Gladys, My Formidable Feline Foe

By Jeff Sawyer | August 15th, 2023

Memories of a childhood calico cat

calico cat, credit Maisan Caines. For "Gladys, my formidable feline foe" essay by Jeff Sawyer

Childhood memories are populated by people and pets, emotions and experiences. Boomer reader and humor writer Jeff Sawyer recalls his family’s childhood calico cat, Gladys, who proved to be a formidable feline foe when it came to playing marbles.

The day after school let out for summer was the best day of the year, even better than Christmas. For an introverted 7-year-old who dreaded some popular kid commenting on his new haircut or stray shoelace, who struggled to recall classmate names let alone state capitals or someone else’s math rules, who just wanted to be invisible in the back row of class, a three-month reservoir of free time without memorization or socialization was a gift even Santa could not give.

It was 1963 and my family lived in a shingled, four-square, three-story house in Western Massachusetts — a placid area sometimes described by residents as No, not Boston, then No, not the Berkshires, the part in between, but above Northampton, right where Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire come together. I imagine some GPS’s will still tell you this if you ask them to find us.

My 10-by-10 bedroom had a door to a narrow, screened sleeping porch that hung off the back of the second story. A single metal summer bed just about fit out there. A small black metal lamp in the shape of a rooster with farm scenes on the shade was mounted on the wall above the pillow.

On rainy nights I’d roll down the green-and-white striped canvas awnings mounted inside the screens with rusty eyehooks and lie there and listen. Thick awning fabric muffled the sound of rainfall, reducing it to a natural sedative. When the wind gusted, the bottom of the awnings blew in off the sills, admitting intoxicating ozone and stray raindrops. I pulled the sleeping bag over my head to stay dry. This was my Tranquility Base. There was no better rest.

It always seemed to me that my mother could do anything. Together my parents would build a family, build two businesses, build a deck with their own four hands. In my 10-by-10 bedroom, Mom cut a piece of linoleum and set it down loose over the floor to cover up the old wooden boards. After a while it curled up at the edges of the room where it met the walls, becoming an automatic ball return for marble games.

On this first Saturday morning of summer I found myself lying around on the floor, as little kids do when they have nothing to do and cable TV hasn’t been invented yet. Sun streamed in through the window, filtered by branches of a maple that tapped gently on the shingles when prompted by a breeze.

I held a purple velvet Crown Royal sack of marbles, including a few treasured Plumpers – the big ones you used to shoot the small ones.

Lying under the bed in the dark glaring at me, tail swishing back and forth on the linoleum, plotting a coup, was Gladys, a Calico cat mom had rescued. She had also rescued a baby skunk we found behind the house, had the family vet descent it, and named it Pansy. The local paper published a story about it. But skunks are nocturnal and Pansy kept my parents awake at night and had to go away.

Gladys was a kitten her whole life. A playful, capricious rogue who could come at your ankles in any room at any time, possibly delivering a subpoena. In a cat-and-mouse game, we were the mouse. I forget where her name came from. Maybe she named herself; she had that kind of power. We all loved her.

I rolled a few marbles back and forth under an open palm in the general direction of my feline foe. “Do your worst,” she seemed to say. I drew them toward me slowly, paused, and pitched them one, two, three at her, fast – grounders at speed! – and held my breath.

Gladys fielded each like a golden-glove shortstop, firing them back with authority: one, two, three shot out from under the bed. I wound up again and fired a purple Plumper her way. It ricocheted back with unbroken velocity, like a tennis ball off a backboard.

Gladys stared at me from the dark. “What else you got?”

We volleyed for the rest of the morning like naval ships in the Battle of 1812, until the purple sack of ammo was empty, all marbles in play, all cannons firing. Suddenly, down in the kitchen, an electric can opener went to work. Mom was making tuna sandwiches. Gladys deserted. We had met the enemy, and she was ours.

That night I slept out on the porch, tired from battle. The weather was clear and with the awnings up I could see a thousand stars. With my left arm draped over the radio, it would bring in a distant AM signal. The Red Sox were up by two, but it was just the bottom of the fifth and leads were slippery in their hands. I wanted to hear the game through to the end, but pretty soon my marble-shooting arm went to sleep, and then so did I.

Jeff Sawyer is a humor boomer. That is, a humor writer and baby boomer who recently retired from an allegedly creative career. He wrote jokes for “Late Show with David Letterman” and has won the New Yorker magazine cartoon caption contest.

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