Best Li'l Cat House in the South by BethShelby
True Story Contest contest entry
When I was very young, my Dad managed a grocery store. He didn’t believe in discarding anything if it might have a possible use. He had grown up during the Great Depression and the adage "waste not, want not" was very much a part of his outlook. We certainly weren't rich, but we never wanted for anything, so it never occurred to me that bringing home things no one else wanted might be a sign we were poor.|
I had a few toys, such as a tricycle, dolls, balls, and puzzles, but I also had access to whatever Dad brought home, which was often better than toys. The carton containing ice cream cones came wrapped with poster-size sheets of heavy white paper, so I was thrilled on days when he brought one of those sheets home to satisfy my need to draw pictures.
Next door to the grocery store was one of the two variety stores in town. We referred to them as dime stores. All of the magazines and comic books that didn't sell during the month were tossed out back. The lady who owned that store was a maiden lady with no kids, so dad filled our house with month-old reading material. At seven, I appreciated the comic books like Bugs Bunny, Archie, and Nancy and Slugo. As I neared my teen years, I'd got much of my curiosity about sex and the adult life satisfied by reading things like True Confessions and the movie magazines, if I could hide them before Mom disposed of them as trash, unfit for innocent eyes.
Even some of the older wooden display racks for candy came home with Dad and were repainted by Mom and turned into bookcases. The grocery stores in those days often had large framed drink ads on their walls. When they were changed out, the older frames and wooden backing came home with Dad. I made good use of them by painting oil pictures which decorated our walls.
Those things were important later, but when I was seven, Dad managed to bring home something I have never realized would provide me with such joy. Even the rich kids would have been envious. This was the mid-forties and produce for grocery stores came in well-constructed solid wooden boxes. Those boxes were large enough that I could fold my body carefully and fit myself into one of them with nothing sticking out. I did collect a few splinters on my bottom in the process, but for the most part the wood was smooth.
Today, these boxes are considered vintage collectibles, and they sell for between $60 and $90. each. My penny-pinching Dad would likely rotate in his grave if he knew something so valuable was a thing he once thought of as trash, to be used as firewood.
Apparently the companies didn’t recycle them, so Dad borrowed the grocery delivery truck, made several trips, and brought about 50 or 60 of them home to break up and burn in our fireplace for winter heat. I couldn't believe my good fortune when I saw the mountain of boxes Daddy had unloaded in our back yard. It wasn’t winter yet, and if I had anything to say about it, my dad wasn’t going to chop up the best present that had ever come my way.
For the following few weeks, I was busy every spare minute, stacking boxes to build imaginary villages, stores, mazes and everything else my mind could conceive. When I ran out of ideas, the thought came to me that our cats could use a permanent home. When I use the plural for cats, I am dead serious. The cat explosion started out with one female white Persian, which my first grade classmate gave me as a pet when she moved to another city. Who knows where Snowball found her partner in kitten production, but after many litters, the cats around our house totaled 18 of every color. I named them all, but none were as docile as the original cat that had allowed me to dress her in doll clothes and push her around in my doll buggy.
These were the days when no one took cats to the vet to have them spayed, or for any other reason. Vets existed for the horses and cows. No one bothered to buy pet food, if it even existed back then. Cats lived on family leftovers and supplemented their diet with whatever creatures they found living in the barns. At any rate, my latest project was the construction of a cat castle.
It was glorious. I even wallpapered their bedrooms and found broken pieces of mirrors they could use to groom themselves before meals in their individual dining rooms. Once it was completed, I began trying to collect the cats so they could enjoy their new residence. It was then I learned what people mean, when speaking of something impossible, and they say, "it was like trying to herd cats." As fast as I could put one cat into its assigned bedroom, one of the others would leap out and find a new place to park itself. I worked most of one day at the task, before realizing cats have no appreciation for the finer things in life.
When I gave up in despair, and turned instead to reading my favorite Bobbsey Twins book, Mom called me to come see my cat house. I came out to see cats dozing in almost every room and even on the roof. They loved the new addition to our backyard, but only on their own terms. I think each of them tried a different room every time they went near it, until all the novelty wore off.
Even if things didn't work out the way I'd planned, you couldn't convince me that I didn't create the best little cat house in the south. It's a memory I'll always treasure. Years later, when I worked in printing preparation, I was known as a "stripper." People often did a double take when they asked what I did, and I told them I was a stripper. Sometimes when I was feeling a little naughty, I also added that I once had a cat house.
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