What did I know of cats as a child? When did a cat first allow me into its life? Is a person whose given name begins with “CAT” destined to become an ailurophile (cat lover)? Or is it because I’m a writer? On the subject of cats, Canadian journalist, novelist and playwright William Roberson Davies (Deptford Trilogy) said, “Authors like cats because they are such quiet, lovable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reason.” I’m convinced that people do not pick a cat like a piece of clothing on a rack. Cats choose us, thank you very much, and allow us to share their space.
When I began writing columns about what I’ve learned from cats over the decades, I came to understand why so many writers profess to be cat people. In the late 1960s, a sleek black cat with a long tail was given to me in Bangkok. From him, I learned about afternoon catnaps—the ability of felines to shape-shift and tuck into the side of a person’s body like a shadow. While teaching in Nebraska in the early 1970s, Muffie, a whip-smart grey tabby and Tiggy, a yellow tiger-striped silly goose of a kitten, literally wandered into my life and followed me to Los Angeles four years later. Wisely, they allowed Kit into our life, and Kit allowed me into his children’s lives. And for the next ten years, we all lived together in a tiny little cottage up a rural slice of canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains.
When we moved to Missouri in 1988 and bought a house in the country with a barn, we were soon visited by a local yellow tabby we named Barney. Blanche, a dainty white feline, arrived with him one morning. Before long there were many. Like Jane Goodall and her wild chimpanzees, I named them all and learned much about life from them.
Author Jiro Osaragi cared for over 500 semi-feral cats in the gardens of his home in Kamakura, Japan throughout his lifetime. Writer Jaruki Murakami, opened a Tokyo jazz club and named it ‘Peter Cat’ after one of his pets. Mark Twain famously said, “When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.” Ernest Hemingway adored cats, especially the six-toed type. “A cat”, he professed, “has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”
In an article, “10 Famous Authors and Their Cats,” by Alison Nastasi (Poets & Writers, 2018) talks about African American novelist Alice Walker (“The Color Purple” and “The Way Forward with a Broken Heart”) and her connection with cats and their magical feline alternative reality. Walker feels that she grew up wild, and the standard rules of behavior never applied to her. “Why,” she states in an interview, “would I conform to a society that doesn’t value my existence, that has done everything to wipe me out?” When it comes to her cats, the novelist favors the outsiders and misfits—”like a snaggletoothed stray she took in and the shelter cat Frida, a sweet calico with a rough past that she named after artist Frida Kahlo.”
In a letter to his godson in 1931, poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “I am glad you have a Cat, but I do not believe it is so remarkable a cat as My Cat.” In his book of cat poems, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” Eliot left little doubt that writers are astute observers of the nature of felines and the art of naming them. Cats, he felt, needed a name that is peculiar and more dignified than everyday names, “how else can he keep up his tail perpendicular, or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride.” Growltiger, was his Bravo cat. Rum Tum Tugger, a curious cat that was artful and knowing, but didn’t care for a cuddle. Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer were knockabout clowns, Mr. Mistoffelees was magical, Macavity was a mystery cat, and Old Deuteronomy who sprawled on the floor and was easy to trip over lived a very long time.
But none were as remarkable and beloved as the three cats who journeyed with us from New Mexico 15 years ago to Boomerang Creek. Pure white and sweet of spirit, Pooh, lived 19 years with neurological malfunction that made her gambol like a lamb, but not once did she complain that she wobbled. Scribbles, a precious boy cat born in the barn Barney and Blanche once filled with kittens, was light as a feather and soft of heart. When they left us, our remarkable calico Manx Fanny became a devoted people cat, letting us know without question that we were her chosen peeps for the rest of the journey.
Then early this spring of so many sad departures, it was clear she too would soon leave us. After a month of quiet hospice care inside, Fanny slipped outdoors for a final walkabout to the creek and in the woods she loved before returning three hours later. The next evening, she died next to us, and is now buried with Pooh and Scribbles in the shade garden near a stone bench. At night, Kit and I sit nearby with fireflies as our lanterns. In our meditation, we feel their presence and absence. Though silent now, our feline muses help us keep our balance as we navigate the unfolding realities of today’s Covid-19 world.
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.