By Ed Staskus
After we got married my wife and I bought a home in Lakewood a few houses east of the Rocky River valley and set up housekeeping. It was the early 1990s. We tore all the lime green shag carpeting out, tore all the false ceilings out, and tore all the wallpaper off the walls, painting them white. We purged the original bathroom. The house was built in 1922 and the bathroom had to go. It was only the beginning, but at least it was a start.
After a few years we thought we would get a cat. My wife wanted a darkish long haired. I wanted an orange short haired. We got a fluffy orange Maine Coon. He was a half-breed, but well bred. The few times he misbehaved it was mostly because we hadn’t made it clear to him that some behavior, like scratching the furniture, was out of bounds. After we let him become an inside outside cat, all the scratching he did after that was outside. We never asked the local trees shrubs or fences whether they minded, or not.
He stayed indoors during wintertime, except when it was above freezing, as well as those times he was simply close to the side door and I tossed him outside, which I did whenever there was a snow mound beside the door. If the snow was fluffy enough, he sank into it up to his eyeballs, looked helpless for a second, scrambling to get out of the snow, and giving me a dirty look rushing back inside. Maine Coons have a reputation for enjoying snow. Our cat didn’t live up to the reputation. He was good with rain, tolerated snow showers, but not blizzards or northern Ohio winter wind storms.
We named him Snapper after a movie we had recently seen, “The Snapper,” which is about a big family in a small house in Dublin whose oldest daughter has gotten pregnant, but won’t tell anybody who the father is, because it happened after a wild night at a pub with a man who is her father’s friend and is her father’s age. She tells everybody it was a friendly Spanish sailor passing through town. The family calls the baby in the belly the Snapper.
I called our cat Bud. My wife called him Snaps, Snapper Doodle, Kinney, Lambkins, and Goose. He didn’t answer to much unless he was hungry, wanted to go outside, or wanted to come back inside. He didn’t like to be bothered when he was catnapping, which was more often than not. He never answered to Bud, or anything else, when he was wholeheartedly asleep.
Snapper didn’t tell us who his parents were. He didn’t say a word about his brothers and sisters, or uncles and aunts. He didn’t tell us where he was from or how he had gotten to where I found him, which was the Cleveland Arcade. He was vocal enough when it came to food and creature comforts but didn’t like talking about himself.
It was Thanksgiving and Christmas time. I was downtown to pick something up from a store in the Cleveland Arcade. The whole placed was dolled up for the holiday. It used to be called the Crystal Palace. I parked near the Main Library and went in through the Superior Ave. doors. When I did, I noticed the Animal Protective League had taken a vacant storefront for the time being and was peddling dogs and cats. When I looked around, I spied our new kitten in a cage at eye level in the middle of the store. I extended my index finger into his jail cell, he took it into his mouth, and bit me. He was a youngster somewhere between 10 and 12 weeks old. He might have been able to puncture paper, but not me.
“You’re for me, bud,” I told him.
I told the man behind the sales counter I was going to my car to get money to pay for him. When I got back a young lady had him in her hands and was walking to the counter. I stepped up to her, tapped her on the shoulder, took our cat away from her, and said, “He’s spoken for.” She gave me a sour look and went looking for another one before another one of me came along.
The Maine Coon is one of the oldest breeds in the United States. Nobody knows exactly where they came from, but many believe they are related to both Siberian and Norwegian Forest cats. They are the official state cat of Maine. Down Easters say the breed originated in their state. Others say they are the only original American cat.
The legend I like best is that when Marie Antoinette, the ill-fated Queen of France, was trying to beat feet out of the country, she enlisted the help of Captain Samuel Clough. She loaded his ship with all her favorite stuff, including six of her favorite cats, Siberians and Turkish Angoras. Her luck was bad, though. The Gendarmerie dragged her back to Paris before the ship could sail. When the ship sailed the six cats sailed with it. After they reached the town of Wiscasset, Maine they went into town on shore leave, living it up with the local breeds. They didn’t make it back in time when the ship shoved off, developing into the modern kind of Maine Coon.
My mother-in-law was owning and operating a deli takeout on the ground floor of the National City Bank building on East 9th St. My trip downtown had also meant picking up dinner for myself and my wife. I needed to get food for the new guy, too. I parked on Short Vincent. I didn’t want to leave the cat in the car, so I smooshed him into the pocket of my winter coat.
“What’s that wiggling in your coat?” my mother-in-law asked handing me a bag full of good food. The cat stuck his head out of the top of my pocket sniffing at the bag.
After oohing and awing at the furball she gave me a wicker basket for him to sleep in. He slept in the basket that night and for years afterwards. He never suffered from insomnia. Even when we bought a bigger and better basket for him, he continued sleeping in the original until he couldn’t fit into it anymore. When he grew up, he had a white ruff on his chest and a two-layered coat, a silky undercoat under longer guard hairs. He wasn’t as big as a purebred Maine Coon, but more than hunter savvy enough. He was more than sociable with us since we were his feedbag.
At first, we thought we would keep him indoors, but he was as much dog as cat and had to go outside, no matter what. When spring arrived, we started letting him out and teaching him to stay away from the street. I let him wander around, following with a squirt gun, and whenever he drifted down the driveway to the apron squirted him in the face. He didn’t like it and learned his lesson, at least until he got older, when all bets were off. Our backyard was fenced on three sides and raised above the alley behind our house. Three or four houses both sides of us was as far as he ranged sideways.
I was watching him walk up the sidewalk one day when a full-grown cat came sauntering his way. Snapper was still a tyke. They sniffed at each other. Our guy made a sudden movement and the other guy swatted him. When he went running the other cat followed him. He jumped and I gathered him up in my arms. The neighborhood bully sat at my feet watching while Snapper made faces at him, throwing caution to the wind, snarling, and showing his claws. He could be sassy. Cats fight all the time. Even when they are playing, they get scratched. That doesn’t keep kittens from happening. They are both wild and domestic at the same time.
Over time he learned and remembered what our cars sounded like and hearing my wife or me pulling into the driveway ran out of the backyard to see us. I didn’t like him doing it and blared my horn to make him stop doing it, but he never did. He went his own way.
We lost him one day in the night when he got trapped inside a neighbor’s garage after the man unwittingly closed the door on him, but he was such a loudmouth that his cries alerted everybody to where he was. He could have been a civil defense siren. He knew to come inside at sunset, but sometimes forgot, sitting under our bedroom window in the middle of night meowing until we let him in the house. He slept with us on our bed, taking up a third of it. He liked his space.
Snapper was a mouser, bringing half dead mice to the door for our approval. He messed with anything that moved. Since we lived on the edge of the valley park, there were plenty of squirrels, rabbits, possums, and racoons. He never caught a rabbit, but one day a racoon caught him. We were searching for him the next day when I found him curled up in the back of a closet. There were gobs of dried blood on his face and puncture wounds on one side of his mouth.
“It looks like a coon hooked him,” the vet said, sewing him up and shoving an antibiotic down his throat. “Give him one of these every day for a week.” Giving him the pills was easier said than done.
He was a birder, too, although birds were usually too fast for him. One day a pair of blue jays were in our backyard bird feeder when he went after them. That was a mistake. One of the birds flew away but the other one circled back and started dive bombing him. Snapper had no answer for the loud jeers and attacks of the big bird and ducked under a hedge sulking. The rest of the summer he scanned the sky and made sure there were no blue jays in his neck of the woods before he went exploring.
By the time his second summer rolled around he could jump to the top of any fence, climb any tree, and even make his way to the top of flat-roofed garages. He came down from trees backwards, but I usually had to get a step ladder to get him down from roofs. He often bit off more than he could chew. I kept him in shape by holding him upside down and tossing him up in the air. He twisted at the top of the arc, aligning himself head up feet down, landing on my open hands. He rarely misjudged it, nailing the landing. It stood him in good stead his long lifetime.
Indoor cats live about 12 to 17 years. One way or another outdoor cats live about 2 to 5 years. Maine Coons live about 10 to 13 years. Snapper was half Maine Coon and half who knows what. He spent half his life indoors and half his life outdoors. The more time he spent in the great outdoors the more wary he became of the animal kingdom, especially people and their ways. He always had the same expression on his face, whether it was a June bug or an ax-murderer coming his way. He was able to snap to attention out of a deep sleep in a split second. Snapper never let anybody get near him unless we were nearby. He was smarter than he knew. He lived to be nearly 18 years old.
We fed him wet food in the morning and kibble the rest of the time. We started him off with top shelf wet food until he made it known that anything with gravy was his favorite. After that Iams and Science Diet were out. Cheap-ass Friskies were in. He might have lived on gravy alone if we let him. We didn’t let him, but we tried to keep him happy. “When my cats aren’t happy, I’m not happy. Not because I care about their mood but because I know they’re just sitting there thinking up ways to get even,” the writer Percy Shelly once said.
As much time as he spent outside, he was a homeboy at heart. When we went on vacation, whether it was for a week or a month, the minute we got back he started complaining about our absence and stayed close to us for days afterwards. After that it was back to his gravy and his basket.
He got slower towards the end of his life. When winter came, he slept near the furnace registers. His kidneys started going bad. We added a second litter box so he could pee the second he had to.
One summer day coming home from work I turned into our street behind another car. Snapper was across the street from our house, on our neighbor’s front porch. Hearing my car, he jumped up and started running across the street. He was still fast enough for his age, but not fast enough that day. The front tires of the car in front of me missed him but when one of the back tires struck him, he went up into the air, landed with a thud, and rolled over. I watched the car not stop. I stopped in the middle of the street. He was still alive when I ran to him, but just barely.
He was spasming and crying. He was broken. He was choking on blood. I forced his mouth open so he could breathe. He sucked on my finger and died. He wasn’t the kind of cat who had nine lives. Snapper had one life and his life was over in the blink of an eye. I wrapped him up in that week’s issue of the Lakewood Observer and took him down Hog’s Back Lane to the park, burying him on the banks of the Rocky River. He had never been to the park but lived on the edge of it. He saw it every day of his life from our second-floor porch.
Two years later we got another mixed Maine Coon. He was a black classic style tabby. My wife named him Gladwyn but called him Baby Wodin, after the pagan god of the Anglo-Saxons. She called him Gladdy often enough so that I started calling him Gaylord, after the crafty old Cleveland Indians pitcher Gaylord Perry. When winter came and went, he liked sitting on Snapper’s cat perch on the porch and looking out at the valley going buds and blossoms.
Every spring I go to where I buried our cat and sit by the river in the sun watching ducks take their young out for a swim on the greenish-brown water. Snapper was like me in some ways. Whenever I chased him he went running. Whenever I ignored him he came purring.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.