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WRY TOAST: Cat’s claws make impression on owner over the years



FIFTEEN years ago, my friend Deborah called me up and invited me to come over and meet her new kitten.

“Sure,” I said and headed for her apartment, where a tiny ball of charcoal-gray fur was scampering about like she owned the place.

“She’s so cute,” I said.

“Do you want to take her home?” said Deborah, pleading more than asking.

The stray kitten had been running around in the rain when Deborah rescued her. But she’d failed to consult her older, more dignified cat, Dharma, who was now growling and hissing in protest. So I agreed to adopt her.

Officially, she became Harley Piper Millage Gross. Harley, because she purred constantly. Piper, because that’s what Deb had called her. And Millage, because it’s what Floridians call their property tax rate, and I always thought it was a funny-sounding word.

I thought “scrimmage” was a funny-sounding word, too, but I was saving that for one of my future kids. So Millage would have to do.

Harley’s an old lady now and not as spry as she once was. But she’s taught me a lot over the years, particularly since I knew very little about cats when I got her.

Harley’s ‘back away from my tuna dinner’ stare.

Here are a few important lessons I’ve learned from my cat:

Never give a cat a bath. The only exception to this rule is if you need a limb amputated and you can’t quite fit a surgeon’s visit into your schedule.

Naturally, I learned this the hard way. I grew up with a dog, and we bathed him every few weeks.

I assumed you were supposed to do the same thing with a cat. So a few weeks into our relationship, I filled the tub, scooped her up and gently set her in the water.

What happened next was a little bit like that scene in “Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark” where the bad guy meets the spinning airplane propeller blades.

I did not know a cat could move that fast or that I could bleed from so many places at once. It was the last bath I ever gave her.

To a cat, everything is a scratching post. When I first got Harley, I invested in a lot of supplies: a covered litter box, a basket of squeaky toys, organic catnip, a cushiony windowsill perch.

I also bought her a sturdy scratching post covered with the finest blue shag.

She liked the scratching post just fine but never drew the distinction between it and other stationary objects, like my couch, my shoes, my stereo speakers and occasionally, one of my legs.

I teach a beginning journalism class at the University of Mary Washington, and one year, after a nice long summer break, I picked up my canvas bag of books to prepare for the fall semester—only to find that one side of the bag had been literally slashed to ribbons.

I considered confronting Harley about it, then decided that a new bag would be cheaper than plastic surgery.

A cat has no snooze button. A chronic late sleeper, I regularly make use of my alarm clock’s snooze button. I learned early on, however, that you cannot turn off the cat.

One morning, not long after I got her, Harley curled up on my chest and started purring.

Awww, I thought, still half asleep. How sweet.

Then she took her little paw and gently stroked my cheek.

Awww, I thought again, only semi-conscious. What a gentle way to wake up.

Then, still purring, she took her little paw and stroked my cheek again, only this time, I could feel the tips of her claws scraping lightly across my face.

Hmmm, I thought, slightly more alert now. That pass felt a tad more menacing.

The next time she put her paw on my face, there was no pretense. Her razor-sharp claws were fully deployed. So, I got up.

Just because a cat shows you her belly doesn’t mean she wants you to rub it.

As I said earlier, I grew up with a dog. When he rolled over onto his back it meant one thing: Rub my belly.

The first time Harley rolled onto her back, purring and making eyes at me, I assumed she was making the same request.

As it turns out, what she was actually saying was, “Here is my belly. It is mine. Do not, under any circumstances, touch it.”

Misreading her nearly cost me a hand.

That’s not your newspaper on the table in front of you.

It looks like a newspaper and, for a minute, you’re even reading it like one. But in reality, it’s the one thing in the whole universe on which your cat needs to lounge at that very moment.

In fact, at any given point in time, your cat’s favorite resting place is virtually guaranteed to be atop whatever is in front of you: the papers you’re grading, the sweater you’re knitting, your computer keyboard, your dinner plate, whatever.

Of course, you’re free to disagree with your cat—provided you know a good plastic surgeon.

Edie Gross: 540/374-5428