We were never a cat family growing up. Our parents had beagles, and when I was a child I don’t remember a time that didn’t include Tigger, our three-legged Labrador. I got a dog of my own when I was ten. My friend’s poodle had a night of passion, resulting in four scoundrel puppies of questionable pedigree. I had to have one. Just had to. And I did.
With a lot of help from my sister, who as a teenager knew of all things secretive and sophisticated, I named the little grey fur ball Bonne Bell. As in just like the cosmetic company, which was the closest thing to European sophistication that we knew of in New Jersey. After they both grew old and passed, there was a momentary pause of no dogs.
Enter the cat. Once again, my now young-adult sister, purveyor of all things interesting and worthwhile, called to tell me that her boyfriend’s stray cat had two kittens and I should take one. I was in my gap year between high school and college, my horse fever raging like a five-alarm fire. Having a cat seemed like a great idea since I was living on a farm. Susie and the boyfriend drove three hours from Atlanta to deliver the tiny little calico kitten whom I promptly named Turkey since it was Thanksgiving. She was tiny, fluffy, and like every other kitten on the planet, utterly adorable.
Turkey. The introduction to Catdom. As a yearling cat, I would often walk down the barn aisle and see her sleeping on the back of a horse. She would scale the stall wall to the ledge midway and pop right on. Why the horses didn’t care is beyond me. They much preferred that to her attacking their tails like a demon, a ball of claws and teeth, her ears flat back, eyes glazed over, getting tangled in their web of tail hair, always managing to flee before a fatal kick was delivered. Even worse, she would lie in wait in the pile of hay in the corner of their stalls with those same steely-glazed eyes peering from inside the mound. The hay would start to shuffle slightly as she perfected her crouch. In one fail swoop, she would leap out, hay flying everywhere, arms wide open like a catcher’s mitt, landing like Velcro wrapped around their heads before immediately repelling off, just missing the strike of the hoof meant for her little cat-body. As entertaining as she was, Turkey was the epitome of all things cat: aloof, independent, and sometimes, she was just a bitch. She greeted you three ways—by barely acknowledging your presence, by purring, or by hissing and swatting. There was no poker face with that cat.
Needless to say, my gap year ended, and while I went to college, Turkey moved home with my parents. The Dog Years now became the Cat Years. And they’re still going as you’ll find out later. When my sister broke up with the boyfriend and graduated from college, Turkey’s mother, whom we called “Mama,” came to live with my parents as well. Mama, the old stray, got a bath and her mats cut out, and she took to the domesticated life quite nicely. She was very friendly and spent most of her time relaxing and purring. Turkey, with a lot less to do stuck in a house than on a farm, continued her escapades as best as she could. This consisted of occupying any bag or box available, and avoiding the humans at all costs. You could pet her, on the back of her neck, for a short period of time only. Any other contact was met with hissing, scowling, biting, and scratching. Good thing she was so cute because that’s just about all she had working for her.
Those two lived out their years there. Mama passed first, but before Turkey left this world, she got a new friend. Home for Thanksgiving, I heard some mewing on the back deck. I went outside and it stopped. I went back inside and it started again. I went back outside and threw a handful of cat chow across the deck. Out of the shadows, a tiny little kitten appeared, drawn to the smell of the kibble, but terrified of me. I backed away from the food and the tiny little kitten crept forward, stretching himself out over the food, shaking with fear, and trying to claim it all as his own. He didn’t have any competition, so it was all for him, but he didn’t know that. He was so young, he didn’t know anything, and what he did know probably wasn’t good. He was marked like a Siamese, blue eyes and all, but with white paws and a white chest. He was stunning. We immediately swept him into the house and it was then that Pilgrim joined our family. (Are you noticing the trend yet?). My parents were officially in the cat business now, albeit by default, but sometimes that’s just how things happen.
While they were contending with Pilgrim and Turkey, I was once again living in the country riding horses. One of my housemates had a friend, who had a cat, who couldn’t keep it. See above about default. This is how Stimpy came to live with us. Just a kitten herself, Stimpy was grey, mottled, and as far as cats go, not so easy on the eyes. But Stimpy was a survivor, and coming from a kid’s dorm room, it was evident that Stimpy had learned some valuable survival skills along the way. For instance, if you forgot to feed Stimpy, which we never did, but theoretically, if you did forget to feed her, she knew to take advantage of any opportunity for calories. If you left a glass with milk in it unattended, that you happened to be drinking two seconds prior, the chances were good that you would return to find Stimpy with her head shoved all the way down the tube of the glass. Her skin would pull back from her face due to the tight squeeze so that she resembled nothing short of an alien, with her alien tongue licking up that milk as fast as she could. Nothing was off limits, whether you were eating it, or you left it sitting on a plate, or even the dirty dishes piled up in the sink. It was all fair game. Of course, we didn’t realize that she was eating for three, but she was.
Yellow, the male kitten, son of Stimpy, was my second official cat, after Turkey. Yellow, who was a yellow version of an orange tabby, had a grey tabby sister that was called Nermal. Somehow out of this tiny kitten-cat, Stimpy, came these two kittens who grew to be monster-sized. Especially Yellow, who was then given the proper name of Smithers the Smitten Kitten, or Smitty Kitty. All of the names were references to some kind of cartoon—Stimpy, the Chihuahua from Ren and Stimpy; Nermal, the grey cat in the Garfield comic strip; and Smithers from the Bible-beating neighbor on the Simpson’s. We thought we were so clever naming our cats, but it was a far cry from the sophistication of Bonne Bell.
Smitty was my first official dog-cat. He was nonplussed about everything and was happy being a domesticated farm cat where he could enjoy the abundance of farm life, namely cat chow, cat beds, and lots of open spaces to lay in the sun. When I moved to a new barn, Smitty made the transition easily with the same outlook he had about the rest of life. I adored him. Soon after, I returned to Dogdom and acquired a dog. Not by default, well, ok, maybe a little. I wanted a dog, namely I wanted a Jack Russell, and it just so happened that a very good friend had bred hers and had one puppy left available. So it was more that the stars aligned, and perfect timing and all that, then it was by default.
Enter Cracker, who fit in my hand. It turns out Cracker was the best dog ever, but that’s another story entirely of its own. However, Cracker did have one peculiarity. He liked to dry hump cats. Well, maybe dry humping wasn’t his intention, and maybe he didn’t know that he wasn’t doing it right, but he went at it with complete conviction and gusto, and Smitty was his first casualty. Now Smitty outweighed Cracker by a good ten pounds. But he just let that little dog have his way with no thought about any of it. Cracker was so adamant and hell bent to defile that cat at such an early age that it earned him a trip to the vet to get his balls cut off. They were so tiny that they didn’t even require stitches. But damn if that didn’t stop him. He never even broke stride. Henceforth it was, “Cracker! Get off the cat!” Sometimes I’d see him walking all casually over to the cat like no one noticed, but I knew. Cracker had different walks for different needs. He had his poop walk, his ready-for-bed walk, his I’m-gonna-kick-your-ass walk, and he sure did have his I’m-gonna-ride-that-cat-hard walk.
Smitty just never minded. He viewed Cracker as part of the landscape. About a year later, the neighbor’s cat had kittens. Four kittens and one was the same yellow color as Smitty. See above about default. So now Smitty had a twin brother whom we called Kitten. We never changed it, or added on. It was always just Kitten, even when he also grew to be a very big cat. Kitten was my second dog-cat. After Turkey, I knew they weren’t all like this, but having two in a row felt like hitting the cat lottery twice. Kitten was just as laid back and friendly, and he also tolerated Cracker’s idiosyncrasies. Cracker now had two cats to choose from and he was all about sharing the love, which he did.
I moved to a different barn and couldn’t take Smitty or Kitten, so they stayed at the barn they knew well. For a year, Cracker had no contact with cats and I had high hopes his habit would be long forgotten. When we moved to another barn, it conveyed with its own resident cat, Milo. Milo was not impressed with our arrival, most of all Cracker’s. He gave us a wide berth and the disdain on his face could not be concealed. If looks could kill, Cracker and I would have been dead.
I made Milo’s life worse when I added another dog to the mix. Cracker needed a friend, a pal, and I got him Darby, a four-year-old female Greyhound. My thinking was that I could help a dog and that she would be big enough not to compete with Cracker for my lap. Darby was a fantastic addition. Cracker tried to boss her around, but she dealt with that by raising her head and ignoring him when he would yap around trying to nip her face, or she’d just take off running and leave him in the dust. That really pissed him off the most. He fancied himself swift of foot and hated facing the reality that he was only fast in his mind. His legs were only five inches long, what did he expect? But it surprised him and pissed him off every time. Such is the life of a Jack Russell.
Darby and Cracker left Milo alone for the most part and he avoided them at all costs. He had a permanent contemptuous scowl on his face, especially when he reminded us, constantly I might add, that the food bowl was empty. He couldn’t believe he had to ask for food from us lowbrow homebreds. It was insulting.
But just about this time, my neighbor (spoiler alert: see above about neighbors) announced that she was fostering kittens. And that I should take one. Which I did. I picked out a very fluffy, grey male, a prettier version of Milo. I thought that might appease the old goat. When it came time to collect the new addition, my neighbor made an executive decision, and brought over the black and white kitten instead. She felt his outgoing personality was better suited to the crazy zoo that was my life.
We called him….Kitten. And just like the first Kitten, Kitten #2 (for the sake of clarity) grew to be a very big boy. He was officially dog-cat #3. Just like Smitty and Kitten, Kitten #2 allowed Cracker his old habit of dry humping. Yep, Cracker never even missed a beat. It was like there had been no hiatus from cats. Just like a duck to water and with zero improvement in his technique. Which was good because otherwise the whole thing would have been X-rated. As it was, we referred to it as Cracker’s “kitty porn.”
But life rolls on and I rolled on out of the horse business altogether, and with that, I was out of the cat business too. My friend, who was a cat person with three of her own, took Kitten into her pack. As a typical dog-cat, he blended right in and transformed himself into a pampered house cat. He went inside and never came out. That’s not entirely true. He went outside to eat the cat food in the barn and then he’d come right back in to eat the cat food in the house and sleep in the middle of the spare bed, making a little groove in the down comforter. That cat was not a fool. Hugely obese, but a fool he was not.
Back to my parents. Not only are they still in the cat business, but they have possibly crossed the line into “crazy cat people.” There are currently three felines residing in the house: Leroy, Mama, and Peter. You can see where I get my naming skills. I would like to add that my sister’s daughter named Peter (a name that doesn’t fit with the established history of names). “Leroy” came from my Dad, and if you knew him, my Dad that is, not Leroy, you would understand how this name came to pass.
To add to this mix, my Dad has also taken to feeding “the strays.” That is a collective terms for the many cats that have come and gone at will outside my parent’s door for years. Leroy and Mama were the first strays to show up and they were brought inside as soon as they could touch them. Mama gave birth shortly after to three kittens and that’s when Peter joined the club. My Dad would bring all of the strays into the house, but can’t due to Leroy’s ferocity and lack of social cat-skills. As a result, Dad continues to feed all the strays and worries incessantly if they’re going to survive to see another day. I should mention my parents live in the suburbs, in Texas, where the only predator is probably the other neighborhood kids.
Once my parents do bring a cat into the house, it never leaves again. It is forbidden, for fear (see above) that it will not survive even a minute outside due its domestic status, as well as… the neighborhood kids. I can’t help but notice how often the three cats gaze out the windows longingly. They hang out by the front and back door, if you’re in close vicinity of either, in the off chance they can make a break for it and have a grand outdoor adventure. I don’t think they want to be outside full-time, but I do think they long for the outdoors. Dad doesn’t take any chances, swinging his cane at them and yelling, like an old-fashioned lion-tamer. Still, Leroy will take a chance now and then, leaping over the cane and bursting out the door, as if he had rehearsed it a million times. In which case, out the door my Dad goes, cane in hand, up and down the slalom of tiny berms which are like snares lying in wait for my elderly father who is riddled with arthritis.
He doesn’t give up until Leroy is caught. He brings him back one-handed, gripped tightly to his chest, his other hand on his cane slowly traversing back to the door of the house. Leroy has shredded him along the way to the best of his ability. He hates being held, and he hates being subdued in the middle of his great escape. But my Dad is relentless and he will not let go of Leroy. I’m thankful for that. If it wasn’t for Leroy, the house would be full of cats and my parents would officially be crazy cat people. By default, that can’t happen now. Which just goes to show, sometimes the best things in life happen by default.