Charlie, my little cat, hailed from Calais, Maine, near the banks of the St. Croix, along the border with Canada.
I can imagine him in a white Dixie cup sailor’s hat as he dashed after a yellow perch. Well, that probably never happened, but if any of it did, it all happened before I knew him.
The Charlie I adopted and loved had grown into a cultured fastidious fellow. By the time I met him he was 12, and had long ago traded in adventures for family life.
My friends called him a little gentleman. I called him my velvet gentleman, after his silky velvet fur suit, shades of Eric Satie.
Because I had him only two months before he died, I was anxious to know more about his past. Sure, I knew the unwritten rule in adoption – no contact with the pet’s former people, and I did hesitate to break it.
Truth is, all but one of my pets (not counting the turtles) have been rescues, with pasts mothballed in mystery. What was Lucky’s real name before he turned up a stray at Prospect Park in Brooklyn? Did it matter? I was used to not knowing.
But earlier this year, I had read “Little Boy Blue,” Kim Kavin’s book about her adopted pet’s journey from a shelter down South.
I decided to act like a reporter and discover Charlie’s past. This time it mattered, because I had only a handful of memories, a couple of photographs and a few clues.
I knew his first family took good care of him and only gave him up because age and serious illness prevented his mother from keeping him. I could see she had lavished a lot of love on him. Charlie reflected that.
Looking at his medical records, I saw a contact name, which I assumed belonged to the staff director at an assisted living complex in Rhode Island. It was a start. But I thought about it another week before I made the call. Was it the wrong thing to do? I called the number, realized the time was 8:30 a.m. and hastily hung up. Then I called back around 10.
What happened next became Charlie’s gift to his two families.
The contact name turned out to be Charlie’s mother, and she was as gracious and kind as he was.
“He was my cat,” she said, and she would be happy to talk about him. She didn’t know he had died. She thanked me for telling her, even though it was sad news.
I adopted Charlie on Christmas Eve, and she learned the same day he had found a home. It was a wonderful Christmas present, she said. Her only wish was that Charlie would be adopted, with a house to roam – preferably with a cellar (more on that later.) She told me he was one of five family cats – all strays. The four others had died of cancer. Then Charlie was the only one left.
The last two years had been hard on him.
“My husband and I had to move, and it was upsetting” for Charlie, she said. The little fellow had trouble adjusting. Then after only two months in their new home, her husband suffered a stroke and died.
Charlie missed his Daddy, and he mourned.
“He was Dad’s boy,” her daughter Deb said. Charlie had been the baby of the family.
“My parents had four older cats, and Charlie ruled the roost! Eventually, the older cats passed on, and Charlie was the center of my parents’ world.”
Yes, they indulged him.
“Charlie had the run of their house and especially enjoyed the old cellar where he spent many days tracking and chasing the field mice that found their way in,” Deb said. “He loved his ‘hidey holes’ and he had many. He was such a big baby. He loved for me to rock him and Mom would feed him applesauce like he was a little toddler. He was one of the most loving cats I have ever met.”
“My parents took Charlie in from my niece when he was just a kitten,” said her daughter Diane. He moved in “just a couple of months before my father had a heart attack, and my sister and I were first introduced to him when we showed up at the house to take care of things while my Dad was in the hospital.”
Charlie kept one eye on the strangers, she said.
“He policed our steps for the entire time we were there, lost himself under all the trash bags and managed to get far enough underfoot that I stepped hard on his tail,” she said. But he was ok, they finally decided.
“My daughter was 5 when my parents got Charlie, and throughout the next few years, they had pretty much a sibling relationship,” she said. He did love Eryn “and loved to get on her nerves. “
“When we would visit in the summer, he would go through her suitcase and steal stuff (only her suitcase, never mine). I’d be talking with Mom in the kitchen and we would hear her bellow, he’s got my sock (or T-shirt or toy). We would see Charlie bolting for the cellar with whatever he stole from her,” she said.
In later years, when they visited her mother, Eryn and Charlie “would hang out in the bedroom together for hours,” she said. “He always knew when it was time for us to leave and would mope around our suitcases.”
But time passed and, eventually, their mother realized she could no longer take care of him.
“It killed me to give him up,” she said, but it seemed like the right thing to do. She consulted her children and her granddaughter. They all loved Charlie, but they couldn’t take him home. Either they had other pets – Charlie wanted to be the one and only – or they had young children. Except for Eryn, little people scared him.
Since one granddaughter volunteered at the local humane society, she surrendered Charlie there. The family checked the rescue website every day for any Charlie updates, her daughter Diane said.
“I checked on Christmas Eve and saw he had been adopted,” she said. “When I called my Mom to tell her, she burst into tears. I was afraid I had upset her terribly, but she said she was crying out of happiness.”
Charlie’s first mother still imagines him waiting at the door when she returns.
“It takes a long time to get used to them not being there,” Mary said.
I told her he waited at the door for me, too, and he made the house a comfort for me.
“They do that,” she said.
I told her about his little hiding places.
Oh, yes, she said. Charlie loved to crawl into the cabinets and make a little nest.
Charlie died Feb. 28, 2015, on my Aunt Margaret’s birthday. I had him for two months and two days. Now I have the story of his first 12 years, and they know all about his girlfriend, Olive Oyl, and his office in my cellar.
They thanked me for taking care of him, and I thanked them for sharing him and his story.
He will always be “our Charlie.”
Margo Ann Sullivan is a pet columnist who has written for ZooToo, and numerous publications in New York and in New England. She’s had pets all her life, starting with a rescue collie named Lollypop. The Gabby Dog column chases the news that helps pets and people. It also chronicles the adventures of Gabby, the peek-a-poo, and Asia, the tabby cat, and their many pals, hitting the high spots between Providence, RI, and Manchester, NH.
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