A Boy and His Cats (Book Excerpt)
I was overwhelmed by the positive feedback I received about my last hub about our cat Meing and the circumstances surrounding her death. Several years ago I started working on a book about how I came to be a cat lover and stories about the cats in my life. I have never had the time I wish I had to work on it, and I actually interrupted it to write a children's book about our two Siamese Tara and Meing (I'll share a bit of that in the near future, too). What follows here is the introduction section of my book which I have given the working title "Living With Angels." Please let me know what you think! Thanks!!
A Small Family Grows...By Two
There were no animals in our house when I was a toddler. I’m not really sure why my parents didn’t have any pets at that time; it may have had something to do with the dog which had once been my mother’s pet, and about which she talked from time to time until virtually the day she died. It was obvious that she was quite attached to the dog, and maybe she wasn’t quite ready for a new pet when I came along.
Maybe there were no pets due to financial reasons. My father had a good, union job as a propane delivery truck driver. My mother was a homemaker. We never wanted for anything, but my parents, having grown up during the Great Depression, understood the value of saving and frugality, and as a result there were few extravagances around our comfortable but plain house. (My mother was famous for saving Christmas wrapping paper off presents we were given in order to use it again the next year. She also never threw out a piece of aluminum foil: what was used to cover Sunday’s dinner would be used again and again until it was too tattered to cover even a single piece of chicken.)
It could have been that my parents didn’t want to expose a new baby to pet hair and dander, or perhaps they felt they wouldn’t have the time to devote to the care of a child and the care of a pet. Whatever the reasons, I began life in a home that was devoid of any domesticated companions.
One of the unchanging rituals of our family was the Sunday spent with relatives. We lived within a mile of my mother’s parents, but my paternal grandmother lived in Milford, about 30 minutes away. My father had two brothers; one who lived with my grandmother following the death of his wife, and another who lived near a small town (really not much more than an intersection of two back roads) called Willow Grove, which was about an hour’s drive from our house. One Sunday a month, after church, we would pick up my grandmother in Milford, and drive to my Uncle Everett’s house for Sunday dinner. (My other uncle, Norman, the one who lived with my grandmother, was sort of the family ne’er-do-well and was not especially close to either of his brothers, so he didn’t participate.) Two Sundays later Everett would load up his family (Clarice his wife, and my cousin Wendell) and reverse the route for dinner at our house.
The summer that I was five years old, going on six, on one of these Sunday visits to Uncle Everett’s, one of Clarice’s relatives, who lived on a farm just down the road, stopped by with a box of kittens. As I recall, they were young, barely weaned. There were six or seven of them, in assorted tabby patterns. Up to this point I had had very little contact with cats, but this was love at first sight. Being the spoiled only child that I was, of course I didn’t want just one of them; I wanted all of them.
Of course my parents were not about to let me have all of these kittens, but somehow I managed to get them to let me have two. I picked a female tabby, and a male with patches of tabby colors laid over a white body. His face was mostly tabby striped, with white on one side and under his chin. His tail was also tabby, and in between were roughly equal quantities of tabby patches and white. My mother made me promise what mothers always make their children promise when a new pet enters the household: “It’s up to you to feed and take care of them. They’re your cats.” Of course I did exactly what most children do in this circumstance; I promised to feed them every day. I imagine it goes without saying that you know my mother became the main caretaker.
My parents were farm raised, and did not have a high level of formal education (my father quit school after ninth grade, my mother after tenth) so there would be none of the niceties of pet life for these animals. Instead, they would start life with us as farm cats, despite our living on a 1/3 acre lot next to the main highway. We had a small shed attached to our garage where our lawnmower and various yard and garden equipment was kept. This would be the home for our as yet unnamed new family members. When we arrived home from my uncle’s house my mother fixed a bed for them out of an old cardboard box and an old blanket. She put dishes of food and water next to the box, put the kittens in the box, we said good night to them and locked the door.
The next morning I couldn’t wait to get outside to see the kittens. Of course my mother insisted on my having breakfast first, so I gobbled down a bowl of cereal and raced out to the shed. When I opened the door, the kittens were out of their bed and busy investigating their new territory. They seemed far more interested in their new surroundings than in the fact that I was there to see them. I was able to attract the attention of the male fairly easily, and I picked him up and held him to my chest. By this time my mother had come out of the house and was also watching them. The female was leaving nothing uninvestigated, as she climbed over and under whatever was in her path.
“She sure is interested in what is going on,” my mother said.
“I’m going to call her ‘Nosey’,” I announced.
My mother smiled. “I think that name fits her. What are you going to call the boy?”
“I don’t know yet,” I said as I looked at him.
Weeks passed and the kittens grew. Even though they spent most of their time out of doors, with an occasional visit inside, they were friendly and playful, and always happy to see one of us. Summer began to fade into fall and when September arrived I headed off to school for the first time (I would be starting first grade; Kindergarten was not required and none of the few kids in our neighborhood attended). Every afternoon when I got off of the bus my first question was “Where are the cats?” The answer was usually “outside,” and so out the back door I would run to find them, full of energy and enthusiasm, even after a full day of school. Locating them was usually not too difficult as they spent most of the sunny daytime hours somewhere near our back step.
It had taken over two months, but the male cat earned his name one afternoon when I found him in the shed, eagerly pursuing a mouse. I watched in amazement as he pounced on the now exhausted rodent (who knows how long he had been “playing” with it!) and picked it up in his mouth. I ran from the shed, calling for my mother.
“Mommy, Mommy!” I shouted.
My mother was at the back door in an instant. “What is it?”
“Come and see! The cat caught a mouse!!”
“It did? The boy cat?”
“Yes!! Come and see!!”
By this time the cat had carried the mouse out of the shed and brought it to the foot of our back steps, where he was waiting when we went outside. My mother lavished praise on him. “What a good boy you are!” she cooed to him. The cat accepted the offered praise, then picked up the mouse and took it back into the shed, where I assume he ate it in some dark corner, as I could not find him when I went to look for him.
At dinner that evening I announced to my parents the name of the male cat. “I’m going to call him ‘Mousetrap’,” I said.
Our new extended family was now established: Howard, my father, who drove a propane delivery truck, Hilda, my mother, who like many mothers in the 50’s and 60’s, was a stay at home mom, me, newly turned six years old and starting to find out what things were like beyond our immediate neighborhood, Nosey, and Mousetrap, whose name was almost immediately shortened to “Mousey.”
Kittens, Kittens, and More Kittens
In the weeks and months to come, Mousey would become more and more attached to my mother, and she to him. He was a typical tom cat; he loved to spend time lounging in the sun, especially in my mother’s kitchen or on our back step in warm weather. As he got older he would go on adventures, doing the things that tomcats do, and would often be gone a day or more at a time.
Nosey, on the other hand, soon became a problem. My parents, having lived as a young married couple during the depression, when there was little money for frills and extra expenses, and also having grown up in the countryside (in my father’s case) or on a farm (my mother) where animals were largely left to fend for themselves, didn’t bother with the now accepted procedure of visiting a veterinarian to have their “cat or dog spayed or neutered.” (Thank you Bob Barker!) When the next spring arrived Nosey presented us with her first litter of kittens.
My father seemed to take the new arrivals in stride. It could have been that he kept any negative thoughts to himself because of my obvious excitement about the kittens, but more than likely he was thinking, “What did I expect? An outdoor cat that is not ‘fixed’ is going to have kittens.” I don’t recall much of any discussion about what to do with the mewing little fuzz balls, but it was obvious that we would not be keeping them.
Some men of my father’s generation and background would have taken care of the matter with a shovel or a bag and a short ride to a body of water. My father, however, was not a mean or cruel man, and this was an avenue he did not even consider. Instead, we began announcing to everyone we knew that we had free kittens, and within days after they were old enough to be separated from their mother all of them had been sent to new homes. By this time I had already named all of them, and parting with them was not the easiest for me, particularly when it was time to give away the one I had named “Little Nosey” because she looked like her mother. My parents were insistent that we could not keep any of them, so even though Little Nosey had become a favorite in a very short time, I said goodbye when the time came, although not without a degree of sadness, and we were once again a two cat family.
Those of you who are thinking ahead of the story probably know what I am about to relate. Nosey continued to be an un-spayed outdoor cat, so within a matter of weeks after the first litter had been dispersed among friends and relatives, she was pregnant again. Her second pregnancy was not as easy for everyone as was the first, for several reasons. Nosey’s first litter had been born in the spring, and the kittens had the warm, sunny days and cool comfortable nights to spend growing, exploring, and learning how to be cats. There were only five kittens in her first litter, which made caring for them easy for a young mother.
The second litter was born in the middle of the fall, just as the nights were beginning to be cool enough to make you put on a light jacket when spending more than a few minutes outside after dark. The shelter of the shed was helpful, but by the time the kittens were a couple of weeks old the night air has progressed from cool to cold, and even though the daytime temperatures were still mild, mother and kittens had to spend the nights huddled together for warmth.
Another problem with the second litter was that there were eight kittens. Nosey had been able to handle five little mouths to feed, but she seemed to have a hard time caring for eight of them. It may have been the colder nights, or possibly a lack of food, that caused one of the kittens to succumb. I found its lifeless body in the shed, near where Nosey had made their bed. This was my first experience with death, and I remember sobbing uncontrollably as I held the kitten in my hands. My mother tried to explain to me that sometimes God has reasons for taking things that we don’t understand, but all I knew was that in my hands was a baby kitten that had been crawling and mewling and now was just a stiff, cold piece of fur. We dug a small hole, placed the body in the bottom, said a prayer, and covered it up.
It didn’t take very long for me to recover from the loss of the kitten. One of the blessings of childhood is that if your life is generally good the bad things don’t linger in your psyche. The other seven kittens continued to grow and I was confronted with the task of naming them. I didn’t want to duplicate the names of any of the first litter, even though they were all gone, so this proved to be a rather daunting task. Whatever I named three of them is long gone from my memory, but I do recall that, for want of other names, I called four of them “Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp” after the Three Stooges. (I know there are four names here. Stooges fans will know why. Younger readers should google “Three Stooges” for your answer!)
The death of the first kitten was only the beginning of problems for this litter. One evening as we were watching tv, we heard a car start in the neighbors’ driveway, and then the terrible cries of a cat in pain. The cries lasted for only a few minutes, and then they stopped. Neither my father nor my mother chose to investigate. It was late November, right around Thanksgiving, and the nights had gotten quite cold. The next morning, a Saturday, I left our house by the front door, and when I turned to close it behind me, I found one of the kittens, curled up behind a planter my mother had placed next to the door, dead and frozen solid. It was not visibly injured, and, to this day I don’t know whether it had crawled inside the engine compartment of the car in the neighbors’ driveway, was hurt when the car started, and came back home to die, or whether it also just succumbed to the cold. It is more likely the former, as the kittens were now about six weeks old and were fending for themselves quite well. It certainly could have found its way to shelter if it were not injured.
Once again we went to work trying to give away the kittens. This time, since we had largely exhausted friends and family as options, we placed a sign along the road. Since we lived on a major highway once again we were able to give away all of the remaining kittens within a matter of days. (It may have also helped that Christmas was coming.)
Soon after the last of the kittens was gone, my father announced that Nosey would have to go as well. I recall making a protest about this, but his mind was made up; we couldn’t keep producing and giving away kittens, so Nosey had to go. Neither he nor my mother seemed to have any interest in having her spayed. Either they weren’t aware that it was a fairly inexpensive procedure, or they had agreed out of my presence to reduce our cat population by fifty percent (or more if you counted the potential for more kittens). I have no recollection of what happened to her or how long it took to get rid of her, but it wasn’t long before I was saying goodbye as Nosey left us for her new home. Now Mousetrap was our one and only cat.
Mousey made it pretty clear early on that even though he was nominally my cat, in reality he was my mother’s cat. And why not? While I was playing and running around with my friends and doing the things little boys do, my mother was feeding him, talking to him, rubbing his head, letting him sit with her, etc, etc. So while he acknowledged me as at least a peer (probably no more) it was my mother who he showered with attention, rubbing at her ankles, bringing her the occasional mouse or unfortunate bird he caught, and generally being within a few steps of her whenever he was around.
Of course, being an unaltered tomcat, he was not always around. When he was very young we would see something of him every day, but as he grew older he would disappear for days at a time. What he did during these days away was anyone’s guess, but we knew that at least some of his time was spent fighting, as he would often return with fresh scratches oozing blood, or sometimes scabbed over. He must have been a good fighter, as he was never seriously injured. He did come home once or twice with a slight limp, and later in his life he lost a bit off the tip of one ear, but was never hurt to the point of needing medical care. Still, by the end of his life his head was a mass of scars.
Snowballs and Candycanes
A couple of years later my grandmother, my father’s mother, also wound up with kittens to give away. She lived in what could charitably be described as an old and rather worn house on a back street in Milford, about 20 miles from us. Anyone not inclined to charitable descriptions would have more likely described it as a slum. It, as well as the two other dwellings with which it was connected, had no central heating. The floorboards sagged in places and creaked almost everywhere, there was indoor plumbing but no indoor bathroom, plaster flaked from the walls, and at times she had to deal with mice, rats, fleas, and bedbugs. Still, I suppose, it was in some ways nice compared to the country farmhouse in which she lived when she was young.
I suppose I came about my love for cats from my grandmother. Given her background as a farm child and later farm wife, there is little doubt that she had cats around when she was young. It is almost certain that my father’s attitude about cats came from her. She cared for her cats, and they didn’t go hungry, but they also did not come inside the house, and none were spayed or neutered. She had a fondness for bob tailed cats, and had been known to tightly tie a string around the tail of a young kitten so that it would atrophy and die, leaving a stump and giving her the bob tailed animal she desired.
Within months after my father gave Nosey away we got our first cat from my grandmother. It was a beautiful male silver tabby, and because of the stripes I immediately named it “Candycane.” You would think that Mousey would not have taken kindly to another unaltered male in the house, but maybe because he was only around for a few hours every couple of days, he seemed to accept Candycane without a problem. It was the same with the other males that would follow Candycane. (After Nosey we never had another female cat.) Mousey may have enlightened them on exactly who was alpha when no one was looking, but as far as we saw, while they were not the best of friends Mousey seemed to accept each new kitten that was brought into the house.
After Candycane there was another silver tabby, which became Candycane II, and two white cats, each called “Snowball.” Each of these cats came as a kitten from my grandmother’s house, and each, with the possible exception of the second Snowball, met with the same fate: death on the highway. Like most toms, they were prone to wandering, and unlike Mousey they did not keep their territory to our side of the highway, making their fates almost inevitable. Snowball II very likely met this fate as well, but unlike the other three, we never found him, so it is possible, however unlikely, that someone took him in and gave him a new home, where he lived out the balance of his days. I always held out hope that this is what happened to him.
Most of the details about these cats are lost to me now. Other than my recollection about Snowball II disappearing, I recall that the first Snowball developed an open sore on his neck in front of his right shoulder. My mother applied salves and ointments, but was never able to get it to heal. None of these cats was with us for more than a couple of years, and at this point in my life I still was not paying a lot of attention to them, except for being upset when they were found dead.
1972 was a traumatic year for me and my family, and one that would bring about an end to new cats in my mother’s house. In April my father died suddenly of a massive heart attack. In October my grandmother followed. Our household was now me, my mother, and Mousetrap. Since I now had no source for new cats with my grandmother gone, Mousey would remain our one and only cat until I reached adulthood and moved away from home. I had also reached a point where, as an early teen, my interests were moving to areas other than cats. However, I would have one brief encounter with a cat that would influence my interest in cats in the future.
A Surprise Visitor
On a warm later summer Saturday between my first and second years of college, I was outside doing some chore or other for my mother when I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. I stopped what I was doing to see what it was, and discovered a beautiful, slender seal point Siamese cat walking towards me. She approached me as if she had known me all her life, rubbed around my legs, and looked up at me. I looked back at her intense blue eyes and immediately fell in love. I knelt down to pet her, and she pressed her head into my hand, arching her back as my hand moved from her head to her tail. I picked her up and carried her into the house.
“Hey, mom,” I said as I walked into the living room, where my mother was sitting. “Look what I found.”
“Where did that come from?” she asked.
“I was just outside and she came up to me. I don’t know where she came from.”
My mother looked at her and petted her a couple of times. Once again, the cat acted as if greeting a long lost friend. “Maybe she came up from the trailer park,” my mother offered. There was a park for small travel trailers and rv’s behind our house which was open in the spring, summer, and fall.
“Maybe,” I replied. “She doesn’t have a collar or anything on. I think we should keep her and put an ad in the lost and found.”
My mother had another idea. “You can put her right back outside and let her go back where she came from. She belongs to somebody… cats like this just don’t wander around stray. Someone is probably looking for her.”
I wasn’t too happy about the idea, but I realized that since I was in college and not around, even if I kept her in the house while I was home, my mother would put her outside as soon as I went back to school. My mother also had a point: this cat was a high quality animal, which had probably gotten away from her owner, and someone was likely looking for her. I agreed to put her back outside, but told my mother “If she stays around I’m going to keep her. I’m going to call her ‘Thai Princess.’”
I took Thai Princess back outside and sat down on the back step. She stepped gently around the area, exploring and sniffing. I’m certain that Mousey had left plenty of his scent around the steps over the years, and she was probably identifying that he had declared this as his territory. I watched her as she walked around, thinking that I had never seen a cat as beautiful and graceful as this one.
My prior experience with Siamese cats had been limited to a friend’s commentary about another friend’s Siamese when we were kids. He complained that they were noisy and not very friendly. “They always stand and the front door and yell at you when you come to the house,” I remember him saying. The particular friend who had the Siamese cats was from a somewhat unusual family; for whatever reason they didn’t seem to want you to visit their house, so I had never seen his cats close up. Since my friend who made the comment was one of my best and smartest friends, I accepted his opinion of Siamese cats as gospel.
This cat, however, was nothing like his description of Siamese cats. She never made a sound (I would learn later that this WAS unusual for Siamese), and was far from being aloof and unfriendly. In fact, she was probably as friendly as any of the cats I had ever had. After she had finished exploring she came back and sat at my feet at the bottom of the steps.
She was a young cat. Her points were dark brown, but her body was the color of light cream, and had not begun the darkening that happens to Siamese as they get older. She was delicately built, with a very slender body, small feet, and a wedge shaped head with very large ears. She looked like the Siamese cats I had seen in books; in fact, she was so perfectly conformed that she could have been the cat in one of those pictures, and I wondered if she was of show quality.
I went into the house and got some food and water for her. When I offered it to her she ate it happily, but not so as to give me the impression that she was terribly hungry. Rather, she ate as if she was where she belonged to be and it was dinnertime. When she was done she looked up at me appreciatively and rubbed around my legs.
Evening was coming on, and my mother would not hear of allowing the cat into the house, so I showed Thai Princess the tool shed where our other cats had spent a good deal of their time. There was an old box partially filled with rags where she could lay, and I put a dish of water just inside the door. I ran my hand from her head to the base of her tail one more time and told her goodnight. She looked around the shed a bit, but I don’t know if she actually spent the night there, or whether she found a suitable place to lie down elsewhere.
I was more than half afraid that she would be gone the next day, but when I went outside to look for her in the morning, she soon came around the corner of the garage. I was encouraged when I saw her, as I now believed that she had decided that this was a good place to be and had adopted us. While I had never particularly wanted a Siamese cat before, having one apparently choose me made me decide that having this beautiful, elegant animal around would be a nice change from the Domestic Shorthairs (or as most would call them, “housecats”) that we had had around ever since that day we had come home with Mousey and Nosey years before.
This particular Sunday was one of the scheduled visits from Uncle Everett, Aunt Clarice, and Wendell. After my father and grandmother passed away, Everett, Clarice, and my mother decided that the visits would continue, even though Everett was from my father’s side of the family. One change was made, however. As a concession to the rising price of gas (it had recently gone from 35 cents a gallon to 55 cents a gallon and even higher!) visits would no longer be made every other week, but we would see each other once a month. So my mother had gone to church in the morning, and was busy in the kitchen fixing Sunday dinner. I had stayed home from church, and had gone through the trailer park to see if anyone had lost a cat. There were not too many people around, but the ones who were had not seen or heard of anyone who was missing a cat or who had been looking for one. This actually made me happy, as I desperately wanted to keep this cat.
Thai Princess was nowhere to be found when my aunt and uncle arrived. We ate, and then I went outside to try and locate her. I soon found her, coming around the garage, as she had done every time she had appeared since the first time the day before. She must have found something of interest or a comfortable place to lie at the back of the building. I picked her up and took her inside to show my relatives.
Neither my aunt nor uncle was a huge fan of animals, but my aunt did comment on how blue her eyes were, and how skinny she was. I put her down on the floor to let her walk around on her own (still trying to do a selling job on my mother to let me keep her), but instead of exploring she went to the door and let out a low moan. This was the first sound I had heard from this member of what is usually a very vocal breed.
“She probably has to use the bathroom,” my mother said.
I walked over to the door and looked at her. “Do you want to go out?” I asked.
She looked back at me with her deep blue eyes, but made no further sound. “Just let her out,” my mother instructed.
I opened the door and she stepped down onto the top step and lay down. “She didn’t have to go to the bathroom,” I said. “She’s lying on the step.”
“OK,” my mother said. “Just leave her there.”
As I continued to watch her, I noticed her breathing begin to quicken and become somewhat shallow. She moved her hindquarters a bit, and suddenly there was a small, pinkish tan, slimy thing next to her on the step. My first assumption was that she was sick and had had some sort of bowel movement. When I looked at it closer, I realized that I was looking at a small, partially formed kitten. Thai Princess had been pregnant and was having a miscarriage on our steps.
I went inside and got some paper towels. “She’s having kittens!” I said.
My aunt said “Oh my goodness!” and my mother looked puzzled. The cat did not look pregnant at all; certainly not pregnant enough to be giving birth.
I went back out to the step and picked up the small, still kitten with the paper towels. It was only barely recognizable as a kitten. It was nowhere near to being completely formed, and it had no fur. Thai Princess continued to lie on the step on her side. “Maybe we should take her to the vet,” I called to my mother through the louvered glass on the door.
“I’m not taking her to the vet! Besides, it’s Sunday. The vet isn’t even open,” my mother reminded me.
I took the kitten inside to show the others. “Oh my goodness,” my aunt said again.
“Take that outside and throw it away!” my mother said sternly. “Don’t bring it or the cat back inside! She may be sick!”
“I know she may be sick,” I replied. “I don’t want her to die!”
“Take that outside and throw it away!”
I took the kitten outside. While I was inside Thai Princess had apparently gotten up from the top step and had tried to walk. There was another stillborn kitten lying on the bottom step, but the cat was nowhere to be seen.
“Thai,” I called, not really thinking that she probably wouldn’t respond to a name she had been given only some twenty four hours earlier. “Here Thai Princess!! Here kitty kitty!”
She was gone. I took the two lifeless kittens and dug a small hole to bury them in. I looked around our yard and our neighbor’s properties, but Thai Princess had vanished as quickly and quietly as she had arrived. I never saw her again. Like my hope for the vanished Snowball, I always hoped that she found her way back home to her owner, or that someone else found her who took good care of her until the end of her days. I had been around a Siamese cat for less than two days, but I now knew that some day I would have to have one of these magnificent animals.
There is a bit of overlap in the story here, but to bring this part to a close, I should relate that three or four years later, while visiting my mother, she told me that Mousey had not come home in a couple of weeks. As he had gotten older his trips away from home had lengthened. There were several occasions when she had given him up for dead, only to find him a day or so later, sitting on the doorstep. This time, however, he would not return.
When you are young, there are a couple of things that seem to be universally true. One is that everyone except other kids around your age seems to be really old. Another is that things that are around as you grow seem to have been around forever. Mousey was probably only 14-15 years old when he died (again, my wish and hope is that he found a soft spot of grass in some warm sunlight, closed his eyes, and gently went to sleep) but he seemed ancient, since we had owned him since I was not quite six years old. He and my mother were closer than he and I ever was, even though he was “my cat.” He was the pet my mother wasn’t particularly looking for, and he would be the last pet she owned in her life.
This is how I became a cat lover. Even though at times in my childhood and youth we had an almost farm-like mix of domestic and semi-domestic animals at our house (chickens, pigeons, and a dog, and for a very brief time two raccoons) it was the cats that always held my interest and attention. While I was in college I was too busy to worry about having cats at home, and I’m sure my mother would not have wanted to have more animals to take care of at that time, as Mousey largely took care of himself. But eventually college would overlap with marriage and setting up my own household, and cats, one very special cat in particular, would come into the picture.
This is where the real story begins…