“My Alphabet,” by Lucius, translated and illustrated by Anna Lowell Tomlinson. Softcover. The Tisbury Printer, 2012. $12. Available at Edgartown Books and the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard, Edgartown; The Bunch of Grapes, Vineyard Haven.
After reading Anna Lowell Tomlinson’s three captivating books about her shelter rescue cat, Lucius, going to visit him at their Vineyard Haven home felt like approaching a celebrity. Lucius did not disappoint (nor did his gracious, talented “mother,” “translator,” and doting owner).
Unlike most cats, Lucius did not run and hide but greeted me at the door and enthusiastically joined Ms. Tomlinson in escorting me to the bright, comfortable living room.
The Lucius we first met in “One of My Nine Lives,” again last year in “My Day: And How I Spend Twenty-Four Hours,” and now encounter in “My Alphabet” is quite the star, haughty and humorous. Although his stories bespeak a certain formality, cleverness, and self-assurance, Lucius in the fur outshines his on-paper personality.
Very large, sleek as a panther, thick coat like velvet, big, yellow-green eyes glowing, he takes charge of the entire space. Though Ms. Tomlinson’s living room contains a lot to look at: lovely Victorian furnishings, paintings on every wall, Oriental rugs underfoot, the center of attention is Lucius. He makes sure of it.
Leaping to the couch, he welcomes this visitor. As the interview proceeds he moves about constantly. He stretches out on a side table luxuriously; decides it’s not to his liking and tries another; pokes at crumpled paper, rummages in my purse.
Ms. Tomlinson sits nearby, casual but fashionable in a loose green pullover, trim black slacks, a brilliant blue scarf matching her blue leather flats. Her eyes sparkle as she tells how she came to write the books.
While she talks, Ms. Tomlinson watches her cat with amused and indulgent affection, as a mother might keep an eye on a mischievous five-year-old.
“Oh, you’re so handsome,” Ms. Tomlinson coos. “Everybody loves you!”
Little wonder that this vibrant, attentive, amusing animal inspired her to begin painting with gusto after hardly lifting a brush in years, and to write the tale of his life — from his own point of view.
“He’s my only subject,” she said with a smile.
The middle child of six growing up in Springfield, Ms. Tomlinson was known as “the painter” of the family. Scrapbooks of her handmade Christmas cards from the present back to high school and college days attest to the fact that her artistic talent is not newfound but a constant through her life.
A 1947 graduate of Parsons School of Art and Design in New York City, Ms. Tomlinson put art aside as she raised three children. She lived in New York, and began spending more time on the Vineyard after inheriting an antique Tea Lane house from her great uncle, Charles Russell Lowell Putnam. By the early 1970s the Vineyard had become home.
Painting only infrequently for decades, Ms. Tomlinson felt her artist’s muse awaken when she traveled to Venice with a friend a few years ago. She began sketching there, and back home joined the Tisbury Senior Center art group. At the Up-Island Council on Aging, Nancy Cabot’s instruction was invaluable in helping her refresh her technique.
Always a cat lover, Ms. Tomlinson had chosen to forego feline companionship when she learned her grandson had severe allergies. “I’d rather see my grandchildren, but I’ve always loved to have a cat when possible,” she said.
On August 28, 2009, after the allergies had diminished, Ms. Tomlinson headed to the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard in Edgartown. There she met and adopted Lucius, then six. Lucius quickly settled in, grateful, Ms. Tomlinson believes, to have a real home after several months at the shelter. “It didn’t take long,” she recalled. “We were both anxious for a little love.”
Searching for names, Ms. Tomlinson considered Nero after the Roman emperor, meaning “black” in Italian. When she discovered that Nero’s true name was Lucius, she chose that.
“It sounds like precious and delicious,” laughed Ms. Tomlinson, apt descriptions for the affectionate black cat.
Lucius’s arrival inspired her to more prolific painting, and then to begin writing too. She found herself depicting the striking cat in his many haunts and poses.
“I realized I could make a story of this, and it just went on from there,” Ms. Tomlinson recalled.
Although not even a diary keeper, Ms. Tomlinson found writing came naturally when Lucius was the subject. “I had thoughts I could put into words about him,” she explained.
Thus, in 2010, Anna Lowell Tomlinson joined the distinctive assemblage of Collette, ee cummings, T.S. Eliot, and all the writers in history who have taken cats as their subject.
“My Alphabet” follows Lucius through his indoor-cat adventures letter by letter, detailing his favorite things, habits, and philosophical musings.
Ms. Tomlinson’s observations as she “translates” her cat’s inner thoughts are acute and precise, capturing the endearing, funny, and sometimes maddening quirks of her kitty. They will bring smiles of recognition from any cat admirer. Ms. Tomlinson claims Lucius’s voice is her own, but in fact he sounds gentlemanly, rather old-fashioned, a bit prim, fastidious, and self-absorbed, while her tone is bright, bouncy, and out-going.
Her watercolors do not so much complement as tell a story themselves, visually chronicling Lucius’s life and times, passions and pleasures. Each full-page painting is suffused with lush color and delicate detail, a decorative background for the black cat dominating every scene.
Lucius stretches out languidly on a closet shelf, snuggles in a drawer atop gift wrap (“I remove the ribbons first”). In the basement he perches on a stool, intently scanning the floor for spiders (“They have a busy shelf life, and so do I.”).
A friend presents a gift of calico mice but Lucius prefers playing with the tissue that surrounds them. He speaks of Ms. Tomlinson’s son Charlie’s cat Jadis with disdain, and “must maintain the role of Alpha Cat” when he visits.
He begs for food as though starving, takes a spur-of-the-moment grooming break, teeters atop a narrow bookcase, explores every box. Like indoor cats everywhere he yearns through the window at birds in the flowering dogwood (one of the prettiest pictures), stations himself near the front door, hoping for a quick getaway. Despite his independent ways, Lucius always keeps a close eye on his “mother.”
In appreciation for finding Lucius there, Ms. Tomlinson has arranged for the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard to receive all proceeds from books sold there, and a portion from those sold elsewhere.
Ms. Tomlinson insists this third book wraps up the series, but she certainly intends to continue painting her favorite furry model. Disappointed fans should stay alert: we may see him next on greeting cards or posters.