Throughout the course of my life, I have fortunately had many great, sage role models, folks wise beyond reason, who’ve served as teachers, mentors, friends, and family. When I think back over all of the people who’ve taught me the most, though, there is one that stands out. Her name was Boo and she was a dark tabby cat who lived with my family for nineteen years.
Boo was right out of kittenhood when she came to stay with us. I was probably around five-years-old and I was so excited for her arrival. Our first family pet, Muffin, also a dark tabby cat, had passed away suddenly after running head first into our grandfather clock — you can’t make this stuff up. And while we missed Muffin, my mother, a music teacher, had a former student who needed someone to take care of her cat while she went to work on a cruise line for two weeks. I’m sure my mom thought, sure, easy gig, it’ll make the kids happy to have a pet for a bit.
And so Boo came to stay.
Boo was the name she came with, also — her real name was actually “Booshwa,” slang for bourgeois, though my mom’s student said she thought Booshwa “might be a bad word,” and so she changed it for our delicate sensibilities, youngins that my brothers and I were. Boo turned out to be far more appropriate since what this cat actually did was scare the shit out of us on a daily basis. Even my father, a six-foot-three man, was afraid of her. She still had her claws and she had an awfully terrifying growl that was frequently followed by a spitting hiss. She liked to hide at the bottom of the stairs and come flying out from nowhere to attack anyone who dared come down. She especially hated men since, we later learned, my mother’s student lived with her boyfriend who used to shut Boo in the closet when he was left alone with her.
This cat was a nightmare pet for a home with three small children — my older brother Casey being probably 7 and my younger brother Joshua being 3. But my father, especially, was bound and determined to win this beast over. So he spent time hanging out near her, inching ever closer to the point where she allowed him to pet her, and before you knew it, my dad and Boo were the best of friends.
I’m not entirely sure how long this process took since the original plan for us to have Boo for two weeks stretched into a third week and then a fourth and then a few more months as her owner kept returning to the cruise line for more gigs until finally there was no more discussion about when this ornery cat might leave our home. I’m not sure her original owner officially gave her up, but she certainly became ours — and that cat was in charge.
She chilled out on the sneak attacks but would still, on occasion, express her displeasure at our youthful exuberance. She liked to sit on top of the refrigerator and swipe her paw at unsuspecting passers-by. She found a crawl space in the basement that allowed her to peer down on anyone doing laundry so you’d get that creepy sensation that someone was watching and get a real jolt if you turned around and caught a glimpse of those shiny cat eyes reflecting at you. And, man oh man, don’t leave chicken on your plate or she will eat it. She’d jump right onto the table and snatch whatever she wanted and which one of us was going to tell her she couldn’t? Boo was a tough old broad who didn’t take any shit.
And, oh my, did we love her.
She learned to love us all, too, but none more so than my father. Just like Muffin, the cat who came before her, she liked to sleep in his briefcase and whenever he was home, she was never too far out of reach. She followed him everywhere and they became the best of friends, which was also a miracle as far as my father was concerned since he’d grown up on a farm where cats were outdoor animals who lived in the barn. He’d agreed to have a cat in the house because his tiny blonde daughter (hey, that’s me!) wanted one so, but he had not been jazzed about Muffin or Boo coming to live with us. But seeing the loving bond he formed with this cat who’d gotten her start by terrorizing us was a beautiful thing.
After we’d had Boo in our home for awhile, the decision was made that it was time for us to get a kitten. We’d never had a kitten before, since both Muffin and Boo were adult cats by the time we got them, so my now six-year-old brain was totally wow’d. She was a dark tortoiseshell kitten who purred from the word go and was my constant companion. I named her Bubbles and she was one of the early loves of my life.
While it was an easy fit for Bubbles and me, we all worried how Boo might respond to this…intruder. But an interesting thing happened: Boo adopted Bubbles as if she were her own kitten, grooming her and cuddling with her and showing her the ropes. Maybe it was a sign that Boo was learning to love and trust, something none of us were sure she’d be able to do when she first came to live with us.
When my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March 1986, everything changed as he spent more and more time in the hospital. My mother’s parents came to stay with us so she could spend time with her husband as they battled this aggressive disease that my brothers and I were too young to understand. Boo become even more devoted to Bubbles during this time, so it only became that much more heartbreaking when we discovered that Bubbles, my beloved kitten, had a tumor growing in her throat and we had to make the difficult decision to put her to sleep.
And a week after we buried her in the backyard next to Muffin, my father died, too.
When I was in grad school at Emerson College, I wrote an essay for a memoir writing class about the very same photo of me with Bubbles that I’ve included here. The assignment was to write a story about the time surrounding a selected photo from our childhood and so it became an essay about the days, weeks, months, and year before my father died. You can read it here if you’re interested. It’s always been interesting to me how entangled the story of his death and the lives of our cats — especially Muffin, Bubbles, and Boo — is, especially since he never wanted us to have indoor cats to begin with.
After my father died — and after Bubble’s died — all of our lives changed, even Boo’s. The two friends she cherished most on the planet were gone in the blink of an eye and I don’t think she ever got over it. We had many other cats come to live with us over the course of her life (and you better believe she outlived them all), but she never bonded with any of them like she did with Bubbles. She did love my mother and my brothers and me — especially my older brother Casey — but it wasn’t the same as her devotion to my father. It was like she knew to give just enough not to get hurt — that she’d learned her lesson the hard way. But she was a survivor, so she continued on, stronger than ever, a real matriarch in our household.
And as my childhood rolled on, Boo became more and more in charge of, well, everything. When we had parties, she’d sit in the middle of the kitchen table and survey those coming and going. Better not try and pet her — she will stare you down. And don’t leave cake out, because she’ll definitely eat it. Even if she has to knock it off the table or chew through the box. One time, she even managed to open a cupboard, climb onto a shelf and gnaw through a box of Twinkies because her sweet tooth was not to be stopped. We had to hide stuff like that in high shelves or in the oven or the microwave and I can only imagine how the wheels in her brain would spin as she tried to figure out a way around these cruel obstacles to her frosting addiction. Outside of that undeniable sweet tooth, she was tough as nails, strict as hell, but totally in love with our family. She took care of us more than we took care of her and I still feel her influence on my life to this day.
When she was maybe thirteen, we discovered a large mass growing on her back, so we took her to our vet. He told us that lumps on a dog were usually nothing — but lumps on a cat were often trouble — and he gave us the sad news that Boo had a malignant tumor that he could remove but her prognosis was still pretty dire. My mother agreed to have the surgery done, anyway, and a miraculous thing happened: when we brought Boo home, what she did was spend all day laying in sunny spots, listening to classical music. She loved classical music. So if we put a radio with classical music in a sunny spot, she’d lay with her head next to the speaker, purring audibly as she worked to heal herself post-surgery. It was truly unreal. And the vet was shocked at her next check up to see that Boo was doing even better than she had been doing before the tumor was discovered.
That tumor returned two more times over the next few years, each time with my mother opting for the surgery, each time with Boo recovering in record time. Sunshine and classical music were her cure-alls. Those images of her basking in the warmth will never be erased from my brain.
As she got older, Boo developed another odd habit — she’d sometimes wander through the dark house at night making the most mournful, yelping, unnatural sounds. I always wondered if she was being visited by my father or by Bubbles or by other forces from the Great Beyond. There was something so pungent about hearing her cry like that and if I could, I’d go to her and cuddle with her until she calmed down. It was a sadness that sticks with me just as much as her ability to go to the sun to heal.
I realized when I sat down to write about her today that I don’t have a single photo of her. But I can see her, clear as day, in my mind’s eye and it warms my heart to think of this complex beast of a cat. She taught me so much about life and survival and love and fear and growth and adaptation. She was a true friend, a guardian, a protective force. I’ve known many cats in my life but there will never be one like Boo. She came into our lives for a very concrete reason: to be an example of how to overcome. I loved her very much and was always sad I didn’t get to say a final goodbye to her before my mother made the necessary choice to put her to sleep, ailing as she was in her ancient years. But like all great loves, I carry her with me in my heart, in my mind, in my soul, and always will, still learning from her example, still relishing in telling the story of her life.
Boo was one of the greats. She was an epic tale trapped in a body with a twitching, gray and black stripped tail. I am thankful for the many years she was part of our family and still think of her as a role model. I certainly go to the sunny spot whenever I need to heal and never turn down a piece of cake. All in loving memory of the cat that would have been Booshwa if the fates had allowed it.
Writing sample from Inspired in 2017. Originally posted on December 12, 2017.