“I hope you write that story, Erika. You owe it to your readership,” Susana emailed. “I think an issue of a magazine on cats would give you just the prompt you need to write down that wonderful story you recounted so wittily, fluidly, vividly and spicily.”
When I related my cat tale to Susana we were floating in a pool at Hotel Jaguar in Santa Clara, Cuba. Last year, I journeyed on a People to People Cultural Exchange to the island nation where we American writers met Cuban authors for an exchange of ideas. Sounds lofty, huh? What we ended up trading were stories about famous folks we’d encounter in our lives. My sole celebrity encounter happened decades ago—Aunt Bee.
Cuban TV programming is limited. Susana’s a millennial. When I mentioned Aunt Bee of Mayberry, I drew a blank stare. I explained that the Andy Griffith Show was a popular sitcom during the 60s. It portrayed town life in rural North Carolina.
At age 28, I moved with my husband to Siler City, North Carolina. My husband had completed medical school; the public health service assigned him to a place in need of an internist. Much to my delight I learned that our new home was near that of the actress Frances Bavier aka Aunt Bee. When I made new acquaintances I’d ask if they knew her. Most shook their heads “no” and explained that she was a recluse who lived with nine cats. Occasionally, the actress would be spotted in the grocery store buying filet mignon for her kitties. “She won’t participate in our local parades,” stated a newspaperman.
“Only person she allows in her house is her yard man who sleeps in the basement,” said a neighbor.
“I heard she wouldn’t even open the door for Ron Howard, the actor who as a boy played Opie on the show,” said another.
Months passed. I resigned myself: I’d never meet Aunt Bee.
Late one afternoon the telephone rang. My husband was summoned to the ER. As he grabbed his keys, the phone sounded again. I heard a high-pitched voice on the other end. He listened patiently without interruption until he finally announced that he couldn’t make a house call at that moment, but he’d send his wife over.
I was ponderously heavy, expecting our first child. Why would he tell anyone he’d volunteer me to help? I was a teacher, not a nurse, not a psychologist.
“She needs someone to keep her company,” he said.
“She’s gone through all the other physicians in town. I’m new so she’s calling me.”
“I won’t be long. Just listen to her. You might find it interesting.”
“But, I’m pregnant and tired and …”
“It’s Aunt Bee.”
I hustled out the door before he climbed into his Datsun 280 ZX.
Star-struck, I approached her two story stone and brick house with French wrought iron balcony. Poised to knock on the front door, I heard a shrill voice hollering: “Pussy! Pussy! Pussy!”
I stopped, turned and saw a gray- bunned head poking out the side door. Cats scurried toward the screen door she held open.
“Mrs. Hoffman, I never use the front door.”
I trudged down the blue slate pathway to the sidewalk and up the gravel driveway to the concrete walkway leading to the side entrance and into the kitchen. This actress looked exactly as she had on the show—a sweet, rotund, maternal-looking, elderly woman.
Expecting to enter a Southern kitchen like on the set, replete with the aromas of baked goods, canning apparatus, and the smell of a roast cooking, I was startled when I stumbled into a dark, shuttered room, with peeling yellow stained wallpaper, a dirty linoleum flow with chipped tiles, scattered bowls of old cat food, and air thick with nicotine and cat urine. I dialed back my surprise at the overflowing ashtrays. I coughed. My eyes watered. She directed me toward the den where her TV blared and cats lazed on the sofa and chair. She motioned me to share the couch with two of them. I hesitated remembering how my OB-GYN advised against coming in contact with cat litter boxes, and there was one—overflowing. Nervously, I explained that my husband would return her call soon, but my being a fan of the Andy Griffith Show, he thought I’d enjoy meeting her. She nodded. Then she studied me, up and down.
“I never watch it,” she said. “Only public broadcasting is worth watching.”
“I like to stay up late at night and sleep during the day.”
“I was an actress on Broadway first. I’m a New Yorker.”
“I thought you were Southern?”
“Heavens no! I never spoke with a Southern accent.”
“ Andy Griffith was from Mount Airy?”
“You stay in contact with him?”
“Anyone from the show?”
“Only the make –up artist.”
“Andy was a womanizer!”
“But a talented man. He could sing. And he was a writer. He wrote many of the scripts, like the one about the pickle contest.”
“I’d love to hear more about…”
“Mrs. Hoffman, I need a favor.”
“I need you to administer medicine to my sick cat. I can’t catch her. That vet… well, that vet in town, well, I need to fire him.”
“Where’s the medicine? I’ll put it in a bowl of milk and…”
“NO! You must give the pills by mouth.”
“She’s the large, orange one. Usually on top of the piano.”
I headed out in search of my patient worrying all the time about handling a cat while expecting. Secretly, I hoped I wouldn’t find her. But Aunt Bee followed close behind me, surveilling every nook and cranny. “There’s my sick pussy!” she declared. Jabbing her finger in the direction of the obese feline, Aunt Bee spotted her. For an ill cat, she leaped high off the piano when I reached for her. I laughed. Aunt Bee shot me a withering look. “Hurry Mrs. Hoffman. She must have her pills.”
I chased the cat through the house and finally corralled her. She hissed as I hoisted her atop my large belly.
“Put the pills in her mouth!” demanded Aunt Bee. Before I could, Aunt Bee instructed,” Take this syringe of water and squirt it down her mouth.”
I balanced the fat cat on my hip, shoved the pills in, and grabbed the syringe to squirt water into the cat’s mouth when the cat yelled, “Meow” and clawed up my body to my shoulder, and then jumped off. I squirted myself in the eye.
That spry cat wasn’t on her ninth life.
All of a sudden the little woman puffed up to a good five foot one and said in an authoritative yet quivering voice, “Mrs. Hoffman, you think a dying cat is a laughing matter?”
My eyes grew wide.
“No, No. Miss Bavier. I don’t,” I stuttered.
“Then why are you laughing?”
“Well, um, um, um.”
“You are nervous? It is a nervous laugh? A habit of yours?
I blinked. “That’s it. Yes.”
“Well, we’ll have to find my pussy again and get water in her.”
So I bit my lip and searched around the house with the old actress behind me as I got down on all fours peering under dust bunny inhabited beds and sagging armchairs. To my undying relief, we never located that old cat.
Sneezing, wheezing with a pounding headache, I took my leave, while expressing my regret at not being more help in curing her cat.
And I fled.
That day so long ago cured me of being taken with fame and celebrities and also it let me know there is a wee bit of truth to tabloid stories about eccentric, reclusive, old movie stars and their houses full of beloved cats.