Some people just know. They know right from the start that life without animals is just not possible.
Oh my parents tried all right. They refused all of my requests for a cat or dog or most of all, a horse. They explained over an over again, in patient quiet tones that my older brother was allergic to fur and having a horse in the city of South St. Paul Minnesota was not only against city ordinances but also not very practical. What would it eat? Where would you keep it?
This made no sense at all to my five-year-old mind. Couldn’t I keep a cat confined to my room? Surely I could keep my nosy siblings out. And even though our back yard was small, couldn’t we fence it and let the horse graze, as long as it stayed out of the garden? And as for my brother’s allergies to hair and fur, couldn’t he just not breathe if the dog was around?
So it began, my childish attempts at secret pet ownership and my parents half-hearted attempts to appease me with trips to the zoo and visits to my uncle’s farm. The zoo was okay but I couldn’t touch the animals and I didn’t want any of them for a pet. I loved my Uncle’s farm but we only got to visit him once a year since he lived so far away and for an animal-crazy kid, that was not near enough.
It wasn’t until a few years later, on that one glorious day, when a stray cat ventured into my yard and began rubbing against my legs, that I thought all of my wishes had come true. I bent down to pet this wonder, a friendly well-behaved cat, who stayed right at my feet and was letting me pet him. Amazing! The cats on my Uncle’s farm were skittish and ran away at the sight of us and they also scratched and bit, which I had learned the hard way, when cornered. But this cat, with his handsome gray tabby striped coat and white chest and paws seemed to truly like me. His whole body vibrated with his throaty purr and he arched his back and raised his tail as I stroked him.
I asked him his name and when he didn’t say I decided to name him Jerry after the clever mouse from the Tom and Jerry cartoon. I asked him if he wanted to be my cat forever and ever and he completely agreed. I scanned the street and side yards making sure there was no one looking for him and then tucked him into my jacket and snuck him into my room.
I stashed him in my closet and quickly closed the bedroom door behind me as I headed to the kitchen to find him some food. One of my older sisters eyed me suspiciously for a moment and then went back to her portable hi-fi, turning up “Hey Jude” even louder than before.
I climbed onto the counter opened the cupboard door and looked at the possibilities. Cheerios, noodles, cake mix. None of these looked like things a cat would eat. And….. definitely not Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. Even I wouldn’t eat that. Then I spied it. It’s bright red label with the long silver fish leaping from a mountain stream shone like a beacon in the dark recess of the cupboard. Salmon! All cats like fish, especially premium red sockeye salmon from wild Alaskan streams.
I would have to be careful. We all knew the salmon was off limits. It was my mother’s special treat that she would occasionally have for lunch with slices of lemon and saltine crackers. She would always share it with me since we were the only ones who liked it. It was our special little thing together in a house full of brothers and sisters vying for her attention.
I stuck the can of salmon under my shirt and grabbed a can opener out of the drawer, along with two small bowls from the dish rack. It was then my other older sister came in the door and saw me sliding off the counter to the floor.
She demanded to know what was I doing. I quickly turned to hide the evidence and darted out, pretending not to hear. Thankfully she didn’t come after me as I ran down the hallway and into my room.
I waited for my heart to stop pounding and listened to make sure the coast was clear. My dad was at work and I could see my two brothers out in the yard, both of my older sisters were now in the kitchen singing along to the “Beatles” and my Mom was hanging clothes out on the line. Relieved that no one would bother me for a while, I opened the can and scooped some salmon into one of the bowls. I had forgotten a spoon so I used my fingers and licked them clean to cover my crime.
Jerry began to meow and started to scratch the closet door. He jumped out when I slid the door open and made a beeline to the salmon. He began to gulp it down like he hadn’t eaten in days and only stopped for moment when I left to get him some water. I filled the other bowl in the bathroom sink and pushed both bowls and Jerry under my bed in case someone decided to come in.
After Jerry had eaten his dinner I tucked him back in to the closet for safekeeping. Not wanting to draw attention I went out to play with my brothers and didn’t go back to my room until it was time for bed.
Jerry was catnapping when I opened the closet and happily leaped onto my bed like he belonged there. I turned out my light and brought him under the covers close to my chest. He rumbled with pleasure and as I petted him. I caressed his silky ears and scratched him under his chin. He rolled over on his back as I massaged his belly and ran my fingers through his thick velvety fur.
How heavenly to have a cat for my very own. Someone to tell my secrets to, someone who would understand how difficult it was to be me. I fell asleep to the sound of Jerry’s purrs and comforting warmth.
The next morning I stuffed Jerry back in the closet and was getting dressed for school when my mother stepped into my room. She greeted me cheerfully as was her way when suddenly her nose twisted and she turned her head to take in what could only be the result of an indoor cat without a litter box.
She began to sniff the air as I vainly tried to distract her with small talk and questions about breakfast. She ignored me as she continued her search for the source of the SMELL. I positioned myself between her and the closet door as she picked through dirty clothes and scattered toys. She saw me by the closet door, my eyes wide with feigned innocence and asked me to please move away. I did as told and held my breath as she slid the door open.
What she was expecting to find, I do not know, but I do know she did not expect a gray furry creature to leap out like a shot and scurry under the bed. She shrieked in surprise but quickly composed herself after I told her that it was just Jerry, my new pet cat.
My brothers and sister, tuning into the strange noise coming from my room, all seemed to burst through my door at once, excitedly crowding around my mother wondering what terrible thing had happened to cause me to cry out No! No! No! My mother quickly told them of the cat contraband hiding under my bed and what happened next is the only possible thing that could have happened when five exited children and one harried, overworked mother try to catch a determined cat in a small one-level rambler.
Cat runs under the bed, children try to reach cat by poking at it with a broomstick. Cat tears out of bedroom door between the legs of the youngest child and finds refuge under the large queen-sized bed in the master bedroom.
Loud, highly excited children swarm into the room and the cat darts out and down the hall into the living room, where it finds refuge behind the large blue Lazyboy chair.
When my mother had finally had enough, she called for silence and for everyone to stop. She calmly told me to retrieve the cat and in spite of my tears and that I would just die if she got rid of my only pet, she calmly took Jerry from my arms and handed him off to my older brother who gleefully took Jerry to the back door and without ceremony dumped him onto the back step.
I wailed and rushed to the door but my mother gently took me in her arms and explained once again that we could not have cats and Jerry most likely belonged to a neighbor who was probably at this very moment out looking for him.
It just wasn’t fair. Why did I have to be born in a family that couldn’t have pets? Didn’t they understand I just didn’t want a cat I needed one to live. My mother reminded me that I was still breathing and we all had to get out the door to school. She hugged me and wiped my face and left to go clean up the mess that Jerry had deposited on my closet floor.
I was feeling pretty peevish when I finally left for school and even though I called for Jerry and searched for him as I walked, I never saw him again. I imagined a joyful reunion with an elderly owner who was grateful that some anonymous 9 year old had kept Jerry safe for the night.
And as I type this with one of my many cats nestled in my lap. I do remember getting some satisfaction out of the fact that my older brother’s face swelled up and his eyes watered uncontrollably due to the cat dander and that he was miserable for days.
Thank you, Jerry, wherever you are.
all images © Barbara O'Brien PhotographyBarbara O'Brien Photography is located at White Robin Farm in the beautiful rolling hills of western Wisconsin. Images are available for reproduction. Please e-mail or call with intended usage, size of print run, distribution. Barbara O'Brien Photography 612 812 8788 cell 715 448 3456 home firstname.lastname@example.org