A C&I editor remembers a much-loved pet who first joined the family on a trip to the Piney Woods.
My plans for starting 2019 right weren’t exactly ambitious.
There’d be no big resolutions. I knew from past experience that I wouldn’t be balancing my checkbook religiously. I wouldn’t be losing the poundage I’d packed on after my mom’s heart attack and broken hip. I wouldn’t be making a serious dent in the stockpile of thrift-store furniture, clothes, and miscellany waiting to be creatively upcycled. And I probably wouldn’t be figuring out how to get the pictures off my ancient flip phone.
If I could download them, I’d have handy some photos of Slippy, the East Texas cat we lost in late 2018.
The least I could do to start the new-year wheels turning would be to take down the note that had been taped to the outside of the door of the small downstairs bathroom for a couple of months.
In thick green Sharpie marker on a folded piece of used printer paper:
Our sweet little Slippy died today. I was petting and massaging and thanking him for being our good boy for so many years. He’s lying in here till I can bury him tomorrow under the big tree. He was such a dear kitty, and you rescued him from what would have been a hard, short life.
— [heart] Mom
Contrary to the tone of my note, my son is no longer a little boy. He’s 24 now (as he loves to remind me whenever I mother him) — and many years removed from the day we found Slippy as a kitten.
We’ve been through many beloved-pet deaths together, my son and I. But this one would be especially sad for him because Slippy was really his cat.
It was hardly news that could be delivered over the phone, and I didn’t know when I’d run into my son in the house next. I needed to warn him in case he opened the bathroom door before I could speak to him in person. Hence the note.
When Slippy came into our lives, I’d recently gotten divorced and my son was trying to get his 6-year-old’s mind around a new house, a single mom, and weekend sleepovers at the old house with his dad. The next chapter would largely be the two of us, and our menagerie of rescue animals.
I imagined lots of adventures that would make my son’s fractured life a full life. A road trip to East Texas seemed like a good way to set the new tone for the coming years.
In East Texas, we rode the Texas State Railroad between Rusk and Palestine. The character-filled old towns were tiny compared with sprawling DFW; the trees were towering compared with the builder-planted sticks in our new neighborhood; the vintage train cars were pleasantly slow compared with the breakneck speed of our usual freeway travel.
The Rose Garden at the Rose Garden Center in Tyler, Texas
We spent a couple of hours in the open-air locomotive chugging through a piney, leafy woodland, having lunch during a layover. At some point, there was a staged Old West-style train robbery. The history might have been lost on my kid, but it was a nice change from the Game Boy or whatever screen he would have otherwise been glued to.
He was probably bored out of his mind in the rose gardens in Tyler, but I was enthralled and determined to instill in him an appreciation of beauty, encouraging him to smell and really look at the delicate colorful blooms, to really pay attention, as I’d coached him with every fiery or muted sunset, every interesting cloud formation, every harvest/crescent/full/gibbous moon.
At Caddo Mounds State Historic Site, he seemed to connect with the mystery of the ancient earthen platform and burial mounds of the Caddoan Mississippian culture that once called the region home. What fascinated me nearby was an almost ghost town hiding beyond the trees. I wondered about the poetic name of the community: Weeping Mary. Was it, as urban legend held, named after Mary Magdalene weeping at Jesus’ tomb, or after a former slave who lost her land after the government promised she wouldn’t?
Visitors to Caddoan Mounds State Historic Site in the East Texas piney woods can climb to the top of a burial mound, one of several mounds built by Early Caddo Indians 1,000 years ago.
But what made that East Texas trip forever memorable was finding Slippy. At a state park where I planned to go fishing with my son, we came upon some seemingly orphaned kittens, hardly old enough to have been weaned. At the sound of our approaching footfalls and high-pitched coaxing, the little fur balls scurried away and hid under a deck.
Taking after me in at least this way, my son wanted to save the kittens and take them home. He got on the ground on his stomach and tried to coax them from their hiding spot. He worked patiently at it for nearly an hour. The furry little gray one eventually came close enough for him to get a hand on it, but it slipped his grasp.
Retreating into their instinctive distrust, the kittens disappeared completely and we eventually had to leave the park without them.
Back in the Dallas area, my son became obsessed with saving Slippy. Every day came the imploring questions. How will he live? How will he get food? Is he safe? Will something happen to him? Who will take care of him?
In my son’s relentless questions about Slippy’s welfare and future, I thought I heard his own worries as a child of newly divorced parents. How would he survive?
He wouldn’t let up. But even if he had, it would have taken next to no cajoling to get me in the car for the three-hour return trip a couple of weeks later back to the kittens’ East Texas hideout.
I didn’t quite know how to tell my son that it might already be too late — that some wild animal might have gotten the kittens, that they might have been trapped and taken God-knows-where. Better to plant the idea that some nice state-park employee probably found and adopted them.
We were both wildly anxious when we approached the same spot with our open can of cat food, hoping to lure the kittens out to the love and safety we intended to provide.
Miraculously, there was a little mewing sound, and soon, the sight of fluffy gray little Slippy. He walked right up to my son and that was that.
We had no luck finding the other kittens, but Slippy went home with us that day and lived as our beloved cat for the next 18 years. He grew into a big and very handsome Russian blue. Strong and gentle, he always maintained his slightly feral, mostly friendly, aloof-but-affectionate manner, choosing his moments to receive and give love — and being charmingly effusive when he did. Not so different from my son’s manner as I think about it now.
His loss was, and is, profound.
We buried Slippy under potted yucca plants beneath a tall spreading oak tree that has a small stone sculpture of a lion’s head nailed to it. The great cat looks like he’s roaring, in the prime of his life, his full mane blowing in an imperceptible wind.
Photography: Dana Joseph, Michael Barera (CC BY-SA), © Texas Parks and Wildlife Department