Elegy for Peaches, the placemaker

letter to the editor

My two small girls loved wandering up from our apartment in Keohane 4D to pet—or, more often, observe—Peaches. I was the Residence Coordinator of Keohane Quad for six years, from 2014-2020, and Peaches joined our community during my tenure in the quad, shortly after the birth of my first daughter.

I have many fond and funny memories of Peaches. The way she always escaped my toddlers’ outstretched, grasping hands by slinking into the thorny holly; the times I found Peaches sitting placidly inside of Keohane, almost as if she was waiting to meet a friend who was coming to visit; the raised eyebrows and laughs of colleagues as I showed them Peaches’ heated shelter (“That’s nicer than my home!” was the customary rejoinder). The first summer of the pandemic, my girls and I sat outside Peaches’ house nearly every day, often finding the same individuals there, pilgrims looking for solace during unprecedented times.

The last year I spent in Student Affairs, I served on QuadEx’s steering committee and participated in the launch committee focused on matters of quad identity. The identity of a place and a community, if it is to last, is not something that can be manufactured and implemented top-down. It must bubble up from the community itself. This is the legacy of Peaches and the profound lesson that she taught me; put another way, Peaches’ significance for me is about how she turned a space into a place. She was—to borrow language from urban planners, architects, and community organizers—a placemaker, whose presence and character helped define the identity of Keohane Quad for several years. Peaches was a campus pillar, a symbol, our community cat, who helped us understand where we were and who we were. Whenever I gave people directions to Keohane 4B or McClendon Tower, I would tell them, “From the bus stop, follow the sidewalk past Few as it curves around to the right. You’ll see a building with a cat outside of it. That’s 4B.” The Keohane Residence Life team came to dub the common room closest to Peaches’ house “Peaches’ Common Room,” which proved a more useful way to distinguish it from the common room at the other end of the 4th-floor hallway. Peaches, in fact, was the reason I hung the 12”x20” cat painting at the end of that same hallway.

During 2019’s Resident Assistant Training week, the theme of which was “Camp,” Keohane’s RA team adopted the identity of “Troop Peaches.” We dressed up as cats for our opening act, a satirical rendition of “Memory” from the musical Cats, complete with harp and wood flute accompaniment. My old GR, whose doctoral defense is this week, painted Peaches’ face on a 6’x9’ canvas tent that we built. The paint, however, bled through the fabric, resulting in a semi-permanent simulacrum of our feline friend on the concrete slab outside of Keohane 4E, which took three months to wash away fully.

Much more could be said about the particularly tragic nature of Peaches’ death—being taken by outsiders who did not know her identity as our community cat and thought they knew what was best for her; her death at a moment when she was being transferred to a community agency meant to serve and protect her—but this is a meditation for another day.

Peaches the community cat, the placemaker—this is how I will remember her. When my wife and children moved out of campus housing, we commissioned a large map of campus from a children’s book illustrator. This artwork, which hangs in our home, is not an ordinary map, but the campus as it was known to our family, to my children. This map depicts the geography of our experience and memory in and of our eight years living at Duke. Today, I’m looking at the small likeness of a cat perched on a house, with a hand-drawn label: “Peaches’ House”. She will always be a part of my memory of living and working in Keohane—memories from our earliest years with our daughters—and for that, I am grateful.


Jeff Nelson was the Residence Coordinator of Keohane Quad from 2014-2020.


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