Gypsy entered our lives in the early 1970s, showing up in the backyard with a waddle in her walk and a defiant look in her yellow eyes. We voted on what to name her, with my father scrawling Owl on the paper I passed out to him, and it wasn’t inappropriate, given that steady, appraising gaze, but Gypsy prevailed – fitting for the tortoiseshell cat who roamed into the yard carrying nothing but her prenatal baggage, clearly the reason someone had dumped her on the road next to our house.
The kittens came a few weeks later, five of them, two orange, two black, and one multi-colored like her mother. Andi and I named them: OJ and Pumpkin, for obvious reasons, JT and Panda for the tuxedo-clad urchins and Crackers for the tortoiseshell. They would be only the first in a feline clan that would multiply exponentially over the next few years.
She wasn’t our first cat. We’d had many over the years, including Smoky, who can be seen in my first birthday photos, swishing a tail away from my clumsy baby fists. His name had something to do with the floor furnace in our first house and a singed tail. Then came Jimmy Durante, a rather ugly looking white cat whose appearance degenerated when he contracted a mouth tumor. We were in the Shannock house by then, and my father called Ray Richards, the police chief, who pulled out his service revolver and smoked a hole in Jimmy Durante’s peach-pit-sized head.
I don’t know who named him after the Cyrano de Bergerac of vaudeville, but Blackjack got his name from Andi, a reference to Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s father, John V. “Black Jack” Bouvier, a socialite and rake so called because of his perpetual tan. Andi was fascinated with celebrities and kept a scrapbook of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O, and Natalie Wood, who she claimed I resembled. In the era before Wikipedia, she had a deep knowledge of the most arcane cultural references, gathered from reading Photoplay magazine and movie-star biographies.
In a similar way she came up with an outrageous name for the deformed little kitten who showed up at my grandmother’s house in Tug Hollow one day. This little girl also had been dumped and had spent some time in the wild. One eye was crusted over and infected, and she walked with a hitch in her gait, as though she’d never recovered from a kick. We took her in, of course, and as she bumped into table legs and walls we realized she was at least partially blind.
In a moment of perversity, Andi named her Nadia Comaneci, after the graceful athletic powerhouse from Romania dominating the Olympics that summer of 1976. “Nadia” stuck, but the kitten lived only a year or two before succumbing to her various handicaps.
When it came to pet naming, I had neither the imagination nor the sly humor of my sister. When my sister Mary Jane produced a white rabbit for me one Easter, I promptly named her Mary. I had also named my favorite teddy bear after my glamorous older sister.
Grown up, I would have many felines of my own – Swifty, named by someone else; Perry, a name put to a later and much more important use; Gloria, for the 1985 hurricane; and, perhaps the finest of all, Dauber, who came with that awkward name from the animal shelter, where he stuck his head out of a cage and demanded to be rescued.
My mother, after years of Andi’s wicked humor, rebelled after we left home by naming every cat she ever had Kitty. Going to the vet and having to explain that Kitty was the particular, not the general, name grew tiresome, but my mother would not budge. When she passed away we took in the last Kitty and renamed her Misty, but it never stuck; my mother was right, she was Kitty, and now at the vet I would have to rack my brain for the name I’d told them was hers but never used.
Our late cats reside now in eternal rest in the northwest corner of the Shannock property, in a cemetery my father created under the pines, without the frightening connotations of a Stephen King novel. Each one grew into its name and left behind an indelible impression, and if I close my eyes I can remember their particular faces, their warm fur, and their stubborn determination to survive.