The Unintended Gift: My first cat, and how cats became my muse

a photo of Bootsie, the gray and white cat I had growing up

My first cat, Bootsie

When I was nine years old, I remember telling my parents and my older sister what kind of animals I liked. I don’t know if this was in response to a question, but I know I explained completely and with enthusiasm, telling every last detail of what I liked about birds and squirrels and cats and dogs and horses and rabbits, all the animals I had encountered in my early 1960s suburban development childhood.

I remember telling my sister that I liked cats best because they were easier to take care of than dogs, and if I had to choose I’d choose a cat. I don’t know how I knew this except that in those days people didn’t get their animals neutered and, except for hunting dogs in their cages, all animals were allowed to roam. Dogs were loud and seemed to get into more trouble with fights and biting people as some roaming dogs will do, and I had my share of small bites from trying to pet dogs who weren’t interested. And then there was the clean-up issue in everyone’s yards, even yards of people who didn’t have a dog.

Cats, on the other hand, were uniformly small and seemed to be very quiet and gentle and neat, and this appealed to me. I was shy, I was dreamy, I didn’t like loud noises, I was most comfortable in the company of animals, even wild animals, because they didn’t find me odd and weren’t bothered by my silences as humans were, and they didn’t mind when I stared at them without explanation; in fact, they encountered me in much the same way. I was outdoors quite a bit roaming the old pasture that was all that was left of the farm our houses had been built on and exploring the woods and waterways of every ravine and hillside, so a dog might have seemed a likely companion for me. But I pictured myself curling up with an animal to read, and that would be more likely one of the nice kitties I had met around the neighborhood.

Every time I learned there was a litter of kittens in the neighborhood, and there always seemed to be one or two litters, I was an annoyance to the owner wanting to see the kittens, and an annoyance to my family wanting to bring a kitten home. Once I helped a neighbor catch two small kittens that had been born and raised in their yard to a mother who had disappeared, and I took them home hoping to keep them, but they only stayed overnight and likely went to a shelter, though that might have been a foretelling of rescues to come.

So the dream came true that Christmas when I was nine and there was an orange kitten in a box under the tree, a tiny six-week-old fuzzball ready for play when let loose from the cardboard carrier. I know little Rusty got no respite from me crawling around on the floor after her, and I was thrilled when, exhausted with batting walnut shells and chasing ribbon, she curled up in my convenient lap, a warm, pliable, purring bundle.
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