“Joe! Johhhhe!” called my mother from the kitchen. “The cat’s in again. He’s already in the bedroom.”
Such was a frequent announcement from my mother to my brother Joe in our home in Atlanta, whenever his cat, Nigel, managed to squeeze himself between my mother’s leg and the kitchen door, shoot down the hall in a furry gray blur, slide himself under my parents’ bed, and remain there for hours at a time, with my patient brother stretched out on his stomach, jutting one arm under the bed,trying to pull him out, or hunched down, singing to him as he pushed a saucer of milk just a few inches from the bed.
Nigel and my mother never really clicked. She rarely called him by name, usually referring to him as “the cat,” and was anxious when he was around. I wouldn’t have labeled her a non-cat person. But she had endured many years of living with an array of household pets, and Nigel just didn’t light her fire. He had a distinctly prolonged, nasal meow that commanded attention. He deposited many a tiny shrew in the carport to impress family members. And he parked himself in front of windows, staring inside, motionless, as if to silently demand to know why he had not been made an indoor pet, living among humans — his inferiors. His favorite nighttime spot was the top of the kitchen window air conditioning unit. The first time he chose this spot, my mother opened the curtains the next morning, to be greeted by Nigel staring her straight in the eyes. She recalled leaping back into the kitchen table, knocking over a chair, and nearly falling over in fright. This did not enhance their connection, of course, and every day after that she took a more cautious approach to opening the curtains, standing several inches from the window and yanking them back with a quick jerk of her fingertips.
But Joe loved Nigel. He was his cat. Nigel was a one-person cat, though he grudgingly accepted caresses from the rest of us, and accepted food from anyone. But Joe was His Guy.
When we moved from Atlanta to Miami, the plan was to bring Nigel with us for the one-way, 24-hour car trip. My father built a carrier for him from some left-over wood and chicken wire, complete with a door and a latch. After the car was packed, we had only to load Nigel. My father picked him up from behind, bent down and nudged him toward the opening. Nigel began writhing, his hind legs rotating and swinging wildly, and pinning his front paws on either side of the opening for support. My father was no slouch here. Having grown up around animals, he was comfortable handling them, and simply picked Nigel up for a better grip and a second go at the crate. Nigel squirmed and contorted as if crazed, hissing and yowling, his ears flattened against his head. The claws came out. They did their work. My father released his grip, and Nigel sprang down the steps to the back yard. My father’s forearms were covered with streaks of blood, his forearms covered in scratches that ran from elbow to wrist.
Nigel did not come with us to Miami. My father bathed his arms and we began the sad departure without him. My sister and I felt terrible for our father, but we worried that Nigel wouldn’t survive.
A year later, in a visit to Atlanta, my friend took me to our old house. The new owners confirmed that Nigel was still there, and strongly suggested I take him off their hands. I politely mumbled my decline to this suggestion.
Such are our pets. Or at least some of our pets. We love them, we feed them, we care for them, and we put up with all kinds of behavior and problems associated with this relationship.
They provide companionship, The offer unconditional love — which may be a chief reason we keep them around. They are a constant source of entertainment. They separate us from our hard-earned cash. We feel separation anxiety when we’re apart. We feel anguish when they are injured or ill. They break our hearts when they die.
They really have a hold on us.
If you grew up with pets, or even if you didn’t, and you’ve had pets in your adult life, you understand what I mean.
Duke was one of the first pets I recall in my childhood. He was given to us by our uncle, Herb, a man my brothers and sisters and I worshipped. Duke was a sweet-tempered, playful German Shepherd who chased pine cones like balls, sat and offered his paw on command, and loved being hugged and petted. He was frightened by thunder storms, and during these disturbances was allowed into the house, where he often cowered under the kitchen table. We stroked him until he stopped shaking. He loved a long life, but developed arthritis as he got older, a condition that left him unable to walk, and vulnerable to attacks by neighborhood dogs. We were devastated when my father had to put him down.
My parents may have figured that black guppies would be a lower-maintenance kind of pet, but were possibly unaware of the rather macabre traits they carried. We brought home a male and very pregnant female, setting up their aquarium in the basement recreation room. The next day we counted 18 babies, and we were thrilled! Then they began to disappear. They didn’t die. They vanished. We soon learned that mother guppies have a propensity to eat their young. The pet store advised us to insert a glass barrier into the aquarium to separate the mother from the babies, to save those who’d escaped her clutches. This was unsettling to me, and likely diminished my appreciation for fish as pets. It didn’t help that I could swear — but I can’t prove — that I saw the mother smiling, rubbing her belly with one fin and holding a tooth pick to her mouth with the other.
Cinder was my favorite pet of my childhood. She was all mine. I was stunned that my parents let me have her, given that we already had a dog, and of course, had had so many pets in the past. She was barely 7 weeks old when I got her. I was completely in love with her. She slept on my pillow at night. We played together. She was already becoming skilled at sitting on my shoulder. But our time together was short-lived. As she grew, and began living outdoors, she developed a habit of jumping up on a ledge behind the grill of our station wagon. A few days before Christmas, when she was about 6 months old, my brother Joe and I took the car to pick my sister up from an after-school job. We were driving along a street bounded on both sides by thick woods area, when we heard a “thunk” come from beneath the car. I whirled around to see Cinder darting into the woods. We stopped the car, ran into the woods, called to her and looked for her everywhere. She didn’t answer. And we couldn’t stay. It was getting dark, and we were already late to pick up my sister.
My brother and I returned to woods the next morning, but there was no sign of Cinder, and we never found her. It’s likely she didn’t last the night. I grieved her loss for months.
After our move to Miami, my mother bought us a miniature black poodle, partly to ease my sorrow about losing Cinder. We named her Nickie, and she soon became a happy companion to Urchin, a black poodle my sister Mary Dee brought home. They were fast friends, and delightful, affectionate dogs. They enjoyed chasing the ducks that converged on the canal behind our house. They were both “talkers,” and would bark on the command to speak. Nickie was much more adept at this skill, yipping and prancing, while Urchin sat till, enthusiastically jerking her head back and offering a noble, throaty gulp of air.
A new era of pet ownership began in college and later. My friends and I enjoyed a short-lived effort to sneak a kitten into the dorm. We name her Xique, for a town in Brazil pinpointed on a map during a blind-fold contest. We were fortunate to find someone to take her in.
Tristan, a gray tabby, was a great companion for many years. He was a very verbal feline who enjoyed popcorn, among other human foods.
I gained other pet experience with my husband and step-daughters. We had a parakeet named “Queenie” who we later learned was actually a male. I never looked at her very closely, I guess.
We had a turtle named “Speedy,” who had the misfortune of developing a fungal infection which caused his shell to begin pulling away from his body. This malady was alternately heart-breaking and disgusting to observe, as the shell slipped further and further from his body, to the point at which he appeared to be dragging it along behind him. Unable to tolerate it any longer, and learning that there was nothing we could do to save him, my husband put him in the car. In the dark of night, he drove him to a nearby canal, stealthily edged down the embankment, and slipped Speedy into the murky water. He said he felt like Louie the Hit Man as he drove away. My guess is that Speedy went quickly.
Bettas, those delicate, high maintenance aquarium fish requiring specially-prepared freeze-dried food and hourly water changes, had the uncanny ability to live forever. Even as their health deteriorated, they lived on — and on — their bodies shrinking, but their heads retaining their normal size. So at a certain point you just saw a couple of big heads floating around in the water. I have no idea how they propelled themselves forward.
The pet that wins the “Strangest Pet of All Time” award is the phasmida, the stick insect. This pet was, thankfully, a short-term visitor to our home, never intended to be a full-time resident. I’ll give you a shiny new dime if you can tell me where the little stick dude is in this photo. You must submit your guess in the Comments field at the end of this essay, though.
My current pet, of course, is my lovely Fiona, the cat in the photo with me on the home page of this blog. To the untrained eye, she appears to be in a neutral-to-sour mood, but as any experienced cat owner knows, she is deeply content and pleased.
Our pets are loving, charming, maddening, and hilarious. We don’t control them. It is absolutely the other way around.
So, if you have a pet memory to share, by all means, share it here! And don’t forget to enter the “Where’s the Phasmida?” contest. Enter your guess in the Comments field, and be sure to include your address so I know where to send the shiny new dime to the Lucky Winner.
And finally, all together now! Sing it with me:
You really got a hold on me, I said you really got a hold on me, you know you really got a hold on me, you know you really got a hold on me!