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.
An 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.
We 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.
Maggie 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