1973: Here, kitty kitty

When I was little, I desperately wanted a dog. My near-neighbor and default best friend, Joe A., had a succession of dogs: an elegant Collie named Princess and her unworthy and hyperactive successor, a Shetland Sheepdog named Kipper. Though Kipper was probably the right size for a small city house, there was unfortunately no flock of sheep for him to herd. Each time the doorbell rang he flung himself into action, barking furiously as he turned quicker and quicker laps on a short track comprising the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen.

I still wanted a dog. I watched Lassie and Rin Tin Tin on TV — so intelligent! such faithful companions! — and continually lobbied for a dog of my own. Of course I was far too young to think about the more practical concerns of where a dog would stay and who would take care of it. I petted Kipper — when I could catch him — and played with my Ohio grandparents’ dog Simon whenever I visited. Simon liked to fetch but he didn’t like to return whatever it was he had been fetching, so I had to go out into the back yard with two tennis balls at a time: one to throw initially, and a second one to throw to trick him into dropping the first one. Fetching sessions continued until the tennis balls were too wet from dog slobber to try to pick them up.

My West Virginia grandparents had a pair of dogs at this time, but since I only visited a few times a year there was not much satisfaction to be gained. Mickey was a scruffy black terrier mix of some sort, and Annie was a Dachshund. Both of them were getting along in years and not terribly fond of playing with a girl whose other source of fun on vacation was skating on the concrete sidewalk on metal strap-on roller skates.

The memories of my childhood are highlighted by encounters with unexpected dogs — the English Bulldog that Joe D. brought to school for show and tell, the Boxer we found in the park and who waited stoically in our back yard until his owner came to pick him up, when he sprang ecstatically to life. Real dogs, cartoon dogs, storybook dogs, movie dogs — they were all fine with me. I read a book called Follow my Leader that not only offered me practical tips for coping with unexpected childhood blindness but also made me wish, for decades, to raise a seeing eye dog for the blind.

But the dog above all dogs, the dog of my heart, was a Collie. I don’t think Joe A.’s dog was as responsible for this desire as much as the ubiquitous Lassie was. If there was a smarter, friendlier, more beautiful companion on earth I couldn’t think of it, and it seemed a great travesty of justice that I could not have a dog when others could. (Come to think of it, this attitude probably led to my great empathy with Fern Arable in Charlotte’s Web, at just the age it should have.)

Somewhere in the midst of this canine adoration, my father came home one day with a pair of kittens in a cardboard box. They had been left outside the hardware store where he used to work. (Did he still work there every once in a while? Dad always had several jobs as a time, and I’m not sure when some left off and others began. However, when he took me with him to Hilltop Hardware, he was clearly familiar to the current owners.) The other abandoned kittens had found homes, and these last two littermates would be ours: Boots, a grey female with four white paws and a white bib, and Bounce, a male orange tabby. Bounce wasn’t ours for long, as he spent too many of his waking hours climbing up the draperies and being generally incorrigible. But Boots was ours for keeps.

One problem with your first pet is that you tend to assume that its qualities are the qualities of all pets. It turns out that Boots was an unusually jealous animal, exacting a calculated revenge for each infraction you committed, such as petting another animal. Revenge usually consisted of her peeing in an inappropriate location, such as under my bed on the hardwood floor. If you followed her rules, she settled into a kind of benevolent queenship. (Hmm. Now that I think about it, perhaps Bounce was framed!)

Oddly enough, Boots and my father didn’t get along well. She slept on my parents’ bed until one morning when she didn’t get up as usual and my father suspected the worst. “Vickie,” he said, “the cat’s dead. Get a bag and I’ll put her in it.” When the bag was brought over she leapt up with a scream and ran out of the room. They didn’t seem to trust each other after that, and for years the only thing I heard my father say about Boots was, “When that cat dies, we’re never getting another.”


Boots and a boot. Get it?

Boots occasionally went outside in the back yard, and though she had all her claws she really couldn’t climb trees. If something spooked her she would race up the nearest tree trunk, then look around as if puzzled at how she came to be there. I’d have to go out and unhook her from the tree to bring her down.

She had an epic confrontation in that same back yard. Both sets of next-door neighbors were retired couples, but while the Meginnesses let me come next door to practice on their piano and sit with them to watch the “Lawrence Welk Show,” the Millers were on the grouchy side. Doc Miller surprised us with his acquisition of an English Springer Spaniel, a young purebred whose name was Sonny. I’m sure that as an active child with neighborhood friends I was an annoying neighbor to Doc Miller, but Sonny was insufferable. Every time he was let outside he would race up and down the Millers’ short sidewalk, barking at everything in existence until he was let in again. Usually I would give up first and go inside to get away from him. One afternoon, however, I was in the backyard with Boots while Sonny was out. Boots sat on the sidewalk that ran up the center of the yard, facing the white picket fence that separated her and Sonny as they fell into a staring match. With the tension at its peak, Boots spat at the spaniel, something I never saw her do before or since. Sonny erupted into a fury of barking, lunging ineffectively at the fence while Boots got up and walked to the house with the calm demeanor of a matador.

Boots went on to tolerate a pet goldfish and a pet hermit crab and, after we moved to the country, our own succession of dogs (none of them Collies, alas). But they were outside dogs, and she ruled the interior. She settled into being jealous only of other cats to which we paid attention, and enjoyed the rare indulgence of a sudden romp down the hallway that recalled her more active kittenhood. When she wasn’t dozing in a sunbeam, or surviving the winter’s cold by seating herself directly over the furnace vent, she accompanied me as I wrote my way through high school and college. I have had other cats and now enjoy the company of a dog, but there will be no cat like Boots.

Boots in drawer

Circa 1987.

Published in: on February 19, 2018 at 10:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

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