The Stray


Maow border

I never grew up with cats. Never cared for cats. Never wanted to own one.

So, let me tell you about our cat.

Just before my children were introduced to puberty, I finally succumbed to the constant harangue for a pet. I received guarantees and solemn oaths they would take charge of all care, feeding, and cleaning. Realizing the law does not enforce contracts made with citizens below the age of eighteen, I reserved veto power over any potential critter itching to shed fur in my house. After settling my mind to inevitability, we contacted the Humane Society and picked out—a puppy.

The black and tan, Chihuahua-beagle mix suited my requirements: female, short hair, and an adult weight of not more than twenty pounds for ease of yard clean up—yet not too delicate to take for a walk. Said dog worked out well even though she is the laziest, hungriest hound in Northeast Ohio. But that’s another story.

Now, about the cat.

An old saw declares: you don’t pick a cat, a cat picks you. Well, I never thought it would happen to me.

About the same time I was harnessed to a dog, we took note of a kitten in the neighborhood. An orange-striped tabby that shied away when anyone came near and never stayed for long. The southern end of our property borders a lake. We often spotted the little cat meandering along the breakwall, gazing at the sparkling water.

Turning aside pleas to give the poor kitty a home, I assured my tender-hearted children that the cat looked well fed and no doubt had an owner. I cautioned them regarding police involvement, and arrest, if we stole someone’s cat. To cut off further argument, I reminded my progeny of the dog we already possessed. A dog daily leaving broken promises all over the yard.

With that, I put the expensive cat-tempting can of tuna back in the cupboard and assumed the matter was over. What a fool’s paradise.

Eight years later, the orange cat pussyfoots through her domain—our former home—dander and hair whirling off of her as she goes. My daughter likes to remind me how rare the cat is since only twenty percent of orange tabbies are female. I remind my daughter that twenty percent of her DNA is Neanderthal and she might want to check her brow ridges.

The cat became ours because one day she just wouldn’t leave. Nobody ever came looking for her. Imagine that. She maneuvered in on us so gradually, we never got around to naming her. She named herself with the only sound she ever makes: Maow, pronounced like Chairman Mao. Despite the name, there is no indication she holds Communist sympathies.

I warned the children that at the first bite, scratch, or use of our floor as a toilet, out she would go. To her credit, Maow intuited my bottom line on these subjects and never sank below them. Cats are smarter than they look.

Aside from intellect, there are other cat qualities I have discovered from my association with Maow.

First off, I never realized cats were boneless. With a body the consistency of muffin mix, Maow has the uncanny ability to “ooze” through a person’s hands making her hard to hold let alone train. A laughable idea, but remember, I had never been owned by a cat before.

Second, I was shocked to discover “Morris” lied. Cats are not finicky about food. The orange sleep-stealer comes to my bedroom door at five-thirty every morning, wailing, “Mom. Mahhmm. Maahhhmmmm!” She will not stop until I get on my weary feet and feed her. Our trek to the food bowl is fraught with danger. She takes the lead going downstairs, but freeze-frames every third step in an effort to trip me. The cat has not considered the sketchy prospect that, once I’m dead, she will have to rely on the children to feed her.

Third, aren’t cats supposed to be lithe, agile creatures? Maow was fifteen pounds at her last weigh-in. She resembles, in body and attitude, a certain lasagna-loving cartoon cat. One friend suggested we name her Basketball. How is this possible on a half-cup of cat food a day? And no ordinary food will do. It has to be a pricey “sensitive-stomach” brand for this porky puss. Low-cost alternatives are quickly redeposited on the floor.

The obesity must result from her dietary supplements: mice, chipmunks, baby rabbits, and inattentive birds. Maow isn’t greedy. She shares the fruits of her hunt with us poor humans, bringing them to the front door … all headless. Who knew heads were so fattening? And why just heads? Is she some kind of zombie?

Fourth, cats don’t like being alone. While Maow can only tolerate a few seconds of petting and holding, she detests an empty room. When proximity to a human is accomplished, she’ll sleep ten hours, wake for a wash, then roll over for another solid eight. A pillow is essential. Maow’s favorite is the dog, but this takes effort. Pixie is a blanket-burrower by nature. To find her, the cat checks quilts and throws the children leave bunched on couches and chairs. Poking each one as if she were testing bread dough. Once Pixie is detected, Maow climbs on top of the lump and spreads her bulk over it in an attempt to suffocate her rival. The dog thwarts Maow’s evil intentions by surviving—leastwise, at the time of this writing.

Lastly, I never subscribed to the mythology that cats have nine lives. Until Maow used one.

One deceptively sunny afternoon last winter, with the thermometer just above zero, the cat scratched at the glass on the sliding door to go out. I warned about the chill, but she insisted.

Now, the precise feelings of a cat are difficult to interpret from its expression. Expression being a relative term since a cat’s face never changes, only the geometry of the pupils: slits to round, the former signifying annoyance, the latter, bewilderment.

The moment Maow stepped onto the icy deck she looked back at me accusingly, like I had turned the furnace down. I opened the door to let her in. Dithering kept her outside. I reasoned, in ten minutes she would regret her indecision and scratch to reclaim her comforts.

I was wrong.

After an hour of puttering around the house, I remembered the cat and went to the sliding door. She wasn’t there. I opened the door and called her name … no cat. I checked with my husband in his office upstairs. No, he hadn’t let her in and she didn’t accompany him to the garage when he went out for a smoke. I inspected the garage myself in case she’d snuck inside. No cat. I let it go. The bright sun was probably keeping her fur warm enough while she trailed some future headless creature. My feet were numb, so I hurried back to the house.

The kids arrived home at suppertime and I mentioned the cat had been outside all afternoon. I was loath to call her “missing” since that term carries panicky implications. My daughter ran to the sliding door with the one thing that might temp Maow back to the house: her plastic food container. She shook the noise-maker and yelled Maow’s name over and over. Still no cat.

Fresh snow from the previous night showed paw prints stretching away from the house, down to the frozen lake. Though daylight was waning, my son bundled up and followed Maow’s path. He lost her trail a couple of houses over where the neighbor’s dogs had trod.

Then it was dark.

We left the outside lights on as a beacon for our wayward feline, but she didn’t come back.

Periodically that evening, my husband, my kids, or I went outside to circuit the house, rattle her food, call her name, or meow in sympathy to beg her return. I sent out an APB on Facebook and included a photo. It received numerous “Likes” and encouraging “Comments”, but again—no cat.

After midnight, the temperature was ten degrees below zero. Maow had spent nights outdoors before, but that was in summer. I stayed downstairs on the couch in case there was a scratch at the sliding door. The dog and I curled up under a blanket. Before settling in, I had tried to put Pixie out for a few minutes, but she refused. It was too cold.

Two strands of thought pulled at my mind as I dozed in front of late night TV. In one, Maow was hunkered in a temporary shelter with an unfortunate companion, awaiting the sun to warm her before strolling home. The other vision was of spring thaw and the muddy remnants of a cat-shaped piece of fur on the side of the road.

Hopeful that dawn would reveal her pathetic face at the sliding door, I drifted off to sleep.

As dusk descended on a second frigid cat-less day, hubby remained certain Maow would wander home. The children swore a stranger must have picked her up and was caring for her, because she was such a nice cat. I agreed with them, to keep up appearances, but logic and probability pointed to only one conclusion: Maow was gone for good.

Thinking back, it can be argued that my husband was right. Or my children were right. Or there is a glimmer of truth in feline folklore. But my own belief is, occasionally, God grants orange miracles.

Just after seven o’clock on that second sub-zero night, I heard a familiar scratch.

Maow sauntered in, jumped up on her table, sat by her food dish, and stared at me—irritated at my lack of preparedness to provide for her empty, sensitive stomach.

Later that evening, in an uncharacteristic display of affection, Maow padded onto my lap, reposed facing me, like the Sphinx, and permitted me to rub her chin.

Kitty was home … and welcome.

She has never spent a night away since.

Tracy S. Wolfe


4 thoughts on “The Stray

  1. Enjoyed the story (and your telling of it) about your orange family member. Happened onto your site when I saw your posting about Beulah Booker and her role with Keaton in The Saphead. Beulah was my great aunt, though my dad never met her or his grandmother (Beulah’s mom). They had left husband and brother behind in Colorado to go to California in the early 1900s when Beulah was a little girl. Think my great grandmother must have been the proverbial stage mom, determined to get her daughter into the new silent movies. Quite a story. I do have incredible non-movie related photos of Beulah as a child and during her movie years, but none from after that. I’ve tried to do some genealogy research on her life after the movies, but a lot of California records aren’t available online. Thanks for posting the page about her. 🙂


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