Three cats dominated my early life, my big black cat named Buddy, a bobtail called Buster, and a small gray cat with a white nose, I’ll call Boots.
As a two year old, I could more easily handle Boots than Buddy. I still have vague memories of this incident, but have also heard the story many times from my mother.
When I was two or three, I watched Mom ready a chicken for the pot. On our farm, it meant that Dad gathered an unwanted rooster or old hen and chopped off its head. The chicken hung in our woodshed for a couple of hours to drain the blood, then Mom dipped it in a bucket of hot water and picked its feathers off. I decided I’d pick Boots. The hair didn’t come out as easily as the feathers off the chicken. When Mom heard the cat howling, she came and rescued him.
Buddy was my favorite cat. He came from Binghamton. Mom and Dad told the story. One day Mom carried Dad’s lunch the short distance from their house to the gas station my father owned on Upper Court Street. On her way home, a young black cat followed her. Dad insisted that Mom encouraged it all the way back to their house. Buddy grew into a playful, high-spirited cat. Dad would tease him until Buddy would chase him around the room. The only escape was standing on the large register of the pipeless heater.
Mom worried about Buddy while she was pregnant. Because Buddy was so spunky, she feared he would scratch or smother me. The opposite was true. Buddy became my faithful companion and did all that I commanded. I remember putting him on a window sill, saying, “Stay here.” He did.
Buddy was also subject to other embarrassments from me. I had a large toy truck that I could ride on. It was like a cattle truck with metal slatted sides. Buddy became “my cattle.” He just fit inside the truck’s trailer. I locked him in. That evening Mom said, “I haven’t seen Buddy all day. He didn’t come to eat his supper.” Oh, oh. Poor Buddy. I ran into my play room to release him from his day-long confinement.
Often I left my dolls and used Buddy as my playtime baby. He didn’t seem to mind being dressed in doll clothes, except for bonnets tied under his chin. I thought he looked particularly fetching in blue as I wheeled him around in my doll carriage. As my baby, Buddy learned to drink from a doll’s bottle. At the time, doll’s bottles were small duplicates of a regular baby bottle, so they could be filled with real milk.
Bottle training saved Buddy’s life. One cold winter day, Buddy went outside as he always did, but this day he did not return. He was gone for three days. Every day Mom called him, but he didn’t come. Everyday when I came home from school, I looked for him.
On the fourth morning after I’d gone to school, Mom was working near the sink where the back kitchen windows that overlooked the barnyard with the creek and hill beyond. She saw something black moving ever so slowly up through the barnyard. Quickly she slipped on her boots and coat and hurried down the knoll and across the barnyard to Buddy, who was dragging himself home. Buddy was icy cold, very wet, and missing two front toes. Where had he been? What happened to him? We never really knew, but we were quite certain he’d been caught in a muskrat trap placed at the edge of the creek by a someone in the neighborhood. Why the unknown person released Buddy, but didn’t bring him to the house we never knew. However, if I held him when a strange man came into the house, my very gentle cat would claw me in desperation to leap from me and run away.
Mom wrapped him in a warm wool blanket and placed him next to the wood stove. He was a very, very sick cat, probably suffering from pneumonia. At that time, veterinarians were not called to a farm to deal with a sick cat and my parents would not have been able to afford it.
Once Buddy was warm and dry, Mom tried to feed him, but every time he bent his head to eat or drink, it filled with so much mucus he couldn’t breathe. That’s when Mom heated milk, put it in my doll’s bottle and held him on his back to bottle feed him. With hand feeding and my doll’s bottle, Buddy recovered.
Buddy spent his last days snug and loved, curled up in my child-sized rocking chair. He died of old age after living with us for seventeen years.
Buster, the bobtailed cat, was not so easily tamed. He rarely allowed me to feed him with a bottle and let me put him in my doll carriage. He spent much of his time hunting the abundant supply of mice, chipmunks, and other small vermin available on any dairy farm.
Buster loved fresh warm milk directly from the cow. Each day when Dad milked the cows, Buster came and sat on the concrete floor behind the cow that Dad was milking. If Dad didn’t acknowledge him, Buster would stretch out a paw to give Dad’s leg a tap. Then if Dad didn’t pay attention, Buster stretched and hooked his claws into Dad’s pant leg. Finally, Dad squirted milk from the cow’s teat into Buster’s face. After a few squirts, some of which he caught in his mouth and others he licked from his whiskers, he’d had enough. Buster insisted this ritual be observed every morning and evening during milking time.
Aunt Irma, my mother’s sister, gave us a long-haired Persian. He didn’t live long in our home. A beautiful silver colored animal, he was somewhat well-trained. He could sit on his back haunches, put out his front paws to catch a piece of food tossed to him. His bathroom habits left much to be desidre. Our cats went outside to the bathroom. Much to my mother’s consternation, the Persian didn’t. One day two women stopped to visit. One of them adored this cat. He’d found a new home.
After Buddy left this world, we adopted Jack and Jill, gray, long-haired brother and sister cats. Jack grew into a large, well-mannered gentleman cat. Jill was my mother’s favorite. She was petite and sassy. Jill became pregnant. As the day grew near for her to give birth, Mom fixed her a box with a blanket and put it in the cellar where she would have privacy. Jill didn’t want to stay down cellar. The night before Easter Sunday, Jill howled all night. By five o’clock Easter morning, when Dad got up to milk the cows, he’d not slept. Neither had Jill given birth to the kittens.
Before Mom went down to the barn to help Dad, she let Jill up from the cellar. I was up early that morning. Jill gave birth to her first kitten on the living room sofa. When Mom came back in the house, she had cosseted her and her three babies in her box near the kitchen sink. When Dad came in he was still so angry with Jill, he refused to acknowledge her or the kittens. Jill’s kittens were very popular and were usually given away before they were born. I went off to college, and I do not remember how long Jack and Jill lived on the farm. I wonder if some of Jill’s descendants may still live in the neighborhood all these years later.
Besides the cats that were allowed in the house, we had an endless chain of barn cats. Many of these cats came as drop-offs. The people around our community were well aware that no animal went hungry that came to our farm. I’m sure even the mice found plenty to eat, if they escaped the cats who wanted to eat them. Some of the barn cats showed up as kittens, others were fully grown, some were friendly and liked to be petted, some were nearly wild and couldn’t be touched. Each day Mom took leftover bread to the barn and broke it up into a large pan. On his way to the milk house with a pail of milk, Dad poured a generous splash of milk over the bread. Even the shyest cat eventually made it into the barn during milking time.
Here is my current cat. Van Gogh is about six or seven years old. So named for his damaged ear, whether from birth or a fight we don’t know because he was three when we got him from the shelter. He is a loving lap cat.