We first met Calvin when he was cowering under a bed. We were visiting him to see if he would be a good fit as a permanent member of our household. He and his housemate Frankie needed a change of scene. Their human companion Andrea, a friend of ours in the church choir, had developed an allergy to their dander. One must say that this was probably more Frankie’s fault,
as she is the queen of dander. We loved them both, but were only up to adopting one cat. We thought Frankie would be the better bet, because she was younger, only 4 years old to Calvin’s 6. Andrea accepted that, but worried tearfully about Calvin’s adoptability as an older cat, and the fact that the shelters were full of pets because of the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. So we found a place for Calvin, sending our household pet, the calico Charlotte, to live with our son Matt, who was always Charlotte’s favorite, the one she’d snuggle up to. When we went back to get Calvin and Frankie, Calvin had to be extricated from under the bed by hand. A shy homebody, he struggled the entire way into the cat carrier. And for the thirty-minute ride back to Vienna, he howled every second of the way.
One is tempted to say that Calvin lived one quiet life at our house, instead of the legendary nine exciting ones allocated to felines. More truthfully he had three, the prior two of which we knew nothing of. Andrea said he and his litter-mate began life with her and her ex-husband. That was one life. When Andrea and her spouse split, she got Calvin and he got the litter-mate, Hobbes. (The allusion here is to Bill Watterson’s edgy and highly amusing comic strip Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, which ran from 1985 to 1995. It’s about a boy (Calvin) and his (stuffed animal) pet tiger (Hobbes). It is to the current strip Red and Rover as Get Fuzzy is to Family Circus. In other words, it was hip, offbeat, and insightful, not sentimental slop.) So Calvin is indirectly named after the great Geneva Reformer, “Mr. Predestination.” Andrea adopted his mate, Frankie, from a friend, and when she came along with him to our house, she was renamed “Isabel.”
Having howled all the way home, Calvin immediately went silent at our house. He holed up in the master bathroom, picking Jane’s wash basin to reside in for several days. It’s in a room with only one entrance and exit, it’s quiet, the sink is a snug depression, which he neatly filled. Calvin was a big silver-gray cat resembling a British Shorthair. He measured a full three feet from nose to tail tip.
The tail was a foot of that. Sturdy and bulky without being fat, he probably weighed 13 to 15 pounds for most of his life. Having warily checked out his new habitat, he ventured into the world of the house. But unlike Isabel, who had a huge array of sounds amounting almost to a vocabulary, Calvin was silent, as if the yowling all the way home had permanently damaged his larynx. He communicated by body language instead, most notably by sidling up to you and deliberately collapsing sideways onto your seated or recumbent form. He stared meaningfully. In the kitchen he did a funny cross-legged, sideways walk when he wanted a treat. He purred deeply and loudly. He seemed to actually grin by curling his upper lip and baring his long incisor tooth. He could and would nip and even bite you when suddenly panicked. You always knew what Calvin meant.
Calvin made his own fun. He never did a lot of playing with cat toys, though a wand with a dangling feather-and-bell contraption could get him going now and then. He’d be up for chasing a leather bootstring for maybe 45 seconds to 90 seconds at a time. But he preferred his own sporadic mad dashes through the upstairs rooms–we could hear his feet pounding down the upstairs corridor. Calvin liked catnip, but didn’t act silly like a lot of cats do. He ate it, spread it all over the floor, and lay down to doze it off. He adopted a soft magenta star meant as a Christmas tree ornament, and would both bat it around and walk around with it in his mouth like a parent with a kitten. Once he re-learned to meow, he’d make proud, insistent yowling sounds when he was walking around with it. His favorites, though, were the ornaments on the Christmas tree. Our tree has ornaments of all sorts, and a number of them are soft stuffed figurines of kittens, rabbits, and other Beatrix-Potter-like animals. When the tree was up and decorated every year, Calvin regarded it as his own private Pet Toy Tree. His favorite thing to do was to pull low-hanging soft ornaments off the tree one at a time and put them in or near his water dish. Many an advent morning we had to hang an ornament out to dry. And Calvin liked to play with Isabel, on occasion. One or the other would come around and goad the sleeping, lazy one, licking their face, their ears, their head. Calvin was usually the recipient. Though the interaction began in apparent affection, the real intent was always a rough-and-tumble sparring match, followed by a mad pursuit around the house. If one of the couple was just too lazy, the pursuit might be curtailed after five feet or so.
Calving also liked quiet pleasures. He would sit at the front door for long periods of time looking out the glass storm door. He’d lie in the sun. He spent his evenings where we were, in the study or in front of the TV in the family room, preferring to be in our laps for maybe 15 minutes before moving to the floor or the ottoman in the study. He was especially tuned to the chair in the study, and to Jane, whose lap was usually in it. He liked her lap best, and would tolerate being held like a baby and having his belly rubbed. He also liked to help us when we were on the computer. Especially he liked Jane’s computer, because she put a towel on the desk for him to lie on. Of course, he’d rather have been walking back and forth in front of the screen, but he accepted some degree of training, and would settle down quite well.
Morning was Calvin’s favorite time of day, when the rituals he cared about were performed. He sometimes went to bed with us, but was nervous about lying down between us. After some socializing, he’d retreat under the bed. He’d often await dawn impatiently in the master bathroom, where he enjoyed drinking the tap water as it flowed. When he got bored he’d knock a drinking glass or anything else he could find into the wash basins. Fearing breakage, we finally banished him from the bathroom by keeping the door shut. He’d meow, and occasionally get on the bed, to remind us that, in his opinion, we ought to be out of bed and up. Then the race began. When we were set to go downstairs he would go bounding down ahead of us, stopping at the foot to “scratch” the bottom stair a few quick times with his clawless front feet. Then it was on through the family room or the living room/dining room to the kitchen at breakneck speed, to make sure he was there first for his wet-food breakfast. He’d get very intense and impatient if whoever was down there first dared to make coffee or take care of other matters before he was fed. When the two bowls of wet food were down and his water replaced (he was quite fussy about fresh water) he’d dig into one, then switch with Isabel just to make sure he wasn’t missing anything. Satisfied, he’d saunter out to the front door to take in the morning scene. But he returned to those food bowls; they were almost always polished off by noon.
A timid soul, Calvin adjusted to more adventuresome behavior slowly, if at all. When the occasional outdoor cat visited our front door, Calvin would hang back about halfway down the front hall while Isabel took charge to yowl, hiss, and/or bat the glass in the door. In summer Calvin was spooked by something about the air conditioning unit’s noise. So while we spent summers on the back porch,
next to which the a/c resided, Calvin would stay indoors, spread out on the ceramic tile of the laundry floor. Finally he got bolder about the noise, and we purchased a new and less noisy unit. So he had his last couple of summers on the back porch, and he was in his glory. But he still preferred the winter months in the upstairs study.
I would always say that animals don’t have souls . . . except, of course, for our cats. But in truth even our cats have been beloved members of the household, but not “one of the family.” They are not on our genealogy charts, they do not share our DNA. We love them, and they love us–I think. But not as we love our fellow human beings, and they love us. There is something about the most domestic of cats that is aloof, feral, beyond human understanding. Part of the attraction of cats is this very distance. They seem to have auton0mous existences, and to enter into healthy relationships with their families. This is in contrast with the unhealthy co-dependency of dogs, who seem to need constant affirmation and to offer slavish self-abasement to get it. As one bumper-sticker slogan puts it, “dogs have masters; cats have staff.” Nevertheless cats, including Calvin, give plenty of unsolicited affection. He derived his happiness from our environment. Our happiness was greatly increased by his being in the household. We miss him. We still look for him in his customary spot on the rug. We wonder why the house is so quiet. I was with him when he breathed his last, and Jane was only feet away. We buried him under the same holly tree (evergreen, winter berries, new life) where three other of our pets lie, encased in a Herrod’s bag–first class all the way. We’re looking for a suitable marker. He will always be present in our minds and hearts. He was a special cat: gentle, kind, dignified, quiet, and loving, shy but not unfriendly, always changing and developing. A cat without peer.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.