I was inspired by a post on one of my favorite genealogy blogs, The Family Kalamazoo, a while back. Currentdescendent, the blog owner and author, posted a series of photographs of her family’s dogs going back over a hundred years. I am a huge animal lover and have had cats and dogs all my life. My parents are both big animal lovers also, as were my grandparents Gussie and Isadore. My mother even remembers playing with a kitten at her grandmother Bessie Brotman’s apartment when my mother was a very little girl. My uncle Maurice Goldschlager was also a big animal lover; I remember that his last home was filled with cats, dogs, even a horse, I believe.
Unlike Currentdescendent, I do not have photographs of family pets going back that far. But I want to share what I have because these pets are a big part of my family’s story. I know from talking to many of my cousins on both sides of my mother’s family that they also are big animal lovers. I’d love to build a family tree of pet photos, so send them along if you want to share them.
But for now, these are the pets who lived with my immediate family, starting with my mother’s childhood pet, her dog Sparky.
On the back of this photo my mother wrote,”The Cutest Thing in the World.” My mother still gets teary-eyed when she sees this picture of her beloved dog. Obviously he gave her a tremendous amount of joy and love when she was a little girl growing up in Brooklyn.
When I turned nine, I got my very first camera, and the very first photograph I ever took is this one:
As you can see, this is my cat Pixie. He was my first ever pet, and we got him when I was about two years old. He was not a cat that everyone could love. He tended to hiss and growl quite a bit, but never at me. He let me carry him around like a doll and place him in my doll carriage. As I grew up, he slept with me every night. He truly had nine lives—surviving rat poison and being injured either by a car or animal. He lived until I went away to college, and to this day I believe he died of a broken heart because I had left him behind.
I don’t have pictures of two cats who only lived with us a short time: Fearless and Cleopatra, and I don’t really remember them. According to my parents, one jumped out of our window in Parkchester, never to return, and one ran away when we moved to the suburbs. Our next cat, however, was originally my grandmother’s cat, the elegant long-haired tabby, Rajah.
(Note the creative spelling of his name.) He was Pixie’s cousin–their mothers were littermates who had belonged to friends of my parents. My parents took Pixie and gave Rajah to my grandmother. Rajah was as sweet as Pixie was snarly. He was a gorgeous and very smart cat who somehow put up with my grandmother washing his face with a wet washcloth. When we were little and would visit my grandmother, he would always hide under the furniture. But when we adopted him when my grandmother for some reason no longer wanted to care for him, he became a friendly and loving pet. As he aged, he got a little senile and would insist on drinking water from an eye cup my mother kept in her bathroom. He lived to be eighteen years old.
But two cats were not enough for me, so for my sixth birthday I wanted a kitten. That kitten was Little Bit.
I wanted to call him Lucky, but my parents didn’t really like that name for some reason, so we compromised on Little Bit of Luck. For a long time I called him Lucky, and they called him Little Bit. Eventually I gave in, and he became Little Bit. He was a funny and not too bright cat who didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was just a dumb, lovable creature who had to find his place with two much more dominant cats, with Pixie being without a question the alpha cat of the bunch.
But even with three cats in a small three bedroom ranch house, I was not content. I wanted a dog, and I just kept asking for a dog. After much persistence and a trip to the animal shelter, my parents agreed and we adopted our first dog, Colleen. She was not a particularly pretty dog—just a mutt, and she was probably a few years old when we got her. But she was my first dog, and I thought she was gorgeous.
That’s me, hugging her to death in our backyard in 1959. Our family was complete: three cats and a dog. For most of my childhood, those were our family pets. Colleen proved to be a wonderful dog, and she followed me everywhere. We were very lackadaisical back then, and my parents would just open the door and three cats and a dog would run out and roam the neighborhood. Colleen developed a reputation in the neighborhood for scavenging for food at other people’s houses. Once she reportedly ate the food right off someone’s outdoor grill. She once followed me all the way to a friend’s house in a different neighborhood. My father came to pick me up in the car and figured Colleen would just find her way home. But Colleen thought I was still in the house and refused to leave, so my father had to go back to get her.
We were very lucky for a long time that nothing bad happened to our roaming pets, but our luck ran out in April, 1964, when Colleen was hit by a truck right in front of my eyes. She died at the vet’s office a few hours later, and I was bereft. She’d been my companion for five years, those Wonder Years from seven to almost twelve, and I was heartbroken.
My parents could not stand my sadness as well as their own and that of my siblings, so they almost immediately went back to the dog shelter and brought home another dog for the family. Although it took me a while to bond with this new dog, eventually I loved her dearly as well. Here she is probably not long after we got her with Pixie and my cousin June Marie behind us.
Velvet was also a mutt, but she had collie-like markings with some setter or something else mixed in. She was also a few years old when we got her, and she became a devoted pet like Colleen. We all used to chuckle at the way she would cross her front legs in a very ladylike way. By the time we got her, I was moving on from the innocence of childhood to the preoccupations of adolescence, and so she spent more time with my younger siblings than she did with me.
When I was in junior high school, we lost Little Bit to feline leukemia at a fairly young age. Sometime thereafter we got another cat Phoebe, who was a calico with an attitude—proud, smart, and independent.
After Pixie died, my parents adopted Missy—-a truly neurotic but gorgeous cat who was half Siamese and half tabby with the silliest half mustache under her nose. She was a jumpy, anxious cat, but because she was beautiful, my mother decided to let her get pregnant. We’d always spayed and neutered all our pets, but somehow Missy escaped the knife. She did get pregnant and had four kittens: Louie, Susie, Bulldog, and Charlie, but my parents could only find a home for Charlie, so we ended up keeping Louis, Susie and Bulldog (who was renamed Taurus to make it sound more classy). No way were we taking our kittens to the shelter! So there we were with a dog (Velvet), three adult cats (Rajah, Phoebe, and Missy) and three kittens. Or six cats within a short period of time. I was mostly gone at this point—in college and thereafter. But I loved those kittens dearly. We lost Louie at a very young age, but Susie and Taurus lived fairly long lives. I will have to add pictures of Missy and her brood at some later point.
My parents went on to have more cats and now have Honey as their sole pet, the others all being long gone. But beginning in 1975 I started having my own home with my own pets. Our first cat was Kahlua, inspired not by her looks but by the ingredient in my then favorite drink, a Black Russian. Kahlua was not the prettiest or the smartest or the sweetest cat, but she was our first cat together, and we loved her.
A few years later we adopted Blaze, a kitten from a litter of one of my Connecticut cousins’ cats. She was gorgeous and affectionate and funny, and I was heartbroken when she disappeared one day, never to return. I posted signs everywhere, called everywhere, but never could find her. Somehow I still had not learned that cats are not safe roaming around the streets of suburbia. I was so devastated that we did not get a second cat for a long time after that. Instead we had human babies, who kept our lives busy and filled with love.
Blaze and Kahlua
Kahlua lived as a solo pet for many years until our own children clamored for a kitten. We adopted Wheatie, who looked just like Little Bit to me, and my younger daughter Maddy dragged him around just as I had dragged Pixie around three decades earlier. But we still had not learned our lesson, and Wheatie was killed by a car as a young cat, and we were once again heartbroken.
Maddy and Wheatie
But then we got Sneakers. And he was the best cat we ever had (until the two we now have who rival Sneakers in personality and sweetness). I picked him out at a vet’s office that had a litter they were trying to find homes for, and I picked him because he walked right up to me. I knew he was a people cat, unlike Kahlua, and I knew he would be great with my kids. And he was. He was playful all his life and affectionate and smart and clean and independent. When I taught at night, I would come home to nap first, and I would place him next to me; his purring would put me to sleep. He regularly slept with Maddy, cuddled up around her head. Once he disappeared for a week, and that was when we finally stopped letting our cats outside. I knew I would never forgive myself if we lost Sneakers. He would frequently bolt out the door, and we would all race outside, chasing him around the yard and the neighborhood until we caught him and brought him home. Sheakers lived a good long life, and he was a true gentleman until the end.
When Kahlua died also at a ripe old age, we got Lily, who, to be honest, was not really a people cat. She did not like to be held, and she preferred her own company most of the time.
And then we got a dog. Just as I had wanted a dog as a child, Maddy wanted a dog and kept asking for a dog until we finally agreed. I’d been reluctant because dogs are a lot more work than cats, and we were both working full time and had little time for anything besides our kids and cats. But inside I also missed having a dog. And so I started looking until I saw an ad for a year old collie. Having grown up watching Lassie religiously, I’d always wanted a collie. One cold January morning in 1994, Harvey and I drove to Ware, about 20 miles away, and met Zapper. He was a big and beautiful collie, living in a small apartment with a couple and their three children under five years old. The wife did not want to keep the dog, but the husband was heartbroken to give him away. We assured him that we would take good care of him, and we did. He was a wonderful dog—sweet, protective, playful, smart and so beautiful. Aside from barking way too much and jumping up on people until we trained him not to, he never did anything wrong. Except get sick far too young. He was only seven when he died.
Around the same time we lost Zap, we also lost a cat we had for only a short time named Simon. He was the funniest cat I’ve ever had—he just was mischievous and would sit in the funniest positions. He made me laugh every day until the day he ate some lilies we had the house. We never knew that they were poisonous to cats, and Simon died within a day of getting into those flowers. Between Simon and Zapper, I wasn’t sure I’d ever get another pet again.
But I did. Six months later I saw an ad for a female collie who was at the local pound. We went to see her–she was skinny, dirty and hyper as could be. Maddy and Harvey (Rebecca was off at college) thought I was crazy, but I wanted her and knew she would be a great dog. And she is. She is now almost fourteen and has been with us for almost thirteen years. She was a bit wild and skittish at first, but soon settled into be the best dog in the world. Like Zapper, she is sweet and smart and playful, and she doesn’t bark or jump on people. She just wants to be with her people and be loved. She’s deaf now and has trouble walking, but she is still a magnificent dog.
When Sneakers and Lily were both gone, we decided that we would adopt two cats from the same litter so that they would have each other for company. By this time (2008), our kids were grown and out of the house, and we did not want a solo cat to be lonely all day while we were working. So we adopted Smokey and Luna. I can’t even begin to describe how much I love these two cats. Smokey thinks he is Cassie’s baby and still tries to nurse on the poor old dog, who loves him and plays with him and tolerates anything he does. Luna is like Sneakers—a people cat from day one. She is a cuddler, constantly purring, and doesn’t know how to hiss as far as we can tell (nor does Smokey). These two have never been outside and never will. I will keep them safe for as long as I can. They are my babies.
So now you know that I will one day be that crazy cat lady. Or maybe I already am….