Off North Road

"The Trouble with a Kitten"

By Russell Hoxsie - March 22, 2007

Ogden Nash, a popular and favorite poet of short, wryly humorous poems, once wrote the famous lines:

The trouble with a kitten is THAT
Eventually it becomes a CAT.

The foil of several of my columns has been the most favored of our animals, our dog, but we have also had a succession of much-loved cats over 50 years. I can't begin to call them all by name or describe their differing characters as some of my children can, but I thought it was about time I shifted the spotlight from our canine family members to the feline. I have to admit that my welcome for them had cooled over the years because of their aloofness and arrogance. In cats I missed the adoration I received from our dogs, which came from the cats only on certain occasions when they were in the mood. Our next-to-last cat, Kimba, belonged originally to our son and came to us to be cared for during his Thanksgiving weekend from college. Mary Ann missed her when she died, for reasons known mostly to her. No doubt we both missed Kimba, for she'd been with us by then for 23 years and looked pretty chipper for a senior cat until near the end.

We found to our surprise that kittens had become a rare commodity on the Vineyard market, and no one seemed to know where we should apply for a new one. But Mary Ann, being resourceful, found a young couple beginning to farm on Lambert's Cove, who had a new litter and were likely to part with one of them to a worthy family who would keep it in a manner suitable for a superior Vineyard cat. The rest is history.

"So, we have acquired a feral cat," I said to my wife with mockery in my voice. Lambert's Cove is certainly on the edge of the municipal limits of Tisbury, and its being born in a barn raised the specter to me of an un-named father to our new foster child. Mary Ann was perturbed with my opinion, to say the least, when we went to the farm to see the kitten. "Of course she's not a wild (feral) cat," she proclaimed. "I found her in her nice bed right here in the kitchen by the stove."

"And where did the father come from?" I asked as I looked out the kitchen window of the farmhouse to the woods just a stone's throw from the open barn door. "Oh well, I could tell she was all right," Mary Ann said, turning to pick up our new kitten and not wishing to continue the conversation.

Nash's observation is too often forgotten, and I, as Mary Ann, soon fell in love with our tan-yellow ball of fur, which I carried around on my shoulder when it would have me. However, the supply of Band-Aids in our medicine chest began to need frequent replenishing, for kittens will be kittens; I began to quote the CAT poem to myself quietly while I applied yet one more bandage to the scratches on my hands and arms. We delayed naming the new family member simply because we hadn't put our minds to it. One day a friend visited and said without any prompting that the kitten's color simply begged the name of Mocha, by coincidence our favorite frosting for my mother's chocolate cake. The name has stood the test of time.

We have developed the mental quirk of thinking of Mocha as a female, probably because all our cats (and dogs) have been females. She is actually a neutered male - one whose pockets have been picked. Without exception we refer to him as she or her. My habit now is simply to mutter he or him to correct the inevitable error. This inconsistency has spread over to Mary Ann, and so I have dismissed the idea that my lukewarm attachment for Mocha was the explanation for my mis-appellation of her/his gender.

Mocha's unique character continues to develop. While she/he stretches luxuriously on our bed, one of us will stroke along her/his jaw and behind the ears, setting off a deep rhythmic purring typical of cats in their most serene and generous moments. When I am on the receiving end of the prrrrr, I almost think she has won me over. But at some point quite unpredictable, she/he clutches our wrists or hands with claws extended and slashing causing blood to flow freely and a quick growling from me as I lurch away from the cat. In my most positive mood I explain her/his behavior as excitement to the point of ecstatic spasm which she/he cannot control. In my usual mood I revert to my first impression that the cat is feral - with a predisposed nature dictated by paternal genes passed on within the soft warm hay mow of a barn with perpetually open doors.

In the past year Mocha has acquired a unique behavioral change. After eating several healthy meals, when she/he must certainly be sated with food, she/he sits immobile, either on our laps or in the middle of the room on the rug, and holds her/his tongue ever so little protruded over her/his lower lip. The pose brings to mind Egyptian sculptures of favorite cats, although I don't recall noticing protruding tongues. We now recognize this behavior as a sign of impending ecstatic attack and take cover from her/his clutches. Beware of ignoring the sign. It is sure-fire. Can anyone say this constitutes domesticated, non-feral behavior?