Cat Mary

Rebekah Demirel offers a personal look at homelessness and how we all are irrevocably bound to the plight of those affected by this crisis    

images (1)There is a basic humanity in everyone and set of feelings cutting across all classes and that bridges all divides between rich and poor, black and white, and the housed and unhoused.  

With Rebekah Demirel’s permission, what follows is an excerpt of her soon-to-be published book, Nothing’s for Nothing, that offers great insight into the reality and experience of being homeless. Rebekah, homeless herself for a time as a youth, writes about her interaction with an elderly woman and her many cats, and in doing so, captures the underlying meaning of what binds us all irrevocably together.  (Below, there’s more about Rebekah’s book.  Copies are not yet available but can be requested by going to her website here: )

Once church was done, we’d often spend Sunday afternoons driving around Richmond, where my dad worked part-time driving cab. He’d gotten to know a lot of the very poor people who lived on the outskirts, befriending them and inevitably talking to them about Jesus. And since we were on the way to Grandma’s house for dinner, there was no way out of going along on these “mission visits.”

My most vivid memory is of a woman called “Cat Mary”, who lived in a bramble covered shack on the Fraser River mud flats. The falling down, tin hovel was overrun by at least a hundred, runny eyed cats, all meowing and jumping around between the stacks of smelly newspapers and other garbage.

I never saw any furniture or appliances, so I never knew where she slept or if she had a bathroom or kitchen. It seemed like Cat Mary just slept on the newspapers with the cats and maybe she ate their food too.

When we came to see her, Cat Mary always ran to my dad with open arms, toothlessly grinning and giggling like a school girl. Her clothes were filthy, her hair was matted and she smelled like she bathed in cat pee, yet Cat Mary’s eyes sparkled, never seeming self-conscious in the slightest.

On the way there, we’d usually stop at McDonalds to buy Mary a Big Mac, also some groceries and cat food, which she would thank my dad for a thousand times. Embarrassed to be thanked so much, he’d pull out his harmonica and sing The Green, Green Grass of Home to her, crooning like Tom Jones himself.

“Down the road I look and there runs Mary, hair of gold and lips like cherries…”

I’m pretty sure he was thinking of my mom when he sang, but Mary would clasp her hands together, with stars in her eyes. I really loved my dad at moments like that.

Mary always fussed over me, cooing and clucking, while petting my hair, in the same way she stroked the cats crawling over her torn apron. I didn’t mind, in fact I liked the attention, though my brother Michael kept his distance, not daring to come in. Instead, he usually wandered around, picking berries by the fence out back, probably counting the minutes till we could leave.

She seemed so fragile and thin, so child-like in her simple devotion to all those cats, that even as a young child, I felt oddly maternal and protective towards Mary. Often, she’d offer a kitten as “payment” for the food we brought and though it was the last thing we needed, we’d end up driving away with another kitty, to add to our already ridiculous number of cats.

At night I dreamed of Mary sometimes. I think it was partly because my mom’s name was Mary too and in my dreams, images twisted into an eerie hybrid of the two women, calling me.

My heart hurt whenever we had to leave Mary there. I’d sit in the back seat with a new kitten on my lap, watching out the back window as we drove away, with Mary waving, till we were out of sight.

When I closed my eyes, her image was still there – the outline of her raised hand, bony shoulders, bare feet and ragged dress.

Loss swept over me again.

I could never understand why we weren’t taking Mary with us.

  • Rebekah Demirel is an acupuncturist and East Asian medicine practitioner with a private and practice in the Seattle area. She also draws on her fifteen years of experience as a clinical counselor and former paramedic (and paramedic trainer) in presenting workshops to social service agencies and the general public on a variety of topics, including first aid, meditation, qi gong, stress management and trauma integration. 

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“In her haunting memoir, Nothing’s for Nothing, Rebekah Demirel reveals a childhood of adversity and neglect, beginning at age three when her mother fled the violence of their home, through her years growing up in a chaotic and abusive household with her Pentecostal father and violent older brother, until leaving home at age thirteen for an uncertain life on the streets.  Rebekah takes us on a soulful journey of heartbreak, loss and grief, her own difficult homeless teen years, and the resiliency gained from those experiences, with inspiring messages of hope, healing, forgiveness and personal transformation. ” Copies of Rebekah’s book are not yet available but can be requested by going to her website here:



About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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