Articles

MERRY CHRISTMAS, LAURICETTE

By Lynn Schiffhorst

Russian blue Who was Lauricette?  On the outside, she was a Russian blue cat with the classic broad face, plushy fur, and the peaceful disposition of Russian blues around the world.  But on the inside, she was something more.  She was a cat with a religious vocation.

    Lauricette first came to public attention in 1960, when the Daughters of Charity in Paris still wore their traditional habits.  They hastened to their ministries in gowns  long enough to dust the floors of their ancient corridors, if there had been any dust, which of course there wasn’t, because cleanliness was next to godliness.  On their heads was a white cornette.  This cap with its starched wings, which looked as though the Sydney Opera House had landed on their heads, was not easy to care for, but it had the virtue of making the Sisters immediately identifiable anywhere they were in the world, and who among us doesn’t want to be distinguished? 

     Now the cornette doesn’t really matter to this story, but I’m telling you about it because I want you to picture the main character as she really looked.   And the main character was Sister Marguerite.  Of course, in her opinion, the main character was Lauricette.

    Sr. Marguerite had charge of one wing of the nursing home that was quartered in the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity.  She had the most difficult assignment of all the nurses, because her patients were far gone in dementia.  They could not understand anything said to them, and they could not give any help in their own feeding, washing and dressing. But hardest of all, and this tore at Sr. Marguerite’s tender heart, they wept and screamed from pain or grief or anger in ways they could not explain, and Sr. Marguerite could do nothing about.

     Fortunately, she had some help during the daytime.  Her nurse’s aide was a young woman called Elodie.  Elodie wanted to be a Daughter of Charity, although her vocation had an immovable obstacle in the shape of a husband, who wanted his wife home every night putting dinner on the table.  But she was so devoted to religious life that she behaved more like a novice than many of the real novices did.  If she looked away from a patient who needed her help, Sr. Marguerite had only to say, “Custody of the eyes, Elodie!”  And Elodie would refocus her attention and behave as if the distraction were not there.     

     After twelve years of carrying this responsibility, night and day, with only Elodie’s help, Sister Marguerite might have gone out of her own mind.  She might even have ripped the cornette off her head, thrown it on the floor and stamped on it, if she hadn’t – on All Saints Day – gotten help from a most unexpected quarter.

    The help was Lauricette.  Lauricette had appeared without any warning from underneath a radiator by the bed of poor Rosalie Dubois, who sobbed herself to sleep every night like a hurt child.  Coming back from dinner, Sister Marguerite was startled by the sight of a dark gray cat suddenly jumping on Rosalie’s pillow and stretching out beside the old woman’s crippled body.  For a moment, the Sister wondered if she were seeing things or if some prankster had slipped something into her wine. 

    And yet there was Rosalie cuddling a purring cat in her arms and, for the first time, Sr. Marguerite could remember, she was not sobbing.  She was not even whimpering.  And as soon as she was sound asleep, the cat gracefully extracted herself from the woman’s grasp and stood up, looking directly at Sr. Marguerite, who spontaneously held out her arms.  In a moment, they were filled to overflowing with a warm bundle of fur.  Happy as she hadn’t been in years, the sister said, “I don’t know where you came from, Sweet One, but I hope you plan to stay for a while.”

    The next morning all the Sisters gathered as usual for prayers in the chapel. As she recited the psalms, Sr. Marguerite’s heart was overflowing with gratitude.  Giving up her beloved cat, the original Lauricette, was one of the biggest sacrifices she had had to make when she entered the order.   Now God had given her another one to cherish.

    Of course, her presence would have to be kept a secret, because it offended against the unwritten law of the convent, “Thou shalt have no pets of thy own.” Breaking an unwritten law was almost always a mortal sin.

    Respecting the need for secrecy made feeding Lauricette the first big problem, until Sr. Marguerite reminded herself that it was not for nothing she had been in the French Resistance and catered successfully for half a dozen people in hiding.  Now, as before, she just needed a network of suppliers and transporters.

    Taking off her cornette – metaphorically speaking – and putting on her Resistance cap, she realized that she already had a network right at the convent.  The porter who brought up the meals for the patients was the grandson of her old neighbour, who had a great regard for animals, cats in particular. He would make no bones about supplying his grandson with cans of cat food every week that the young man could smuggle onto one of the patient’s trays. The same porter could also help her set up a litter box in a corner of the little lavatory on the ward that was used only by herself and Elodie.   

    So from that day on, when the four-legged nurse took up her duties, the little miracles began, starting with the patients in the worse condition.  Solange Legras no longer rubbed her thumb raw every week once she began to pet Lauricette.  Marie-Claire Davy gave up throwing her plates on the floor in a transport of rage after Lauricette snuggled next to her at mealtimes.  And Henriette Pellerin’s face, which had frozen into a grimace years ago, relaxed into a normal countenance after Lauricette licked her neck with a little pink tongue.

    Lauricette even mastered the art of trotting underneath Sr. Marguerite’s skirts and keeping her pace even with the Sister’s.  It was not possible to keep her out of Elodie’s sight, but fortunately with her, all Sr. Marguerite had to say was, “Custody of the eyes, Elodie,” and the woman would shift her gaze away.

    All went well until Christmas Eve, when Sr. Marguerite was leaving the pharmacy and then suddenly turned back again because she had forgotten a new medication for Solange.  Unprepared for the U-turn, Lauricette was thrown off her stride just as Mother Catherine, the superior of the convent, came out of her room into the same corridor. 

    Mother Catherine blinked.  Were her eyes developing very bad floaters as the oculist warned her they might?  Or was that a tail under Sr. Marguerite’s skirt?  She decided that yes, it was a tail.  So Sr. Marguerite was called on the carpet.

    Five minutes later, Sr. Marguerite, holding the Mortal Sin, was in the superior’s office and on her knees in her heart.  “Her name is Lauricette, Mother, and she’s a miracle. For almost two months, she has saved patients’ lives by warning me that a doctor’s intervention was needed.  She has also let me know that a woman who was not sleeping but dying needed the last sacraments.”

     Fortunately, Mother Catherine was a secret cat-worshipper.  Thoughtfully considering Lauricette, the superior said, “I suppose we could say that she has vowed herself to our ministry.”

    “Yes, we could, Mother,” responded Sr. Marguerite, who was reassured by that “we.”  “In her own way, she is a Daughter of Charity.”

   The two of them looked at Lauricette, who looked back with confidence and modesty.  For a moment, Sister Marguerite could actually picture a cornette topping the furry little gray head.   But could Mother Catherine see it?  Nervously she waited for the superior to make an objection.

   “Will she let me pet her?”  asked Mother Catherine, as Russian blue paws were already padding across her desk for just that purpose. 

     After the shortest “called-on-the-carpet” session in convent history, Sr. Marguerite carried the newest member of the order back in triumph to the ward, where Elodie was waiting breathlessly for the outcome. 

     “I can see her now officially?” she asked.  

    “She’s officially here,” declared Sr. Marguerite proudly, “and now everybody can see her.”

    Reaching into her pocket, Elodie took out two shrimp and fed them to the newest member of the staff.   “Merry Christmas, Lauricette,” she said. “And bon appetit!” 

     

Dogs Come when Called

"Dogs come when called. Cats take a message and get back to you."

"Of course, every cat is really the most beautiful woman in the room."

Edward Verrall Luca (essayist)