Getting Catty With It

Cool Cat 2

Image taken from

Lately, I’ve been running into feline phrases, and this week, for some reason, I am driven to figure out their origins.

And there, I’ve done it again. I was going to try to build this essay slowly toward a focus. Instead, I’ve gone ahead and let the cat out of the bag.


This whole cat-language obsession started a week or two ago. I published a blog post that said something about a thing being kitty-corner from another thing. My friend Marcie responded.

“I’ve always said CATTY-corner,” she wrote. “Have I been wrong all my life?”

I had heard catty-corner, of course, once or twice; it sounded wrong to MY ears, but I was betting it was kind of a regional issue. So I looked it up.

The Grammarist ( told me this:

There are really THREE versions: kitty, catty, and CATER-corned. (The Grammarist prefers cater.) And they all come, the Grammarist tells me, from the Middle English catre-cornered, which means four-cornered. The term’s morphed through the years to today’s meaning–diagonally across the way,–and any of its forms are acceptable. The region in which we learn to use the term seems to define the choice.

So…no feline influence at all, at all. The Grammarist can keep her cater-,and Marcie can still use catty. I know, at this late stage and age, I’ll never switch from that ingrained kitty.

It is nice to know, for a change, that everyone is right.

And it gets me thinking about English as a catty kind of language.


What about, for instance, the grand old term, ‘cattywampus’? There’s a word I’d love to throw into an appropriate spot. It comes, I learn, from a cobbling of Middle English and early southern dialect.

Will, on ( writes:

It’s a Southern American slang that is over 200 years old in origin. It roughly means askew or not in order and implies something totally deranged and screwed-up. Most recently I heard it applied to highway organization in and around Atlanta.

The word stole a little from Catty-corner and another Southern term Wampus (to flail about).

Oh, I’m looking forward to writing about something totally deranged and messed up, just so I can use this word…which also seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with a cat.


So….let’s put the cat back in the bag and see how it got there.

And, oh, the things I find out when I go digging. The first published use of “letting the cat out of the bag,” Matt Soniak tells me on Mental Floss, was in London Magazine in 1760. A reviewer was critiquing a book; its author must have been just about as discreetly inclined as I am. Matt quotes the reviewer as writing, “We could have wished that the author had not let the cat out of the bag.” (

So the term’s meant the same thing for a while as it does now: to let the cat out of the bag is to reveal a secret, probably at a too-early stage. I need to figure out where that all got started, and Matt Soniak gives me two possible scenarios.

The first has nothing directly to do with a cat…or a secret, for that matter…but it does go right to painful consequences. This explanation has it that the ‘cat’ was not a sweetly purring animal at all, but a whip: the cat o’ nine tails used to mete out punishments to errant sailors. The whip was kept in a bag to keep it from drying out; hence, when punishment loomed, when consequences were about to be bruted out,  the whipping one would have to let the ‘cat’ out of the bag.


The second explanation does have to do with a cat, but it’s no less ornery. Vendors, back in the day, would sell live piglets to those who wanted to raise a meaty sow or boar. They’d pack those piglets in sturdy bags, where the little thing would wriggle and raise a ruckus—so much so that buyers wouldn’t want to open the sack and check on the little beastie’s well-being. If they did, the piggie might just jump out and run away.

So unwary buyers might get all the way home to find they’d been given a kitty instead of a piggie. This turn of events, Matt Soniak tells me, not only accounts (maybe) for letting the cat out of the bag. It is also the origin of the cautionary saying, “Never buy a pig in a poke.”

At least, there’s really a furry feline involved, to some extent, in this turn of phrase.


And my mind wanders to Cat Stevens, and from there to the cat in the cradle, and I wonder about that—that game we used to love to play in middle grades and middle school: cat’s cradle. So I look it up. And find, again, the feline connection is pretty flimsy.

The game of cat’s cradle seems to have been around since ancient times. It may have been, The Times of India tells me, a good-luck game played by ancient Greeks on special days; the passing of the cradle from hands to hands also spread good luck.  (

Wikipedia suggests the game may have originated in China.

But the game’s name had nothing to do with a cat. Whatever the ancient Greeks or Chinese called it, the theory is that the title changed when Christianity became entrenched. “Cat’s cradle” was a morphing of “Cratch cradle.”  And a cratch, according to Merriam-Webster, is a manger.

So when we weave those strings around our fingers, we’re not making a bed for a kitty cat. No, we’re weaving a safe, soft place for the little baby Jesus to sleep.

Maybe that’s why I learned to play the game in Catholic school.


But surely some of our cat-language has feline roots. What about, I wonder, the pot of money called, in poker and in other places, a kitty?

I pull up a site called “Say Why Do I…” which has a promising picture of a cool cat in shades next to its definition of ‘kitty.’ And here is what I learn:

…although the term originated in poker games, it’s okay, now, to call any common pot of money a kitty. A PTA, for instance, might refer to the place they put fund-raising cash as its kitty. And there are, says “Say Why Do I…”, several theories for the way the term prowled into our language.

  • In the Middle Dutch Language, “kit” referred to the place—be it a bag or a barrel—where someone kept his tools. Card players borrowed that concept in an ironic kind of way. (“Say Why Do I…” tells me that language experts like this explanation the best.)
  • Or how about this? “Kitty,” back in the day, was a nickname for women who plied what some call the world’s oldest trade. When gents were playing cards in dens of ill repute, they would throw the money into the lap of a lady of the establishment. The money was held by a “Kitty.”
  • “Kitty” is also, the site asserts, slang for prison. So the money in the pot was imprisoned money until one card player freed it by luck or by skill.
  • And finally, there’s this possibility. Cockney slang is rhyming slang. (This reminds me of Basher, in Oceans 11, rhyming trouble with ‘Barney Rubble.’) So…money was often tossed, literally, into a hat. Cockney card players might rhyme that with kitty cat, and then shorten that to kitty…

…and again, no sign of a cat hair on ANY of these theories. Funny, isn’t it, how our language works?


But, hey—what about that suave cat wearing the shades on the site I just left? What ABOUT the term, ‘cool cat’?

Ken Fishkin ( asserts that it was jazz icon Louis Armstrong who popularized that phrase. Fishkin points to Armstrong’s song, “This Black Cat has Nine Lives” as evidence.

And that connection, at least, has a direct link to our aloof and oh-so-suave family pets. It’s their untouchably unruffled demeanor that makes humans want to imitate their coolth.


Well, I’m feeling just a little bit disappointed in all the cat terms that are really not at all related to cats. I’m feeling snarky and cranky and like I want to be a little bit…catty. Mrrrreoow!

I look up catty, too. The Urban Dictionary tells me this is a gender neutral term (only women can, you’ll excuse me, be bitchy, the site suggests, but ANYONE can be catty.) It means to be “subtly or indirectly insulting.”


And here, too, the cat-connection is strong. Etymonline ( tells me the term was first noted in 1886, and it meant “devious and spiteful.” It evolved, they think from cattish, which means, of course, “pertaining to cats.”


So…all those cat terms and all those kitty terms and only a passing glance to the animal I always believed they gave homage to. English—what a language: affected by region, by story, by sly and clever turns of phrases disguising slightly (or overtly) shady connections. It seems a little askew, doesn’t it? A little deranged and screwed-up?

I love the language, of course, but please just let me say this. When I go digging into it, I have to suggest: English is often cattywampus.

The Cat Came Back (He Never Was A Goner)

maxie 2

“Is that,” Mark says, putting down his hot cup of tea and moving the curtain so he can see better, “MAX????”

I join him at the window and we stare across the street.  A mostly black cat sits on the brick stoop at Barbie and Ken’s–a cat with a triangular white fur bib and a head like a squashed softball.  THIS cat, though, appears to have a smear of white on his nose. Did Max have a smear like that?

We can’t remember.

We don’t think so.


Mark goes out to check, to see if this porch-snuggled visitor might really be our intrepid buddy Max.  The cat disappears.

That’s un–Max-like.



I grew up in middle America in the 1960’s,  when neighborhoods were static things, and a move out or a move in, a major event.  In fact, my family constituted the event more than witnessing it–we moved three times between my fourth grade year and the start of high school, moved so much that other people raised their brows in alarm at our rootless ways.

Most people we knew stayed put, sent down roots, raised a family in a place where the kids’ “2 years old” heights were marked off on the same basement pole as their “16 years old” heights.  That dent, a friend might say, pointing, is where Dickie fell off his bike and his noggin hit the porch.  The accident might have been ten years past. Houses, back then, held family histories within their architectural quirks.

But today, neighborhoods are more fluid things, with some stay-ers and some move-ers making a constant ebb and flow.  People buy starter homes when kids are little, planning, by the time those little ones hit junior high, to be in a bigger house, with more bathrooms and more yard, and maybe, just maybe, a paved drive and a basketball hoop.

And so the cute little house across the street has seen changes in tenants in the almost-five years we have been here. First it was Kim, who rented.  Then it was Julie, who bought.

Julie moved out and her tenant, a very nice person named Ann, moved in, and therein ties the tale of Max.


Kim, who was tall and lean and tanned and had that kind of curly hair that peaks at a high point above the middle part of her head and fans out just above the shoulders (a Triangle Do, I call it), whose age was impossible to guess–she could have been thirty, and she could have been sixty,–had been a fixture in the neighborhood long before we moved in.  She introduced us to Shirley, and Sandy, and  to Colleen and Terry, and to Phyllis, and to Pat.

She invited us to throw the branches and leaves and twigs piled up after vigorous gardening down the steep bank behind her house.  Natural mulch, she theorized.

She showed us her beloved Corvettes, which she kept in a garage behind the little white house she’d rented. She toured our house after the workers had transformed it from a highly floral wallpaper palace to a calmer venue with less vocal walls.  She pronounced it good, and heartily approved the placement of a half-bath in the storage room by the back door.

And she discovered that the little white house she’d rented for twenty years or more was shifting on its foundations,—was in danger, in fact, of sliding off and down that steep, mulchy bank. When the long-term landlord wouldn’t fix things, Kim up and moved away.

As new as we were, we could tell something intrinsic to the neighborhood culture left with her.


And then the little white house stood empty for a couple of seasons, before some flippers with construction skills came in, lifted the thing right off its foundations, and fixed its sliding woes.  They put it on the market then, and Julie–pretty, dark-haired Julie with her mini-me dark-haired daughter named Natalie–bought it and moved in.


Julie worked at the hospital, and we would encounter her in her colorful scrubs running to her SUV at odd hours, heading off to work.  Often her inside cat would sit in the picture window while she was gone, curled up on what was surely the back of a couch, patient and waiting.  That cat never came outside; it was only noticeable popping up in excitement when Julie’s car moved up the street.

Then Natalie added a new cat friend to the household. That cat was Max.

Natalie’s best friend was going off to college, and Natalie’s friend’s father was NOT a cat-lover.  He was a hunter, though, and he matter-of-factly informed the friend that, as soon as her car was out of the drive, he was getting his gun out to kill her cat.

The friend was horrified and broken-hearted; Natalie was pro-active.  She grabbed Max, threw him in her old white jeep, and brought him home to Julie.

And so Max, with his squashed-looking head and loud vocals, his white-toed feet and insistent manner, came to adopt (and rule) our neighborhood.

Max preferred the outdoor to the in, probably to the vast relief of Julie’s indoor cat, with whom Max communicated through the window.  Max would sit on Julie’s porch table; Indoor Cat would be on the back of that couch, and they would stretch and paw and bat at each other.  All the while, Max would be warbling, telling his long sad tale of woe (“Can you believe that dude was going to SHOOT me???”) to his indoor kitty counterpart.

We could, of course, not hear the reply,which was probably something like, “I’m glad my food dish is INDOORS and yours is out.”

Max only went inside Julie’s house when the temperatures were so cold he would literally freeze to death if he stayed out.

But he loved going inside Barbie and Ken’s.


Max, once arrived, immediately started working the neighborhood.  He scored a bed in the window well at Shirley’s house. Shirley, who thought he was a stray at first, put food and water out for him everyday.  That practice didn’t end when Shirley met Natalie and discovered Max was ‘homed’ but thoroughly independent.  By then, Max’s morning breakfast was part of the routine of Shirley’s AND Max’s lives.

Max sat in Sandy’s yard sunning himself while she gardened, and he tormented her excitable little dogs, resting just beyond their chained reach.  He would calmly inspect his sharp pointy claws while they jumped and strained, choking their little selves in their anxiousness to pounce at him.

We often thought we saw cartoon thought-bubbles floating above Max’s head.  In Sandy’s yard, when the dogs were yipping and straining, Max’s bubble  contained the words, “Ho hum.”

Max adopted Mark, who is NOT a cat-lover, running up the driveway warbling his sad tale of woe whenever Mark embarked or arrived.  Mark would stand and wait for his cat-buddy. Max would twine around Mark’s legs, often leaving hairy evidence of a black kitty neighbor on lawyerly khaki pants.

Mark would usually run back into the house to snatch a bit of frozen turkey from the freezer, offering it to his cat friend.  Max preferred his meat defrosted; he would bat the tidbit away, complaining (Thought bubble: What? You don’t have a microwave???), and then come back later to eat it.

When the weather got cold, Mark the Great Cat Hater took my old fishing basket and lined it with a snug, worn rug, and slid it under the bench on the porch–a refuge from wind and snow.  Just, you know, in case.

Often, there was evidence that something had slept there.  (We may have been sheltering neighborhood raccoons, but it was relieving to know there was shelter from the storm for our buddy Max, if he needed it.)

But when Barbie and Ken moved in across the street, right next door to Julie, Maxie fell in love.  One of their trucks would pull into the drive and Max would come bounding from wherever he was in the neighborhood, yelling.  He’d leave Mark, mid-warble (“Chopped liver, that’s what I am,” Mark noted, sadly), or he’d stop stalking the mouthy black squirrel in the tree down the street, and he would bolt to see those new neighbors whom he idolized.

Once we watched the crazy cat leap into Ken’s arms, a feline rocket so big, so heavy,  and so fast that Ken, a hefty guy, staggered backwards.  But he held on–Max’s affection was completely requited by Ken and by Barbie.

They would crate their dogs, who wailed, and let Maxie in, and Max would make himself at home.  He knew, Max did, that he lived at Julie’s; he returned there time after time, but Barbie and Ken’s house was his favorite place to be Inside.

Most of the time, though, Max ruled the neighborhood and beyond.  We would see him wandering far afield when we drove home, doing his rounds, Mark said.  Julie, not wanting to be responsible for a world populated by second and third generation Maxies, took him to the vet.  There, Max’s manly valves were permanently wrenched into the ‘off’ position.

Maxie came home, spent a single day recuperating, and was back on the prowl.  His amorous instincts may have been permanently dulled, but the cat remained a mighty hunter.  Mark was forever knocking on the front window.

“MAX!” he’d yell.  “Put down that baby bunny!  Put it DOWN!”

And Max, who knew when he was being chastised, would turn his head toward the window.  His face would be all innocence.  The thought bubble would read, “Bunny?  What bunny?” even as the wretched baby twitched its last in the cat’s iron jaws.

Julie and her new boyfriend, a funny, wonderful guy named Terry, would smack their heads.  Mark would wander over to commiserate with them, where they sat on Julie’s front porch, enjoying a brewski in the evening cool.

“What are we going to do with that cat?” one of them would say, but acceptance and vast affection swirled with the chagrin.

The neighborhood rodent population sank rapidly.  Squirrels became wary tree-toppers.  Bunnies poked their noses out to their own peril.  We never saw a chipmunk while Maxie roamed the streets.

And then, their relationship having deepened and matured, Julie and Terry decided to throw their lots together and form a new household.  They would move to a home out in the country, surrounded by nature’s beauty.

“Max the mighty hunter will love THAT,” we agreed, a little sadly. We wondered, though, about Max’s tendency to hunt down people to talk with as well as rodents to terrorize.  We wondered about his love affair with Barbie and Ken.

But, just shy of Memorial Day, the UHaul pulled up, and Julie and Terry and Natalie and a vast and varied crew of helpers took Julie’s household apart and put it into the truck.  There was a pile of junk at the curb; there was a cat in Julie’s SUV. And there was Max, looking unhappy (Thought bubble: What the…????) in the front seat of Natalie’s jeep.

They waved, vigorously.

We waved back.

Silence fell into a little, lonely vacuum.

“I’m gonna MISS that cat,” said Mark sadly, as he turned to go into the house.  He paused.

“And Julie and Terry and Natalie, too,” he added, “of course.”

Ann, who is very nice, moved in with her quiet teen-aged son, and the neighborhood settled into its post-Max persona.  Chipmunks returned to Normandy Drive, and the squirrels climbed down their trees and frolicked in the yards, boisterously.  The bunnies grew bolder; on Sunday, Mark and I stood by the window with our steaming morning beverages and watched two of them alternate clover-munching with a gleeful game of rabbit-run tag.

Later, I walked the dog, who snuffled in Shirley’s ivy and scared off a couple of tiny black-furred moles.

The rodents didn’t miss that cat. But everybody else did.

And then this morning–the black cat on Ken and Barbie’s porch.  That nose, though, that smear of white…I pulled up a photo of Max, and we compared:

Head: check.
Bib: check:
Nose smear: UNcheck.

I walked out the back door to see if I could spy that kitty, and my eyes lit on the plastic bowl where I’d been soaking a white-paint brush in cold water.  The water was completely and thoroughly gone. I had a vision of a cat lapping up the water and rubbing his nose on the painty white brush.

“OH, my gawd,” I said.  “Mark!  Do you think he drank…?”  I ran to cross the street and check the cat–couldn’t ingesting latex paint make a kitty badly ill? But as I hurried out into the yard, Barbie’s white truck pulled out.  Inside, I was sure I could just see the swishing tip of a black tail, and a floating thought bubble that read, “REALLY?  Paint in my water bowl????”) I imagined him purring, reunited with his beloved Barbie. I imagined her driving him the five miles to Terry and Julie’s house, returning him to his family.


By lunchtime, the rodent population of Normandy Drive had breathed a collective sigh of relief and were frolicking on the lawns.  But I wonder if they’re not a little premature.  That cat’s smart and he’s intrepid. I bet we haven’t seen the last of our friend Maxie.

Walking in My Neighborhood, Several Stories Deep

Maxie, the newly appointed mayor of the neighborhood...
Maxie, the newly appointed mayor of the neighborhood…

I clip the leash onto the collar of my wacky little dog, Greta, and pull open the back door. Greta stiffens, and I look down to see Maxie, the new mayor of the neighborhood, standing expectantly outside the storm door.

Maxie is a black cat with a priest’s collar; his head is the size and shape of a squashed softball. He is sleek and talkative. He waits in the ivy, under the shrubs that line the drive, when I come home. As soon as I open the car door, he starts his approach, spouting a long line of complaints: Yowlyowlmewwwwrrrryowlyou! MEW.

He always ends decisively, waiting for a response.

I usually give him a little piece of frozen turkey from a baggie in the freezer; he accepts this, but seems none too thrilled.

Max lives with the Next-to-Newest Neighbors across the street–a lovely mom and her just-college age daughter. Max was the daughter’s friend’s cat. When Daughter’s Friend was going off to school, Daughter’s Friend’s Dad calmly informed her he was going to shoot the damned cat.

Apparently he wasn’t kidding; so, Maxie came home with our next-to-newest neighbor.

He’s an outdoor guy, Max: he only goes in when the weather is too cold for cats to sleep au naturel. Meantime, he prowls the neighborhood, making sure everything is safe. He spends a lot of time with Shirley, our elderly, widowed neighbor. He naps in her window well. She provides food and drink in case Max needs a little nosh.

Sometimes I’ll pull up the driveway and see Max sitting outside Sandy’s Florida room next door, staring hungrily through the window at her squawking gray parrot, who is not amused by the visitation. And for a while, Max decided he wanted to check out the Newest Neighbors’ home across the street. He would stand by their front door and warble insistently. From the house, deep ominous barks resounded. Maxie was unfazed, but the Newest Neighbors did not seem inclined to let him in to explore.

Today, Maxie glances at Greta on the leash, then looks at me in disgust. Really? he registers clearly. Walking that stupid dog??? He gives his sleek shoulders a shake and ambles off toward his nest in the ivy. Greta rumbles deep in her throat and pulls me toward the yard and the front walk. Let’s avoid that scary cat, she’s implying.

We head out to the street. Maxie forgotten, Greta settles in to a nice sniffing meander. We don’t get two steps before she finds a fascinating pocket of scent. We stop, and I gaze across the street, at the lights down below, twinkling out this early morning. A walk with the Grets is a stop and start affair.

Our neighborhood traces a ravine; my house is on the firmly planted side. Across the street, where Next-to-Newest and Newest Neighbors have their sparkling white abodes, the houses perch. Front yards are lovely; back yards drop off abruptly.

The ravine is long and steep and wooded, a refuge for a herd of deer who wander up, unabashed, almost daily. We watch the babies grow up during the summer; we watch the wary relationship between Senior Buck and Junior Buck. Greta snuffles up their scent, fascinated, and they obligingly leave lots of it around, sometimes in freshly steaming piles on the pine needle carpets in our backyard.

Woe to my plantings; they’re fast food for deer. But this Spring—hah! I have a recipe from my woods-and-fields-savvy friend Theresa. I’ll be dousing my hosta, my impatiens, my everything, with the Theresa Formula. Take that, you foraging deer.

There are gray squirrels and black squirrels in the neighborhood; they bore Greta, who just ignores them. There are bunnies, too, and chipmunks, — although, come to think of it, not as many sightings occur since Maxie’s moved in.

Having read her olfactory messages, the dog snorts and we move on. Phyllis’s house is the last on the street, ravine-side. It has a lovely side deck, between the house and a little woods. The driveway leads right up to that deck, which overlooks the ravine, and, at night, a beautiful light display: you can see the busy commerce and industry of Linden Avenue just below; off to the southeast, the lights of the city glitter in the night sky.

The way Phyllis’s house is situated, the street at the corner leads right into her driveway.

One night, shortly after we moved in–congratulating ourselves on landing in this quiet neighborhood–(Mark would stand outside at night with his eyes closed and his arms at his side, palms parallel with the ground, murmuring, “It’s so QUIET.” Our vacated neighborhood was NOT.)–I went to bed early, worn out from the strenuous haul of moving and unpacking. I was reading in bed, eyelids drooping, when the sirens began, a low whining that grew closer and closer.

And closer. Soon, one could hear speeding cars, tires on pavement, brakes squealing; that grew rapidly closer, too. And then, very close, a crash!

I heard Mark’s startled exclamation, heard him scuffing into his old shoes, heard the front door open as he ran out to see what was going on. “Oh. BOY!” Jim said; he was, I could tell from the placement of his voice, standing at the front window.

I considered going down, but knew the Markmeister had it under control. He would tell me the story when he came in.

And so he did. Hotly pursued by a police cruiser, a car drove up the street, couldn’t make the turn, and flew right on to Phyllis’s deck. The driver jumped out and ran into the backyard, where he didn’t expect a ravine. He tumbled over the edge.

Mark stood with Phyllis and her husband Terry as the drama unfolded. The hapless driver, thinking to avoid arrest, crawled up the ravine at the other end of the street. The police, who’d been nonchalantly watching his progress, cuffed him and threw him into the cruiser, called for a tow truck, and took all the necessary information from Phyllis and Terry.

Mark, who works for a county government unit and gets all the juice, brought the details home next day.

Seems Driver Man was from a notorious ne’er-do-well family. Needing some weekend drinkin’ cash, he called for a pizza, thinking he’d take the delivery guy’s stash. Driver Man lived in an isolated country locale.

Delivery Guy arrived, got out of the car, and was confronted by Driver Man, wielding a pistol. Delivery Guy was big, and not a man for nonsense. He slapped the pizza box into Driver Man’s face and took his gun away. Then, when the pizza box fell off Driver Man’s face, Delivery Guy popped him a good one.

Down went Driver Man. Delivery Guy pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. As he was talking to the dispatcher, Driver Man scrambled to his feet. Delivery Man popped him again.

Down, again, went Driver Man.

Now stop hitting him! the dispatcher purportedly said. Get in your car and drive back to work, and an officer will meet you there to pick up the gun and get your report.

O-kay, said Delivery Guy, reluctantly, but when Driver Man got up again, talking some smack, he couldn’t resist knocking him down one last time. By the time the police arrived, Driver Man had wobbled into his own vehicle, and the chase began.

They drove darned near all over the county before Driver Man flew his vehicle onto Phyllis’s deck, decimating it.

By the time the luckless felon crawled up the cliff, he was battered from the repeated poppings, scraped and cut from the fall down the ravine, and ready for medical attention and a comfortable bed in a cell.

The insurance rebuilt Phyllis and Terry’s deck, but it was one of the last times we saw him, that kind, friendly, helpful neighbor. He was hospitalized shortly after the Deck Event. He never came home. Now Phyllis and her sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren enjoy sitting on that deck, talking softly on starry summer nights. But we know how much they miss Terry.

Greta makes her mandatory sniff-examination of Phyllis’s rose bush; satisfied, we wander across the street and up the long curving driveway of the Helen Purcell Home. Helen Purcell had been the sickly daughter of a local family in the early 1800’s. Since she was puny, anyway, she was designated as the one to stay home and care for Mamaw and Papaw. Her siblings went to school, got married, moved away; Helen learned to sew. And she was pretty [I so want to say ‘darned’] good at it. She took in sewing and made a little extra money.

And then, the parents both died, and there was Helen, suddenly and sadly free. She packed up her sewing stuff and her belongings and she moved herself to Cincinnati, where she set up shop. And she succeeded; she was a sought-after seamstress, and an independent woman.

Until her brother got sick. Then Helen was called home–her role, after all, was to care for the sick ones. She left her beloved independent life. She nursed her brother, but she never forgot her taste of freedom. She, the sickly one, outlived all her family contemporaries. When she died, she left her estate in trust, to establish a place where women in need could recover from whatever vicissitudes plagued them. It was a healing home for independent women needing to get back on their feet.

Now it is a home for the elderly; not so very long ago, they agreed, finally, to admit men, too, and the facility offers independent and assisted living and managed care. The staff is lovely, the residents energetic; there is a van that takes people out and about, although many of the residents park their own vehicles in the long carport that faces our house. In the lovely common area, with its polished paneled walls and massive fireplace, there is always a jigsaw puzzle in progress, and always clusters of people visiting and laughing. Not bad neighbors to have.

We round the expansive driveway, and come out on Norwood Boulevard, near the Mission Oaks Gardens. The park, open to all from dawn to dusk, is reached by crossing the Hendleys’ driveway. The Hendleys had a vision of a winding, meandering park within the city; they bought the house and acquired grounds abutting their property, then acquired more, and the gardens grew. We walk there in the good weather, sometimes sitting in the rustic log tea house; we watch throughout the summer, as the plants shoot up and bloom.

There are rhododendrons, local of root; all kinds of hosta; native flowers and imported flowers; trees and shrubs. There is a vast conifer garden. There are two ponds with tall waterfalls, and there are benches and gazebos and many places where a bride can splendidly pose.

It is not a place for Greta to walk, though. I am not sure, prissy city dog that she is, that she’d even consent to walk down the grassy paths; she’s a sidewalk girl, my Greta. But it doesn’t matter: she’s not invited. The park is home to an aging Scottie dog, who greets all visitors and likes a bit of a scratch. When we moved into the neighborhood, there were a pair of Scotties; now this guy remains, alone. He’s awfully glad to walk a ways with a visitor to the garden.

But it’s cold and muddy January; this is not a Mission Oaks day. We walk the sidewalk by the gracious, Spanish-style home on the property instead. This house, with its lovely upper deck (what a great place for morning coffee, I always think) has a Past. It was the abode of a wealthy businessman’s mistress, who lived brazenly there and entertained her paramour while the respectable wife held court across town.

Deer at the Hendleys

Now the Mistress’s House is the gateway to a great gift to the community. You just never know, I figure.

We start down the street past the Hendleys’, but Greta abruptly changes her mind, turns around, and leads me home. We take the sidewalk, the fast way. We encounter no feline or otherwise furry friends.

It’s not a long walk, but it certainly is a story-filled one. We all know how exhausting stories can be to a tired little hound, one who has to protect a house all day and contend at times with an ornery neighborhood cat.

Greta waits patiently for me to treat her with frozen coins of hot dog once we are safely inside, and then she jumps up on to the couch, paddles down the throw, and snuggles up. I get my book and join her. She puts her heads on my leg and snores; I travel vicariously to Scotland.

We’ll find more neighborhood tales on future days, as we deepen our relations with our neighbors, share their memories, hear their adventures.  It’s one of the perks of coming to such a stopping place: here we can send down our roots, several stories deep.


The cover photo on this site shows one of the ponds from Mission Oaks Gardens…