"In ancient times, cats were worshiped as gods; they have never forgotten this." - Anonymous
American writer and humorist Mark Twain had a fondness for cigars, big houses and cats. In photo after photo, we can still see him clinching the first in his jaws, sitting amidst the luxury of the second, and holding the third in his lap.
Several years ago, my family took a summer vacation to New York. We eventually found ourselves in Elmira, where Twain spent much of his time writing in a tiny octagonal cabin his wife had built for him near the rolling hills of his sister-in-law's home, Quarry Farm. In an archive at the small college in town, I saw old snapshots of Twain holding his cats, or sitting on his porch in a rocker with them, or stroking them as they crawled across his legs or found some comfortable niche on his writing table.
Twain once said, "I simply can't resist a cat, especially a purring one. They are the cleanest, cunningest, and most intelligent things I know, outside of the girl you love, of course."
Geoffrey Ward, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan wrote a wonderful illustrated biography about Twain, and through it I discovered that Twain inherited his fondness for cats from his mother, and from his childhood loved having them around him. "Next to a wife whom I idolize," Twain once wrote in a letter, "give me a cat - an old cat, with kittens."
Twain loved to name his cats, something that my family always seems to find a challenge in doing. Among those he bestowed were Lazy, Sour Mash, Buffalo Bill, and a black mother cat he called Satan, and its kitten, Sin.
In the summer of 1906, Twain actually rented three kittens from a farmer's wife near Dublin, N.H., to keep him company as he wrote, and promised that he'd return the cats to their owner before he left for New York. He named the gray one Ashes, but called both the black kittens Sackcloth since, "when you call one, the other is likely to answer, because they cannot tell each other apart."
In later years, when Twain moved to Connecticut, he found it amusing that one of his kittens "likes to be crammed into a corner-pocket of the billiard table - which he fits snugly as a finger in a glove, and then he watches the game by the hour and spoils many a shot by putting out his paw and changing the direction of a passing ball." It was in those last bitter years, after his wife and children had died, that Twain seemed to most need the distraction.
I fancy myself to be somewhat of a writer, and like Twain, I, too, am often accompanied by our family cats in the process, whether I ask for the companionship or not. Just this morning, a gray kitten that my son found orphaned at our church with a broken leg and countable ribs, spent a good bit of time snoozing on a pile of papers on my desk while I worked on my computer. Pip - the name was lifted from Charles Dickens' tale of a needy boy, "Great Expectations" - will chase anything that is thrown, flies or crawls by. He's also taken a liking to the late-evening reading sessions I have in bed, and he seems to always want to sit above my head on the pillow as if he's reading right along with me. I think he's faking it.
Of our cats, we've had Arthur the longest. Named after the fabled king, this burly and surly loner was ironically a pathetic runt as a kitten and seemed to be doomed to a short and miserable life, but a trip to the vet, and a healthier number of trips to the feeding dish eventually helped him expand into the Garfieldesque malcontent that he is. He often likes to sprawl on the rug near my desk as the morning sun peeks through my blinds and moves across the floor, but Arthur will only take so many well-intended pats or scratches before he inflicts a little pain; attention to him has to be his idea.
George - named after the "Seinfeld" character - my daughter's cat, was the offspring of the kind of homeless stray we see so often here in the country. Unlike Costanza, he is thin and long, and he often likes to knock my trash basket over, dig out all the paper, then stare at me through the gaps in his wicker wonderland. He is quiet and clean and even on the hottest of days likes the warmth of the air that filters out of the front of our refrigerator.
Max - named after the mad servant/director in "Sunset Boulevard" - is, to put it kindly, not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He spends most of his day prowling the woods behind our place, has a meow that makes raked fingernails on a blackboard sound pleasant, and seems to be fascinated with scurrying through doors. I am certain that if I were to open a door to a blast furnace, Max would run through it without hesitation. It is this cat that brings to mind the truth in Ellen Berkley's words: "As every cat owner knows, no one owns a cat."
Like Twain, my history with cats has been long. A few years ago I found an old black-and-white snapshot of me sitting on the concrete step of my grandma's house in bibbed shorts and white T-shirt; I am 2 or so, have a mop of white-blond hair, and sport a black eye. I am offering the photographer a little two-toned kitten as if I've had enough of him for a while. I don't think there has ever been a time since when I didn't have a cat, or more accurately put, a cat didn't have me.
When I think of great writing, I think of a passage in "Huckleberry Finn" where Huck considers all the reasons he has for turning in his escaped slave friend, Jim, the weightiest of which being he may burn in hell; after all, he had heard a minister say so. In the end, Huck decides he'll have to take his chances with eternal damnation, because he can't betray Jim.
I don't delude myself into thinking I can write anything like those wonderful words by Twain; I have no Tom Sawyers or Puddin'head Wilsons in me. But I can let our cats lie on my desktop or snoop among my papers and books, or I can reach down with a spare foot to scratch their stomachs as they purr under my chair. With Twain, I have that in common.