When I was young, I lived on MacDill Air Force Base. Our apartment backed up to a baseball field. That is where we met Mehitabel. Mehitabel was a fluffy, black cat. We would use the mowed grass to make forts, and, one day, Mehitabel arrived, hanging out in our fort and acting, for all the world, like she owned the place.
We went home at dusk, and she followed. It took some time, but my sisters, brothers and I finally persuaded our mom to let her stay. Dad named her Mehitabel, after the Don Marquis story about a cockroach named Archy who befriended Mehitabel, the alley cat. Mehitabel believed she was the reincarnation of Cleopatra. She helped Archy, who could not type, record his poetry and his life story.
We ended up calling her “Hetter,” because my baby sister could not say, “Mehitabel.”
Hetter quickly became a critical part of the family. At some point, she decided that she liked the feel of water dripping on her head. She figured out how to turn the faucets on, but never got the knack of turning them off. So we would come home from school (my mom worked at our school, and so was not at home to police Hetter’s bizarre water fetish), to find every faucet in our apartment dripping. And Hetter with the evidence on her wet head.
Hetter was a sweet cat, until you crossed her. And to cross her, you had to be a dog – not just any dog, but a threatening dog. Once, when I was about 10, I was watching my little sister play in one of those small, blowup pools. She was happily splashing around when a dog came roaring into the yard, snarling and growling at my baby sister. Like a flash, Hetter was off the porch, hissing and growling and placing herself between the pool and the dog, who decided that leaving was the best option.
Some years later, we lived in Fernandina when my dad was in Viet Nam. Our next-door neighbors had a Weimaraner named Baron. One day Baron got out of the fence, and, along with a Dalmation named Sputnik, who lived a few houses down, took off after our across-the-street neighbor’s white cat (Snowball).
My sisters and brothers ran around like lunatics trying in vain to stop Baron and Sputnik from killing Snowball. I still get sick when I think about it.
Months later, Baron got out again and took off after Hetter. I was there and I saw this: Hetter leaped onto our car, and Baron ran around the other side. Hetter then leaped off the car onto Baron’s back. He sustained scratches so deep and so serious that he got an infection and the neighbors ended up having to put him down (which neither they, nor anyone else, mourned). Hetter survived without a scratch.
The neighbors ended up getting a new Weimaraner named Sugar, who was everything her name implied. She and Hetter became best friends.
When my dad came home from the war, we moved to Atlanta. A year or so later, Hetter disappeared. My dad said she had gone off to die (she was, we figured, something like 14 or 15), to spare us the pain of her leaving. Maybe. That’s what I choose to believe.
Hetter was the beginning of a long line of Ward pets: Hetter, Tigger, Two (who was named after Mr. Wrestling II because he had a white face that looked like a mask), Mr. Wiggins (a Siamese that loved to walk on the beach with us), Lady, Shannon, Ralph (named for Ralph Garr), Dooley (named for Derek. No, hah. Gotcha. Named for Vince), Murphy (named for Dale), Larry (named for Larry Bird because he was born the year Bird retired and he was big, blond and goofy-looking), Rosie (who is a story unto herself) and, now, Jack, who is pretty much an idiot. We got Rosie from a friend, who said she was hanging around his porch. He had six dogs and could never figure out why Rosie stayed. He called me to see if I would adopt a cat.
I told him to bring the cat by and I would see how things worked out. Jack (the husband not the dog) was not a fan of cats, as we had had a kitty who had an unfortunate habit of waking up at about 3 am and leaping onto Jack’s genitalia. That didn’t work out so well, and we ended up giving Annie (the cat) to our next-door neighbors, who, unlike us, have a door to their upstairs bedroom so she cannot attack David’s family jewels. She is happy there.
Rosie was our new cat. I was able to get Jack to allow me to adopt her because the vet said she had feline leukemia and likely wouldn’t live long. That was a decade ago, and Rosie and Jack are best buds. She adores him and crawls her way up his chest to his chin every night as he watches Sports Center. I suspect the diagnosis was wrong.
Rosie loved Larry, and she knew he was a sweetheart. She would take over his outdoor bed, understanding that he would never force her off it.
Murphy actually did a turn in the dryer, which she entered when I wasn’t paying attention. I ran around the house listening to her “meow” (which she never did, so I was pretty sure she was in trouble), before thinking, “Oh, crap! The dryer!”
I opened the dryer door and she flopped out like a pair of Jockeys, with blood on her mouth. I immediately gathered her into the car and raced her across town to the vet, running red lights all the way. And I called David Secrest, one of my best friends, who rushed to my aid (which basically involved sitting at a bar near the vet while I waited for the diagnosis). Murphy was fine. She had bitten her tongue, which accounted for the blood, but was otherwise uninjured, and forevermore dubbed “The Kenmore Kat.”
My husband never had pets because he was bitten by a dog when he was young, and his mother never got over it. When he married Lucy, his practice wife, he inherited Milton, a yellow lab that became a good-luck charm for the New York Giants and a star on one of Letterman’s first “Stupid Animal Tricks” pieces. [Milton was well-trained by Lucy, not by Jack (the husband not the dog).) Lucy could give Cesar, the Dog Whisperer, a run for his money. She is amazing with dogs (and kids but that is another post)].
Anyway, I got to thinking: what would we be without our pets? They keep us sane, and they are there for us, whether we are stupid or sad or mad or whatever. All of you probably have pet stories. I would love to hear them. And I am not sure I believe in heaven, but if there is one, Hetter will be the first critter I look for.
Photo: Larry and Rosie