My father hated cats. He said they were creepy, dangerous, and dirty. He even insisted that they were rodents, related to rats and other despicable creatures. This came, we were told, from an experience his mother had as a child. My grandmother told this tale: As she was entering a barn, a cat fell or leapt on her head, scaring the bejesus out of her and resulting in a trauma that she carried and passed on to her children. Lucky for me, it wasn’t passed on to the next generation. I loved cats, but you can guess that we were never permitted to have one.
The first cat I remember was Pustel, so named by my mother’s father, Grandpa Dierickx. He lived with us for a while, in our house on Bryce Street in Portland, after he and my grandmother divorced. This was around 1935, when I was four. Pustel, probably spelled Pusstl, was a raunchy male cat, probably a stray who made his home with us between courting adventures. About all I remember about him was that they tried to get rid of him once by dropping him off far out of town. He returned a few days later, somewhat the worse for wear, scratched up and with one eye badly damaged. Like other cats I have known he would find his way back home whether he was wanted there or not. I don’t know what his fate might have been after that.
In those days, Grandpa Dierickx was very kind to me. He repaired my tricycle and took me to the movies (“The Last Days of Pompeii” and Westerns with Richard Dix). When I said I didn’t like ice cream because it was too cold, he joked that he would heat it up for me. One Christmas, he constructed a little building in the fireplace with kindling and stood by with my toy firetruck as it started to burn. The best part, though, was the time when I was occupying the one toilet in the house. He blustered in, turned on both taps in the sink, pissed, and said, “Dot’s de vay vee do it in the old country!” I may not have the accent exactly right, but he was Belgian of Flemish origin while my grandmother Marie was Walloon French. No wonder they were divorced. Peter Dierickx was wonderfully coarse, earthy and loud. My father’s New England family was appalled by his table manners. On the rare occasions when there were combined family dinners, a silence would fall on the table as he was observed mixing together all the food on his plate. Realizing that he was the object of attention, he blurted out, laughing, “It all goes to the same place!” Grandma Dierickx, before long she became Grandma Johnson after marrying a well-to-do Swedish house painter, had great domestic and culinary pretensions. She had butter and eggs delivered to her door by farmers, and prepared rich and sumptuous meals. Come to think of it, there was a time when she had a cat, too. As you might expect, it had a French name: Minou, probably a corruption of minet, kitty. For some reason my brother and I found this to be very funny. Imagine a cat with a French name!
Back again when I was four years old, on Bryce Street, I was known for paying visits to various ladies in our neighbourhood. Yes, “ladies”—I was too young to know of them as “women”. Though I was told there were many, I remember only two. One of these was Mrs. Markworth. She lived next door. My recollection is of sitting in her living room talking and hearing strange noises from deep within the house. She explained that it was her cat prowling around through the air vents. None too quietly. Maybe it was looking for mice or just enjoyed the spirit of adventure. I never saw this cat, but it lives on in my imagination.
Once, when I was six or seven, I carried a kitten around with me for a whole day. I don’t know where it came from or where it went, but it was ever so cuddly. At least that’s what I thought in spite of its many efforts to escape. This took place when we were living in a fine old house on Tenth Street, close enough to downtown so the neighbourhood kids could walk to the movies on Saturday. Everyone was looking forward to the first movie about Blondie and Dagwood. How would they portray Daisy and Baby Dumpling? We weren’t disappointed. Did you ever see “Union Pacific” with Joel McCrae and Barbara Stanwyck? The part I remember is where they mapped out a route over a snow bank. It was risky but Joel McCrea was courageous. You can bet that we also saw cowboy movies, and who could forget Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan?
After we moved to our fine house at 1915 S.E. 21st, I used to play with Georgie Poole when he was visiting his grandmother who lived across the street from us. A common pastime was building mazes for sow bugs out of Mahjong pieces, but one time, in the basement, we constructed a palace, made of cardboard boxes, for the cat. Truly we didn’t think much of this cat because of its sucky name: Babette. In return, Babette, who did not appreciate our architectural efforts, spent most of her time trying to escape through the windows.
Now here comes the title part of this story. In the 1940s, Dolores Menstell was a good friend of mine from St. Philip Neri, the Catholic school we attended. Part of what brought us together was that we both played the piano. Her mother was even a piano teacher. She must have been quite the task mistress because the black keys on the Steinway grand showed signs of serious wear. I haven’t mentioned that their house had a distinctive smell. I imagined it was from cooking cabbage. After all they were German, if that had anything to do with it. Saturdays, I usually went to her house, a few blocks away from ours. There, in the backyard, we would create Happy Valley, a miniature paradise for toy cars and mud houses. We picked and ate cherries, though Delores was careful to instruct me not to eat too many because they would surely swell up and give you a stomach ache. The point, though, is that they had a rather large, serious looking grey tabby male cat.
It was my father who called him “The Menstell Monster”, this in response to my enthusiastic description of what I was convinced would be an intrepid mouse catcher. You see, we had mice, due I’m sure, to the fact that a portion of the basement was unfinished. There was this curious area under the kitchen that was unexcavated earth, a convenient means of coming and going for mice. After much persuasion, my father agreed to allow The Menstell Monster to visit our basement on mouse patrol. You can guess that he had no desire to see the animal in person, so I took charge of transporting and installing The Menstell Monster in hopes that the mouse problem would be solved with deadly efficiency.
Alas, The Menstell Monster did not live up to his name. After being released into the unfinished basement area, he lay crouched in a far dark corner, showing not the slightest interest in whatever mice might be scurrying about. I could only assume that he was not only uncoöperative but also terrified, so after a couple of days he was returned home to familiar surroundings. I’ll bet he revelled in the renewed attentions of Dolores and her family, enthusiastically resuming his mouse control activities on the home turf. If The Menstell Monster had been able to get out of our basement, he would have returned on his own in all haste to his home. You may know that cats are particularly attached to places, unlike dogs, who are attached to persons. A bit later, I’ll have a story about a cat’s persistence in finding its way back to the place it called home.
Through the ensuing years there were other cats. One was a brief visitor to our dorm rooms at Reed College. All I remember is Richard Udell gingerly stroking the cat and saying, “Yee!” Later on there was Georgie, a large dark-coloured animal with independent habits. I’m not sure where he came from, but he lived with Gretel and me, in Santa Barbara, after we were married, then in Los Angeles, where I was going to graduate school at USC. When I got my first teaching job in Santa Paula, we moved some of our stuff in my delightful Austin A10 (that’s another story). Georgie occupied the gear shift area between the two front seats. Somewhere along the way, he had to pee so badly that he couldn’t wait, so braced himself firmly on front paws and let it flow, a massive pee it was, too. For a while after that he was with us in Santa Paula. We lived just out of town in a Quonset hut in the middle of an avocado grove. Sometime in there he must have disappeared because he was not with us when we moved, in 1960, to Canada.
For two years, I was teaching in a two room school in a remote village on the Skeena River in British Columbia. Cats were plentiful, both as strays and off-loaded kittens. I know we usually had several knocking about. My son Miles, then four years old was a great namer of cats. We had Petrika and Fordentus, among others. Then, in Williams Lake, there was a flock of cats, appearing as donations from neighbours and offspring of the barn cats. I think two of them were given to us by a girl from the school where I taught. One, named Dishface, didn’t last long, succumbing to what we called the falling-down disease. But the other was Ringo, aptly named by Miles because of the design of his tail, this was also the year of the Beatles. Ringo was a stalwart fellow, a master of passive resistance to any kind of man- (rather child-) handling. He was with us when we moved to Vancouver so I could take a position at The New School. He had a fondness for occupying the drained bathtub after the kids had had a warm bath. One day, however, he miscalculated and jumped into a tub full of soapy water. Having thus lost all dignity he ran madly through the house, drenched, scrawny, and miserable, until he could find a hiding place and lick himself back to a presentable state.
When I lived alone in North Burnaby in the early 1970s, Ringo was master-guardian of the back yard, ferociously attacking with tooth and claw any dog that foolishly traversed his territory. Indoors, like most cats, he was a relentless pursuer of laps and pats. He avoided the bathtub, but did enjoy the kitchen sink when it was warm—and dry. It is in that backyard that Ringo lies buried, still guarding in spirit all that is rightfully his.
Moving to Rose Street in 1977, I acquired two kittens, male and female, Cromwell and Cookie. Cromwell, an orange tabby, disappeared early on, but Cookie remained with me for years to come. She was a lovely calico, sweet-tempered and bonded to house and home. When I went over to Hornby Island, intending to stay for a summer and ending up there for eleven years, Cookie naturally came along with me. She rapidly adapted to country life, spending her days basking in the sun or hunting for whatever small animals she could envision as prey. The mice were dispatched with haste, and I rescued any number of birds. One day she came dashing into the house proudly bearing a garter snake wiggling frantically from both sides of her mouth. This I dealt with by ushering her back outside as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to know what happened after that.
Before that, in the summer of 1974, on Hornby, I had constructed, I should probably say assembled because it was a pre-fab, a log cabin for my friend Janet Summerton. It was understood that I could stay there whenever she wasn’t using it. So, ten years later, that’s where I spent my first summer and winter on the island. The summer was rapturously warm, quiet, and peaceful. At that time there were very few houses or cabins in that area, so I felt as though I had it all to myself. At night I slept in the loft with a big open window over my head. It didn’t take long to realize that bats were flying in and out during the night. I happily accepted this as a fact of wilderness living. One night, I awoke to the sound of crunching. It was clear that Cookie had caught something. I climbed down the ladder with a flashlight and saw her just polishing off the wing of a bat she had caught. How did she do this? I’ll never know. She must have grabbed it out of the air—and in the dark! Though somewhat appalled, I had to admire her deadly prowess and undeniable skill.
It wasn’t long before I discovered, also at night, another cat that climbed in the kitchen window to eat what was left of Cookie’s food. I could see that this scrawny dirty yellow short-haired cat had been somebody’s pet (she had one of those flea collars around her neck), probably abandoned by campers who couldn’t find her when they were ready to depart. She was obviously starving. After scaring her away the first few times, I thought Why not let her stay, no harm in that. Once invited in she ate and ate and ate, sometimes falling asleep with her face in the cat food dish. Cookie didn’t seem to mind, so OP (for Other Pussy) took up residence. Before long she became very fat and very complacent, taking to her new home as though she had always lived there. So now I had two cats.
Later on, as I moved from house to house, she was a regular part of the family. The human family that is because she and Cookie never got along. They didn’t scrap but there were warning hisses if their paths happened to cross. This went on for years, there was never a truce.
Then there was Hitler. Yes, a black and white cat named Hitler because of a distinctive Hitler style moustache marking. He joined the household as a kitten, ignored by and ignoring the other cats. This happened when I was living in the Pink House on Central Road. It was next door to Joe Lowery’s place. Joe was getting on in years and didn’t do much of the rather casual auto repairs that he was known for. One time, he was busted for growing marijuana among his tomato plants. He found it helpful for glaucoma. He was fond of cats and amused to know that there was one named Hitler.
After a few years of renting there, the place was sold, and I had to move. The best I could do was to find temporary housing at Whaling Station Bay, about ten miles away from the Pink House. I was careful to keep the cats indoors, not knowing what they might do if free in a strange new place. All three of them would try to sleep on my bed at night until I became fed up with their hissing at each other and kicked them off. One day—I had probably left a window open—Hitler escaped. He was nowhere to be found until, around five days later, Joe phoned me to say that Hitler had turned up at his place. Ten miles! How did he do it? I put him in a cardboard box and took him home, thinking that if he couldn’t see where he was going he might not be so confident about escaping. Wrong! He did get out again and, sure enough, arrived at Joe’s five days later. You see what I mean about cats being attached to places.
After I bought and moved to the place at Phipp’s Point, Hitler was not happy and eventually was found dead not far away. Cookie and OP lived on.
To fill out the family, I adopted a kitten and named her Wally Wilkins. You’ll remember that the opera “La Wally” is named after the female lead. Wally was very cute and soon became the household trickster, young enough to give the other cats a ride for their money. OP persisted in hissing at her as she still did with Cookie. Wally, however, was not easily put off. Suppose OP was walking casually along the kitchen cupboard island, Wally would wait around the corner and leap out just in time to startle OP who, by this time, was getting rather old and set in her ways. So it went. I installed a cat door so they could come and go at will. This was fine, and I paid little attention to the occasional raccoon or ‘possum that came in to dine. It was pretty ideal for cats because they had indoor and outdoor privileges and, in evenings, access to whatever laps they could commandeer.
I moved back to the city in 1996. My friend Nora Goold found a new home for Wally. Earlier, Cookie had died of an unknown ailment, and OP lived on some time longer, staying in the house with new occupants. OP was a wise old cat, and Cookie kept her youthful frivolity to the end. They both have resting places there on Phipp’s Point Corner.
Throughout my years on Hornby Island, I was travelling back and forth for various jobs and commitments in Vancouver. I often stayed with my dear friend Cath. She had two cats, SPCA rescues. They were replacements for her calico Callie, who had bit the dust not long after she moved to the basement suite on West 20th. The SPCA kittens were named after opera singers Lily Pons and Rosa Ponselle. Lily was a grey tabby with the cutest pink nose you’ve ever seen. She was playful and ever friendly. Black and white Rosa, on the other hand, was reserved and concentrated on getting out the window to pursue birds and other prey. In later life, after Cath had moved to a third floor apartment, she spent most of her time under the bed, especially when company, me, happened to be present. Their ashes now repose in two little containers on a shelf in Cath’s living room.
My daughter Emily and her husband Mark also have cats. Any number of them. Since they live in the country, they have some cats that live indoors, some that live outdoors, and some that occupy both spheres. Perhaps I’m exaggerating when I say “any number of them.” There is Abigail, a small tabby and long term resident. She never goes out doors, mainly because it is her job to keep the household in order. The cat that has the run of outside and inside happens to have six toes on his front paws. He’s a muscular hunter, no doubt the terror of the barn-dwelling mice. When he’s in the house, he likes to watch birds out the window, snapping his jaws and chattering at them. Now Max is another matter. He is a rescue cat that is ever wary of strangers. When I’m there he never comes out of the bedroom or from under the bed. I may have caught a glimpse of him once or twice but that’s it. I’m told he sleeps on the bed with Mark and Emily, having gained trust through custom, using them, as cats will, for his own comfort and convenience. Stimpy was another rescue cat, as different in temperament from Max as night is to day. Dark and very furry, he was ever seeking a lap or a patting hand. As he grew more and more scrawny in his declining years, Emily arranged a heating pad under a blanket on one of the living room chairs for his special indulgence. And indulge he did.
This whole story started when I was sitting outside one beautiful warm evening, enjoying a drink or two, watching the sun set behind the mountains. I was musing about the past and about my family and friends. This is when memories of The Menstell Monster emerged. When was the last time I thought about The Menstell Monster? The memory must have been there all the time, though I hadn’t thought about that incident for many years, if ever. At the same time, I know it really happened pretty well as I’ve described it. And what about all those other cats? As Anna Russell says about the story of the Ring Cycle “I’m not making this up you know!” With the exception of the cat who wandered through the cool air ducts, they’re all fairly recent, taking age and the passing of years into account. Memories wander in and out without any particular reason, sort of like cats wandering around the house, napping out of sight, pursuing their own inscrutable purposes, and demanding attention when they want it.
Whenever I recall things about 1915 S.E. 21st, I also think about my father. Perhaps the cat who shirked his mouse-catching assignment shared some characteristics of my father. He, too, could never settle down to accepting his role in life, and like The Menstell Monster in our basement, always longing for a home he couldn’t see a way back to.