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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

Cats in the Kitchen

March 2020

I've had two cats I liked more than the others. Phantom and Penny. Penny Penington had short, grey hair and lived at The Penington. He came as a kitten and became the cat in the kitchen, the basement, and the alley walls. His purpose was to kill the mice. My parents, and I, age seven, had moved to this small Quaker residential hotel in New York City. I used to thread needles for the old ladies who lived there, go to Winifred's room where she taught me how to curtsey to the King as she did when presented at the Court of St. James. She was old too, perhaps twenty-five. Sadie, the cook, and Alfred, the waiter and handyman, and the cat lived in the kitchen.

Sometimes I went out on the balcony off the parlors. The balcony edge rested one inch from the Meeting House well. I brought my ruler down to measure it. I liked knowing that, especially when we went to Meeting on Sundays. Meeting was an inch from where I lived and my school, Friends Seminary, was attached to the Meetinghouse.

I spent most of my playtime in the kitchen. Other than Winifred, it held my dearest friends. Sadie cooked when I first arrived in September. Albert, her husband, was handy with everything and looked like a butler in his black trousers and white jacket when he served the meals. Sometimes I sat on the bed in Sadie and Albert's narrow room to listen to them, talk to them. The two rooms off the kitchen each had a single cot. I used to think Sadie slept in one and Albert in the other, but then Anna moved in and I decided Sadie and Albert slept on their sides in one and Anna had the other room. Sadie and Albert were skinny and, therefore, easily huggable. Anna, the new cook who came around Christmas, was fat—fatter than my father and I couldn't get my arms around his waist. I guess I laid my arms around Anna's middle but they never reached very far.

My father and mother shared a room in the front on the second floor. My room was on the third floor in the back. My parents’ room was large with twin beds and the bureau in between the two windows that looked out onto 15th Street. Back by the door was the sink. None of the rooms had a toilet. Toilets were shared with the other residents of the floor. One had only a toilet and the other was a full bathroom. What I remember most clearly are their hexagonal tile floors.

My bedroom, way in the back and farthest from the bathrooms, was both short and narrow. I had a single bed, a desk and wood chair, and a small upholstered chair. Above my bed was a set of shelves, my bookcase. Beside my bookcase was the window from which I could see the concrete, fenced playground of Friends Seminary and look down on our courtyard to see if I saw Penny there. My sink was in a tiny alcove with my closet—a rod for clothes. I looked forward to brushing my teeth with Ipana toothpaste and its wintergreen flavor. What I liked about that room was that it was mine. True, I had my own bedroom in our Massachusetts house, but this was different. I was on my own floor far from my parents, the beginning of a room of my own years before I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

The Third Avenue El was a half a block away from The Penington and on about the same level as my room. Most nights it roared through my dreams. Every morning with calmness restored, my alarm woke me and after dressing and brushing my teeth, I went down to my parents’ room, tied my father’s tie in a Windsor knot, and hugged him. By spring my fingers touched when I put my arms around his waist. I thought he was getting thinner, but instead I had grown. Together, the three of us walked down to the garden level for breakfast. Even today, I often dream about the elegant Penington stairs in their curve from one floor to the next.  

My mother hated cats. Therefore, so did I until a kitten, Penny, arrived at The Penington. His job? Catch the mice. I went to the cellar with Albert a few times and accompanied him bringing up the restaurant-large cans of food. I didn't see any mice but I believed they existed, for Anna and Albert and Sadie would never lie to me and we had summer-only mice in our Massachusetts home. I began to go to the kitchen to play with Penny. Some days I had to go to the cellar to look for him and he let me carry him upstairs. Other times I crawled under the immense kitchen gas range to haul him out of the very back, both of us emerged covered with dust kittens. I enjoyed the simple pun, "Look, Sadie, he's a dust kitten!" Since Sadie was not well, I made it my personal mission to make her smile whenever I could. Some days she didn't smile but just patted me on the head as I held Penny. Penny was my playmate that year and Sadie, Albert, Anna, and English Winifred my confidantes.  One day, Sadie wasn’t there anymore. Where’s Sadie, I asked. The simple answer came. She died. I wanted to ask more but knew better.     

We moved to Maine for three years. In our first Maine fall, we learned that Lead Belly, the blues musician who played several instruments including a twelve-string guitar, died. My mother and I listened to Goodnight Irene, Midnight Special, Rock Island, and other songs as radio stations played tribute to him. My mother loved rhythm and always gave a little dance or swing of her hips while in the living room or doing the dishes. I later learned that he lived at Fourteenth Street and Third Avenue when he died, a block from The Penington. I liked that connection to a singer whom I respected.

When we returned to the City from Maine, Albert had died as well, but Anna still cooked there. I knew Winifred had moved back to England because my mother and I were still in frequent touch with her. We now lived in an apartment on Fifth Avenue, but I went by to visit Anna, The Penington, and Penny occasionally. I stopped to see them instead of going with my friends to Sam's Pizza Parlor on Fourteenth Street and Third Avenue, the corner storefront below where Lead Belly had lived when he died. I wish I had known that at age seven because I would have told my mother we had to go by to visit the man who was not well at all, but whose songs she and I liked.

On my first trip back to The Penington, I hugged Anna and asked about Penny. "Oh, Honey," Anna said, "You'll never find Penny. He's an alley cat now, out there screeching and howling." 

"Maybe he's in the basement, Anna."

"No matter. Nobody's touched him since you left. Nobody. Won't let anybody near him." At least he’s still alive, I thought.

As we chatted, around the corner from the basement he came. Jumped in my lap. Purred. As I patted him, fur flew to cover my navy blue school uniform, shoulder to hem, equal deposits everywhere. He got up on the table. I told him to get down, but Anna, smiling at the two of us, assured me she did not use that table for food prep. He let me stretch him out and I measured him with the yardstick—one yard long from nose to tail tip. He weighed in at 25 pounds. Why didn't T.S. Eliot include him in his Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, I wondered. He caterwauled day and night, lulling me to sleep as a child, and came home in the mornings with not a scratch. By now though, a middle-aged cat of five, he had scalloped ears and scars of toughened skin. But he remembered me as fondly, it seems, as I remembered him. I visited often, perhaps every few months. Later visits to Penny and Anna were easier when I returned to Friends Seminary for ninth grade.

Sometimes Anna and I just talked, for Penny was out carousing. I’d go out the back and call him, but he probably had some territory in crucial need of defense. Anna came from Baltimore and wanted to resign as cook and move back home. I told her I thought that was a good idea for, I thought to myself, I'd hate to see her drop dead at the stove. I found her to be a friend and knew I'd miss her. I don't remember what we talked about besides Penny, guests still there, my family, hers, but she was warm-natured and we liked one another. After Anna moved back to Baltimore and I went on to college, we wrote one another.

Penny died my senior year at Friends, a dominant ten-year-old New York alley cat, a little girl's best friend when he was a kitten, the one who taught me cats are affectionate, playful, have long memories, form relationships, and keep secrets.

Twenty years later, Phantom, like Penny, made an impression on my life. He was longhaired, all black, and a Bustopher Jones of a cat—elegant and self-assured. Seth brought him home one afternoon after school holding him upside down, the kitten’s tail around Seth’s neck. He and his friend had walked a block with him upside down and the kitten didn’t leap from his arms to run away. “Please, Mommy, please, can we keep him?” How could I resist my son’s voice and blue eyes pleading with me, but it wasn’t that. It was this kitten’s lackadaisical manner. Any kitten that calm can live in my house. I occasionally bought him catnip. He was not your usual roll-'em-up, scratch-the-couch, unwind-that-yarn cat. Catnip excited him for five minutes once or twice, then he slept by it or walked past with not a turn of the head. From the start, he was too blasé to play. He liked food, sunshine, and prowling. In summer, he sunbathed. In winter, he left for days and came home with snowballs clinging to his long winter fur. He did not like flea baths or his May poodle cut. He liked to lie on his back with his legs agape, get a tummy rub to his curls or a pat anywhere. He purred loudly only when old. He walked with a swagger and at seventeen, chased our 75-pound Chow-German Shepherd through the house; a part of his 'don't mess with my siesta' attitude.  He also chased a dog his size—eighteen pounds—a block down the road, and another time, he scratched and cowered into submission our neighbor's 150-pound dog. On the other hand, he was nonplussed when blue jays dive-bombed him and grabbed his hair. 

Our first winter in Alaska, he turned 18, his weight now reduced to four pounds. I placed his food dish on top of the fridge so the dog wouldn't eat it. We had spoiled Phantom well but I was not going to jump at each ''mrrow" to put him up there. I started by placing him on the stair next to the fridge and he'd leap the short space. Then I put him one step down, then the next one, then two down from that, then at the foot of the stairs until he finally walked with his old man swagger and gait from anywhere in the cabin, then hopped to the fridge. Lesson: You can teach an old cat new tricks. 

The vet came to town twice a year. It was the end of March and Robert and I decided it was time. Our appointment was for 4:00. I drove and Robert held Phantom. As I turned down Glen's Ditch Road, he said "I can't do it." I said I'd turn around and go home. Before I came to Old Same Road, he said we had to go ahead with euthanasia. Eighteen years since Seth brought him home. Upside down, chasing dogs, sweet smelling fur, ice on his belly hair, soft oh so soft, no I'm sleeping on your pillow—or your husband. He lay in Robert's lap when we watched the evening news, ate off Robert's plate as Robert did also. Robert told his secrets to this cat. No words necessary, just stroke, pat, think…the cat knows. 

Irreplaceable cats.

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