It doesn’t look the same. It doesn’t sound the same. It really doesn’t smell the same.
Yet there seemed to be enough about the old house and the old neighborhood for my cats to recognize it in very short order.
My two cats, Smudge the spry Siamese and Callie the long-haired and bulky calico, have traveled much more than most domestic cats have or would even want to. Because of Hurricane Katrina and the record-setting storm surge that she delivered to coastal Louisiana, the cats haven’t seen their old house for more than 10 months.
A few days before we officially moved into our blizzard-white FEMA travel trailer, I thought it would be a good idea to bring them over to start getting them acclimated to their new home. Cats never like to be put into a carrier for a road trip, so their initial reaction to the plan was unfavorable.
Once we arrived, I set the carriers in the trailer and went to work to set up a litter box, food and water. When I opened the carriers, both cats came out almost at once. Smudge, the friendlier of the two, began to explore immediately, meowing all the way. I imagine she was saying, “Hey, what’s that? Hey, what’s this thing here? Hey, Callie, come see! Do you think this is my bed?”
Callie kept low and moved more cautiously than her sister. An uninformed observer might have thought she was on a hunt. Sudden movement or sounds clearly startled her.
We slept that night in what I would loosely call the Master Bedroom; Smudge at my feet and Callie almost on top of my head.
The following morning, I let the cats have a brief look outside—no more than 10 minutes. Here, their roles reversed. Callie wanted to go exploring into the burned shell of our house, while Smudge did not want to leave the steps in front of the trailer door.
I followed Callie as she stepped boldly but carefully into the house. “Do you recognize this?” I asked her. “Does anything here look familiar?” She paid no attention to me, and was quite annoyed when I scooped her up and put her back into the trailer. Smudge was sitting by a window, looking intently at (studying?) the house that used to be her home.
Again that night, we three were on the bed.
On the second morning, I let them wander a little further and stay out a few hours. Around noontime, I found them lying under my flood-damaged car that was still parked in the driveway next to the house. Before New Orleans was flooded it was not uncommon for my cats to spend the afternoons in the shade under my car.
And there they were again. The car, flooded over the roof, has not moved since that awful storm. While the half-inch thick mud and sludge that had covered the walks and drive were shoveled off months ago, the mud remained under the immovable vehicle. I’m sure the mud held more moisture and made it cooler under there than ever before.
And that’s when I knew they understood. I’m sure they remembered the blond bricks and pavement, and they may remember the trees and garden. Two cats, a small but not insignificant part of a New Orleans family, their lives all blown off course by a hurricane, had returned to a place of happiness and comfort, a place they quickly adjusted back into.
The house is a mess, of course, and no one can live there now. But the feeling of being home, the comfort and safety that home entails seemed evident in the way my two little cats quickly readapted to living here. The condition of the building cannot supplant the memories we have of this place. Even the cats feel it.
Welcome home, Smudge and Callie.