Sunday, July 17, 2011

Apple Trees, Wheelbarrows and Herding Cats

If men were trees, I would consider Mr. Dearborn to be an apple tree. Stooped, honest and unassuming, his crooked limbs turned outward, his trunk although solid, was twisted and thick, and his joints were gnarled and interesting. His grayish face – like aged bark – was lined with experience. He was usually expressionless except for an occasional look of wonder. I do not remember hearing him speak; only murmuring a few sounds that carried an occasional whistle.

The fruit that he bore came in the form of cats. Mr. Dearborn had at least fifty cats if not more, which to a seven year old girl, was much better than apples.

He lived on the road that led to Sandwich Notch, up a ways on the left hand side, across from our long time family friend, Maisey Bloomberg. There wasn’t a Mrs. Dearborn or offspring that we knew about. He was simply an old man who no one bothered to notice, until that summer when my sister Susan, friend Lynn and I discovered his feral barn cats, soon to be the focal point of our very existence.

At first we were a bit skeptical, unsure of how we would be able to play with the fascinating felines without interacting with the old man. We thought about just going into his yard and playing with them but we might get in trouble, and no one in town seemed to say much about Mr. Dearborn. We never saw him at the store or the post office; we only caught glimpses of him in his window or shuffling out to his small, boarded up barn where the cats jumped and played.

Finally Lynn moved ahead with the direct plan, the one that required courage and was obviously the only one that would work. She and Susan stood on the wide granite slab step and Lynn knocked hard on the weathered oak door. I stood on the grassy stoop watching the kitties frolic. I knew that if Mr. Dearborn did something unimaginable, I could run really fast.

The door opened a crack and he leaned forward. “Hmmmmmm?” His oval, gold rimmed glasses were fogged and he had a large tan hearing aide on one ear.

“Can we play with your cats?” Lynn put her hands on her hips; Susan smiled.

“Hmmmm?” He ran his fingertips across the white fuzz on his head.

“Your cats! Can we play with your cats?” Lynn shouted. I was proud and hoped that when I was ten-years-old that I would be so brave.

Susan pointed to the back yard where even more cats were filing out of a crack in the wall of the barn. “Cats.”

It was muggy, too hot for him to be wearing a tattered brown sweater buttoned all the way up to his chin. He looked over his glasses beyond Susan and Lynn and set his sights on me. I shrugged my shoulders just in case we were overstepping our bounds.

He may have smiled; I’m not sure. He scratched his head again. “Yesssss. I ‘spose.” He turned and shut the door.

We dashed through town and on to Lynn’s house and got her Aunt Ginny’s wheelbarrow. Lynn had an elaborate plan, and that was to create a village for the cats. We would name them and assign a family and abode to each cat lucky enough to be selected.

“Hey! Where are you girls going with that wheelbarrow?” Billy rode towards us on his red Stingray bike with a banana seat and slammed on the brakes leaving rubber on the asphalt.

“We’re going to get some cats from Mr. Dearborn’s and bring them down to Ginny’s to play.” Susan always leveled with Billy. Lynn turned her nose up and kept pushing.

“Does Ginny know?” Billy did a wheelie and stood holding his handle bars, front wheel in the air spinning.

“Mind your beeswax.” Lynn rolled her eyes.

Like everyone else who interacted with Lynn, Billy did as he was told. He mounted his bike and rode towards the playground where minding his beeswax would be enjoyable.

When we got to Mr. Dearborn’s house, Lynn brought the wheelbarrow out to the barn. We immediately started chasing cats and putting them in the wheelbarrow. I went after a gray cat; it squirmed and scratched me with its back claws. I tossed him in and wiped the blood from my arm onto my pedal pushers. Susan and Lynn were screeching and trying to keep the cats from escaping. Mr. Dearborn looked out the window, scratching his head.

We came up with a method of transporting the cats. Lynn pushed the wheelbarrow; Susan held the cats down in the cart and when one hopped out, I chased it and returned it to the cart. We managed to transport five cats at a time. It took us hours just to make it less than a quarter of a mile down the road.

This activity required a great deal of time and became our pursuit for a better part of the summer. There were about a dozen cats willing to participate and cooperate as much as felinely possible – they were appropriately named and took their rightful place in the pecking order in the great compound that we created for them.

All of us became accustomed to the drill. Gather the cats, fuss and fumble with them until they are in the wheelbarrow, capture the ones that escape and herd them into the compound.

On my eighth birthday, Susan, Lynn and I were climbing my favorite maple tree (not too far from the compound) when I fell. I dislocated my shoulder and my elbow suffered a compound fracture. I was in the hospital for over a month in traction.

When I came home from the hospital, I was elated when Susan and Lynn presented me with my favorite cat Smokey – a gray short hair with emerald green eyes. Apparently Lynn and Susan told Mr. Dearborn of my accident and asked if they could give me one of the cats as a present. He agreed, which we girls thought was so generous. I preferred Smokey over all the others when we first met and began our cat escapades. He was mellow and seemed unaffected by the antics of the others – both human and feline.

Now I have returned to Sandwich. When I drive through the desolate village I conjure a clear vision of three young girls giggling, scolding and managing fidgety cats hopping in and out of a wheelbarrow. I cannot help but smile hard and even laugh at that memory. I am proud of our determination and the victorious outcome. We did not give up.

When I am on my way towards Sandwich Notch and I pass by Mr. Dearborn’s house – now boarded up – I think I see the shadow of a dead apple tree stooped over the granite step with a cat perched in the crook of the outstretched limb. I hesitate and sometimes almost turn around to see if it will come to me. But I continue on and smile as I recall how herding cats was wicked fun.

From Journal "Marigold"

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