FIFTY YEARS WITH CATS
by Terry Sanville

No, not the musical ­– but actual four-legged felines, critters that own property around the world and allow some humans to act as their staff. Men are supposed to scorn them. And being a man, last time I checked, I grew up in California distrusting the domestic variety. Besides, our family had dogs and in the 1950s early television extolled the virtues of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie. Cat heroes didn’t exist. No tabby ever signaled to June Lockhartwith a loud yowl that Timmy had fallen down the well.

But slowly, those sly creatures wriggled their way into my life and became family and compassionate friends.

It wasn’t until 1969 when I returned from Vietnam and lived in a tiny stone cabin in Medicine Park, Oklahoma that I had my first cat relationship. Everything is a relationship these days. I lived with artist Marguerite out on the windswept plains, about a half hour drive from Fort Sill, where I worked as an Army clerk and she as a civil service illustrator. One cold winter’s day, a furry creature batted at our cabin’s window. Marguerite let the shivering longhaired tabby in, a female who immediately found our space heater and flopped before it.

We petted her and she purred so loud that we named her Evinrude after the company that makes outboard motors. But Evinrude loved the outdoors more than a toasty room, spent her days roaming the Merry Circle honeymoon cabins likely built during the 1920’s. Now all I really remember of Evinrude is her purr. It helped change my attitude towards cats, and they use it so effectively to their advantage.

Marguerite and I left Oklahoma in 1970, drove her Ford Falcon pulling a U-Haul across country to the small seaside California town of Cayucos, to a shoebox-sized apartment. I headed back to college on the GI Bill at Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo, my wife to a new job as a graphic artist.

During our life together, Marguerite and I have walked everywhere. And living in a town with a beach and the Pacific a hundred yards away felt perfect. But our next cat found us while we wound our way inland, into the coastal foothills along Old Creek Road. Off to the right sat a huge pile of abalone shells that local divers had discarded. Across the pile scrambled a sleek black cat, meowing loudly, making a beeline for us then following us home. We named her Abalone (shortened to Baloney) in honor of where she found us.

Three months later she came with us to Morro Bay, to a slightly larger house overlooking the ocean, on a street lined with giant Monterey pines. Baloney loved to climb trees, chase squirrels, and capture lizards and eat them under our bed at night. We’d wake to the sound of crunching bones, both of us too disgusted to look until morning. I wonder if they too taste a little like chicken?

One day we found her under our car being humped by a huge black male with golden eyes. Two months later she gave birth to kittens in the middle of the night, in a cardboard box next to our bed. Now we had five cats to serve: the mama, two black kittens, and two ugly white things with dirty faces, paws, and tails. As the kittens grew, the white uglies turned into beautiful Siamese. A friend adopted the female Siamese. We kept the male, and the two black kitties we took to the local pound, years before there were such things as “no kill” shelters. What a heartbreaking experience. Marguerite and I vowed never to be faced with that abandonment feeling again. We have spayed and neutered our cats ever since.

In 1973, Baloney and her son, Schmoot, allowed us to take them into Southern California’s high desert for my first job as a city planner in Victorville. We arrived during a winter storm. It’s hilarious to watch fair-weather cats trying to negotiate snow for the first time. At night mother and son would sleep together on our bed, black curled against white, the perfect ying and yang of felinity.

After only six months, we moved from Victorville back to San Luis Obispo, to a vastly superior job and an apartment along a busy arterial. We were amateurs on how to transport cats. Not having carriers, we deposited Baloney and Schmoot in the Falcon’s back seat, in a closed cardboard box lined with comfortable blankets. Baloney handled the trip with great aplomb. But Schmoot broke free and freaked out over the car’s speed and the scenery flashing past. Maybe he thought he had changed into a cheetah, chasing down zebra in the Serengeti.

Complaining loudly, Schmoot clawed his way over the car’s upholstery, crawled up under the dashboard, and nestled among the wiring for the entire five-hour trip. Nothing showed but his twitching tail hanging down. Guess what we used to dislodge him from his hideaway?

I worked sixty-hour weeks and Marguerite went back to school to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Biological Science and a national scholarship for graduate studies. We’d lived only a year or two in San Luis when Baloney died suddenly. Our bed felt empty at night, one of the family gone. We couldn’t really replace a family member, it didn’t feel right. So for the next nine years we were a one-cat household. Living on a busy street, Schmoot wouldn’t be safe from traffic. He readily adapted to indoor life, developing his own strange vocalizations when complaining about birds landing outside his window.

Like many of us, as Schmoot aged he grew into a wide affectionate animal. At night, he slept on my wife’s chest, fortunately head-to-head. We’ve had cats that did otherwise. He lived to be old enough to be issued a California Driver’s License…long before Toonceson Saturday Night Live got behind the wheel.

Putting Schmoot down was our first euthanasia. Strong sedatives injected by our kind vet put him to sleep and stopped his heart, peaceful but still pitiful to watch. The slow rise and fall of his stomach, then stillness. Forget all that circle-of-life crap. His death hurt.

For a year or two we took an emotional break from cats. One day we shopped at a local mall, a common California activity in the ’80s. A cat rescue organization offered pets for free adoption. In one cage, sitting quietly like a deposed prince, rested a sizable Siamese with dark chocolate points and tail. Every once in a while he’d cut loose with the classic Siamese yowl, but otherwise seemed to handle confinement. He allowed us to pet him without complaint. He knew cat staffers when he saw them.

We took him home, then to the vet to have him checked over and get his shots. He looked about two years old and had already been neutered. When Marguerite and I went to pick up the Siamese, we left with a companion for our big brown wonder, a male kitten that the vet called a Snowshoe Siamese. The white and tan kitty had been abandoned on the vet’s doorstep a few days before. Once again we had two masters.

At that time I had started writing about my Army experiences in Vietnam. With that war-torn country on my mind, we gave each cat a Vietnamese name. The big male we called Choi Oi, loosely meaning “Oh Dear” or in today’s parlance, “WTF.” The kitten we named Dinky Dau meaning “crazy.” Choi seemed content to watch Dinky tear around the house and claw the hell out of our furniture. The duo settled in as indoor cats.

In the 1980’s, Marguerite and I began an annual tradition of taking winter vacations to Santa Catalina Island, 24 miles off the Southern California coast. We stayed in Avalon at the Zane Grey Pueblo, the former home of the famed western writer. His house had been converted into a hotel. We stayed at the Zane Grey the week before Christmas, often a cold and windy time but free from the summer crush of tourists.

One year we met Charlie, the Pueblo’s mascot, a 20+-pound male. He sure knew how to charm vacationers, doing the ole rub against the shins and loud purring, then rolling onto his back and offering his ample belly for rubbing. And he’d probably do anything to be allowed to stay inside a hotel room at night, away from the bitter wind.

He stayed with us for several nights, sleeping on the bed above our pillows. He was clean and flea-free, well almost. But his main problem turned out to be his snoring. He snored so loud that it woke us, not to mention himself. But we put up with his nasal proclivities. After a couple of annual vacations he was gone, a short-term island romance to be sure.

After seventeen years renting a house in San Luis Obispo along a busy street we scraped together our meager dollars and bought a mobile home in a well-landscaped and comparatively quiet park. Choi and Dinky thrived, charmed the hell out of visitors during my wife’s annual open studio art sale. We sat with friends and strangers, drank good California wine and scratched our furry wonders behind their ears. They behaved well, left few messes (every house cat has “accidents” of one sort or another), and grew fat with age.

Choi died first. Dinky hung on for a while, lonely for his lost partner, and finally made his last trip to the vet at age fifteen.

Life in a mobile home park is much like any other residential area, with quiet or loud neighbors, friendly or reticent ones. One coach across the street housed a couple with their pretty five-year-old daughter. The large woman wore long hippie skirts and flowing blouses, the man sported tattoos. While cats may fill Marguerite’s and my need for an immediate family, we joyfully watched the father play with his daughter and hear her laugher float on the wind down our street.

Then the father got hurt on the job, messed up his back really bad. He couldn’t work and the pain from his injury drove him to self-medicating. The couple’s arguments filled the afternoons, sometimes sounding violent. As the family fell apart, their cat, a calico named Zoey, began visiting us. During that summer she’d hang out on our shaded porch, lay in one of our laps and purr.

Finally, the husband disappeared. One afternoon the little girl came over and told us that she and her mother were moving back to Iowa. Close to tears, she asked us to take care of Zoey and then poured the cat out of her arms into my wife’s lap. We gladly accepted.

Zoey lived with us for over ten years. At first we tried to keep her outside and free ourselves from the chore of litter box maintenance. We lined a cat carrier with soft bath towels and placed it in the protected corner of our covered porch, her food and water bowls close by. But after much meowing and clawing the living hell out of our front screen door, we let her in the house. After that she shunned the outdoors and we had to reestablish our litter box protocol.

While Zoey had enough love for both of us, she liked to sleep on my lap at night as we read and watched TV. While this arrangement sounds charming, for a man, having a twelve-pound feline crushing his junk for hours on end is no picnic. And then there’s the problem of cutting off circulation to my legs. But getting her to move only caused angry complaints and even after pushing her away, she’d eventually resume her favorite sleeping position.

A gentle cat, Zoey liked the attentions of small children. A friend’s little two-year-old daughter liked to play with her. The girl’s name is also Zoe. Zoey the cat lived a pampered life with few medical problems until the end. She graced our household until diabetes and kidney disease caused her last trip to the vet.

Again, several months passed as we mourned Zoey’s death. Then our vet gave us a call: another abandoned cat needed a home, a spayed female that we named Alyssa. When we questioned the vet about Alyssa’s health, she couldn’t tell us much about the cat’s history although her current medical condition seemed stable. When we took her home, she had a dense dark coat with golden swirls and a strange looking tail.

Only later did we find out that the cat had been abused by a previous owner, locked in a garage and abandoned for days, left to urinate and defecate anywhere she wished in that confined space.

We also later found out that Alyssa proved to have long hair. Her coat grew out and she developed a lion’s main on her chest. But she looked beautiful, flicking her fluffed tail like some Burlesque fan dancer. Unfortunately, she never got over the trauma of being locked away in that garage and often refused to use a cat pan, highly problematic for an indoor cat. But she showed and accepted affection and enjoyed having her long coat brushed out and sometimes trimmed for the summer months.

We estimated her age to be about seven when we took her home. She lasted five years with us before her final trip to the vet. I had a sense that she’d lived a hard life far beyond what we knew. We felt good about treating her with kindness during her final years.

Our current masters came to us on recommendation from a friend. A young couple expected their second child to arrive any day. Plus, the husband had scored a new job and they needed to move to a place that didn’t allow pets. Just a little over a year and a half old, their two cats were littermates, a neutered male and spayed female. Fully housebroken, they slept curled around each other at night.

We named the male Magic Man because it sounded a little like his former name Magellan. The female we called Cinnamon Girl because her belly has cinnamon-colored fur with solid dark spots that make her look like an ocelot.

The cats’ previous staff had already moved out of their old house but left the cats behind, replenishing their food and changing their litter pans daily. They gave us the entrance code to their vacant home and told us we could retrieve the cats at our leisure.

At first we tried coaxing the beasts into their carriers. No luck there. Then we tried cornering them in a room…but they knew the house’s layout much better than we did and proved much faster. I think they thought our attempt to catch them was some kind of game. After an hour’s chase up and down stairs, with my wife and I huffing and puffing, we retreated and told the current caretakers to capture their kitties and we’d pick them up the next day.

We’ve taken care of Magic Man and Cinnamon Girl for over three years. The are playful and race each other around our home, their favorite game being what I call “Sniff Ass.” And like a lot of cats, they go crazy chasing the red beam from a laser pointer.

I highly recommend getting feline littermates. The bond they have can be strong and loving. In our case, the female always seeks out the best spots on the bed to sleep and the male flops down beside her and they curl into an embrace. Since they each weigh about 15 pounds, their bedtime habits severely limit my wife’s and my mobility – you try shoving thirty pounds of cat out of the way at 2 AM. And we have no need for an alarm clock. In the morning, Cinnamon Girl likes to wake me by walking on my face, neck and other sensitive body parts, strangely within the same fifteen-minute time frame, for the self-serving purpose of getting fed.

But when my wife gets a migraine, Cinnamon Girl is right there, snuggling up to Marguerite and offering sympathy.

After five decades we know our home wouldn’t be complete without feline companions. All of our cats have had a strong sense of independence. But they responded well to kindness and each showed affection in their own unique way. No, I wouldn’t count on a cat yowling out loud to alert June Lockhart that Timmy had fallen down the well. I would rather teach Timmy to watch where he’s going…and have smart independent pets instead. But then, we’re cat people!

*Actress June Lockhart played Timmy’s mother Ruth Martin on TV’s Lassie from 1958 to 1964.

*Toonces appeared on NBC TV’s Saturday Night Live as a recurring character between 1989 and 1992.

About the Author:

Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and two plump cats (his in-house critics). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted more than 370 times by commercial and academic journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bryant Literary Review, and Shenandoah. He was nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes and once for inclusion in Best of the Net anthology. His stories have been listed among “The Most Popular Contemporary Fiction of 2017” by the Saturday Evening Post. Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.

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