One and Two:
When Mom was in Kindergarten three dramatic things led to her getting her first cat: her Great Uncle Paul, who was her babysitter, died of a heart attack; her mother had another child that replaced her as the youngest; and she began to play with Ruthie, an imaginary friend who she named after herself.
Mom’s father, a country doctor, thought his little Ruthie wasn’t coping too well and so he drove her in his decommissioned WWII Jeep out to a farm with a litter of white kittens. Mom picked out a male. She named him Popcorn.
= ^ . ^ =
When cats push their snouts into your outstretched hand or let you scratch their chins or glide your palm over their shoulders, along their spines, to the base of their tails, they aren’t showing their love for you. Cats deposit sebaceous scent for communication from the same-named gland as they rub against you. Cats use us as walking postcards.
= ^ . ^ =
When I moved from Florida to Iowa for graduate school I took Kitten—the cat that Mom and I had raised when I was in college.
Mom was out in Colorado for a trip when I left. Before I left, I told Mom I was driving cross-country with Kitten. Mom threatened that she would change her return flight to Florida via Iowa and take back her cat.
Instead of making the detour, when Mom got back to Florida she sent me a care package with an old washcloth that she told me to put in Kitten’s bed so he wouldn’t forget her smell.
Three and Four:
Mom got her first female cat in middle school. She named her Bobo. Bobo ended up having 32 kittens in several litters. One litter was named for Republicans, including: Dicky, Spiro, and Dwight, after Nixon, Agnew, and Eisenhower.
= ^ . ^ =
House cats are part of the Felidae family but they are separated into the Felis genus for their smaller size.
Felidae ends in a feminine Latin suffix.
Perhaps, this is the beginning of the mistake of identifying cats as a female collective. However, the dog family also ends in a feminine: Canidae.
= ^ . ^ =
Mom had taken Odysseus—our 120-pound, dopey golden retriever who never barked—to the vet for a checkup and some men from the dump brought in a box of rheumy-eyed, flea-bitten, wormy, constipated kittens. The vet said that she just needed someone to foster them and she would pay for their treatment while trying to find permanent homes.
Despite already having two older cats at our house, Mom brought back two from the litter. Kitten was first called Left to identify him: a splotch of white covers that side of his muzzle while his twin was called Right. Both of them were tuxedo colored with a white bib on their bellies and socked paws.
Neither of us liked saying Left after we gave away Right. Kitten became Kitten because we kept saying, “The kitten….” Mom didn’t think we would keep him, though.
In high school, Mom had another white male cat she named Kowes (pronounced “Noise”). She named the cat after the middle name of her Appalachian neighbor Tim. Mom had a crush on Tim.
= ^ . ^ =
Cats have adapted their meow to humans. Cats don’t often meow to other cats outside. They give what could be considered gestures or body language: tail puffed up, back arched, whiskers twitching, eyes slit. An occasional hiss or spit, which has more to do with baring teeth than producing sound. Sometimes a grumbling growl, but not the meow they use on us.
= ^ . ^ =
Mom would meow whenever she fed Kitten his Meow Mix. She never did this with her other cats when I was growing up.
Now, at dawn and dusk, Kitten hunches in the doorway to my office. Whenever I walk through the hallway, he’ll gallop into the room, stand at his bowl, and then glance back. If I don’t follow him then he will yowl until I cross the threshold to give him a scoop of Taste of the Wild.
In college, Mom’s white cat Catherine was deaf. Coming home during the summer, Mom kept Catherine in her parent’s sewing room. One day, Mom noticed that Catherine wasn’t eating or drinking. Mom took Catherine to her vet wondering if she had she swallowed some thread.
Dr. Crow said that that wasn’t possible. Over a week, Catherine withered away. Mom couldn’t say anything to comfort her cat. Mom needed to put Catherine down. Dr. Crow did an autopsy and said he was so sorry, he was wrong.
= ^ . ^ =
Euthanasia comes from the Greek word for gentle and easy death. Most indoor cats are put down before they die of other causes. An owner holds her shuddering cat, while the vet slips a needle between the fur and into a vein. The cat’s eyes droop and its chest ceases rising.
= ^ . ^ =
Mom still cries whenever she recalls Right. Right was given away to a neighbor’s friend who took him to the county animal hospital for a checkup. The vet came back with a positive for feline HIV. Right was euthanasized.
Mom couldn’t bring herself to give away Kitten even if she had to keep him separated from her other cats. Later, Kitten tested negative for FHIV. His mother’s antibodies had finished coursing through him.
During her final year of college, Mom welcomed a longhaired black alley cat into her apartment. The cat was pregnant. Mom named it Samantha and starting thinking about names for the litter.
Samantha had three kittens, but seemed to ignore them. Mom kept finding the kittens behind her bed or couch or dresser. Then, one day, Mom came home to a flap of an ear and Samantha washing herself clean.
= ^ . ^ =
House cats will curl their lips and open their mouths like a lion ready to roar. They seem to be grimacing, but this flehming is not a sign of disgust. If you watch them then you will see them tongue a small sac at the roof of their mouths where a duct connects to their vomeronasal organ. They are tasting odors—blood, urine, catnip.
= ^ . ^ =
Kitten used to have a small toy squirrel, much smaller than the red squirrels of Iowa that are almost as large as him. They chatter around the elm tree in the front yard. Kitten tore open his toy squirrel’s catnip-stuffed belly. He flehmed at the destruction and then grimaced at me.
Eight and Nine:
After Mom’s college cats died, she wanted some kittens. A neighbor connected her with a man named Les Roundtree. My brother went with Mom to pick out the kittens. Mom’s only stipulation was that they had to be named with M letters so they would be her M&Ms.
My brother picked a black one up and said, “Mine.”
Mom said, “Of course, that one can be yours.”
My brother said, “No, that’s its name.”
Mom thought it was clever and said that he had named it after a coal mine.
The other kitten Mom brought home was a brown and black striped one with an M across its forehead. I named her Mellon after the scene in The Lord of the Rings when Gandolf reads the Elvish riddle over the Mines of Moria that say, “Speak friend and enter.”
Despite Mellon being Elvish for friend, Mellon wasn’t my cat. She slept in my brother’s bed. Mine became Mom’s cat. Perhaps this is why I catnapped Kitten.
= ^ . ^ =
There is not a clear reason for why cats purr. The family Felidae splits into two sub-families: Felinae that purr and Pantherinae that roar. But most cats can purr with their larynx and diaphragm when inhaling and exhaling.
The old assumption was that cats purred to signify pleasure. A newer hypothesis is that a purr is like a laugh in its group-socializing and self-soothing ways. Someone can laugh for joy or because of discomfort. And so, cats purr when they’re feeling good but also when they’re injured or frightened.
= ^ . ^ =
When Mom got Left and Right, I helped her feed the brothers by wrapping one of them in a washcloth, placing him on my chest, and directing his still blind face to my hand holding a bottle of formula that smelled like oatmeal. His claws needled my fingers and his purr rattled on top of my heart. I can’t remember which one of the twins I held more, until there was only one left.
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