Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Remembering Cats

The first cat whose personality I really remember came to live with us when I was in fifth or sixth grade. What I remember about her is that you could have a conversation with her. You could say, “How are you today?” and she’d reply, “Ah meh rah eh,” or something like that, a series of truncated meows. “Well, that’s great, I’m glad to hear it,” I’d say, and she would reply with a new series of little sounds. We’d “talk” for a few minutes, then she’d get bored or I’d get bored and we’d go our separate ways.

Then there was Skipper. I was in high school when a friend reported that her cat was pregnant and did I want a kitten? I rashly said that if one of the kittens was a solid black I’d take it -- I thought that was a safe promise, all-black cats are rare. But sure enough, one of the kittens didn’t have a white hair on him. I don’t know what he went through as a tiny newborn, but when I got him he was a mess. He cried all the time, even choking over his food trying to cry and eat at the same time. It took weeks of patient care before he settled down, and by then he was deeply attached to me. (I think male cats form stronger attachments to their humans though they tend to be less bright than the females.) This was back when neutering tom cats was uncommon, and so he wasn’t. So attached as he was, he also roamed the neighborhood at night. I took advantage of his attachment to teach him tricks. He could even shake hands, though if I asked him repeatedly, showing him off, he would take the base of my thumb into his mouth as a warning not to ask again. Once I was going out on a date and saw him darting across the street -- right in front of a car. He ran off and we thought it was just a close call, but I found his broken body in our back yard the next day.

Then there was Lady Felicity. The U.S. Navy sent me to London for two years back in the sixties. There isn’t a base in London, so everyone was on his or her own to find a house or apartment. I found a place in a big old house converted to apartments in West Hampstead and commuted to Grosvenor Square via the “tube” or underground (subway to Americans). I started exploring England on weekends and one of my first trips was to the ancient walled city of Chester in Cheshire. I thought it would be fun to have a real Cheshire cat, so visited the local shelter and fell in love with a young female with a multi-colored tabby coat. I brought her home on the train. She was so beautifully mannered that when I opened her carrier box to check on her she sat up in it, peering over the top but not climbing out to flee or explore. She sat like that, perfectly still, the whole long trip back to London. She was a beautiful, quiet, gentle cat -- except when she was in heat. Then she’d pose obscenely in the French doors of the apartment for an audience of toms. Eventually I couldn’t bear the racket and would let her out. She’d be gone about fifteen minutes and some weeks later there would be kittens. She loved me to be there for their birth, rubbing her tummy and making encouraging noises. If I wasn’t there, she’d have them in my bed, under the covers. Fortunately, I never had any problem finding homes for them. Most of her kittens were orange, even the females, because her favorite mate was a huge orange tom with a bent ear and half a tail. She’d bring him home and share her dinner with him on the occasions when I left the French doors open and she wasn’t in season. She was a prodigious hunter, I never had a problem with mice no matter where I lived, but she went after birds, too. I brought her home to the States and got her neutered.
When one of my moves brought me to Madison, Wisconsin, there was a cat show in a hotel right up the street from me. They had a “house cat” judging and just for fun I entered Lady Felicity. I thought she wouldn’t appreciate the noise and strange cats at the show, but Lady sat in her cage and looked around with her usual aplomb: “Oh, see all the lovely people come to talk to me,” she seemed to say. She let the judge handle her with no fuss at all. The judge, hearing she was eleven years old declared that she wasn’t Lady Fellicity but Dame Felicity, praised her magnificent coat and attractive head, and announced that she was first runner up of all the domestic breeds.

There have been other cats in my life: Harley Quinn, Wobbles, Friday, Sophie. My current cat, Snaps, is a love magnet. An attention monger. A licker of cheek, and, especially, hand. He leaps onto the bathroom sink morning and evening, wanting me to turn on the water just a trickle so he can drink, even though he has his very own electric fountain. Often annoying with his demands for affection, especially when I’m trying to write, it has occasionally occurred to me that he and his kind surrendered many freedoms -- including in his case his claws and his fertility, to live in the safety of mankind’s shadow. So in honor of that I indulge him with a prolonged session of stroking and praise-words. (By the way, I didn’t take his claws from him, that was done before he came to live with us.)

I think it a curious and possibly unique trait of humans that we keep pets. I believe it started when we fell in love with animals useful to us, the dog, the horse, the camel, the donkey, the cat. We shaped them to our own needs, and in doing so removed their ability to survive independently. But it has gone beyond usefulness now, we love them for their own sake, and we think extremely poorly of those who injure or acquire and then neglect them. So be extra nice to your cat today.


Mason Canyon said...

I agree. I think our love for animals has changed. A great many humans now no longer see them as pets, but as family members. I've seen dogs fill the void of older residents whose families are grown and moved away. We don't have children so our "pets" have become our children. We spoil them and they in turn spoil us.

Linda O. Johnston said...

What a wonderful post, Monica. Of course I'd think so! I've never had cats, but was born a dog person. I got my first one when I was 8 after a long-term campaign with my parents--but it was my grandfather who bought me one. More recently, I've been owned by Cavalier King Charles Spaniels for many years, after discovering my first member of the breed on the London Underground and falling in love. They're all different in personality but have one thing in common: loving people.

Monica Ferris said...

I'm a little concerned that we may have gone too far in making animals members of the family. In seniors, it's all right, because these can be lonely years when younger family members move away and won't or can't visit. But when young marrieds use them as a substitute for children, we're treading on dangerous ground. You can't expect Fluffy or Fifi to take care of you in your old age -- nor will Fluffy or Fifi's grandchildren be able to take care of themselves.dendsm

Betty Hechtman said...

Great post. It was fun reading about your cats. Except, sad about Skipper.

I find it so fascinating how distinct each dog and cat's personality is.