Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, November 30, 2014

My Friend Prissy

When Prissy came into my life, I was not sure how well she would blend with Ramesses, my only other cat at the time. Prissy remained in a cage for a few hours while Ramesses growled at her. When he finally stalked off, I released Prissy so that she could explore her new home.

Her markings were striking: four white feet and a shiny black coat. At first, Prissy was aloof, but, soon enough, she adopted me as her friend. Every night, she leaped onto the bed and snuggled on the blanket that covered my feet. I felt her adjust her own feet beneath her several times before she was content that each paw was in the perfect place. Purring ensued, and I drifted off to sleep.

Prissy Posing for a Snapshot
But Prissy had an annoying habit. If, by accident, I had left a plastic bag anywhere on the floor of the bedroom, she made the bag her toy at precisely 2:00 a.m. As I was always sound asleep when the irritating game began, I do not know what her initial move was. I suspect she quietly jumped down from the bed to assure herself that there indeed was a plastic bag in the room. Next, she may have taken several steps away from the prey. I picture her turning to confront her quarry. She may have spent several minutes planning her attack. Suddenly, she ran and pounced! Smack, smack, smack! Her paws pummeled the plastic! And I was wide awake!

I always told myself, “Go back to sleep. It’s only Prissy with a plastic bag.” A few moments of stillness helped me to sink back toward dreamland, then smack, smack, smack! She was at it again! Viciously hammering the plastic and pushing the bag around the floor! Irked beyond measure, I flew from the bed, grabbed the bag, stuffed it in the wastebasket, climbed back in bed, jerked the blanket up to my chin, and tried to sleep. Tried. Tried. Tried. No go.

At 2:15 a.m., I sipped a cup of coffee in the kitchen while Prissy looked up at me with her friendly eyes. How could I long be mad at such a gorgeous cat?

I took seriously the warnings that cat collars should be of the breakaway style, so that cats could easily escape whenever the collars snagged on furniture or shrubs. Prissy wore a fashionable blue breakaway collar.

I lived in the city, and the cats were permitted in the back yard, which was surrounded by a privacy fence. One day, I discovered that the gate had been left open by mistake. Ramesses was in the house, but Prissy had been in the yard. I searched for her, but she was gone.

I sank into a frenzy of despair. I routinely scoured the neighborhood and shouted her name until I was a nuisance. I posted pictures of her. After two weeks, I had come to the realization that I probably would never see her again. I missed her terribly. Whenever I emptied the plastic bags after shopping, I thought of her.

Holding a cup of coffee, I was staring absent-mindedly through the kitchen window, and I saw Prissy limping up the driveway to the house. I flung down the cup and raced to her. I gathered her in my arms, and she purred. She had lost weight. Worst of all, one of her front legs was thrust through her breakaway collar, which had not broken away! She was forced to walk on three legs because she could not remove the other leg from the collar. I tore it from her and threw it in the trash. She was mightily relieved to have the use of all four legs again.

My Sumi-e Painting of Prissy
For years after almost losing Prissy, I treasured her. I gave her plastic bags to play with, but, before going to bed, I made sure they were out of reach. Prissy moved with me to a new home, and she adjusted well to her new surroundings. She was my constant companion and was never lost again.

Prissy lived to a ripe old age. Whenever I remember her, I think how much she gladdened my heart.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

My Friend Ramesses

From the beginning, I should have known he was going to be a bad cat. I had taken a neighbor’s cat to the vet, and the vet had asked me if I wanted a kitten. I had said no, but the vet had urged me to see the kitten before rejecting it. Before I could resist, the vet had brought me a cardboard box with a reddish orange kitten in the bottom. Active and alert, the kitten stumbled around the box, his tiny tail pointing up like an aloe leaf. When his eyes met mine, I knew I could not refuse the new member of my life.

My Snapshot of Ramesses Seeing Himself in a Mirror
So Ramesses came home with me. Whatever plans I had made for the rest of the day I abandoned while I made trips to the nearby pet store to obtain everything I needed for the care and feeding of a cat. Ramesses played and played, never growing tired. Eventually, I had to go to sleep, or else I would be groggy at work the next morning.

The day dawned, and I called for Ramesses. He didn’t come. “He doesn’t know his name yet,” I realized. After showering and dressing for the office, I took the garbage bag from the kitchen, dumped it in the can outside, and hauled the can to the street for the garbage man. Still no sign of Ramesses! I began to worry and I searched the house. I looked under furniture and explored dark corners with a flashlight. Meanwhile, I heard the rumbling of the garbage truck outdoors.

In a flash of horror, I thought, “He crawled inside the garbage bag!” I ran toward the street, but the truck had already left. I jumped in my car and chased the truck, finally catching up with it at the top of my subdivision. The driver must have thought I was deranged. With tears wobbling in my eyes, I blurted out that my new kitten must have been hiding in my garbage bag. The garbage man assumed his gentlest manner and said that a kitten could not have survived the crushing motion of the truck’s mechanism.

I felt crushed, too. As I drove back to my house to get my briefcase, tears dripped from my chin. I retrieved my briefcase from the room across the hall from my bedroom, and I stepped into the bedroom to make sure I had turned off the light. As I switched off the lamp beside the bed, I thought I saw something. It was between the nightstand and the wall and was sticking out from under the nightstand. It was the tip of a tiny orange tail.

Somehow, Ramesses had wedged between the nightstand and the wall and had found a small cavity beneath the nightstand that he could access only from the back. When I jerked away the nightstand, there he was, sound asleep!

I was overjoyed … and mad! I picked him up, and he purred. In the night, he had wanted to be near me and had found his secure hideaway next to my bed. He was obviously proud of himself. “You gave me a bad scare!” I repeated as I took him downstairs, put him in the kitchen where his food and litter box were located, and closed the doors to the kitchen. I was not going to go looking for him when I got home from work!

Right then and there, I should have known he was going to be a bad cat. I let him have the run of the house. One day I returned home to find that Ramesses had invented a game. He clawed his way up the rattan wallpaper in the living room until he reached the ceiling. From there, he jumped to the floor. He ran back to the wall and clawed his way up again. While I was away, he had scratched a channel up the wallpaper. The frayed rattan fibers were hanging like fringe from floor to ceiling.

One of Ramesses’ favorite games was smash. Around two or three in the morning, a crash somewhere on the first floor of my house would knock me awake, and I would sit bolt upright in bed with every nerve straining to hear the burglar’s footsteps. Heart thumping, I would grab my flashlight and sneak downstairs to confront the trespasser. Then I would find that I had left a drinking glass on the kitchen counter and that Ramesses had found it irresistible. He had knocked it off, and it had smashed across the tile floor. I soon learned to store all glass items behind cabinet doors, but, every now and then, I would forget a glass or a bowl. That night, Ramesses would play smash again. Once, before I could run across the room, he smashed a tumbler, and I noted how he crouched at the edge of the kitchen counter to watch in fascination as the sparkling shards shot in all directions. He was like a kid at a fireworks display.

But you had to love him! Whenever I took a bath, he begged to be lifted up and dropped into the water, where he swam gleefully. I trained him to walk on a leash, and he and I took many trips to a nature center where we hit the trails. He especially liked the pier beside the goldfish pond. I had to hold him back, so that he would not dive in! Visitors to the center were surprised to see a cat on a leash, and I had numerous conversations with articulate citizens who felt compelled to pet him.

My Photo of Ramesses Contemplating Buddha
Ramesses shared a seventeen-year chunk of my life and moved with me four times. I always knew that, as independent and mischievous as he was, he would share the tragedies I experienced. He seemed to know when times were bad and would snuggle beside me in a chair or on a sofa. I always appreciated his support and understanding.

There came a time when the vet said my best choice was to put Ramesses to sleep. He was old, and his kidneys were failing. I lifted Ramesses to my shoulder one last time; I could feel him looking around, as he always did from such a high perch. He was always curious about everything. He started to purr.

Ramesses lies buried near the creek. I imagine him prowling beside the water and watching for goldfish. I should have known he was going to be a loving cat, an unforgettable cat, and the best cat of them all! 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

My Friend Spot

Not long before Christmas when my brother and I were in grade school, our parents took us on a drive to a nearby town. The day was bitterly cold. When we parked at a house unknown to us, my brother and I wondered what was going on. A man whom we had never met before led us to an outbuilding. Inside was a pen filled with yelping fox terrier puppies. The liveliest of the bunch propped his front paws up high on the fencing and joyfully barked a good puppy bark at us. Our father lifted him from the pen and handed him to the breeder, who promptly put him in a cardboard box. “Maybe the box will help keep him warm,” the seller said as he accepted our father’s cash for the dog.

My brother and I crowded against the sides of the box placed between us in the back seat of the Chevrolet. Our mother turned toward us from the front seat and asked, “What are you going to call him?” I had just lifted the lid to peer in wonder at the puppy, and I saw a prominent black oval in the center of his white back. “Spot!” I yelled. Our mother immediately agreed, and he was Spot from that day forward.

On Spot’s first night with us, our mother lay on a couch in front of a heating stove in the kitchen of our farmhouse and kept the puppy next to her under the covers. She said he never whimpered for his littermates or mother. In the morning, he was raring to explore his new home. He was immediately one of us: a full member of our family, another son, another brother. Needless to say, Spot was the greatest Christmas present ever!

Our mother trained him to ask to go outside when needed, and he complied readily. He was so smart! He learned tricks the fastest of any dog in my experience. He shook a paw, he spoke on command, he played dead, and he rolled over, always with his characteristic enthusiasm. He was the happiest creature on earth, and one of the most energetic!

Spot and My Brother
My brother and I romped with Spot endlessly. When I look back on those times, how soon tears of cheerful memory sting my eyes! Spot shared the most jubilant years of my fun-filled childhood!

Spot had one habit that none of us appreciated: if the front gate to our yard were opened the least bit, Spot squeezed through and dashed downtown! Every time he escaped (and he escaped often), a mad chase ensued. My brother and I ran after him until our lungs were aching. Our father jumped in the car and drove after Spot with the driver door hanging open. Around the streets of the village we went, while Spot cut through yards, dove under hedges, and sped across sidewalks. We were so agitated that my brother and I were willing to throw ourselves forward to tackle Spot, and, whenever we tried to grab him, he would tuck his tail down and run the harder, with his back legs digging in and kicking him forward. All the while, he had the biggest grin on his face! He loved the game!

Each time, Spot eventually sensed that we were tuckered out. He declared himself the winner and cantered toward the car, slowing down just enough to leap gracefully over our father’s lap and into the passenger’s side. Gasping for breath, my brother and I would slowly seat ourselves in back and slump with such sore muscles!

During the chases, we usually kept Spot in view, but, occasionally, he ran too fast and lost us for a minute or two. Once, after he had been out of sight, he ran back to us with a gash on his side. Maybe a vehicle struck him slightly or maybe he caught his skin on something sharp. Anyway, we took him straight to the vet, who gave him a few stitches. That evening and for the next several days, we pampered him. He was already spoiled, but we treated him as if he were an injured king. Of course, he adored all the attention!

When we moved a few miles into the country, Spot encountered a gate that he could not slip through, but he gave no sign of feeling trapped. Besides, we hauled him everywhere in the car and the pickup truck. He was outside the yard with us more often than he was inside the yard of our new home.

Our mother insisted that Spot not sleep on the beds; his bed was a blanket beneath our parents’ bed. Whenever he was sure that our parents were sound asleep, he quietly came to my room and jumped up on my bed. I groggily pet him, and he snuggled down to a good night’s rest. Just before my father awakened to do his chores, Spot sneaked back to our parents’ room. As far as I know, our parents never knew that Spot slept on my bed for several hours each night.

Throughout his life, Spot never lost his youthful energy and enthusiasm. He hated to see my brother go away to college, and, two years later, he hated to see me do the same. His greatest joy was when we came home for breaks and holidays.

I still remember how shocked I felt when our father called me at college to say that Spot had gone rapidly downhill and had been put to his long sleep. My father’s voice cracked while telling me.

Spot’s death was the first of those that have come to my immediate family, and, as the first, his was particularly melancholy. The passing of many years since that mournful day has softened the sadness to a large degree. Now when I remember Spot, I recall merriment, elation, hilarity, and rejoicing. He made my early life most memorable.


Sunday, November 9, 2014

My Friend Buttercup

When Buttercup was a newborn, velvety, wobbly calf, my parents, my brother, and I knew she was special. We had a small herd of purebred Holstein cows and were always seeking calves with the characteristics deemed best for the breed. Buttercup had many of those qualities. More importantly, she was full of life.

“Full of life” is a description that I just now chose after first struggling to think of a way to pinpoint exactly what made Buttercup so different. By the expression, I mean that she loved every minute of existence, she felt curious about everything in her environment, she adored attention, and she looked forward to the county fair every year.

My reference to the county fair deserves explanation. After her positive experience at her first fair, when she won a championship ribbon in the coliseum, she understood that she was going to return to the fairgrounds a year later, and she stepped confidently into the pickup truck to be hauled there. The darling of children, Buttercup occupied a corner stall in the dairy barn. She extended her nose and graceful neck toward boys and girls who ran up to pet her throughout the sunny days. She mooed pleasantly and fluttered her long lashes in a pretense of being bashful.

She knew she was divine. Never conceited, though, she would not permit her recognition of her own beauty to turn her head; rather, she kept the common touch, kindly nuzzling the hands of children.

In the ring, Buttercup remained calm. Her poise was remarkable. She quickly developed a rapport with the judge and played him like a fiddle. My brother showed Buttercup, but, really, she showed herself. She had complete knowledge of what was expected of her, and she delivered, posing to best advantage, striding like a fashion model on the runway, winking seductively at the judge. When my brother was handed yet another championship ribbon, Buttercup smiled, as if to say, “But of course!”

I was only a youngster. I wore a purple cap made to resemble Scrooge McDuck, Donald Duck’s uncle. The bill was orange plastic and quacked when squeezed. I spent warm afternoons at the fair sitting in the windowsill next to Buttercup and talking with kids my age who were petting the beloved cow. I was proud of my duck-billed hat, but I was even prouder of Buttercup, whose celebrity status made me feel out of the ordinary.
Buttercup, One of Her Calves, and My Father
Buttercup visited the fair for as many years as she was qualified, and she lived for many more years on our farm. She gave birth to calves. We kept hoping she would have a calf just like her, but fate and genetics did not oblige.

She was pampered; of that fact there can be no doubt. Even so, she did not allow herself to become spoiled.

When the pain of old age came to her, we asked the vet to do all in his power to keep Buttercup comfortable, and, when she died, we dug a deep hole and buried her on the farm: a tribute extended to only one cow.

Over thirty years later, I was invited to perform my play on Edgar A. Poe at Berea College. My host on campus was Neil Di Teresa, a brilliant artist. Neil happened to be working on a large canvas depicting a Holstein. The moment I saw the work, I exclaimed, “That’s just like Buttercup!”

“What did you say?” Neil asked.

“I said that your cow looks just like Buttercup,” I replied. The painting so perfectly captured the enchanting aura of Buttercup that I joyfully told Neil the story of my family’s favorite cow.

“I’ve been trying to think of a title for my painting,” Neil said, “and you just gave it to me.”

Then and there, the work was named Just Like Buttercup. I was delighted she had become memorialized in art. I could almost hear her moo, “But of course!”