I pull the ancient yellow Tupperware container from the drawer. The sight of my mom’s writing that spells out “CATNIP” on the lid makes me smile. That old container is one of my favorite things remaining from my childhood home.
Our clowder of cats comes running in anticipation of the dried green goodness I’m about to sprinkle on the floor. I watch amused as they rub their faces in the scattered particles and begin to roll around in a fit of jubilation.
Sharing my cats’ enjoyment of their catnip always makes me think of my late mom. I inherited her love of felines, and she was the first person to teach me the subtle art of cat/human interaction.
“Don’t rub her fur the wrong way,” I remember her telling me when I was young. Other gems of wisdom: “Cats don’t like to have their bellies scratched” and “Put a hand under his butt so he feels secure when you’re holding him.” Mom showed me which magic spots on a cat’s head and face to gently scratch to evoke the raspy motor and dough-kneading starfish paws.
When I was young and growing up in the country outside of Wheeling, cats were mostly outdoor critters with a job to do — dispatch rodents and vermin. Our cats also had this duty of death, but because of Mom’s soft heart for God’s four-footed creatures, they were also allowed to join us in the house at night (and whenever I needed one to cuddle).
Though I don’t remember it, my parents often told me the story of how our fat and tolerant Kitty Buttons would graciously allow me to dress him in doll clothes and push him around the yard in my doll stroller. I haven’t had a cat since that was that obliging — all those that followed had much more self-respect and refused to be seen wearing dresses and bonnets in public.
Mom, although a true cat whisperer, was not the most creative cat namer. When the original Kitty Buttons crossed the Rainbow Bridge, he was quickly replaced with a new, different colored kitten bearing that identical name. Over the course of my childhood, we probably had a half-dozen cats of both sexes with that same moniker.
That is, until Snowball came along and put an end to Mom’s monotonous naming convention.
KIND MRS. R’S OFFER
It was the early ’70s, and the world was a different place. No one today would dream of allowing a 10-year-old girl to ride her bike alone along the back roads of Ohio County. But in those days, I could be found doing just that from mid-morning until suppertime.
On one such excursion on a sultry summer day, I stopped at the Robrecht farm on Battle Run Road to ask for a cold drink of water. (The folks at Schwinn hadn’t yet thought to put water bottle holders on bike frames. Come to think of it, I never dreamed I would one day buy water by the bottle, either! But I digress.)
Mrs. Robrecht was known to give hot and thirsty children a Dixie cup of water before sending them on their way, so I threw my bike in the grass and knocked on her door. Sure enough, she was happy to oblige.
A friendly white feline wound around my feet as I waited inside the kitchen door for her to fill a paper to-go cup from the sink. I admired the pretty cat and stooped down to pet her. Kitty rewarded my cat-scratching prowess with a squeaky purr.
“What a nice cat!” I said to Mrs. Robrecht. “She’s a stray who just showed up. Do you want her?” she asked innocently.
Now what sort of question was that to ask an unattended child?? Of course I wanted her! We were currently between reincarnations of Kitty Buttons at the old homestead, so it seemed like a perfect idea. I’d already named her Snowball in a defiant act of family tradition.
I thought that my chosen name cleverly based on her color was ever so much more ingenious than Mom’s recycled one.
“I can throw her in the truck and drive her up to your house,” Mrs. R. volunteered. I swiftly declined her kind offer. I was still considering my mom’s reaction to this new resident, and I was not yet convinced she’d greet this newcomer with open arms.
So I hatched a quick plan — I would figure out a way to tie Snowball in my bike basket and ride that last mile home with her thus confined. Mrs. Robrecht, thrilled to be so easily rid of a pesky stray, bought right into my scheme.
She rummaged through her cupboards and produced an old bedsheet and some twine, and together we fashioned a makeshift cat carrier.
Snowball seemed to sense that she was headed for greener pastures and was pretty content to ride home in my bike basket, emitting only the faintest occasional yowl.
A LITTLE WHITE LIE
As I approached our driveway, I started to get cold feet. What if Mom said I couldn’t keep her? What if she was annoyed at nice Mrs. Robrecht for sending Snowball home with me? I couldn’t take that chance.
At the end of our drive, I untied the sheet from my bike basket and freed poor Snowball. She promptly jumped to the ground but made no real effort to escape. A thought came to me. “If she followed me home, Mom surely couldn’t make me get rid of her,” I rationalized.
I called her by her new name to gauge her reaction. “Here, Snowball!” I called tentatively. To my surprise, she followed me as my Pic-Way sneakers hit the pedals. That crazy cat followed me right up to the front porch and then into the hallway.
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I called for my mom, who looked puzzled by the strange white cat in our living room. “She followed me home!” I lied. “Can I keep her, please, please? I’ll take care of her myself, I promise!”
What mother alive hasn’t heard that worthless pledge? But my mom, fooled by my untruth and sucked right in by Snowball’s sweet personality, agreed that we could keep her. Victory was mine! I was tickled pink, and Mom seemed to be happy with our new family member, as well — at least until about a month later when it became obvious that Snowball was about to become a mother herself!
HERE KITTIES, KITTIES
Days passed. Early one morning, Snowy was snuggling in bed with me when she began to pant heavily. I found this odd and called for my mom.
“She’s going into labor,” Mom announced. How exciting! And what an honor that she was going to birth her babies on my bed! But Mom quickly put the kibosh on that assumption and made the cat a nice makeshift whelping box in the quiet back corner of a closet. It was there that Snowball gave birth to three kittens that my sister and I named Tilly, Spot and Blackie. We found a home for Blackie, but ended up keeping Spot and Tilly ourselves, as Mom couldn’t bear to part with them.
Spot and Tilly must have found more trouble than just overabundant mice on their daily outdoor rounds, because the next thing we knew, the two of them were pregnant themselves. They actually gave birth on the same day, a couple of months shy of their own first birthday.
The “teen moms” weren’t the most attentive mothers, sitting still only long enough to nurse their offspring before darting off to play. Snowball, ever the family matriarch, gathered up the babies and shouldered the maternal nurturing responsibilities that her girls were neglecting.
Fortunately, we were able to find homes for those kittens, too. Not long after, all three cats were carted off to Dr. Schmitt’s to be spayed so the cycle didn’t repeat itself.
ELLEN’S CLOWDER CONTINUES
In the years that followed, I moved out and found my own cats to love. First came Kelsey Mae, who sat crying outside the door of my first apartment. I eventually allowed her inside my “no pets allowed” building, where she lived for quite some time until Mr. Wilson, my landlord, noticed her sitting in the front window. He said she had to go. I was devastated by this news, but Mom came to the rescue, finding Kelsey Mae a new home with one of her coworkers. And I learned a painful lesson about breaking the rules.
Next came my first Siamese cat, Ming. She was sweet and content until my daughter was born, at which time Ming developed a jealous streak and began to claw up anything baby-related. I was forced to have her declawed, and she recovered so poorly from surgery that I vowed then and there never to have another one of my cats declawed.
Mike, Molly and Maya were next in line. All were rescues from various sources. I then spent several cat-free years due to the presence of our dogs, Thor and Lucy, who were known cat haters. Following the loss of Thor, age 13, and Lucy, age 17, my husband Doug and I decided to become the crazy cat couple.
We went in search of one new Siamese-mix cat to adopt. Before long, a possible candidate arrived at the shelter, and I was excited to meet him. However, there was one problem — he also had his mother and brother in the cage with him. We couldn’t leave those two behind at the shelter, right? And that’s how we became parents of three cats.
Doug’s work in animal rescue means that there is always someone tugging at our heartstrings. So now our cat family has grown to include five members: Cookie, Milo, Neko, Suki and Dusty. Suffice it to say that they each have their own sad backstory, but are now living their best lives at McCroskey Manor.
Doug grew up with dogs, so he’s relatively new to the cat life. But I’m an old hand at it, thanks in large part to Mom and her love of all things feline. (By the way, many years later, I did ’fess up to her about “the cat that followed me home.” Thankfully, she laughed and laughed at how I’d snookered her with my bold-faced lie and an old bedsheet. I still blame Mrs. Robrecht.)
And that old catnip container that I hold dear? For decades, it supplied Mom’s beloved cats Dweezil and Miss Priss with a steady supply, and now keeps it fresh for our crew. That old piece of Tupperware sure doesn’t look like much, but to me, it’s a treasured family heirloom.
• A lifelong Wheeling resident, Ellen Brafford McCroskey is a proud graduate of Wheeling Park High School and the former Wheeling Jesuit College. By day, she works for an international law firm; by night, (and often on her lunch breaks and weekends) she enjoys moonlighting as a part-time writer. Please note that the views expressed in her writing are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, including her full-time employer. Through her writing, Ellen aims to enlighten others on causes close to her heart, particularly addiction, recovery and equal rights. She and her husband Doug reside in Warwood with their clowder of rescued cats, each of whom is a direct consequence of his job as the Ohio County Dog Warden. Their family includes four adult children, their spouses and several grandkids.