “Oh God, I’ve glued these false eyelashes on backward!” She mentioned Jesus, too, mostly on the tennis court. “Jesus Christ, I can’t believe I missed that shot!”

          There was only one sign in our home that we were of the Hebrew tribe — a mezuzah placed on the doorpost to the entrance of our home. A little rectangular box, it contained the first verses of the Torah on parchment in Hebrew, I was told by my cousin Merlyn, who went to King David. I was always eager to hurry my best friend, Mary Waite, with the blonde hair and blue eyes, through the front door when she came over for fear she would notice the ancient scroll on the doorpost.

          God was not ever discussed in our home, and I knew Jesus probably didn’t want anything to do with the dark-haired girl who refused to sing his praises in school assembly at Parkview Junior School in the suburbs of Johannesburg. I was spiritually rudderless. So while my father ranted about the state of the world, and my mother floated from tennis games to lunches, I held on to fluff and fur.

          My savior was four-legged, black and marmalade in color, with big green eyes. His name was Yoyo. He purred the loudest and licked the softest of any cat I had ever known. When doors were slammed and voices loud and shrill from my parents’ bedroom down the hall, I did not pray to something above to make the fighting stop. Instead I held on tightly to Yoyo’s soft, long-haired coat. That was all the comfort that I needed.

          Yoyo never squirmed under my grasp; he seemed to know to relax and let me draw whatever it was that I needed from him. I had gotten him as a kitten two years earlier from a woman who made dresses for my mother. The dressmaker’s cat had given birth to five, and I chose him without hesitation: big green eyes that filled me up with liquid warmth immediately. I experienced all that was good and pure in his small warm body and was given holy love, unwavering and unconditional.

          On the morning that started like any other and ended like no other, I remember Yoyo playing with the laces of my shoes. “We’ll play in the garden when I come home, I promise,” I said as I kissed him quickly on his pink nose. And we did, for most of that afternoon, in the mauve light tinged with the last rays of gold. I had climbed the big plum tree and Yoyo had followed me up. Then helter-skelter, down he went. I stayed sitting in the tree’s cool branches, sucking on a plum, the juice sweet and smooth on my tongue. Then a bark and a snarl followed by a hideous strangled meow reached my ears through the foliage. I leaned forward quickly so I could see to the edge of our property line, where the awful sound had come from. I almost toppled down by the horrible scene on the far side of the garden. Yoyo had his head pulled through the chain-linked fence. On the other side was Morgan, the dog next door. He was viciously pulling on my beloved cat. “No! no! no!” I screamed. I flew down the tree and raced across the lawn, a mother bird on a mission. I kicked at Morgan through the spaces in the linked fence until he let go, his mouth dripping red.

          I picked up a limp-bodied Yoyo and carried him across the lawn. The light gone. Time moved very slowly. I was numb and cold but with a single thought in my head. My cat was going to be fine. I laid Yoyo down on the linoleum kitchen floor and opened a can of cat food. My hands shook. My mouth was dry and my pulse raced with hope.

          “Eat, you’ll be better. Please stand up, Yoyo, and eat.” But Yoyo didn’t move. I pleaded. I prayed for the first time in my life. “Dear God, please let my cat live. I promise I’ll have a bat mitzvah when I’m 13. I’ll call myself Leah from now on.”

          But Yoyo didn’t move.

          “Jesus,” I pleaded, “I’ll sing. I promise, I’ll be the loudest in assembly with the sweetest voice of all.”

          But still Yoyo didn’t move.

          “Please, Yoyo. Please. Just take one small taste.” I put the cat food into the palm of my hand and held it to his bloody mouth.

          My nanny, Nellie, came in and saw me kneeling, the can of salmon cat food smeared all over my hands. “He is dead, Miss Lin,” she said. “Come,” she held her rounded arms out to me, and I ran into them and wept.

          Out back, where the corn grew high and the chickens ran free and wild, I buried Yoyo. Thomas the gardener dug the grave, and I found the box for my school shoes at the back of my closet. Inside was a brand new pair of laces, so I buried them with Yoyo. I knew he would like that. My parents offered to get me a new kitten, but I said no. There was only one cat for me, and he never was to be replaced.

          Six months passed, and I had become even smaller than I already was. Nothing felt right, nothing tasted good, and going to sleep at night was the hardest of all. I did not have Yoyo’s soft fur to wrap around my wounds. The thing I believed in most was gone.

          While my father still chain-smoked and my mother still drifted in and out of the house, I became fixated with thoughts of Yoyo and what he looked like now. One swelteringly hot summer afternoon when I could stand it no more, I took a shovel from the coal shed and went to find out. Deeper and deeper I dug, my hair matted and wet from the exertion.

          When metal finally hit the cardboard box I had buried him in, I whispered his name. “Yoyo, I’m here.” But when I opened the box, it released a stench so strong that it made my stomach lurch, and bile filled my parched throat. Inside were bits of bone and tufts of fur. Maggots crawled everywhere, but something inside willed me to keep looking. The earth around the remains was thick and tarlike, transformed, it seemed, by his lifeless form. Small white worms crawled through the black and orange fur that I had clung to so often. Somehow I got past the shock of the stench. I willed myself to not be sick. I needed to be here, with my cat.

          Then suddenly, I did not feel repulsed or revolted anymore. A calmness came over me. I stood in the garden for a long, long time, just staring at his remains. I did not care that the unforgiving sun was burning my shoulders, or that my head throbbed and my arms ached. I felt something opening and closing inside me all at once. I bent down and clutched the putrid earth in my bare hands, knowing it was just that. Earth.

          I was now ready to begin the task of closing the grave. As I shoveled dirt, I knew that all I was covering was bones and fur, not my beloved cat. Yoyo was long gone. Joined with the savior, as he had once been a savior for me. Now they were one.

          Something inside me shifted that day. I no longer hurried my friend Mary Waite through the front door past the mezuzah. In fact, I showed it to her when she next came over. “There’s a Hebrew scroll inside,” I told her, pointing toward the symbol of our faith. “My family is Jewish, you know.” She punched me in the arm. “Silly, of course I knew. That’s why my mom never serves ham or bacon when you come over.”

          In school assembly the next week, I opened my mouth and sang, “Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.” My voice was strong and clear, my mouth a perfect O. I knew that up in the heavens they wouldn’t be angry at me. I figured anything that powerful would not get hung up on what they were called.

          When assembly was over, I sat and tied my shoes, the ones with the one shorter lace. I knew it didn’t matter anymore if my name was Linzi or Leah, or whether I was Jewish or Christian. I felt a rush of Yoyo inside me, that same liquid warmth I had felt the first time I laid eyes on him. And as I followed the throng of kids out into the bright morning sun, God, Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Jesus, and Yoyo smiled down on me from above.

Novelist Linzi Glass teaches writing through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and is executive director and co-founder of the rescue group Forgotten Dog Foundation.