January 25, 2007

I think I'm over cats

Aimee, Galena IL 1993

I do not want another cat.

I've had a thousand cats.

My first cat was a black domestic short-hair - Princess. She wasn't with me long. One day playing with me under the 200 year old pecan tree at my family home; the next day gone.

Princess, Sulphur, LA 1951

Mamma and Daddy said she ran away. What a heartbreak. I cried and cried. It's a wonder I ever let myself be seduced by another cat.

I was well into middle age before my parents confessed that Daddy had inadvertently run over her when he was backing out of the driveway.

After losing Princess, I was content to visit all the semi-feral cats and kittens left to breed by our neighbor two doors down.

Roe's cats were ubiquitous - a source of consternation to my father. They preyed on my brother's homing pigeons and bantum chickens. They shat in my Dad's flower beds. They were pure joy to me.

There was always an old queen inside her house to purr when I petted her. There was always a new litter of kittens to cuddle.

"Minou, minou, here minou," I called.

Cats and kittens came running from all corners of Roe's yard to swirl around my chubby brown legs while I fed them.

This was perfectly wonderful.

Sissy was the first cat to become a long-lived companion. She was a calico cat with a bob tail. Her mother chewed it off. Who knows what that was about?

Sissy, Astor Street, Chicago, IL 1973

She came with a brother, Rocky, who lived with us for a year until I gave him to a single woman who lived alone and needed something to love.

How well I understood.

For most of her life, Sissy was a contented apartment cat. No driveway dangers. No trees to climb. No call of the wild. No prey.

We made adjustments for this.

She perched in the top of my closet (after I arranged a way for her to climb without shredding my clothes.) She loved paper bags and boxes, cheap entertainment. So in addition to a perch, she had a next - a cardboard box buried in the bottom of the closet.

Sissy was adept at snuggling under the covers without shredding them. I trimmed her nails, but she still did a number on much of my upholstered furniture.

Most of all, she liked my lap and logged easily 15,000 hours there.

I made the religious pilgrimage for wellness exams and annual vaccines, so she was no stranger to the vet's office.

Yet, in 20 years, I only boarded her once.

Most times I travelled, I left her with a friend or had someone trustworthy look in on her. When I was very lucky, and gone for weeks, a teenager lived in. Michael Weinstein, Chicago, IL, made this portrait of Sissy when he was a high school student and sitting my kitty.

Sissy, Belmont Harbor, Chicago, IL 1975

Once I simply could not find a kitty sitter. So I drove 25 miles to the American Pet Motel on the North Shore.

From the advertising, I conjured an "ideal" image of a luxury hotel for pets, with little suites and little beds. What a shock when I discovered it was just a kennel and my cat would be crated. It was a suite, i.e., a two bedroom crate. It was still a crate.

I was so upset with myself, I cried all the way home.

She was so upset, she refused to eat for the week I was away. They force fed her.

No more boarding.

I was such a blond.

Now, 25 years later, there are luxury hotels for pets with little suites and little beds. So my idealistic imagination was ahead of its time.

Sissy, Kenmore Street, Chicago, IL 1984
In 1984, we took the second floor of a Victorian three-flat on Kenmore Street in Chicago. Here, the skilled predator dormant in my comfort cat emerged.

My neighbor downstairs who fed birds on his balcony called Sissy, "that killer cat."

I let her out on my balcony above. She flattened under the railing and reached out to snag sparrows out of mid-air as they homed into his bird feeder.

Lucky me, she then left dead birds as presents on my bed.

We were visited briefly by Zelda, the Camp Cat. But Zelda brought disruption, spats and fleas, which did not agree with Sissy. So she was taken to the animal shelter with her vaccination record and a letter of recommendation.

After 20 years of urban living, I moved into a rustic split-level A-frame home on the downslope overlooking Lake Galena in a resort community 3 hours northwest. Sissy and I commuted to there on weekends for a while then re-located to live year-round.

Lake Galena, Galena Territory, IL 1990

Just days after we moved in, work demanded that I be in San Francisco for a few days.

My companion cat for 16 years, Sissy was fine being home alone and she was familiar with this home. I just needed someone to visit daily and feed her.

Since I had no friends in town yet and no neighbors at all during the week, I asked a hand at the stable where I boarded my horse to do this.

Happy to oblige, he said.

Off to San Francisco four days. Business mission accomplished. Five hour flight to O'Hare. Three hour drive to Galena. I rolled in sometime in the wee hours of the morning. I didn't see Sissy, but assumed she was somewhere in the house and tumbled into bed. After a few hours sleep, I awoke - where was Sissy?

I looked and looked and looked and looked. Inside. Outside. Under beds. In closets. On top shelves. In boxes. Everywhere. She was nowhere to be found.

I drove to the stable.

Where's my cat?

My erstwhile kitty sitter obligingly came to my home as promised. Spontaneously, he brought along a friend and a 12 pack. They sat on the deck overlooking the lake, smoking and drinking.

Somehow, in their revelry, it escaped notice when my cat got out. And so after they drank all the beer, smoked all the pot and locked my house, they left her out. The entire time I was out of town.

I was beyond distraught and in between searching the densely wooded ridges and trails around my house from the lane to the lake and calling her name to no avail, I wept and wailed, cursing that boy - and myself - for such carelessness.

Late evening, wrung out, I sat on my deck, nursing a broken heart.

Out of the pitch black, deep from within the wild tangle of oak, cedar, walnut trees and brambles, at the foot of the hill alongside the lake, I heard caterwauling.

I called. I called. I called again.

In a few minutes, here comes Sissy.

Oh thank God, I was so happy to see her. She was also pleased to see me. More, she seemed damned pleased with her adventure.

Sissy, Galena Territory, IL 1990

Subsequently, Sissy proved an able mouser and a chipmunker. My resort house was over-run with mice so I welcomed her adaptation. Chipmunks, not so much. I rescued dozens of them. Ingrates. They bite.

She answered the call of the wild, but always within sight of the house.

After two years, I found more in common with folks in town than the weekend resort community. We moved to a tiny miner's cottage with lots of elbow room, i.e, three-quarters of an acre, on the outskirts of Galena, IL.

Donegan Street, Galena, IL 1992

It was on the verge between town and country. I was in town. The farm across the road was country. The farm and all of Donegan Street also happened to be a third world country of barn cats - 19 at first count.

I didn't want Sissy to go outdoors on Donegan Street. She was aged and fragile. We were too close to the road. And there was always a barn cat of one stripe or another in my yard. So for the most part, she adapted yet again and kept my pillows warm.

Partly to forestall the pain of losing Sissy, partly as amends for failing Zelda, I opened my home and heart to many cats as Sissy waned.

Callianna, 1995

For eight years, Callianna, a tortoiseshell barn cat graced my life with her presence and two litters of kittens - seven cats altogether. I rehomed all but two: Poppy a gorgeous tortie who lived with me for a year and Aimee who came to stay.

Whie I was occupied with gardening, kittens and media relations for the tax software group of a Big Five accounting firm, Sissy developed a squamous cell carcinoma on her mouth. At that time, there was nothing that could be done. In just three months, she was all but gone.

Sissy was euthanized at home.

Dr. Barbara gave her a sedative. She went to sleep in my lap as she had for so many years. Then we moved her to a sunny table on the sunporch for the IV solution. There was nothing left but skin and bones. I was grateful to be with her as she expelled that precious last breath.

It was very peaceful.

Sissy's Grave, Galena, IL 1994

Burying my old companion cat was the hardest thing I've ever done.

As I sat sobbing by her grave, a cool, fresh breeze swept through me. It was not a breezy day. I will always believe it was called by my grief to take her spirit and to comfort me.

The following year, Poppy vanished after a major spring snowstorm.

It's not a lot easier to lose a cat to wandering ways than to certain death. There are so many bad things that can happen to a cat. It takes all my willpower to hope for the best - that she found a more comfortable pillow to sleep on.

In 1997, I brought a puppy home. Boy did that shift the energy in my space. Cats and dogs do not speak the same language. Calli did her best to teach Matisse respect for cats; he thought this was sport. He never learned.

Callianna & Matisse, Galena, IL 1998

Next a man I'd known since high school showed up a little like a stray cat in need of love and a safe place to land. He moved in. The energy shifted even more.

In 2000, Callianna, Aimee, my dog and my new life partner all moved to Austin, TX where I hoped to cash in on the dot.com boom. We even brought a little bit of Sissy, in the cat statue that marked her grave.

Calli vanished as soon as we let her outside.

I always felt she headed back to Illinois. She was attached to me, but still a barn cat with an established territory to patrol. She was just that spunky. If she didn't make it all the way, I hope she found a nice farm to hunt.

And finally, from a full house of cats and kittens, it was just Aimee and Matisse.

So I have had a calico cat on my lap, in my bed, on my feet, walking across my head every night and day I slept at home for 34 years. This love of cats has brought great joy, much growth and some satisfaction. Now I am grateful for my dog.

I think I'm over cats.

No comments: