The Cat’s Meow
Sam hangs over all our celebrations, including every Very Kitty Christmas
Sam is a Siamese cat. Slender of build, with big, pointed brown and tan ears. He stares straight ahead — a sentinel in my upstairs bathroom.
This watercolor — streaked and smudged from so many perches above toilet tanks and bathtubs over the years, is a somewhat iconic part of my family’s lore. Daddy told me that Fred Chance, the man who painted it, was an “Ad Man” in Manhattan. I’ve always imagined a “Mad Men” kind of situation, with Mr. Chance in the John Hamm role, though more sensitive than that. But I have no idea if Mr. Chance was a friend of the family, or worked with Dad in New York, or was merely exhibiting his work at a local arts fair in rural Connecticut, where we lived at the time Sam first came to live with us in the 1950s.
I’ve looked Fred Chance up on Wikipedia, that bottomless source of information that’s often true, but sometimes not. There was a “Fred Chance” in Manhattan, first active in the advertising biz in the 1930s, who also did covers for Vogue, and who once had an exhibition at the Museum of Modern art on West 53rd Street. He was “active,” the Wiki page says, “in the field of illustration for over fifty years in Philadelphia and New York,” stating definitively that Mr. Chance “was still active in magazine cover work in the late 1980s.” The online entry is just a paragraph — known in the Wikipedia world as a “stub” — and users of the site have been invited to “help Wikipedia by expanding it.” No date of birth, no other particulars. An illustrator and “Ad Man.” This background info fits the bill, even this particular Mr. Chance didn’t paint my kitty named Sam.
Imagining that my folks picked up Sam at a local Connecticut confab, I can expand the story from there. For the silent Siamese who now hangs in my bathroom in Charlotte, NC has had a storied journey, much like our family’s history with pets of the feline persuasion.
Sam lived with Mom and Dad for decades. I remember him as early as my fourth year on Earth, when we lived in an old farmhouse near Dearborn, MI. Daddy worked at Ford International — the one and only time he deviated from a chosen profession in the tourism industry — and we were the only non-farmers out in the small burg of South Lyon, about 20 miles outside Detroit. South Lyon is considered a western suburb now, equidistant between Detroit and Ann Arbor. At the time we lived there, the population was about 1,300 folks. South Lyon has grown in the intervening years, to 10 times that modest size.
And Sam, he of the pointed ears, perched on top of a triangular face, and sporting no body to speak of — his tail stretches across the canvas in one horizontal line, culminating in a curve at the end — hung in our downstairs bathroom off the kitchen in Michigan. His long, long tail still curves downward at the end, punctuating his tawny length. Sam’s two front legs stretch out in front of him, and he’s got a small blue ball of what looks like yarn, but could be twine, trapped under his right paw. The yarn-twine twirls along the painting, roughly following Sam’s body. The perspective seems to be of Sam lying on the floor of his owner’s abode somewhere — maybe in the kind of farmhouse that my parents also favored at the time —and is of a cat stretching out on his right side, facing the artist. The 10 letters that constitute the name of Fred Chance, his creator, are printed neatly on the right-hand side of this cat caricature. The color of Fred’s signature matches the color of Sam’s twine.
Sam moved with us across the country, taking up residence in the bathroom of an apartment on Veirs Mill Road in Silver Spring, MD; in the bathroom of another apartment on the border of Bronxville and Yonkers, NY; in two locations — the downstairs loo of a cute caretaker’s cottage (on what had been some kind of estate that was broken up into separate dwellings on different lots some time in the ’60s) and the master bath of a small suburban ranch in Chappaqua, NY; in the kids’ bath of another suburban ranch in Dallas, TX, along with the WCs in a North Dallas duplex and a 1920s stucco, late-Georgianesque, Colonial Revival-type rental near the East Dallas Historic District. For a time Sam lived with my sister above her claw-footed tub in her Annapolis, MD, abode before conveying to me in residences that included a Victorian-era Capitol Hill row house; a Northern Virginia cookie-cutter Colonial of 1960s ilk, and now above the toilet tank yet again in the upstairs bathroom of a Hansel and Gretl-looking cottage on a steep hill in Charlotte, NC.
This slinky Siamese might have been our family’s first kitty, but our feline love affair has continued for decades, and stretched in our extended family from the Eastern Seaboard of the United States to the leeward shores of the Island of Oahu, and from the neatly groomed lawns of Coral Gables, FL to the mountains overlooking Caracas, Venezuela, and back again.
I just made a tentative list (probably should contact family members to confirm) of cats who who have come to live with us since Sam settled down with Mom and Dad. And not including the coy Siamese lounging above my upstairs toilet, I came up with a startling (but not really surprising) grand total of 31 kitties who’ve sought shelter in our family’s extended embrace since, give or take, 1962.
I probably don’t have room to describe all of these furballs, but I’m willing to give it a try on a few. Each and every one of them had a cute quirk, though, which is why — bottom line — I think we’re cat people.
First, when I was in second grade or so, came Bootie, he of tabby complexion and bright, white feet. He was first named “Boots,” but no one called him that. My Mom’s predilection for the diminutive always captured a person or a pet in the most affectionate terminology. Both my sis and I were “Niñita” often enough. My Daddy was “Papi”; sometimes “Pancho,” but often “Panchito.” No, Mom was not of Latina persuasion. But she lived around the world, including in several Central American countries. My Daddy dwelled for a time in Maracaibo, on the coast of Venezuela. And he was a Native Texan, so there’s the Tex-Mex influence there.
Back to Bootie. He loved bananas. We kept this particular fruit in a basket on top of the fridge. Bootie like to sleep in the basket, bananas and all. My Dad always said the cat was trying to “hatch the bananas.” I don’t know if Bootie ever ate any of the fruit.
Bootie also loved to chase. The kids, a ball, another cat, his tail, himself. One Christmas, my folks acquired a particularly tall tree. I’m talking tall — like maybe nine or 10 feet? We had a space in the living room where the ceiling was pitched a little higher. Not quite a “cathedral ceiling,” but close enough. And my Mom was so proud of the various eclectic decorations and antique German bulbs, which her Mom had preserved before her, and which had originally come over from the Old Country.
We got the tree up and Dad strung the bulbs. Mom lovingly hung the decorations — many of them with that smoky colored glass that just indicated “old” and “delicate” — on the tree. No more than 10 minutes later, Bootie had what my Nana would call a “hissy fit”. He started his mad dash — for no reason that we could discern — in the dining room, rounded the corner by the living room and ended up — you guessed it, at the top of the Christmas tree.
And the tree — heirloom bulbs, kitty and all — came crashing down. Only a handful of my Mom’s precious German ornaments survived. All these years later, there’s only one heirloom left. I have a small pink swan, with a tiny garland of tinsel, which I hang on the tree, ever-so-carefully, every Christmas. Over the years, my kitties have never tried to race up the tree — yet.
Although Bootie crashed our Christmas cheer so many decades ago, I still think of him — and Mom, and her Mom, who so cherished the ornaments from the Old Country, when I unpack my holiday tchotchkes every year. It’s a defining holiday memory, which only grows in magnitude every time when we stop the festivities to tell the tale of the bad boy who ran away with Christmas.
Bootie, he of such bold actions, was a very active boy, and became the only living thing — of human or feline persuasion — who ever got my Nana to fly. And by that I mean get off of her keister at the kitchen table and run screaming after him and the present he’d brought inside to play with.
Nana visited from Texas every summer — and we spent several weeks each year loving her cooking and her card shark sensibilities. This daughter of the Bible Belt always put her cards on the table, and it was her self-professed duty in life to teach my sister and me to be winners, too. She could play every kind of poker, favoring Texas Hold-’Em, of course, and was partial to a mean game of canasta. I loved the gambling for hard candy and match sticks, but became convinced I could be the queen of double-deck dealing. Canasta, which is the Spanish word for “basket,” involves two decks of cards, and a complicated series of drawing and discarding.
My sister and I were setting up the card table in the living room one afternoon for a mean game of Hearts when shrieks emanated from the kitchen. Then we heard the “swoosh” of a broom, and my Mom hollering as she dashed up the stairs. I rushed in to find Nana cussing up a storm, banging a skillet on the counter with one hand, and sweeping the broom along the floor in arcs near the stove. I walked into the melee just in time to see Bootie round the corner, and streak into the bedroom. Nana, portly in her “grandma shoes” and modest Texas house dress, was close on his tail, wielding her weapons of choice and hollering up a storm.
“What happened? What happened?!?!” It was clear I wasn’t going to get a complete answer from my Nana as she huffed around the corner.
I heard another shriek from upstairs — my Mom — “Get the cat! Get the cat!”
Then, from Nana, “Don’t worry. They’re trapped!” And with that, she slammed the bedroom door.
They? Who? When? How?
Turns out Bootie, who was an expert at opening the back screened door with one paw, had brought my Mom and Nana a present. When he got inside, he dropped a chipmunk — very much alive — at Nana’s feet. My Mom’s first reaction was to dash up the stairs. I know how she felt about little critters like that. Chipmunks are cute enough, until they’re struggling for their lives at your feet on the kitchen floor. Nana was lucky Bootie hadn’t nabbed another treat for her — he was also prone to depositing baby bunnies on the kitchen tile.
Nana did what any red-blooded Texas gal would do — while my Mom dashed up the stairs in fear, this daughter of the Lone Star State gave chase. So there you have it — a terrified chipmunk skittering around the corner, followed by the cat in hot pursuit, trailed closely by a determined old lady, armed to the teeth.
When the door slammed shut, Nana had trapped the two culprits — the cat and the chipmunk — in the bedroom. She then had a conundrum on her hands. If the cat and the critter were trapped together, didn’t that mean there’d soon be a blood bath in her younger granddaughter’s bedroom?
Bootie solved that for her. He, I reckon, was terrified himself after all the tumult, and started howling from behind the closed door. Nana let him out, leaving just the petrified prey in confinement.
Then Mom did the silliest thing — she called the police. The only crime that was committed that day really was my mother taking an officer of the law away from his sworn duties to help corral a small, striped rodent with an endearing pair of ears and a cute lil tail.
To be sure, everyone was a winner that day. Mom, because she escaped most of the tumult. We kids, because we got to witness some real, live drama — or at least a disturbance of moderate enough magnitude for a sleepy summer day. My Nana, because she had raised enough ruckus to separate the hunter from its prey. And the policeman who visited our house. He had the best idea of all — he got a screwdriver from our toolbox and took the screen off the bedroom window. Then, he went around inside and opened the window. The chipmunk scampered out a short time later.
You’d think with all that excitement that would be the end of pets in our family — for a while. But after Bootie grew old and went to the Litter Box in the Sky, we had dozens more kitties in our lives — the stray Mama Cat who had her litter in our shed, and who we named, most appropriately, Mama Cat. The Venezuelen alley cat named Gusanita (little worm), who wiggled her way into my Aunt’s heart, and then made the trip in the cargo bay of a flight from Caracas to Dallas, because…well, I don’t really know why, except my Aunt loved her and then so did my Mom. The tabby named Billy Bob whom I rescued from a storm drain near the Lambda Chi house in Columbia, MO, during a heckuva gully washer. Billiest, as I called her (no clue on that one) lived with me in the dorm for awhile, til she got busted by management. We then flew her down to my folks’ place in Dallas, where she spent a few years, before driving back to Columbia with my sister. Yeah, our kitties really get around.
My girls have inherited our family’s cat fetish, and they’ve adopted kitties with quirky habits, too. Like Pheebs, Ella Numera Una’s law school kitten, named aptly after Phoebe Buffay of “Friends” fame. This ball of fur cares an awful lot about carbohydrates. My child brought the cat home one winter break. Moker woke up one morning, fixin’ to fix himself some toast. He approached the kitchen counter, and something seemed off-kilter. Of course — there was a Pheebs-sized hole in the entire loaf of bread. The cat had jumped up, gnawed through the plastic wrapper, and tunneled her way through all 22 slices or so, til she got to the end and then ate her way through the end of the plastic wrapper. But she wasn’t done. She jumped up on the kitchen table the next night and polished off a plate or two of sugar cookies — Christmas-themed icing and all. I don’t think I need to get into the machinations that poor critter’s digestive tract went through that week, but let’s just say it was extreme. And we learned to put away anything made with flour when Pheebs was around.
This big, gray kitty — of course, she likes carbs, so she tilts the scales at 15 pounds or so — will soon enter her 10th decade. She now lives in a household with three other cats and a dog. I’d like to say she’s learned how to balance her diet, but that’s just not the case. If the other pets don’t finish their meals fast enough, Pheebs will do it for them. She’ll even tackle the dog’s food, which is big and chunky, like she is. Moderation has never been Pheebs’ strong suit.
And then there’s Chewie, whose Daddy is a Star Wars fanatic. Chewser, as some of us call him, started off life as a stray on the Island of Oahu. Shortly after Ella Numera Dos and her Hubby made their move across the ocean, they rescued Chewie, who was a tiny keiki living under a house in the neighborhood. When Dos said Aloha to the new kitten, there were a couple of things to keep in mind. She already had Susie, who came from the D.C.-area shelter near our house in Northern Virginia. Susie, let’s just say, is something of a primadonna. She made the move to Hawaii like a champ — in fact, she’s been on a plane and on long-distance car trips more than once, so that wasn’t really a concern. But she adopted the fenced-in lanai as her new home shortly after Dos adopted a puppy named Lulu — as in Honolulu. This little dog just wanted to be friends, and Susie was having none of that. So, of course, Dos’ heart opened up when she heard this tiny vagabond who soon became Chewie needed a home. Chewie and Lulu are besties now, and Susie keeps to herself out in the backyard.
Lulu — a mutt featuring a Lab-Chihuahua-Dalmation pedigree — has learned the language of the streets from this little tabby urchin. And Dos and Hubby have learned not to leave anything defrosting out on the counter. Chewser gives a new name to “scavenging”. This handsome fellow — yes, he knows he’s a cutie and a keeper, and will pose any time someone takes a phone out — belies his upbringing in the weirdest ways. I’m told he’s pulled a frozen steak larger than he is off the plate on the counter, and has drug it under the dining room table, only to be thwarted because it hasn’t thawed yet. But he’s a patient little guy. He’ll hide his prey, and will visit it intermittently to see if it’s ready for chow time yet. And when the piece of meat is just too much to handle? This crafty critter will enlist Lulu’s help — of course, she’s not always willing to share, so some dust-ups have occurred.
All those years later, Cleo the Cat hangs out at our house. Initially christened Cleopatra, and alternately called CeeCee and Old Yeller (she’s quite the talker), Cleo is a rescue kitty who spends most of her time curled up on the old, smelly couch out on the screened-in porch. Moker insisted that we lug that artifact from the Animal House days (well, it’s not that ancient, but it might as well be) down to Charlotte. So there it sits. And where she fits, Cleo sits. She purrs up a storm no matter where her people are, and turned out to be quite the road-tripper when we moved Down South. She did holler for about an hour down I-95, but then settled in and slept the rest of the way. And she enjoyed both hotels we stayed in during our journey. She’s a little like her Mama — that would be me — in that regard.
Sam the Siamese made the trip to our new home, too. And he was in his usual perch soon enough. He doesn’t say much but will be celebrating our Kitty Christmas tomorrow in his own special way. I can tell he’s content. Fred Chance would be happy about that.