The Fur Person

Pam’s Pictorama Post: This book was a prize when I discovered it and gave it to my mom, back when I was in college. Mom was reading May Sarton’s poetry and journals at the time. Being a keeper of kitties herself, the slim volume discovered in a used bookstore, devoted to and written from the perspective of Sarton’s adopted stray Tom Jones, was a score for a holiday gift for mom and quickly became a family favorite.

Some of the phrases Tom Jones uses to describe his world quickly integrated into the cat lexicon of the Butler family home and remain in use for many a subsequent generation of cats, both in New Jersey and the Manhattan branch, of which of course I am in charge. The kneading paws of our kits became starfish paws and a cat sitting in his or her favorite window, watching the world go by, is reading the newspaper. Even before discovering the book my mother had already christened our inordinately smart girl cat, Winkie, her Fur Child, and would allow that the sixth chair at the kitchen table was hers and Winks would perch there, ever politely. These phrases have been used so often I had somewhat forgotten their origin, traced to this book.

I hadn’t thought of the book in decades, but recently when researching and writing a Pictorama post, the memory of it nagged at the edges of my memory until I finally remembered it. The edition I gave my mother was a hardcover, early edition, much like the one I purchased for myself recently. I located an inexpensive copy online, hardcover and illustrated as I remembered, and it arrived quickly, a gentle explosion of mothballs and mold when opened. (It is still in print and also available in inexpensive paperback form, I believe, complete with the original illustrations by Barbara Knox, which I think you want to complete it, although I find them a tad uninspired.) I recommend it as an absolute must read for cat lovers.

Tom’s story is one of a stray tom cat who, as he comes of age, realizes the attraction of living with a housekeeper and sets off in search of an appropriate set-up. After abandoning the small boy who claims him as a kitten, briefly considering life in a grocery store, he ultimately determines that an old maid with a garden would be best suited to his needs. After some trial and error, he finds his home with not one, but two, old maids – presumably May and her partner, Judy Matlock, although only identified here as Gentle Voice and Brusque Voice.

Judy, Gentle Voice, is the first to invite Tom into the house and the one who names him; she is the cat lover in this family. May, Brusque Voice who smokes and is less likely to pet and coddle, eventually grows into loving the critter in their midst. She is the one who works at home all day, forging a special bond as shown when they both care for him during a serious illness – my guess would be a bad case of ring worm from the description. It is clear he has become central to their lives. (I can tell you that the cats here have an entirely different relationship with Kim who is central to their all day every day, although perhaps that is shifting some now that I have been pandemic installed here now for several months. That is a long time in cat days.)

May Sarton’s tone is indeed a tad brusque which keeps the book from falling into the saccharine, maudlin or childish. Tom Jones is a un-spayed male cat and Sarton gives a fair, if comical, view of what was on the mind of a young boy cat who came in off the streets. She also relishes describing the kitty joys of digging, tree climbing and has an especially entertaining interlude with his introduction to catnip. A novella, barely topping 100 pages, it is a quick read. It is a book that could be enjoyed by younger folks, but is written for adults.

My copy of this book, is inscribed on the inside cover with the name Mildred Krainock, Aug. 1957 in a neat script, written in pen. Despite a 1957 copyright, the fly leaf announces that this volume is in its third printing so the book was popular from the first. (May Sarton had already published a clutch of books – novels and poems – and was an established writer.)

As a book penned in the mid-50’s Sarton is both tongue in cheek with her language – she would have only been 45 when she published this book – but probably also accommodating a time when old maids would have been the most acceptable way of looking at two women living together. I don’t think Sarton was much bothered about keeping her sexuality under wraps even in those early years, but she assumes the mantel of an unimpeachable role for the times here.

I am happy to tell readers this isn’t one of those awful books where the denouement is the death of the pet in question, but while researching this book I realized that Sarton wrote it either just before or during the time she and Judy separate, as noted by Wikipedia, was in 1956. The book is dedicated to Judy and while the back fly leaf assures us that Tom Jones and Sarton continue to live together in Cambridge, MA, evidently in reality Sarton had left for New Hampshire after the death of her father by the time of publication.

While it is unclear where Tom Jones would have landed in their parting, the book implies that he is somewhat more fond of Judy than of May. I realized that I was enjoying the idea of their happy household, ruled by Tom at the the helm, continuing for years beyond the book, and was sadden by the knowledge that it was most likely written in remembrance and tribute, honoring days now passed, or passing.

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Ratters and Mousers

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: Sadly there are no tracks on what this photo is about. I know only that it comes from Great Britain. The image has a cut out quality, as if the negative had the background trimmed away before printing – a few drawn lines added after the fact and I’m not sure I’ve seen that exact process before. I do want this velvety cat costume for my own and wish I was getting a better look at it. (I constantly search without success for early cat costumes, as evidenced in Kim’s Alias the Cat.) I am, as I have stated as recently as yesterday’s post, a sucker for a nice pair of cat ears and a tail. (That post can be found here. Also an alert to regular readers that I will be exploring animal imitators and in particular Alfred Latell – whose popular post can be found here – further in the near future.)

The seller pegs this card as a version of Dick Whittington and his cat which seems like a fair enough guess. The Dick Whittington story is based on a ballad from the 1600’s where Whittington sells said cat to a town that is rat-infested for the obvious denouement. As per the internet, I understand that Dick Whittington is a real historic person, but no evidence about the cat’s ratting prowess – or as Wikipedia says, that he even owned one. (We, here at the cat loving Pictorama, will assume he did.)

The reality of rodent extermination by our cats is a difficult and unpleasant one. While it is at least an unconscious hope that our darling kitties will keep the mouse and (gasp) rat population down in our abodes, you frankly do not look forward to them bringing you the carcass, or leaving it for your approval. At best it would perhaps happen behind-the-scenes somehow. There is something distinctly disturbing about seeing your loving cat, who sleeps with you perhaps at night, with a dead or struggling animal in its mouth. My sister used to find mouse heads (yes, oddly just the heads she reported) lined up on the staircase as a sort of totemic gift from her cat Milkbone, an especially good mousing tuxedo. Loren had a very old house and she made peace with the mouse part parade, ultimately embracing and applauding Milkbone’s enthusiasm for her job rather than be run over by rodents. Most of us remain conflicted at best.

Growing up at the beach as small children we were frequently cautioned about water rats there, residing in the jetties. Large enough to kill a cat my mother would say and that they would leap if cornered. (We were also warned away from approaching the feral colonies of cats that also lived in the same jetties, tough enough to co-exist with the rats and not to be toyed with, beyond domestication even in my mother’s kindhearted opinion.) Our home was perched on a river and our cats, while mostly interested in the catching of small shrews more than mice, occasionally took a water rat on. The smell of the resident outdoor cats helped to keep them at bay. However, when the cats became indoor critters the exploding rat population became more of an issue.

Mom was right – those outsized water rats are much bigger than their city counterparts, as are country mice and shrews. When I first moved to Manhattan I thought the rats I saw in the street were large mice – and some of the mice I encountered in the restaurant I worked in seemed no bigger than large spiders. Meanwhile, if I have not made it clear, I am absolutely standing-on-a-chair-screaming (like a cartoon character) scared of mice and rats – I understand it is not rational. Therefore, in self-defense I acquired a cat as soon as possible upon arrival in New York City; Otto, the first in a long line of my feral tuxedo cats. To my knowledge she never got anything larger than a water bug and most of my NY mousie (and ratty) encounters took place either outside (think subway tracks, restaurant kitchens) or at the Met – yep, suffice it to say it is a very old building in the midst of Central Park. I have long believed that, like the Hermitage, they should house cats to patrol their basement.

As I write this Cookie is playing with a favorite bright green (otherwise) life-like mouse toy, tossing it about wildly, practicing her craft in hopes of one day employing it. We here at Deitch Studio continue to hope otherwise.

 

Cat House

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: This photo of a handsome shiny black cat seemed like just the thing the other day as I scrolled through eBay. Unfortunately, as I often find when trying to capture my kit Blackie, a black cat can be tricky to capture, especially if lurking the shadows. He is positioned perfectly in the doorway to his kitty abode however – eyes glowing, a feline watchdog, vigilantly overseeing the situation. This cat house is a good fit for him size-wise, and he even has a pot of flowers out front. Those are sprightly, the plant behind a bit more anemic, although the overall impression is that this is a neat and tidy corner of the world. I purchased it from Montgomery, Alabama, but there’s no indication about where it might originate from and it was never used.

Back in June I wrote about the dog house from my childhood. (It can be found here in the post Mr. Frank, In the Dog House.) Our dog didn’t spend much time in her house and we never even considered a house for our cats, other than our own that is. Over the course of my childhood our cats largely roamed free, in and out of the house more or less at will, numerous times a day. We were never possessed of a cat door, but cheerfully did their bidding at the door. Somehow over time we joined the ranks of those who kept our cats entirely indoors, where they were safe from predators, and cut down on their own preying on birds and whatnot. At some point there was a town ordinance passed which served to severely curtail free range pet cats – I was shocked to find this out, but it meant the Butlers no longer had indoor/outdoor running felines.

I have not seen many cat houses firsthand. Recently though Kim was on a panel at his alma mater, Pratt Institute and I did notice that they had several cat houses on their campus. Unfortunately, I only have the photo below snatched off my Instagram account, the original photo a victim of my attempts at good phone hygiene and the ongoing purging of photos. The Pratt cat house, one of several as I remember, was a more downscale model than ours above. Yet was probably a more practical affair, plastic over the door to help keep the winter chill (not insubstantial that day) out.

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I didn’t see any cats in these houses on that day. In looking for a better or additional photos of the Pratt cat houses I discovered that Pratt has a well documented history of caring for stray cats. An article in the New York Times from May of 2013 describes the steam plant at Pratt as the heart of cat central at the art school. The strays tended may range in numbers from dozens to more than 100 – but whose counting really? They are (or at least were, that was a few years ago) tended by Pratt Chief Engineer, Conrad Milster who christened them with names like Dulcie, Landlord, Art School and Prancie. The article explains that these free range kitties are fed and cared for by Mr. Milster at his own expense. Clearly the cat houses are another of his contributions. The cats contribute to the well being of stressed out students and faculty and are unofficial mascots of the Brooklyn school.

When I was in college in Connecticut I had a cat friend who I referred to as Ranger Tom. I do not remember where that name came from, but he was a hefty gray and white fellow – spotty nose like I generally am drawn to in a cat. He was more of a visitor cat – seemed well cared for and just making the rounds to see what acquaintances he might make, and of course what food he might get out of it. As a vegetarian I wasn’t his best bet, but would occasionally keep this or that on hand that a visiting cat might approve of. We were only acquainted in my freshman year, but I missed my own kitties and he was a welcome diversion therefore I say excellent work Mr. Milster. Keep those cat houses going.