MAO, A CAT – Marilyn Armstrong

Jeff and I got Mao as an 8-week-old kitten in the fall of 1965. We had just gotten married the month before, and of course, we had to have a cat right away. Why a Siamese? I don’t know. Karma maybe?

From the very first day, Mao was Master of All He Surveyed. Although I have had many cats through the years, Mao was the first and by far the most utterly unique.

Mao – our cat – Photo (from print) by Ben Taylor — and THANK YOU!

He was very smart for a cat. For instance, when we were out-of-town, we would have someone “house-sit” for us. No matter who that person was, and no matter how much Mao ordinarily liked them, while we were away, Mao would attack him or her (or them) virtually continuously during our absence. He would hide behind the bushes and attack legs as they tried to open the front door. He would wait around the corner and then pounce. He would launch himself from atop the bookcase, landing on a victim’s head, sometimes causing serious damage.

The moment we returned, Mao ceased his attacks and commenced purring. He figured, I believe, that he needed to drive out the interlopers so that we could return. Since we always DID return, his belief was consistently reinforced!

Mao protected us from bed goblins. If you were on Mao’s “family member” list, he would stop by your bedroom every night. You had to lift the covers so he could walk to the foot of the bed and back up. No goblins tonight? Good, I will go now, and he did.

Mao was the only cat I’ve ever known that perpetrated acts of vengeance hours or days after your perceived offense. If, for example, you shooed him off the table during dinner time, he would wait until you were sitting on the potty with your pants around your ankles and could not chase him. Then he would casually bite your shins. Tail held high, he would stroll away.

Mao patrolled the perimeter of the grounds like any good watch cat should. Every day of his life, he performed it, almost as if it were a ceremony. During his closing weeks with us, he began to patrol in the company of a younger feline, Mr. Manx. As if passing the torch to the next generation, he taught Mr. Manx to walk the perimeter, and inspect the beds, which Mr. Manx then did for the rest of his life.

In October 1978, Mao, who had been diagnosed with cancer some months before, disappeared. We never found his body, though we were sure he had gone off to die. For the last couple of weeks before his departure, we had noticed that he felt different. Where his muscles had been hard, they were now soft. He slept most of the day and moved slowly.

It is many years and lifetimes later. Jeff has passed. I live far from that place where Jeff and I and Mao and all the other fur-people lived. But I remember him. We all remember Mao, the most special cat.

Mao, I am sure you were there for Jeff when he came to the Bridge. I’m sure you will be there for me, too. You and all my other furry friends who I loved will be there together.

But you were and will always be, utterly unique and entirely unforgettable.

AHAB THE WANDERER – Marilyn Armstrong

Back in another life, I lived in a little house on Long Island, not far from the university where I’d gone to school and at which my husband worked. We always had a dog and several cats. In those days, we let our cats outside. There wasn’t much traffic and everyone’s cats roamed the neighborhood.

One day, while we were out in the yard, we had a visitor, a medium-sized black and white cat. He was extremely friendly. Sidled right up to us, purring, and doing that little head butt that’s so endearing. Maybe he was hungry? Of course, we fed him.

My son fell immediately in love and we said he could keep the cat.

ahab

My husband had a passion for the classics. He named the cat Ahab, which he said meant “wanderer.” Princeton University agrees, except the name in Hebrew means “uncle.” Which is irrelevant but I threw it in because I did the research and wanted to do something with the information.

Back to the story, already in progress.

Ahab was a sweetheart, the most laid-back cat I ever knew. My 4-year old felt he needed a bubble bath in a bucket. Ahab purred his way through the bubbles and the rinse cycle then continued purring all the way through dinner and a relaxed evening on the sofa with the whole family.

We couldn’t figure out why anyone would let a sweet fellow like Ahab go. He was young. Healthy. Litter trained, though he preferred going outside to do his business. His coat was shiny and he showed no sign of abuse or neglect. He oozed charm.

Ahab settled in like he’d always lived with us. He got along with the dog and the other cats. Loved children. Loved everyone. We made a date to take him to the veterinarian for shots.

He never went to the vet, at least not with us. The following day, without so much as a “by your leave,” Ahab moved down the block and took up residence with a different family. We were a little wounded. We’d never been abandoned by a cat before. His new family adored him but Ahab only hung around a few days, then moved on.

We eventually lost track of Ahab. He moved from house to house, charming everyone and purring his way to his next home. He never stayed longer than a few days and was always the perfect house guest.

Was he a stray? If he was, it was what he wanted.  Ahab was a wanderer by choice.

BIG GUY AND THE CARDINAL – Marilyn Armstrong

RDP #72 – CAT


This is a favorite story of Big Guy, the best cat ever, with pardon asked of every other best cat in the world. Because there are so many best cats!


Several years before the priest scandal destroyed Cardinal Law’s career, Garry was friends with him. Not close pals, but more than acquaintances. Garry thought I would enjoy Bishop Cardinal Law’s company, so when the opportunity came up, he did a very Garry thing.

He was working weekends for several decades that decade, so if anything happened on Sunday, Garry was on it. This Sunday, the old Catholic cathedral near our condo in Roxbury, was going to host Cardinal Bishop Bernard Law. It was a big deal for the neighborhood’s shrinking Catholic population.

Holy_Cross_Cathedral_1881

For a Prince of the Church to say Mass anywhere in Boston is an event, even if you aren’t Catholic. We lived one block from the lovely old cathedral. The neighborhood was buzzing.

The cathedral was a grand dame amongst local churches. You could see her former grandeur, though she was currently in desperate need of restoration and repairs to just about everything. Roxbury was almost entirely Black and the Catholic population was small. It had previously been a Jewish neighborhood, red-lined by greedy real estate brigands. We were among the first two or three middle-class mixed-race couples to move back to Roxbury. We hoped we’d be the start of a positive move for the neighborhood, including how it would be reported by media and perceived by Bostonians — and that turned out to be true, though it took some years for the area to finally turn around.

To be fair, we had chosen it less out of altruism and more because it was a great location — and we could afford it. Convenient to everything with lots of green space, lovely neighbors, and compared to almost any other place in Boston, more or less within our budget. “Affordable” in Boston — any neighborhood, no matter how “bad” — is really expensive. For the price of a condo in one of Boston’s most problematic areas, you could buy a big house with land out past Metrowest. In fact, that’s what we eventually did.

But I digress.

Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, Roxbury was not crime central. You could leave your car unlocked on the street and no one would touch it. I know because my neighbor tried desperately to have his cars stolen, going so far as to leave the keys in the ignition for weeks. Not a chance. People watched out for each other in Roxbury. I never had better neighbors or felt safer.

75-BostonHPCR-3

The morning when Cardinal Law was due to visit, Garry called.

“I was telling Bernie (Cardinal Law) that you used to live in Israel and are really interested in religion and stuff.”

“Uh huh.”

“So he’ll be dropping by for a visit.”

“When?”

“I think he’s on the front steps. Yup, there he is. Gotta run. Love you. Have a great day.”

BING BONG said the doorbell.

I looked at me. At least I was dressed. The house was almost acceptable. Thanks for all the warning, Gar, I thought. Showtime! And in swept His Grace, His Eminence, wearing his red skull-cap and clothed in a long, black wool cloak. Impressive.

Big Guy stretched. Our Somali cat — the best cat in the world and certainly the smartest, sweetest, and gentlest — was our meeter greeter.

Big Guy
Big Guy

I offered the Cardinal the best seat in the house, the blue velvet wing chair by the bay window. Big Guy promptly joined him. We chatted for almost an hour. Israel, the church, whether there was any hope St. Mary’s would get funds to repair and upgrade before it was too late.

The neighborhood. A bit of church politics. Although Bernard Cardinal Law was ultimately (rightfully and so sadly) blamed for the long-standing policy of the Church in hiding the misdeeds of child-molesting clerics, this was years before that story came to light. The man I met was wonderfully intelligent, friendly, witty, and a pleasure to spend time around. Which was probably why Garry was so fond of him and considered him a friend.

When it was time for the Cardinal to depart, he stood up. Big Guy left his cozy spot on the warm lap of the region’s reigning Catholic cleric. And that was when I saw the Cardinal was coated in cat hair.

Exactly what does one say in this odd circumstance?

“Wait a minute, your Eminence. Let me get the pet hair sticky roller and see if I can get some of that hair off your long black cape?” I was pretty sure the cloak needed more oomph than a lint roller anyway. It was going to need some serious dry-cleaning.

I took the less valorous road and shut up. Wincing with foreknowledge, we parted company. As he and his retinue swept out my door, I pondered how life’s journey takes strange side roads, unexpected twists, and turns. This was one.

“Meow?” questioned Big Guy. Clearly, he liked the Cardinal and it had been mutual. I believe Big Guy came away from the experience with some special, secret understanding of Truth. I, on the other hand, felt obliged to call my husband and warn him that Cardinal Law was dressed in more than he realized.

“Oops,” said Garry, master of understatement.

“Yup,” said I, equally downplaying the difficulties that would arise from the incident. I had wrangled with Big Guy’s fur. I knew how bad it would be.

Some weeks later, when Garry, in the course of work, again encountered the good Cardinal, he called my husband to the side for a private word. The other reporters were stunned! What scoop was Garry Armstrong getting? Rumors ran rampant. Armstrong was getting the goods and they were out in the cold. Mumble, mumble, grouse, complain, grr.

“Armstrong,” murmured the Cardinal.

“Yes, sir?”

“You owe me. That was one gigantic dry cleaning bill!”

“Yes sir, Your Eminence,” Garry agreed. “Been there myself.”

“I bet you have!” said Bernard Cardinal Law. And the two men shook hands.

When the other reporters gathered around and wanted to know what private, inside information Garry had, he just smiled.

“I’ll never tell,” he said. “Never.”

But now, YOU know. Truth revealed.

THE TINY WORMS IN THE FRIDGE – Marilyn Armstrong

My house was neat enough if you didn’t look too closely. You could walk into it without falling over a pile of dirty clothing (that was all in the basement — another story entirely) and the dogs and cats were  (usually) housebroken.

I couldn’t say the same for my toddler or my friends. Overall, the toddler was less of a threat to house and home than the friends, but when they got to messing around, anything could happen.

As my son grew, he developed (what a surprise) a passion for all kinds of creatures. Rabbits. Hamsters. Birds. We already had cats (many) and dogs.

We never properly owned more than two dogs but often had three or four. Two of them were ours. One was on loan from a friend who was in the army or on the road playing gigs. The fourth had belonged to a houseguest who had left but somehow forgotten to take their dog. Sometimes, it took us years to get the owner to come back and take the furkid too.

I love animals that aren’t insects, so while I frequently pointed out that it was NOT my dog and would they please come and get him or her, I would never throw them out. The owner I might toss out the door, but never the dog.

The year Owen turned eight, he decided he wanted geckos. They were the “in” things for 8-year-old boys that year. I pointed out that I didn’t think they would last long with the cats in the house.

He wanted the geckos. I was not much of a disciplinarian. If you argue with me, I’ll say no at least twice. After that? I usually give up.

As soon as we got the terrarium and the plants and finally settled the geckos into their home, Owen promptly lost interest in them and rediscovered his bicycle. That left me to care for the geckos, who would only eat mealworms.

I am not a big fan of worms. Any worms. I can tolerate earthworms because they are good for the soil, but overall, if it creeps or crawls, it’s not my thing. Did I mention that the geckos would only eat LIVE mealworms? I had to buy them in little cups at the pet store.

So mom dropped over and the cup of mealworms for the geckos had tipped over in the fridge. Which was now full of tiny worms. I assured her that my fridge does not usually contain worms and the worms were what the geckos ate. I don’t think she believed me. It was years before she would eat anything at my house. She always quietly inspected everything, in case there were a few worms there.

As for the geckos, a few days later, the cats figured out how to open the terrarium and there were no more geckos. And thankfully, no more mealworms.

UP IN A TREE – ELLIN CURLEY

The story of the cat in the tree is part of our family folk-lore. While not a major, life-altering event, it’s a good story with a happy ending.

Tom and I were scheduled to leave for London the following day. It was summer. Both of our young adult children were living at home with us. We were relaxing after dinner when we heard a cat meowing from outside the house. Our two cats — we also had three dogs — were exclusively indoor cats.

Tom, me, our kids, David and Sarah, and our three dogs at our wedding in 2002

We commented that we hadn’t realized our neighbors had cats. After a few more ‘meows’, we decided to do a head count and make sure that both of our cats were where they were supposed to be. One cat, Hillary, was missing. Shit!

So all four of us went outside and started to frantically search the fenced in backyard for our missing cat. We were worried she might be injured since she lived on the second floor of the house. The only way to get from there to the back yard, was off our bedroom deck and roof, which was pretty high up from the ground.

We searched and searched. It started to get dark so we got flashlights. When we called, she would answer us, but we couldn’t pinpoint her location. One minute she’d sound like she was off to our left. The next minute, she’d sound as if she was on our right. We got increasingly confused. We were also beginning to panic. We had to find Hillary if we wanted to leave on our trip the next day!

It eventually occurred to us that cats can climb trees. We might be looking in the wrong place for Hillary. So Tom took the flashlight up to the bedroom deck and shined it straight into the giant evergreen tree right outside our bedroom. There she was. Contentedly sitting in the tree. We figured she must have started to slide down the slanted roof and caught her fall by jumping onto the overhanging tree branch.

Tom said he’d climb the tree and get Hillary. The rest of us were afraid Tom would kill himself so we tried to dissuade him. Tom convinced us that it was an easy tree to climb and that he was an expert tree climber. So we agree and Tom climbed up to the second floor level and tried to grab Hillary. She got spooked and moved higher up the tree. After this little dance continued for a while, our daughter, Sarah, decided to step in.

Who do you call when your cat is stuck in a tree? The Fire Department. Sarah called our Volunteer Fire Department. She explained that both her cat and father were in a tree and needed help. The operator then asked Sarah if it was her father or the cat’s father who was up in the tree with Hillary.

Hillary

The Fire Department actually came. You might think firemen rescue cats from trees all the time and would know how to do it. This was true — fifty years ago. Not, however, these days. The firemen asked US what we wanted them to do. “Get a ladder.” Tom answered. So they brought out a tall ladder. But it was not tall enough.

The fireman then yelled up to Tom, “The ladder’s too short! What do you want me to do?”

What Tom did was creative and brave. He grabbed Hillary, hung upside down by his knees on a branch and handed the cat off to the fireman at the top of the ladder. Victory! Everyone gathered around the rescued cat – and completely forgot about Tom, still hanging upside down in the tree. One fireman finally went back to the tree and asked if Tom could get down on his own. Tom was hot and sweaty and exhausted, but he managed to climb down safely.

Before the firemen left, one of them phoned in a report to the office. This is what he said: “One cat and one adult male in tree. Successful recovery.”

That pretty much sums it all up!

MEMORIES OF MAO

Long ago in a land far away, we had a Siamese cat. Mao — “cat” in Chinese. I don’t know if that’s Mandarin, Cantonese or some other dialect, but it was a good name.

English: A two-year-old seal point "tradi...

We got Mao as a tiny kitten. From day one, he was a feisty, chatty cat.  He was also our first cat, which his name reflected. Mao Ee (Cat 1). There were, of course, many more cats over the decades, in all the houses in I’ve called home (except this one where it has been only dogs). Regardless, there was never another cat like Mao.

When we traveled, friends took care of our house. I was a great grower of plants back then. Feeding the cats was one part of the job … but watering the 200 plus plants was — or should have been — the bigger task. Frank — best friend’s husband — was often tasked with house care in our absence. Mao was a thinking cat. A logical cat. He decided we were gone because Frank had driven us away. If Mao could drive Frank away, we would come home.

Therefore, when Frank came to the house to feed and water cats and plants, Mao attacked him. I don’t mean a little pounce, a playful swat. It was all out warfare. Mao crouched in shadows and attacked, all 20 claws outstretched, going for gore. Poor Frank loved cats and he and Mao had always gotten along fine. He had no idea why Mao was out to get him.

The moment we came back, Mao was back to normal, friend to the world. He had obviously been right. We were back … ergo, it must have been because he drove The Invader (Frank) away. Logical, yes?

After that, Mao attacked everyone who took care of the house in our absence. He was the terror of Our Crowd. It got increasingly difficult to get someone to take care of things while we were gone.

The years moved on and Mao moved with us. There were children, jobs, bigger houses, dogs. Life. We held celebrations … big Thanksgiving dinners. One memorable occasion, we had a full house including a dozen and half people and featuring a huge turkey. When the turkey was roasted, I put it out on the counter to set while I moved food in the dining room and greeted arriving guests.

Thanksgiving006

I wasn’t gone 10 minutes. When I got back to the kitchen, Mao was on the counter, finishing off a drumstick. Its remains were still attached to the turkey — a ragged, conspicuously gnawed hole. Not the presentation I had in mind.

The husband and I consulted. We agreed and served the bird as it was.

“What happened to the turkey,” asked friends and family.

“Mao got it,” I said.

“Oh,” they said. “Pass the bird.”

It was a good Thanksgiving. Mao was some cat.

THE CAT IN THE TREE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

The story of the cat in the tree is part of our family folk-lore. While not a major, life-altering event, it’s a good story with a happy ending.

Tom and I were scheduled to leave for London the following day. It was summer. Both of our young adult children were living at home with us. We were relaxing after dinner when we heard a cat meowing from outside the house. Our two cats — we also had three dogs — were exclusively indoor cats.

Tom, me, our kids, David and Sarah, and our three dogs at our wedding in 2002

We commented that we hadn’t realized our neighbors had cats. After a few more ‘meows’, we decided to do a head count and make sure that both of our cats were where they were supposed to be. One cat, Hillary, was missing. Shit!

So all four of us went outside and started to frantically search the fenced in backyard for our missing cat. We were worried she might be injured since she lived on the second floor of the house. The only way to get from there to the back yard, was off our bedroom deck and roof, which was pretty high up from the ground.

We searched and searched. It started to get dark so we got flashlights. When we called, she would answer us, but we couldn’t pinpoint her location. One minute she’d sound like she was off to our left. The next minute, she’d sound as if she was on our right. We got increasingly confused. We were also beginning to panic. We had to find Hillary if we wanted to leave on our trip the next day!

It eventually occurred to us that cats can climb trees. We might be looking in the wrong place for Hillary. So Tom took the flashlight up to the bedroom deck and shined it straight into the giant evergreen tree right outside our bedroom. There she was. Contentedly sitting in the tree. We figured she must have started to slide down the slanted roof and caught her fall by jumping onto the overhanging tree branch.

Tom said he’d climb the tree and get Hillary. The rest of us were afraid Tom would kill himself so we tried to dissuade him. Tom convinced us that it was an easy tree to climb and that he was an expert tree climber. So we agree and Tom climbed up to the second floor level and tried to grab Hillary. She got spooked and moved higher up the tree. After this little dance continued for a while, our daughter, Sarah, decided to step in.

Who do you call when your cat is stuck in a tree? The Fire Department. Sarah called our Volunteer Fire Department. She explained that both her cat and father were in a tree and needed help. The operator then asked Sarah if it was her father or the cat’s father who was up in the tree with Hillary.

Hillary

The Fire Department actually came. You might think firemen rescue cats from trees all the time and would know how to do it. This was true — fifty years ago. Not, however, these days. The firemen asked US what we wanted them to do. “Get a ladder.” Tom answered. So they brought out a tall ladder. But it was not tall enough.

The fireman then yelled up to Tom, “The ladder’s too short! What do you want me to do?”

What Tom did was creative and brave. He grabbed Hillary, hung upside down by his knees on a branch and handed the cat off to the fireman at the top of the ladder. Victory! Everyone gathered around the rescued cat – and completely forgot about Tom, still hanging upside down in the tree. One fireman finally went back to the tree and asked if Tom could get down on his own. Tom was hot and sweaty and exhausted, but he managed to climb down safely.

Before the firemen left, one of them phoned in a report to the office. This is what he said: “One cat and one adult male in tree. Successful recovery.”

That pretty much sums it all up!