I have owned 22 cats in my life. Not all at once, mind you—no crazy cat guy here.
I can still remember their names: Clementine, Baskerville, Belle, Belle II, Bert, Smuckers, Francie, Patsy, Tulip, Albert, Franks, Whitey. . . . They generally found me as I roamed my Oklahoma neighborhood, a lonely kid at whom stray kittens would pitifully meow. I would pick them up and bring them home in tears or, alternately, they were adult alley cats that I took on as a challenge to tame.
My poor mother, a professional artist who probably would have been better off living alone in an atelier or a loft, was barely coping with a house and a yard and a husband and two unhousebroken boys. I might as well have been bringing home a wildebeest (and, in truth, these cats were usually feral and were never spayed or neutered). I would plead and cry, and she would heave a monumental sigh and acquiesce. I must say here that one difference between other children who promise to take care of their pets and me is that I actually did. I was responsible that way; I also took care of neighbors’ pets while they were away and babysat from age 12 on.
As I indicated, many of these “pets” were straight-up alley cats, right out of Central Casting: large, scary, flea-infested beasts with abscessed teeth, conjunctivitis-plagued eyes and shredded ears. I spent days getting some of them simply to let me near them. These cats all experienced death or disappearance by misadventure; I found one run over in the street while I was riding to school one morning, and the remains of others would surface around the ’hood from time to time. In short, few of them ever achieved warm-furry-fuzzball-purring-in-the-lap status.
In the early days of A Prairie Home Companion, I wrote commercial spots for Bertha’s Kitty Boutique, which featured things like the Eye-to-Eye Catwalk System, suspended 5 feet in the air throughout one’s house, which put cats, literally, on an equal footing with their human housemates, thus bolstering their self-esteem (never mind that I’ve never seen a cat whose self-esteem needed bolstering). Throughout the history of his show, Garrison Keillor referenced cats frequently because he thought the mere mention of them was funny, and he was right: Write a cat into a script and you’ve got an automatic laugh and, if you’ve got the best sound-effects guys in the world on your payroll, you get double the yucks.
The difference between dogs and cats is best summarized thus: Dogs will come when you call them, and cats will get back to you. If you want a cat in your lap, you have to make him think it’s his idea. You sit down and pat your thighs a couple of times to announce the existence of an available lap, you glance briefly at the cat and then—and this is important—you look away. Give it 10 beats and the cat will jump into your lap with what my mother used to call a grundle: a short little mini-purr forced out of the cat by the exertion of the jump.
My most recent cat was Milhous, a beautiful tabby. He started out as an outdoor cat, but we sentenced him to house arrest after he cleared our yard of songbirds. We tried putting bells—loud ones—on his collar, to no avail. He was a good and patient hunter and could have had a klaxon strapped to his head and still gotten his daily catch. (In addition to his foraging prowess, there was also gentle pressure from our vet to keep him indoors: cat injury and mortality skyrocket outside the house.)
I lost Milhous about five months ago, at age 13, from a liver ailment, and taking him in to be euthanized broke my heart. I sense now that my period of mourning is drawing to a close and that new cat acquisition is imminent, and there are a couple of options hovering in the wings. A dear friend brought me adoption papers from a foster cat group, but the problem is that if I go into a foster house full of cats, I’m going to want them all. Our golden doodle, Molly, is acclimated to cats and enjoys having one around, but a clowder of felinity on her turf might be a bridge too far.
A more likely candidate, perhaps, is Iggie, an overweight, neurotic cat owned by my older son’s girlfriend, Jackie. He needs more companionship and a bigger house, and Jackie keeps threatening to bring him over. I think I could handle that, except for the competition issue: I want to be the only overweight, neurotic creature in my house.
Adam Granger lives in St. Anthony Park with his wife and dog, Molly, and is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.