Pets were a huge part of my children’s lives. We were the proud owners of, over time, lizards, frogs, fish, tortoises, rabbits, birds, a snake, a dog, and, of course, a cat.
During my own childhood, my family had two calico cats, both of whom lived for 18 years. The first joined our household when I was only two or three years old, before my sister was born. Her name was Pannie. Fairly obviously, my parents gave me the honor of naming her. Considering that when my own daughter was three she wanted to name her newborn brother “Swimming,” I don’t think Pannie was such a terrible choice.
Once my sister was born, the story I recall is that she pulled Pannie’s tail or inflicted some other injustice on her, and Pannie turned around and scratched her, as cats will do. Pannie’s punishment was to have her front claws removed, a procedure many today would consider cruel but one that she did absolutely fine with. In fact, for her entire life, she was an indoor/outdoor cat, and she never had a problem. So I’m glad my parents made that decision rather than to get rid of her. I cannot imagine my childhood without Pannie.
The other one came from a neighbor whose cat had two kittens that they named Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy. Raggedy Ann was a calico just like Pannie, and my mom couldn’t resist.
Neither cat was particularly friendly, but neither was particularly aloof either. They both displayed just the right balance of attention-seeking and independence.
And they had a good life. My mom fed them only canned food, a luxury the cats I have taken in as an adult never had. Our unfinished basement had its fair share of mice, and more than once I sat on the cement stairs leading down into the darkness to make out Pannie tormenting a tiny little mouse by tossing it about. Eventually she would tire of the game and bite its head off. Then I would scream and race up to the kitchen. Raggedy Ann found rabbits and baby squirrels and birds that she brought in to us, always still alive, requiring my mom to race after the frightened critter, trying to catch it. Rags, as we sometimes called her, had completed her part in the chaotic dance and would sit in a sunny corner grooming herself while my mom hunted wildlife.
The cats were treated equally. My dad was a stickler about keeping everything equal, and he kept meticulous records of every dollar spent on me and my sister. His goal was that neither my sister nor I could accuse him of favoritism. And when he died, he had the ledgers to prove it. We had always joked as kids that he probably had the same ledgers set up for Pannie and Raggedy Ann. We never did find them although I am certain at one point that they existed.
The cats were taught good manners. They never received a meal without first saying “Please.” “Please” looked like this: my mom held the plate of ground turkey in gravy or fish chunks in jelly just above their heads. Once they kicked up their front paws and balanced on their hind legs for a few seconds, indicating “Please,” my mom placed the dishes on the floor. But that was it – they ever learned “Thank you” or to perform any other “trick.”
At one point, Raggedy Ann got pregnant, and we had the privilege of witnessing the birth of five kittens and her nurturing nature. Here babies grew from helpless, blind infants into little trouble-makers who climbed everything from the curtains to my mom’s pants legs.
Pannie had been denied the opportunity to have kittens when she was fixed early on. But upon the arrival of the kittens, her instincts kicked in, and she decided to stretch her own maternal muscles. One night, I woke to sound of crying kittens. I leaned over the edge of the bed and saw all five, alone, under my bed! I pulled them out and returned the babies to the box we had fashioned for the little family down in the kitchen. But I was again awoken a second night, and it looked like Pannie had heard the crying too – she was just crossing the threshold of my room. On the third night, I forced myself to stay awake. I wanted to see how those kittens got up the flight of stairs to my bedroom! (Within a couple of weeks, they were able to climb the carpet-covered stairs themselves, clawing their way up.)
It was Pannie. She stole those little babies, one by one, and brought them up to my room, where she would spend time with them. It broke my heart while at the same time brought me such joy.
We didn’t keep any of the kittens, and I don’t remember what happened to four of them. But the last kitten went to the janitor in my elementary school. As a third grader, I was chatting with the janitor and told him that we were looking for someone to adopt the last kitten, which I strangely remember was caramel colored with white spots. He went home to talk to his wife, and then sought me out the next day to ask if the kitten was still available. That connected us for the following two years, for he would bring photos of the cat to share with me and let me know how it was doing.
Our cats even went on vacation with us. Yet this is the part of my childhood that I still don’t quite understand. Every year we took two-week camping trips across the country. For some crazy reason, one year we brought Pannie. And the next year we brought Raggedy Ann. I just cannot imagine what my parents were thinking.
In addition to the tent trailer we always camped in, we had a large screen house that we put over a picnic table at the campgrounds to keep the bugs away from our food and sometimes from us as well. On one particular trip, we set up camp (or actually, my parents did. I doubt my sister or I did much) and relaxed in the screen house. Pannie had come with us and was on a leash tied to the middle pole. No, she was not a leash cat; she had never gone for a walk like a dog. I assume my parents, understandably, just wanted her tethered.
I don’t know what spooked her, but Pannie suddenly pulled out of her collar, scrambled under the side of the screen house, and darted off into the corn field behind our tent. The field went on and on for as far as we could see. She was gone. With no front claws, remember.
We ran out after her, my mom nearly hysterical and my dad shrugging his shoulders in acceptance that this was the end of Pannie. He had been raised on a farm and had a slightly different view of animals, and especially cats, than the rest of us. Plus, he wasn’t one to fight the inevitable. After an evening of sadness and mourning and finally acceptance, we all turned in for some much-needed sleep.
That night, as the moon and the stars shone bright in the sky, all of us awoke to a mewing outside the zipper. My mom leapt up, and there stood Pannie, ready to come in for the evening. I always wondered about the stories she could have told from her adventure…
This close call led my parents to make what I consider to be a logical decision. They would not bring Pannie on another trip. Instead, they reasoned, they should bring Raggedy Ann the next year. Makes complete sense.
Raggedy Ann had her own camping adventures – she fought off a raccoon who was feasting on the bear claws my mom had saved for the next day’s breakfast. And she came out unscathed. My mom loved that story and retold it many times. She bought her a raccoon Christmas ornament and a raccoon catnip-filled toy (Not only did the cats regularly receive Christmas presents from Santa Claus, but the cats always gave my sister and me gifts for Christmas and our birthdays as well.).
Raggedy Ann also escaped the car at a rest stop. Or maybe it was a Stucky’s. Stucky’s was a huge treat for us when on the road, and we stopped at practically every one we passed by. Not only was it a restroom break, but my parents couldn’t pass up the little white cookies only available there. (If anyone knows what those cookies were, please let me know! For the life of me, I cannot find any information on them!). And I loved wandering the aisles of cheap treasures: salt and pepper shakers, magnets, toothpick holders, key chains, and little figurines. My mom had gotten me into collecting spoons from every state we visited, and most of my collection was bought at a Stucky’s.
Wherever we were, Raggedy Ann got out and ran up a steep hill. My dad threatened to drive off without her because we were on a schedule (we were always on a schedule), and we needed to leave in three minutes. “Three minutes,” he repeated until it wound down to two minutes, when he changed the announcement to “Two minutes!”
My mom jumped out of the car and raced up the hill to grab Rags, only to find that she couldn’t get back down. Luckily for my mom, even though my dad planned on leaving without the cat, he knew he couldn’t leave without her. So he turned off the car and climbed up after my mom. He wasn’t laughing. We were now behind schedule.
But there is one memory I have of that trip that I kept thinking I must have made up. It just didn’t seem possible that it could be true. A few months before my father died, I asked him about it.
“Did this actually happen, or am I remembering it wrong?” I asked, certain I must be wrong. Certain that this must have been a story I confused with a dream.
I retold the story as it played out in my memory. We were vacationing in Michigan and stopped at the Kellogg factory in Battle Creek for the tours they used to conduct. But we also had Raggedy Ann with us. My dad snapped on the leash, tied her to fender of our car in the Kellogg parking lot, and left her with a bowl of water and a plate of food while we went on the tour. After we finished the tour and received our sample boxes of Frosted Flakes and Corn Flakes, we returned to the parking lot. And there she was, sleeping peacefully in the shade under the car.
“Yep,” he answered. “Well, we couldn’t take her into the factory.”
“Why in the world would you have, number one, brought a cat on a camping trip, and number two, tied her to a car in a factory parking lot?”
He responded with a shrug of his shoulders and a “Why not?”
Indeed, why not.
And then he reached in his shirt pocket for a cigarette and in his front pocket for a lighter. He sat down in “his” chair, pulled the ashtray closer to him, and lit up.