Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Cat Chronicles

As I grew up, my parents were all for pets. There was a dog in the family when I was born, a brindle-colored Boston bull terrier named Daisy. Apparently, Daisy bit me when I was a baby, and that made me afraid of dogs, but my parents made it their business to make sure I didn't retain that fear. I don't remember Daisy biting me, but among my earliest memories are my mother and father assuring me that any dog I might encounter was cute and loveable and wanted to be petted. By the time I was able to think, I didn't understand what all that active encouragement towards dogs was about, but by around 10 or so I loved dogs. We ended up adopting a wonderful beige mutt, Peanuts, who lived with us for about 5 years, until he was cut down chasing a truck (there being no leash laws back then). (I clearly remember deciding to call him "Snoopy" in the car on the trip home from the farm where we picked him up. But for some reason, after that one time in the car, I could never remember "Snoopy." I just knew it was the same name as the dog in the "Peanuts" cartoon. So by default he became Peanuts.)

There were never any cats in our house. My mother had an irrational, deathly fear of cats--she'd go into panic mode if one got near her. There were never any explanations for this phobia, and at the same time nobody ever tried to talk her out of it. We all just knew that a cat was out of the question as a pet for the family. When the neighbors across the street went on vacation, I'd feed their outdoor cats, an experience that did nothing to encourage any affection for the critters. Cat food in those days was mostly smelly ground up fish. I fed the cats outdoors, where flies could attach themselves to the food and lay their eggs--more than once I'd go to fill the food bowls only to find maggots swarming in the leftovers. For a long time I thought anyone who enjoyed the companionship of a cat just might have a screw loose.

As I came into my own and started thinking about furry companionship, my thoughts eventually did turn to cats. I still loved dogs, but I knew that as an apartment-dwelling office worker, I could never give a dog the kind of attention and exercise it would need, and friends I'd made along the way showed me the other side of cats and I had learned to enjoy them. My first cat was named Aida--what better name for a coal-black, beautiful princess who screamed a lot? Aida soon had a companion, a tabby named Elizabeth, Bessie for short. I don't know why I settled on royalty to name my cats, but when Steve and I settled in together in 1979, the tradition stayed alive. Aida and Bessie died, and we knew we had to have cats--always a pair, to keep each other company. Soon we had Chat (which became "Shah"--get it?) And soon we were joined by Squeaky, the only non-royal in the bunch. Her manner of speaking left us no choice.

Shobby and Squeaky had a nice life together. They
produced a litter of silky black kittens--all of whom found good homes--before we bowed to the greater social good and had them both fixed.

Squeaky had a definite mind of her own, and once we started our big remodeling job and her lovely home became a construction site, that wasn't for her. We were still letting our cats outdoors in those days, and Mrs. Ridgeway, a neighbor lady two doors up, liked to put food out for strays. Squeaky discovered this inexhaustable feast and soon decided she liked it better outside--she would fight and hiss if we tried to bring her in. Occasionally she would come and visit us on the deck, always her old self, sitting with us and conversing in her non-voice, but it was clear she no longer considered herself part of the family. Once the house work was done and she still refused to stay with us, we decided, with heavy hearts, to adopt her to a farm family with a lot of ground for her to roam in. We hear she thrived.

Shobby, Mr. Personality that he was, couldn't be alone wasting all his kitty charm just on us, so soon a big yellow ball of fluff named Napoleon moved in with us. Nappy was the original cuddle cat. He did all those things you hope a big furry fluffball will want to do: lick your hand, curl up in the crook of your arm, go to sleep in your lap. He was an equal-opportunity lover, instant friends with anybody who profferred a tentative scratch. He and Shobby were buddies from the start, palling around famously until Shobby suddenly disappeared on the evening of July 14, 1989, our 10th anniversary. We remember the occasion because of the date; he had been with us and our friends on the deck that night. The next day, he was gone, and he never came back--we never knew what happened to him, and of course have imagined the worst over the years. We hope that lively and trusting little spirit was "adopted" by another loving family, but the circumstances of his disappearance, nearly 20 years ago now, will always be a mystery.

Shobby's disappearance was what finally made us realize that if we wanted to keep our little friends with us for a long time, they would have to relinquish their outdoor privileges. For all those years, we had nourished the myth that our cats stayed in our enclosed back yard when we let them out, even though more than once we'd seen Napoleon and his guilty conscience slinking across the street to our back yard when he was discovered in places he knew he shouldn't have been. Stuck permanently inside without Shah, the only buddy he'd never known, we knew Nappy would need new companionship quickly. And so, along came Nicholas.

Judging by external appearances, Nicky was
Nappy's yellow fluffbal twin, and we made that choice on purpose, believing that something about the "breed" of yellow tabby (not that there really is one) made them extra affectionate. But as we've learned in spades over the years, all cats are not created equal. Nicky has been a tricky curmudgeon for most of his 14 years. He's very talkative, one of those cats who will greet strangers vocally at the door. He makes himself at home in a large group of people, doing all of his come-on tricks, like lying flat on his back inviting you to scratch his belly, or playing with your hand asking for a scratch. But unless you're part of his immediate family, beware! He'll enjoy the exchange only until some bulb switches on in his brain. He suddenly realizes, "Hey. I don't know you!" and then all you get for your trouble is a nasty hiss. With us he's all sweetness, and Nappy's personality allowed him to make his way with any companion, so within the family things were fine. But our friends, tempted as they are by his come-ons, knew to stay away frim him, and still do.

Nappy became extremely ill very suddenly less than a year after Nicky came on the scene, and he died. The hole he left behind was and remains huge--there will never be another Napoleon, and we are grateful for the sweet memories of him that remain. Nicky would probably have been just fine on his own, but we know what's good for him better than he does. In 1996 we met Ivan, the black and white sprite talking to Steve at the top of the page, and it's been cat heaven for us ever since. Ivy was a farm kitten, one of a litter of 8, the only male. The day we went to get him we were greeted by a bevy of tiny gray tabby charmers, literally running up the sidwalk to greet us. It turned out they were all females, and as cute as every one of them was, we knew we'd had our best luck with males. We asked the couple of there were any boys in the litter, and they pointed to a sleek black and white number sitting by himself, grooming in the sun. He locked eyes with us and that was it. He was 12 weeks going on 10 years old. On the cold trip home I held him against my chest as Steve drove. He never took his eyes off mine, and he hasn't since. Ivy is the only cat we've ever known who absolutely engages you. He looks you straight in the eye and talks--if he spoke English you know he'd be full of stories. At dinnertime we sit in front of the TV downstairs, eating on the couch. That's Ivy's special time with us. He divides his time between the room where we are and the rest of the house upstairs. Sometimes he finds a toy to bat around and chase, sounding as if he's tearing the place apart, then he'll bound back down the steps and jump up to tell us what all he's seen, full of excitement, nearly jumping for joy. He bows his head to look deep into your eyes, reaching out a paw to tap you for your undivided attention. He'll plop himself down in a way so that some part of his body is in contact with yours, always. We have never known such a joyful and communicative creature. He is fearful of strangers, so our friends seldom see this constant show, which is sad for our friends but somehow makes us feel that much more special. Ivy is a wonder cat.

The longer you live, of course, the more you become aware of mortalilty--both your own and your loved ones'. It is just the nature of things that people usually live longer than their animal companions, and we have had to bid adieu to our share--there are ones I haven't even mentioned in this story: Hannibal, the longhair who didn't know how to groom himself, and Manette, the calico Manx who was terrified of everything, including her own shadow, poor thing. We've learned that cats are every bit as individual as people, and can easily extend that lesson to all sentient beings. I have no doubt that if I were to know a herd of cows or a flock of chickens, they'd all become individuals to me. Much as I think spareribs are manna from heaven, I still think pigs are cute and wish I could have one in my life. Even our blue cichlid in his 5-gallon tank does a little dance when he sees me.

Some day, a dog may enter our lives, but thanks to all the meowing friends we have had for 30 years, we know our family will only be complete with cats.


Anonymous said...

That's a nice story. You know about our feral furry family down here and it's a joy each evening to feed them and watch them play. We trapped the Tom Cat yesterday and the Vet tells us he has thyroid problems so he's down at the County Shelter where they can care for him. Won't get him back but better care for him. So our family just got smaller. We have talked often about maybe inviting them indoors to see if they come. We worry what will happen during a Hurricane evacuation. How will they survive.

Ralph said...

It would bge great if you could get them to come in--probably if you edged their food closer and closer to the door and kept the door open for a vewry long time they'd take a chance sooner or later. But you'd have to worry about Zooey and Maggy--there's no question fur would fly in an unsupervised encounter.

Can you put some sort of nest together in the garage or something that they could call their own?

Anonymous said...

We will never get either Mom cat or kitten past Maggie. So our thoughts are to find a way to get them into the all season room which measures 40x17 and is completely tiled, sky lights and brick walls which would be a good place for them if a Hurricane hit. We, of course, would evacuate, keep Maggie and Zoey in the family room. But yes, the fur will fly. It will be a slow intro and keeping them in the all season room offers both sides a chance to see the others through the glass of the french doors and windows from the dining room. Who knows? Maybe they get along within a few weeks we open the doors for them to investigate each other. We are not sure if they want that as they really are in the wild. But I'm sure you've seen pictures on my blog. They would live longer if we could domesticate them. The story you posted today gave me the idea that if you don't grab a cat at kittenhood, like within four weeks of birth, your chances of curing this taste for the wild is greatly diminished. I think that is where we are at right now, missed the window.

Ralph said...

That all-season room sounds like the perfect solution, but yeah--domestication is all about socializing with humans and in some ways substituting people for other cats, so the cats sort of change their own identity. The earlier the better. an animal behaviorist could probably shed more light. It would be great if those beautiful kitties could have good, long, comfortable lives.

Ravel said...

Well, nice family stories... They all become part of our family as they weave a lot of their days with us.
You know what I mean Ralphie, when I say that. The parting is difficult, but a lot of nice memories remain.

Ralph said...

You're right, Ravel, and we have many memories!

Cuidado said...

I think I love Ivy.

Ralph said...

There's plenty to go around,Cuidado. Offer him a treat and he'll let you in.