Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (8/19) — Chapter Eight, Wreath (1/3)

THERE’S NOTHING PRACTICAL about our cats at Christmas. The only holiday decoration they tolerate is a simple wreath. T.S. Eliot’s whimsical book of verse is the basis for the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical coming to the silver screen this Christmas.


BOONE, N.C. (Dec. 9, 2019) – I’m not sure if I’ve introduced you yet to Scout and Jem—no, not the sister and brother in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, but our aptly-named, three-year-old kittens.

Kittens, huh? That’s right. Kittens. Not Cats, like those strange felines in the long-running Broadway musical that’s coming to movie theaters this Christmas. We have two normal kittens. Well, kind of.

We brought them home from the animal shelter in September 2016 as two- and three-month-old poopsters, and they’ve been integral parts of the family ever since. Scout, in particular, demands attention because, like her fictional namesake, she’s always into something. She is a tortoiseshell Manx who tries her best to lead her big brother Jem, a laid-back orange tabby, astray.

I’ll stop right here and say that, no, Timberley and I weren’t lucky enough to have children of our own. Instead, we helped raise several thousand children of more fortunate couples, whether all those parents saw it that way or not—that they were lucky, that is. Being public school teachers, we saw young ‘uns from early in the morning ’til sometimes late at night five days per week, probably more face time than the teenagers spent with their own parents. So we definitely know the difference between kids and pets.

OUR GREATEST CAT and two special, up-and-coming kittens: Tiger Woods (bottom) and his favorite rug; Scout, our little scamp (upper left); and our precious Jem, the rambunctious girl’s protective big brother.

And we know that pets are animals. Still, we’re happy as the proud parents of cats, if not rug rats—rather, of kittens, I should state, as we’ll always see Scout and Jem as those cute little fur-balls we adopted the day after we lost the Last Great Cat on Earth. Ol’ Tiger was the reason we’ve become Christmas Wreath People, not Christmas Tree People. We’d like to have a Christmas tree now—in fact, we have a 16-foot artificial fir packed away that we used for the five years between McEnroe (Great Cat No. 4) and Tiger.

McEnroe, a fuzzy-headed, gray tabby, could be cranky like his namesake, the rude tennis player, when I took him downstairs to the garage for the night. But that meant he couldn’t roam free at night to mess with the Christmas trees we put up all those years we had him. We lost McEnroe around the time there was so much talk about tainted pet foods, and we suspect that was what killed him. I wrapped McEnroe in one of my Watauga Tennis tee-shirts and buried him in the flower bed near Timberley’s garden angel.

Despite his crankiness, McEnroe had been such a great cat that we couldn’t bear to replace him, not for five years, anyway. But around my birthday in August 2011, I convinced Timberley to let me stop at the animal shelter to look at cats, and there we met Tiger Woods, the largest house cat I’d ever seen—heavy at 25 pounds but also as long as my trombone case when he stretched out, even with only a stump for a tail. He was also the first Manx I’d ever met. We soon learned that they’re an intelligent, sociable breed.

OUR 16-FOOT XMAS TREE has stayed in storage ever since we adopted Tiger, who wasn’t crazy about our wreath, either.

We also learned that they like to climb Christmas trees, especially a 16-foot artificial fir whose angel is a short leap from the landing at the top of the living room staircase. We learned why Manxes made good ship’s cats.

The next year we left the big tree in storage and bought the smallest, cheapest tree we could find—one of those three-foot jobs with multi-colored lights already attached—and stood it on a set of shelves that declawed Tiger should not have been able to climb. We learned that Manxes are good problem solvers.

So we gave up on having a Christmas tree and decided to be happy with a nice Christmas wreath—that we hung on the outside of the front door. We had Tiger for only five years because he was old when we adopted him. But if he had lived a few years longer, I’m sure he would have figured out how to unlock the front door and get to that wreath. He had no tail, no claws and no balls, but he certainly had brains.

It has been three years since he died—keeled over right behind me in the kitchen as I fixed breakfast—and I still miss him. He’d greet me with a head-butt every day at the top of the basement stairs when we got home from school. Both he and I were overweight and had bad backs—Tiger, from falling from the garage rafters; me, from lugging a 25-pound cat in his big carrier from one house to the car to the other house for five years—and we’d gag at the same odors. He and I never met a people food we didn’t like. Every Saturday morning I’d practice my guitar, and he’d sleep at my feet, no matter how bad I sounded.

TIGER’S FAVORITE SPOT was close to Timberley. He would even pat her head before snuggling up to her.

Tiger was my cat, but Timberley was his person. Whether we were home or not, his favorite spot to rest was atop the back of the loveseat, where he could either watch birds outside the nearby window or peer over Timberley’s shoulder as she worked on her laptop. For almost two years toward the end of Tiger’s life, I spent almost every Friday and Saturday evening away from home. As I’d leave the house, I’d say, “Keep Timberley company, Tiger,” and he’d stay close to her all evening until I got home, she’d report.

When Tiger Woods died, I wrapped him in my favorite Walden Woods Project tee-shirt and buried him in the flower bed but away from McEnroe and the garden angel. We covered the soft, rich, patted-down earth with a large, flat stone that soon was covered by hosta, mint, ajuga and yellow archangel leaves. I looked out the window often and checked when I mowed, to make sure his resting place hadn’t been disturbed.

The night after Tiger died, I posted a photo and short tribute on Facebook, noting as I’ve done here that he was a great cat but an animal nonetheless, not a human being, and that we did know the difference between pets and people. Friends expressed their sympathy. Others could empathize because they, too, had recently lost a beloved pet, and they encouraged us to mourn but not wait too long before adopting another shelter animal. The next day we stopped by the shelter “just to look at the cats,” I claimed, and we left with Scout and Jem, so named at the suggestion of another Facebook friend and former teaching colleague.

ON THE LOOKOUT for trouble (so she can join in, no doubt), Scout doesn’t let being tailless affect her self-esteem.

As I said, these two poopsters are aptly named. Scout gets into everything. She has already precipitated at least two major furniture rearrangements in our living rooms, the first big change necessitated by her leap off the landing toward the 15-foot-high ceiling fan. Lunging from my recliner to catch her, I broke her fall, as well as the American Craftsman-style lamp on the table beside me. Another time she pushed Jem off the landing. She often picks on him, but he is the quietest, sweetest-natured cat we’ve ever had. And he always checks on her when she squeaks or squeals after something she’s done bites her in the butt.

Now, a six-foot-high cabinet with a flat, wide top that doubles as a drop zone sits beneath the landing. It’s where the big Christmas tree would stand, if we valued holiday decorations more than our kittens. We take pet parenthood seriously.

AFTER TIMBERLEY’S SURGERY, Jem slept at her feet while Scout watched all of us from a bedside chair to make sure we behaved.

According to T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, every cat has three names—an ordinary name, a fancy name and a secret name. From the first cat we adopted in 1983, their ordinary names are T.C., Bayou, BOC, McEnroe, Tiger Woods, Scout and Jem. The three females’ fancy names have been “girl” preceded by an appropriate adjective, while the four boys have been just “buddy” in their turns. When Scout acts up, her fancy name can also be a variant of “butt”—because she has no tail, of course.

What worries me is that Scout and Jem learned long ago how to open cabinet doors, forcing us to child-proof all the kitchen and bathroom cabinets, and bedroom closets. Scout has the brains, but Jem, a true gentlecat, has the strength and flexibility to either bump or pry the doors open for her to explore. So I figure it’s only a matter of time now before the holiday wreath hanging outside the front door is Scout’s. When that inevitably happens, their fancy names will be Little Grinch-butt and her big buddy, Maxcat.

Eliot says a cat’s unspoken moniker, her secret sobriquet, is an “ineffable effable effanineffable” name. Jem’s secret name is undoubtedly something sweet, just like him. But Scout’s, on the other paw? I don’t even want to effing guess.