The Cats I have Known

I’ve always been a cat person. I like dogs, well enough, but I like the independence of a cat—its playfulness, its curiosity, the way a cat purrs when contented. I find them vastly entertaining.

My first kitten was Tinkerbelle. He was a boy, but I didn’t know that at the time. After all, I was only 3 or 4 years old. My dad brought him home—a tiny, wrinkled, sad looking kitten that he found wandering around by a creek we used to visit. My mom gave him away after an unfortunate accident involving a little red wagon and the skittish kitten’s neck.

A few years later, when we moved out to the country, we had a series of indoor-outdoor cats—Max, Ichabod, Sam—all of them strays. Then there was Boris, named for Boris Karloff. He was a black cat, part Siamese, and had a reputation for being ferocious.

When we first got him, Boris went with us on one of our summer camping trips. We thought he was too little to leave at home. It turns out, he was efficient at catching his own food. We were absolutely horrified when he caught his first chipmunk and started chewing away on its neck.

We pleaded with Dad to “do something—he’s killing that defenseless little chipmunk!” Dad just shrugged and said, “What did you expect him to do—he’s a cat!” He still chuckles when he recalls the memory.

Boris had graduated to bringing home rabbits as big as he was before long. He’d bang against the back door and stand there with the rabbit’s neck in his teeth. When we refused to let him in, he’d drop the rabbit long enough to meow indignantly, as if to say, “What? I brought it for you! Don’t you want it?”

I’ve had four cats in my adult life, all indoor cats, necessitated by my living in apartments, and all strays I adopted in Eureka. There’s a strong network of dog and cat lovers in this community who work hard to find homes for stray animals, most of them on a voluntary basis.

I adopted Chip when I lived here in the 90’s. He’d been abandoned by a family that left him to fend for himself outside. A woman had taken him in, along with many other cats who needed homes. He was beautiful and affectionate, with gorgeous blue eyes. His fur was the color of cream with a butterscotch overlay. I named him Butterscotch Chip, but called him Chip for short because he was a he (I had learned from my earlier error of giving a boy cat a girl’s name.)

I took him with me when I moved to St. Louis. He settled in nicely in my apartment, but I had to give him up when I moved to a place that didn’t allow pets.

More than a decade would pass before I adopted another cat. The places I lived in Washington, DC and Bethany Beach, Delaware weren’t conducive to raising cats. Once I settled again in Eureka, and learned I could have a cat where I live, I began putting the word out in the local cat-fostering network that I was looking for a compatible feline roommate.

I met Juju, the Wonder Cat, in the apartment management office. They had found her wandering in our parking lot, and were anxious to find a home for her. I took one look at her—the tiny kitten with black and white fur and big, bright green eyes—and took her to my apartment. We’ve been roommates ever since.

I named her for something a group of St. Louis women friends and I often say to each other—“sending good juju!” which means positive energy. She’s aptly named, always playful and entertaining. She’s affectionate with me but skittish around other people.

A few months ago, I started looking for a little sister for Juju. I put the word out again through the foster cat mom grapevine. I got in touch with a foster mom for three tiny kittens from the same litter. I was immediately drawn to a willowy little thing with long, scraggly hair the color of honey. I named her Willow.

She was the tiniest kitten I had seen since Tinkerbelle, decades ago. Juju took one look at her and started hissing and batting at her. But Willow, unfazed, just stared back.

Willow was with me only a few days before she became listless and died in my arms. It would be a few months before I was ready to try again at adopting a sister for Juju.

Before I could even put the word out, a friend told me of a kitten that needed a new home. She was an older kitten, not quite a year old, whose caretakers were moving south for the winter and would either have to let her live outside and brave the elements, or take her to a no-kill shelter.

From the moment I met Mattie, the scrawny grey and black tabby with puffs of white under her chin and on three of her paws, I was in love. Similar in temperament to Juju, she’s bolder and more curious. I gave her the formal name of Matilda, the Marvelous, and welcomed her to the family.

Juju and Mattie get along like a lot of sisters I know—fighting one minute, showing affection the next. Each has claimed her own chair in my living room, but sometimes I find them curled up together on one chair or the other.

I enjoy my feline roommates—my family. They bring me joy and keep me entertained with their antics. Sometimes, I’m exasperated or annoyed with them, but isn’t that like all families? Besides, most often, my annoyance turns into a chuckle, a sigh and a shake of the head at the things Juju the Wonder Cat and Matilda the Marvelous come up with to entertain themselves...and me.

*Origianally published as a "Frankly Speaking" column in the Woodford County Journal April 12, 2012.

Mattie Haiku and Juju, too!

Pouncing on her prey,

A fierce, swift Mattie conquers
Evil bottle cap.

Mattie and Juju,
Limbs, tails and chins intertwined,
Dosing in the sun.

Skidding to a halt,
Matilda the Marvelous
Turns and skitters back.

With exuberance,
Mattie fearlessly attacks.
One more chair subdued.

Mose in water glass,
Mattie laps it up quickly,
‘Til I shoo her off.

Mattie tilts her head
Showing me her striped belly,
Purring, ‘pet me, please.’

Eyeing her target,
Mattie bats at Juju’s nose.
The tussle begins.

Personal Haiku

How ‘bout acceptance?
Accepting you as you are?
What would that feel like?

I’m a survivor,
Thriving in the midst of pain,
Finding joy in life.

Communion table:
Where we become one in Christ
All around the world.

Moments of silence,
Far from the world of chaos,
Internal retreat.

A force of beauty
Pierces ugly, angry veils
Covering her life

Ah, self-acceptance!
Loving yourself warts and all—
The key to progress.

It takes the community

A proverb from the Nigerian Igbo culture states, “It takes the community to raise a child.” Dan McCoy’s upbringing and rise to success in his chosen vocation as a writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is evidence of that truism.

From his birth, Dan was surrounded by a community of love and support. His family, his church, his teachers and coaches, and his friends combined to form his community. He went on to attend college in Indiana, forming a similar community there. And now, he’s developed a community of support in New York.

Each of us learns to function within a community, although not all of them are as healthy or as nurturing as Dan’s. Some of us succeed despite our dysfunctional upbringing. Others never seem to take advantage of the opportunities they’re given, despite having a supportive community. Dan succeeded, in large part, because of his community. But his suvvess is also due to his tenacity—he refused to give up when hit with roadblocks; he kept showing up.

I’ve known Dan most of his life, and I count myself as a small part of his community. I babysat him when he was a child, and I was in college, taking classes from his dad. When he was in high school, I was among his church youth group sponsors and in the audience as he performed in musicals. I hired him for one of his first paying jobs—as editorial cartoonist at the Woodford County Journal. I’ve always been a fan.

And as I talked to various people for the story featured in this week’s Journal, I heard from more people in his community. Person after person said they had always seen his talents at writing and drawing, his ability to make people laugh, and a spark that drove Dan to face challenges head on.

As Dan’s mother, Ginny, recalls, “Dan was like every child in that he wasn't perfect, but he was a joy. He started out with two big brothers who read to him and talked to him constantly, so it was inevitable that he turned out to be highly verbal.”

Big brothers, Robert, 13 years older, and John, 10 years older, started reading to Dan literally from his birth. Childhood trips were usually visits to grandparents in Indiana or vacations in Michigan for fishing and communing with nature.

From a very young age, Dan began expressing himself through his art. It was how he would pass the time in church, on long car rides and at grown up meetings his parents attended.

“He drew comics all the time and developed full length illustrated stories,” says Ginny. “Often the people sitting behind us at church would want to see the comic after the service was over.”

Dan had a built-in audience who paid attention to his talents and achievements—a ready-made fan club cheering him on. He noted in his interview that Eureka is a good place to be raised—a warm, safe environment in which to learn, grow and thrive.

Eureka does do a good job of nurturing its young. We give them opportunities to shine on stage, on the athletic field, in the classroom and many more arenas. Many of our young people thrive in such an environment.

But we lose some kids, too. They fall through the cracks we inadvertently make when we don’t pay attention to a child’s talents and energies. The flip side of a strong, loving and encouraging community can be one that is cold, unforgiving and judging.

A person who grows up on these streets not only has to keep up their reputation, achieve their own goals, and overcome the obstacles to ‘make something of themselves,’ she must also live up to—or live down—her parents’ reputations, achieve her grandparents goals, and overcome obstacles created long before her birth.

We as a community need to work on this tendency to remember each mistake made and hold future generations accountable for them. We need to treat each new child as the uniquely made individual they are and give them chance after chance after chance to get it right…and love them anyway if they never do.

But I digress. We’re not talking here about when we fail to nurture a child into the world with all our love and encouragement journeying with him. We are here to celebrate yet another success! Dan has taken on the world—at least the world of comedy writing—and hit it big!

Still humble by nature, Dan expressed his lingering self-doubt as we ended the interview and were saying goodbye. He looked at me and said, “I hope (the people of Eureka) don’t think I’m stomping all over their values.” I don’t recall just what I said then, but I don’t think my words were very reassuring.

It was only later, as I was writing the story, that I thought of an appropriate answer to his concern. Those who know Dan well won’t think he’s left behind all he’s learned from having grown up here. Quite the opposite—he’s one among many ambassadors from Eureka Ill, spreading the spirit of community across the country and to other parts of the world.

This post first appeared  as  a Frankly Speaking column in the Woodford County Jorunal, January 26, 2012.

Easter Prayer 2005

National City Christian Church Rev. Arlene Franks O God of life, God of love and laughter…we, your Easter people greet you thi...