It started with a cat–an orange boy with a girl’s name–Holly.
“We’re ready to go,” my mother said, calling an end to my break. Leaning against our U-Haul I had been slurping soda from a can while watching the semi-animation of the Heffner’s gas station sign. It had two positions–that of a glowing red mule standing and that of the mule with its legs thrust out behind it with the slogan “Heffner’s It kicks!” lit up below. I dropped the soda can in a trash barrel and looked around for Holly, who I hoped had finished his pee break.
We were on our way to move in with my brother Danny in Lowell though he and my oldest brother Domenic weren’t with us. Danny had a big apartment that we could all share–everyone except our oldest sister Darlene who was already married with several kids. Her husband Ricky was a mountain of a man–he would have been a great help with the move.
I spotted Holly sniffing an island of grass ignoring the cars that moved around the island. The island had a small tree, and Holly stared at a grey squirrel perched at the top. As an outdoor cat, Holly would play with squirrels. My mother would scold him. “Holly, you’re going to get hurt chasing those squirrels.” Sure enough, he came home one day with a chunk taken out of his tail. We should have taken him to the vet, but vet bills were not in the budget for my mother–she was raising me alone with her salary from working in Leighton’s, a small bakery in Newburyport. We kept Holly’s tail as clean as possible, and eventually it healed. He wasn’t neutered, nor did he wear a flea collar or name tag. Every day my mother would walk me to daycare before going to work at the bakery. Holly would follow us, and when I went inside, he was off on whatever adventures a handsome unfixed tomcat would get himself into. One morning a particularly blustery storm was unleashing its force on the seaside town. The gusts blew our umbrella inside out several times, and the rain streaked from the sky stinging us with sharp drops. We looked behind us, and Holly had disappeared–a victim of the storm. Days went by, and Holly did not return. We feared the worst, but he had always returned in the past, so we had hope. At daycare a few days later, one of the teachers called out to the class of five and six-year-olds if anyone knew whose cat had appeared at the door. “That’s my cat! That’s Holly,” I shouted with joy. My mother worked the dayshift at the bakery, so Holly spent the day with the class. I asked, but he wouldn’t tell me about his exciting adventure following his kidnapping by the storm.
(One might think my mother had a penchant for giving boys girls names–since my name is Jan–but Holly was named by my brother Danny. In fact, I broke the string of D names. First was Darlene, and then Domenic, Danny, Dean, and the twins Diana and Demetri. I have a different father–possibly James–so the streak ended with the twins.)
A laid-back cat, Holly enjoyed lounging in the bathtub when it was empty. One night, as I took my nightly bath, Holly decided to join me without realizing the tub was filled with water. He leapt in and screeched as soon as his paws touched the water! With legs flailing, somehow he was able to reverse direction without touching the bottom. With wet legs and tummy, he ran from the bathroom as if the water were chasing him.
I tossed my can into the overflowing barrel. Dean’s friend Manuel dashed past me in an attempt to snatch up the cat and return him to his 1975 Pinto. Holly was always alert and much faster than the Puerto Rican; he dashed across the busy two-laned street.
We gathered beneath a tree on a residential lawn trying to coax Holly down with gentle words and promises of treats. He clung to the branch unmoving and unconvinced.
“Hey, get off my lawn!” cried the bathrobe-clad homeowner from behind his screen door. My mother tried to convince him to let us climb the tree–Manuel was already bolstering Dean into a low branch–but the property owner threatened to call the police thus ending the rescue attempt.
At age fifteen, Dean didn’t have the confidence of our older brothers Domenic or Danny. No doubt either one of them would have defied the property owners and climbed that tree to get my cat. Dommy would have rescued Holly and left before the police arrived, and Danny would have used his good looks and charisma to convince them to let him go with a warning. Knowing Danny, the police would have given him and Holly a ride home.
“But Holly won’t know we’re coming back for him. He doesn’t know where we live now.” I protested; I used my six-year-old logic and wisdom, but my mother didn’t have a better solution. “We will just wait here until he comes down,” I said. Like Holly, she was stubborn and intent on finishing our move.
I left him in that tree with a family that didn’t know him. We would come back a week later to call for him, but he likely made his way back to Newburyport, the only place he knew. Adult Jan would have insisted, but Child Jan did not know how to use his will to usurp authority. I don’t know that I was sad for his loss. He was simply gone, and the excitement and stress of relocating occupied my thoughts. I would think about him fondly over the years since then, regaling various girlfriends over the years with stories of my amazing cat Holly–the tub incident, his adventure in the storm, and his lost battle with the squirrel. It wasn’t until recently, as I write the story of Domenic, did I feel the loss of my cat. The boy cat I have now–Proton–is almost seventeen, and I have heard some cats live into their twenties. Assuming Holly found a new family and lived to be a senior cat, he may have lived fifteen more years without me and under a different name. He was still alive somewhere during everything that happened in my life as a young man. He might have been with us when Dommy was murdered. If I had known where to go, I could have driven to see him in my first car–a ‘79 Mustang–when I was seventeen, or when I graduated High School. He might have been at home after I was nearly killed in a car accident. He might have lived long enough to have been a ring bearer at my wedding a year later.
But he wasn’t there. I hope some other family enjoyed the scrappy orange cat for years. It isn’t until thirty-seven years later that I felt his loss as sadness instead of a fondness. It is the realization that he likely lived without me has brought on the feeling of heartache associated with deep loss.
The feelings of missing his long life are deep, but not so deep as if I knew he had died–been hit by a car, killed by a dog, or some medical ailment. The thought of him living without me is easier than the idea that he died before he could enjoy his life.
I would give anything for a picture of him. No one ever thought to take one.