With films like “The Secret Life of Pets” and “A Dog’s Purpose,” it’s easy to imagine that family pets have their own stories to tell. But it wasn’t always so
There was once a time when the average house cat was viewed less as a member of the family and more like an appliance — though not always a practical one. Cats and dogs served purposes and were largely replaceable.
My dad was of this old-school state of mind about animals. He found them amusing and could harbor sentimental feelings, but would never elevate them to the mythic levels that encourage 21st-century pet owners to write critters into their wills and family histories. He chalked up the infatuations of true animal lovers (like my mother) to what psychologists call “projection,” where one’s thoughts and emotions are made more real and vivid by attributing them to other beings.
In short, he thought true animal lovers (like, as I mentioned, my mom) were a little bit crazy. He may have had a point.
Back in the second half of the 20th century, my mom acquired one cat too many. It was the third one to be taken in out of pity or sheer happenstance, but it was one more than my practical dad could endure. The unneutered male cat was named Hamlet. He had a broken tail that would flick jauntily as he sprayed to mark territory. There was also the persistent feline diarrhea that Hamlet refused to confine to the litter box, but my mom became his protector and that was that.
At least until one night.
My dad was teaching classes at a nearby military base for some extra cash and would disappear for a few evenings every week. On one of those nights, as the family Mazda rolled out and down the driveway, my mom caught a glimpse of something through the rear window: a jaunty broken tail bobbing over the back seat of the car. She put my older brother in charge of the younger siblings and packed me into the station wagon to follow.
It was a 15-minute drive from our suburban home to the barracks where the classes were taught, but we drove in silence, keeping our distance. Once we arrived, we found a spot in the safety of a nearby parking lot and observed as Dad got out of the car with Hamlet under his arm. There were military residences nearby and he walked to their general vicinity, placed Hamlet on the ground and then went inside to begin his class.
As soon as he was out of earshot we called out to Hamlet, who scampered up and was stowed into the station wagon for the trip home. I was sworn to silence and, as far as I know, Dad never even realized that Hamlet was back until the next morning when there was another acrid puddle of cat poop on one of the doormats (his favorite spot).
The prodigal cat’s swift return must have been a mystery to him, but he never said anything about it. But then again, how could he?