Cats and People

Merv, Judge, L’il Orphant Annie and I walked through the woods last evening. To be more precise, Annie walked us. She kept an eye on us from a little behind, ready to gentle us along if we strayed. Annie was abandoned by her mother in a freezing downpour a year ago. She was 2 weeks old. We brought her in, dried her off, warmed her up. Her eyes were barely open. We learned how to care for her. She learned how to reward us with good behavior.

Grown now, Annie looks a lot like my first cat Frankie. Frankie adopted my parents and me, and let himself be petted. My friend Susie is holding him in the picture. Frankie was named after my cocky, daring Coast Guard Uncle Frank as an act of high worship. Unfortunately for the success of the gesture, Frankie was discovered to be female and carrying a litter.

There was a simple solution for unneeded litters of kittens on farms in those days involving an old feed sack and water. Cats had a job, and that was rodent control in the barns and around the houses. A few cats was really all you needed. If you did have a house cat, and most people didn’t, mouse patrol was their job all night. But our cat Frankie, saved from a litter, was a pet. She did her job, bringing a tribute of mouse bodies to my mother at the kitchen door, and she allowed herself to be held and petted.

Even in that cold little apartment, home was a haven of sweet refuge. I had 2 friends. One I worshipped. She was a little older and knew a lot. She had a television set. My other friend was just my age, and loved what I loved and we did everything together. We were pals and our arms would go round each other’s shoulders when we walked. We got to play together a lot. We picked flowers and festooned our hair. We had tea parties with nutshells. We played jump rope. We wore matching jumpers that Mom made for us (and jumped in them of course.) They were plaid. I still love plaid. In the winter Mom put snow suits on us both. She had gotten one for me and persuaded Susie’s mother to get one for her. They were matching too. We called them snowsnuits. We thought that was the name.

2 little girls, 2 old farmhouses, 2 sets of parents, friends, mothers going to the Eastern Star together, me picked up for Sunday school with Susie every Sunday. But I was the child of a mother who had done what she wanted to do in the world, sophisticated career and life in Minneapolis and Hawaii and now was doing what she wanted to do, making a family and enjoying babies and their childhood. Susie was the surprise child of a couple who were ready for an adult and civilized existence of card playing and meetings and tidiness. I didn’t see things from that point of view then. I just knew that Susie got into a lot of trouble for things I would ‘get away with.’ Our hair would get tangled. She would be inside their bathroom and I would watch her mother steely tugging the brush as Susie screamed with pain. If I got tar in my hair, Mom would just cut it out.

We went into the creek at the bottom of her garden one day. This was prohibited territory for Susie. I didn’t live with a lot of prohibitions. We were careful not to get our dresses wet. Susie was really worried about that. But our hard leather shoes were no match for slippery rocks and pretty soon our dresses and socks and shoes were soaked. When we finally went up to her house we were late and Susie wasn’t having fun anymore. Her mother yanked her into the bathroom. I stayed on the other side of the door as the hairbrush paddled Susie. I heard the wailing. Then I was grimly marched across the road.

I was no fool. I opened the screen door into the kitchen. Mom and Dad were at the table. They didn’t notice me. I crawled under the table and past their legs being careful not to make a sound or touch them. I made it into the bedroom and took off my wet dress and shoes and socks and put on a dry one. When I was asked where my shoes were I airily answered that I wanted to go barefoot in the house. I had gotten away with it.

I also had Frankie. Susie adored Frankie but Frankie was mine so I could be cavalier about my love. When Frankie had kittens it was glorious! They were such cuddly helpless creatures that would fit in our little hands and could be sheltered by our chests. And I got to show them off! That intoxicating experience of having something your friend wants! Kittens!

The kittens lived with Frankie who I renamed Frankilene in honor of her new position as a mother but it didn’t catch on. They lived in the crawl space under the back shed, attached to the kitchen. One evening just before Dad came home I heard panicked mewling and crawled under to see that 2 of the kittens had fallen into the cistern under the shed. The cistern was unused now. A well with an electric pump provided cold water to the kitchen sink. When Dad walked up to the house I knew he could save them. I had no doubt he would save them. First he lowered a wooden swing on 1 rope into the water of the cistern. They clambered on but when he pulled on the rope the seat tilted and they slipped off and panicked. He lowered a plank for them to crawl up. In a sweet falsetto voice he called them and swore at them but they didn’t understand that they could climb up. At this point he had done what he could do. He was ready to stop. This was after all the fate of spare kittens on a farm. He crawled out and left. I wept with terror and helplessness.

But Dad did save them. He brought a ladder into the crawl space and put it down the cistern. He took off his shoes and socks and rolled up his pants legs. He descended, cursing as he went, but that did not bother me. I did not understand then that he had been a submariner in the war, that descents down ladders into dark spaces involved a lot of heroism. I just knew he was my hero. He scooped them up and put them in his shirt to bring them out.

The kittens lived, they grew up. We kept one, Inky and Mom and Dad found a home for the other. Cats don’t live forever, I know that now. These days when we get a pet my heart tries not to love them because it knows that a day comes when the pet, so trusting, dies. Of course hearts are out of control, so L’ill Orphant Annie and Judge are highly esteemed members of the family. You know what, though, I really miss Susie and Mom and Dad, and Frankie and Inky, Daisy 1 and Daisy 2, Donner, Brownie, Nicky, Jimmy, Rosie, Friskie, Inky 2, Brownie 2….

It is time for poached eggs on toast. Nobody can feel blue with poached eggs. Ignore what you have read. So what if tendrils of white escape from the egg! You are cooking for yourself, not a panel of chefs. Put 2 pieces of toast into the toaster. Don’t start it. Put a wide low pan of water on the burner and bring it to the boil. Salt it, make a little whirlpool in the water, slip eggs into the whirlpool. Turn the burner off, cover it and start the toast. Cook the eggs the way YOU like them and then take them out with a slotted spoon and glide them onto buttered toast.