Monday, February 4, 2013

Writers & Their Cats....A Purr-sonal Connection

I confess--I'm helplessly smitten with animals. I grew up in Maryland and Pennsylvania with a menagerie of pets. Very early in my life, my parents ran a dairy farm. I have distant memories of that, mostly through recollections of other family members. My daily chore up until the age of eleven was to gather the eggs and tend our large flock of chickens. The "farm genes" must have been passed along, for today I have my own little flock of spiled hens.

My love of animals is reflected in my writing too. I've authored many articles about animals and, for a few years, was a contributing editor at Fancy Publications, publishers of animal hobbyist magazines. One of my books, The Lightkeepers' Menagerie, is about animals at lighthouses. My column for a New Jersey seasonal newspaper, "Shore Almanac," often features marine animals. I even love the zoo in the sky--the animal constellations of astronomy. They appear in many of my articles and also The Florida Night.

"Write what you love" is the author's mantra!

Cats...I'm thinking about them today, as Sophie is sprawled across my papers napping. She likes to be where I am and is happy that at least one of my jobs keeps me home several days a week, seated at my desk. Sometimes she even helps with the work, as evidenced in this photo.

Few years of my life have been catless. There were always cats in our family during my childhood, mostly outdoor kitties to keep down the rodent population around the chicken house, barn, and other outbuildings. Except for a brief period early in my marriage when Jon and I lived in apartments that didn't allow pets, I've always had cats. Their names pepper our family conversations and photo albums--tomcat Sonar, Boots with fat, polydactyl paws, Cody, rescued from the bottom of a farm silo, Dusty, Puffy, Warhead (yes, that was really his name!), timid Hootie, tailless Buster, voluptuous ZsaZsa, a.k.a the famous Lighthouse Kitty in the image below), and now, sweet Sophie. I'm proud to say many of these kitties were rescued mixed breeds, and all were fixed. As much as I admire pedigreed cats--Ragdolls, Burmese, Persians, Russian Blues--I would never buy a fancy cat when so many shelter kitties need homes.

Here's a confession: One room in my house is decorated entirely in a cat theme--to the absurb degree that it startles most visitors, who then snicker and toss me looks that say: "How old are you?? Did you not grow up?" Sometimes, a kinder kindred lover of kittens visits and nods knowingly, a fur person who understands the spell of the cat. To assure you this is not some odd personality defect, I'll mention a friend whose house is totally decorated in horses and another with a ladybug fetish. I don't consider this thematic bend to be much different than a Man Cave decorated with deer, elk, fish, hunting dogs, game birds, and the like. Themes, I think, indicate a categorical way of thinking and appeal to our primitive hunting,-gathering urge. There's no end to the hunting-gathering fun when you decorate with a theme! The neighborhood kids seem to grasp this fact; they love my "cat room."

My "Cat Room" is the laundry room, a fitting choice for a cat theme: Cats are fastidious, always cleaning themselves and tidy about their purrsonal habits, and they do like water. Sophie is fixated with sinks, the bathtub, dripping faucets, fountains, fish tanks, anything that gurgles, burbles, bubbles, splashes, or dribbles, including the toilet. She loves to climb into the laundry room deep sink, park her front paws on the ledge between the sinks, and drink from the dripping faucet.

My laundry room is rife with meow memorabilia collected over a lifetime. A border of playful kittens wraps around the wall/ceiling jointure. Cat pictures, postcards, greeting cards, paintings, and stitchery decorate the walls. Feline ceramics, puppets, and stuffed toys sit on shelves and counters. A cat doorstop guards the exterior door, and a cat draft-stopper thwarts the cold that creeps in through a north window. Cat ad nauseum, yes, but so fun. One of my favorite collectibles is a framed watercolor of Santa Claus in his sleigh, pulled by eight harnessed cats. I also have a curious watercolor of a mercat, complete with a green fish tail.

Of course, there's a washer and dryer in the room, and a deep sink, ironing board, vacuum, cleaning supplies, my sewing/crafting area, and lots of storage. Sophie's "necessary box" is discreetly hidden under a counter, and one drawer in the craft cabinet is full of assorted cat toys, some of them handed down from past cats because, let's face it, cats don't really play with storebought toys. The more expensive a toy, the more likely it will be ignored. Sophie prefers foil rolled into a ball or that plastic thingy that secures the cap on a milk jug.

I love this room. My daughter says it a guilty pleasure, a room filled with what some consider silly, useless things. but if I could squeeze my desk, computers, and file cabinets into the laundry room, I'd be in writers' heaven, surrounded by the softness, thrumming purr, and quietude that characterizes cats.

So, yes, add me to the list of writers who take joy in having a cat and, perhaps, need one to be inspried and productive. We all know the famous cat-loving authors--Hemingway, Twain, Eliot, Sartre,  Keroac, Poe.... The list is long, and it's made longer by the fact that writers of lesser-fame (moi?) love cats too. The presence of a cat is a quiet reassurance, I think. Cats never judge our efforts, never hurry us or put down deadlines. They seem content to be near us while we work. Sometimes they are part of the work.

During the years I worked for Fancy Publications, I churned out plenty of cat articles. If I needed inspiration, my owns cats often provided it. Warhead, a free-spirit fellow we acquired in Hawai'i, was a constant source of fun and amusement for my kids. Their father named him, for the part of a torpedo that makes trouble. Imagine going to the vet and filling out paperwork. Name: Warhead. The kids made up stories about Warhead's mysterious past, his "powers," and his extended imaginary family. His great-great-great....great-grandfather, they said, was a ship's cat who jumped overboard from a whaler in Lahaina Roads and swam ashore. There the rowdy tom commingled with a few feline wahines, and generations later Warhead was born. This fun-spun tale inspired me to write an article about ship's cats. I found an image or two in old sources, primarily the Alan Villiers' book called Joey Goes to Sea, but I had to manufacture my own images to round out the piece. Enter Warhead, willing to pose next to a ship's wheel and other nautical trinkets. The editors at Fancy Publications loved him!

Hootie, a sweet-natured black and white kitty, was fondly nicknamed "Cover Boy" after I snapped a closeup of his face and it ended up on the cover of Weatherwise magazine. A cat on a weather magazine? He complimented an article about cats as weather predictors. Buster contributed as well, turning his backside to the camera. Superstitious sailors loved tailless cats aboard ships, since they believed cats carried gales in their tails. A tailless cat couldn't start a storm, nor was there a long tail to be stepped on in the small space a ship affords.

ZsaZsa, one part Ragdoll and many parts unknown, had the most illustrious career of all my cats. She was the mascot of a column I wrote for about eight years for Lighthouse Digest. (This is a niche publication devoted to people who love lighthouses--my biggest audience!) Called "Kids on the Beam," the column was targeted at younger readers, with activity pages, crafts, literature, and more; but all ages seemed to enjoy it. Lighthouse Kitty (ZsaZsa's nom de plume!) received lots of mail. Her personal assistant--me--diligently answered all of it.

The many letters and emails, coupled with a large crate of lighthouse research that featured animals, inspired me to write The Lightkeepers' Menagerie: Stories of Animals at Lighthouses. I dedicated to Lighthouse Kitty. A picture of her sitting on top of my computer appears on the dedication page. After her death, a friend painted her portrait. It hangs in that cat-overkill laundry room and is so realistic you'd think at any moment she might jump out of the frame and come alive again. If only....

Loss of a furry friend is tough, almost like losing an entire chapter in your life story. Jack Kerouac once said the loss of his cat, Tyke, "was like the death of my little brother." I grieved over ZsaZsa for a long time. I was a catless writer for almost three years, selfishly thinking if I had no cat I could never again lose a cat. Everyone who knows me said: "You need a cat! It's just not right for you to be without a cat." My daughter promised to "leave a basket of kitten on your doorstep."

A stop at the pet shop one afternoon in February 2011 confirmed the truth. I did need a cat. I always will. I was aiming to get fish food for my Tetras that day, but a sweet little face in the humane society cages caught my eye. I threaded two fingers through the bars on her cage and tickled her neck. She rubbed and rubbed and uttered a pitiful little mew. My heart doubled in size. Nothing is more sad than a homeless kitten in a cage. Sauvignon was the name on her tag. Her sister, asleep in the small litterbox in the back of the cage, was tagged Chianti. The caretaker called them Chi and Sauvi. "Sophie," I thought she said, and it stuck. I filled out the paperwork, bought a cardboard carrier, and took her home. She lived on my lap for days. It felt wonderful to sit at my desk with a small, warm furball curled on my thighs.

Sophie has yet to make her debut in my writing. She's only a year old. But ideas are swirling in my head. Sophie travels with Jon and me in our motorhome. She's been places...and she's going places! I sense a series might travel books.....for kids. Sophie Goes to Mardi Gras.....Sophie Visits Mount Rushmore......Sophie Meets Beau the White House Dog.....Sophie Goes to London to Look at the Queen....Sophie Explores the Greek Acropolis......Sophie Climbs the Great Pyramid and Takes a Nap on a Sarcophagus.....Sophie Becomes the First Cat to Live on the International Space Station....  Or, perhaps as this picture suggests, Sophie Dreams of Faraway Places.

The possibilities are endless. Meow. May the Purrs be with you.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I welcome your comments, photos, stories, etc.!