"Don't you have any cats?"
Its a common question asked by many of our visitors. Surprised by the answer, guests often wonder how we keep the mouse population, (an expected problem in any barn), under control. Our two West Highland terriers are pretty good mousers who, along with a nomadic weasel, tend to the task themselves.
I grew up with cats. In fact I can't remember a time in my childhood when at least one cat wasn't living in our house. On my eighth or ninth birthday I received a calico kitten who, sadly, grew into a holy terror of teeth and claws. Alice never could be 'tamed' and therefore, I never established a close relationship with her. She was permitted to have a couple litters of kittens who my siblings and I adored before they all found suitable homes. One of them, (a calico), was adopted by our neighbor, Rich Coleman. The kitten was christened with the name Steve, (Steve McQueen), and kept the name even after a veterinarian announced that Steve was a female, (All calico cats are female!).
Later, an orange tabby female kitten grew up into an aloof member of the family. She kept to herself, only appearing at mealtime and rarely interacting with her family. Although we named her Cindy, my mother refused to call her that since Cindy was the name of one of my brother's girlfriends; a young woman with way more experience than my mother thought George could handle.
Anyway, my father never acknowledged Cindy the cat in all the years that she lived with us. However, there is a memorable moment in our house when he referred to her simply as the 'tan one'. Apparently, he didn't even know her name.
There was also a black with white, (tuxedo), cat that we named Oliver due to his orphaned status. One summer my brother George was working for a company that manufactured and sold advertising signs. For days he came home with installments from the continuing saga of a pregnant stray cat seen sneaking around the plant. The manager was planning to kill the cat once she was caught. At dinner each night, Sue, John and I listened with our eyes wide open as George expressed great concern for this animal. Once her babies were born, the manager did catch and kill the mother along with several of her kittens by drowning them in a nearby river. For some reason, two kittens were left behind and George and another young co-worker, unable to bare the outcome of this situation any longer, took the remaining kittens home with them.
All I remember about Oliver, was that he was so tiny, we had to feed him with a bottle. My mother took care of him as if he was her own baby, and indeed he was. Oliver's story haunted every member of my family, including my father. If we learned anything that summer from such a tiny being, it was to garner respect for all forms of life. Oliver's arrival, although quite sad, strengthened our family bonds and pulled them a little tighter.
In addition to these unforgettable feline characters, there is still one cat who stands out above all of the ones listed above. For eighteen years he remained a constant in the fabric of our family's backdrop as the four of us grew into our teens. He endured the arrival of kittens, puppies, and an assortment of other critters who arrived temporarily from time to time.
Henry's story begins when his elegant black and white mother, Mittens began to push and strain into labor with no results. Slightly alarmed, my mother whisked Mittens off to the vet where an examination diagnosed that the first kitten was not only in breech position but, was also blocking the progress from those stuck behind him. With the vet's assistance the first kitten was pulled out tail first. Once he was free, the rest of the litter poured out right onto the exam table. Mittens took good care of her babies and while they were with her, my older brother was encouraged to pick one to keep. Naturally, he picked the large male tabby who came posterior first into the world. George named him Henry after his baseball idol, Hank Aaron.
Henry grew into a beloved member of our family. His emotionless expression, punctuated by two emerald green eyes was a fixture no matter where our family gathered in the house. As an indoor/outdoor cat, he was everywhere all the time. If we were visiting with neighbors in the courtyard behind the kitchen, Henry was sitting on the stone wall listening to the conversation. If we took the dog for a walk around the block, Henry followed us, darting in and out of the foliage like a clandestine spy. If we were playing Wiffle ball on the side lawn, Henry was sunning himself in the driveway. And if I was agonizing over a page full of long division problems while seated at the desk in the pantry, Henry was surely stretched out on my math book preventing me from successfully completing the task in a timely manner before bedtime.
There are many family tales in which Henry stars as the main character but, two of them are worth recording with words. Grammie, ( I Will Build Myself a Farm), was one of Henry's biggest fans. Every Christmas she sent him a catnip toy, specially wrapped and tagged with his name. Never a procrastinator, Grammie sent a whole box of gifts, including Henry's, weeks before Christmas. Once it arrived the box rested inertly on a Queen Anne chair in our front hallway. It didn't take our cat long to notice the box and within moments of its arrival, Henry keenly aware of the package and the contents within, remained near the package at all times. He slept on it, sat on it, licked himself from head to toe on it and never left it for very long. Finally, Christmas arrived and within seconds of being presented with his catnip mouse, he tore it open so that he could roll ecstatically in his 'weed'.
For days afterwards he strolled around the house, stoned from his catnip binge. It was not uncommon for us to greet him with a peace sign hand gesture and say "Hey, man, what's happenin'?"
The other 'Henry' story is a bit more serious and goes down in our family history with a glimpse at our father's concern for his family's cat.
The timeliness for telling this story is ironic, considering that the tale begins in Avalon, NJ which suffered damage from the assault of Hurricane Sandy earlier this week. My family rented a house in Avalon, every summer during the years that my siblings and I were growing up. Until we owned a boat, (early 1970's), we rented an assortment of cottages within walking distance of or a short drive to the beach. In Henry's early life, Avalon was a sleepy seashore village dotted with an eclectic array of yellow, blue, gray, pink and green clapboard bungalows that lined the grid of numbered streets and avenues crisscrossing the island.
Initially, we took Henry with us on vacation despite his dislike for riding in the car and being away from home. Once we arrived at our rental cottage, Henry established a strict routine by staying out all day and returning to the cottage just before dark every evening. Throughout the day we caught glimpses of him here and there, but never seemed to worry about him as he always returned by dusk. At the time, Avalon possessed many scrubby empty lots that were years away from being built up with more seashore homes. Henry spent his day hiding in the tall grassy lot next door or peeking out from behind the lattice slats that skirted the foundation of the cottage. Whatever he was up to, we never knew, and although I would never let a cat out of my sight in today's busy vacation hot spots, the practice was widely accepted in the late 60's. Since we returned home with Henry in one piece at the end of the vacation, the matter was never a concern. That is until the year that Henry accidentally exited the cottage on the morning we were packing to go home.
The family version of the story pin points me, the youngest, as the accomplice who may have opened the door allowing him to escape. Regardless of who sprung the cat; Henry was gone, lickity split! And according to his internal clock, not due back until dark. After lots of blaming and scolding, the fact still remained that Henry was not available to make the trip home with us in the car, now packed to travel two and half hours back to Philadelphia....away from our dear cat.
With no other choice and with lots of wailing tears, we drove away in our station wagon. I don't remember much about the trip home, but I can imagine it wasn't very pleasant. I do, however recall a sense of urgency as we unpacked the car once we arrived in our driveway later that afternoon. The boxes, suitcases, bags of food, and assortment of beach toys were no sooner unloaded from the station wagon, when my brother, George, (age 10), and my father backed out of the driveway and headed back to Avalon!
Their arrival at the rental cottage, shortly before sunset, was timed perfectly as the new renters were beginning to wonder about the cat camped out on their front steps and yowling to get in. With a meow of recognition and relief, Henry willingly submitted to being placed in the station wagon for its second trip home that day.
The last thing I remember from this family crisis was that my brother George, with Henry in his arms, visited my sister Sue, brother John and me at our bedsides to let us know that Henry was safe and finally home.
After writing today's blog entry, I am beginning to ask myself why there are no cats at Moose River Farm. I love cats and look forward to the day when one takes up residence in my life once again. Until then, my memories of Henry, Oliver, Cindy and the rest will comfort me with meow-echoes from the past.
|Henry was a beloved family member for about 18 years .|