#6 – Balthasar, Augustine and Other Cats

Unless you count my Mom’s tank of tropical fish, we had no pets in my childhood home.

As a young child, my reaction to most animals was fear. I was especially wary of the farm dog at Grampop Derstine’s place. It tried to accompany us every time we walked from the car parked in the barnyard up the l-o-n-g sidewalk to the house.  I was afraid that big dog would jump up on me and knock me over.

Martha-and-cowAn old photo of my Mom petting a cow outside the barn intrigued me. Had she considered that big animal a friend, I wondered?….

The only house pet I encountered as a child was my Aunt Esther’s cat, who usually slept on a daybed in the kitchen during my piano lesson in the living room.  That cat conveyed a sense of mystery for me.  I could almost imagine having one for myself. But my Mom said that cats made a person’s house smell bad….

Many years later, friends with a cat named Millie inspired Sam and me to acquire two of them while living in a small apartment.  Thus began a 40-year fascination with cats.  From 1973-2013 we lived with a succession of cats, with a few small breaks.

One of our early cats – and the smartest one to ever grace our home – was Balthasar, named after the 16th-century Anabaptist leader Balthasar Hubmaier. Balthasar answered the phone by knocking the receiver off its hook and meowing into the speaker. He fetched a ball and had sophisticated culinary favorites such as black olives. We hoped a successor might some day match his smarts, but none of the others came anywhere close.

GusWe named Gus and Ellie after the 5th-century theologians Augustine and Pelagius, who held starkly different views on the doctrines of sin and grace. Ellie had a heart defect and died young. Gus was much more robust, and enjoyed sitting on books.

We named our last cat Maggie, after my maternal grandmother Magdelena Moyer Derstine. Like all cats, she could be most entertaining. Once she fell off a ledge in the entry area, and narrowly missed plopping onto a friend in process of leaving the house. Maggie landed on her feet and pretended she had meant to provide this unique farewell all along.

MaggieMaggie also regularly rushed from window to window with her tail enormous if another creature dared to enter her backyard, be it a chippy or a rabbit or a mourning dove or – God forbid – another neighbourhood cat.

As we settled into retirement and travelled for longer stretches of time, Maggie didn’t respond well to our absences. And when she encountered  health issues which would have meant intrusive interventions with no guarantees of success, we sadly put her down. Thus we joined several other friends in deciding “no more cats.” Being “cat-free” enabled us to prepare our townhouse for sale and move to an apartment-style 55+ condo.

I do miss the warmth and endless entertainment of having a cat. I always found it calming to have a cat sit on me, purring loudly.  At the same time, I loved the haughty sense of independence in which cats specialize. Our cats excelled at the art of curling up in small boxes, the art of staring, the art of nipping, and the most important art of all – purring.

Now I enjoy the antics of a certain New York State cat named Lilly, whose “servants” often post her cute poses on Facebook. As a kitten, she broke her pelvis in an outdoor accident; now she’s a charming, healthy, 10-year-old cat. I spent time with her on a recent trip, and relived the joys of our own 40 years of cat “ownership.”

Questions for Reflection:

  • Have pets or other animals (such as birds at a birdfeeder or butterflies in your garden) contributed to restoring your soul? If so, how?
  • If you have had household pets, how did you go about naming them?

Next week: Tulips, Sunlight and Dust

10 thoughts on “#6 – Balthasar, Augustine and Other Cats

  1. Growing up there were a succession of parrots in our family. I always adored parrots. The first one I remember was named Laura. She was a yellow fronted Amazon and spoke very well. Before she belonged to my mother she belonged to my uncle and before him to a sailor. So she had a colourful vocabulary. Laura spoke CLEARLY and LOUDLY!
    One very memorable story about Laura related to a Rose Simmons , a dear friend of my mother, who used to visit our home on a regular basis. This friend had a daughter, who lived far a way and when Rose arrived my mother would always ask her” How’s your daughter?” Laura, the parrot, always listened in to these conversations. Well, one day Rose’s daughter died.
    A few days later when Rose came to visit us Laura, the parrot, started speaking LOUDLY and CLEARLY repeatedly “How’s your daughter?” ” How’s your daughter? My mom was mortified and whisked Laura out of the room. But it sure put a damper on the visit!


  2. Hi Sue,

    I loved this blog! And laughed out loud at the antics of the cats. Our last cat looked very much like the last picture – the grey one. We passed it off to someone else when we moved to Nairobi. His name was Joshua. We got the name by looking through the church directory to find a name we thought suitable for this cat! We also had a cat with extraordinary culinary tastes. She liked frozen peas that Ron cooked in the microwave. It was her morning treat!



  3. What a treat–getting your weekly post! I love the picture if Aunt Martha with the cow. I can identify with the fear of dogs–I don’t like a dog jumping at me. I enjoy cats also. Our daughter has one I enjoy. I also like the Holly Brothers box with Souderton on it that you posted with your cat. I purchased a couple of those when I saw them in PA. I’m a cat person and have to admit, I enjoy other people’s pets more than the responsibility of owning one. I enjoy the beauty and cuteness and cleverness of
    many animals. Hummingbirds seem magical to me. Horses scare me too but they are beautiful. I grew up next to horse owners and saw some scary things they sometimes did. Like bucking people off their back. What beautiful creatures!


  4. Sue, I am enjoying your blog. Karen had 2 cats as pets, Carmel and Sophie. Carmel was a shelter cat and he did not like for us to leave. When we got out the suitcases Carmel would start crying and running around the place. We usually got someone to come in and stay part of the time we were gone. He was a big cat.

    My favorite pet was our dog, Bingo. He was an outside dog that could come into the back room in bad weather. He was always like a pup even when he was older.

    Looking forward to your next post.


  5. I have always found comfort and laughter with my dogs, IMy dog right now is an English springer spaniel who’s name is Maggie..named after my paternal grandmother – Maggie Benson(Margaret Mc Creary).
    Thanks for your memories.
    Brenda Rawlings


  6. I love your cats’ names! Makes them seem so wise and important!‎ And now you’ve even remembered them with a quilt! Lucky cats!!!

    Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Rogers network.


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