In the fall of 1991, when I was still living in Minneapolis, I decided to get a playmate for my cat Shirley, who had recently moved in with me and away from her step-brother, Atticus. I was doing that stupid thing where you assign human emotional norms to your pet. I figured, Shirley is lonely and she misses Atticus! She needs another cat around to keep her company while I'm at work! Only later did I discover from Shirley's previous owner that she HATED Atticus, and couldn't wait to get away from him.
So, in keeping with my stupid human plan, one chilly Sunday morning my then-boyfriend Mark & I drove out to Vasa, Minnesota, where my friend Aimee's parents lived on a large country estate with lots of random animals, including a pack of barn cats. The most recent litter of kittens had been born just a few weeks earlier. Autumn is late in the year for kittens to be born on Minnesota farms, where the early cold can make it hard for a non-house litter to survive. So I knew that whichever kitten we chose was going to be one lucky cat to be able to go home to a nice warm apartment.
I really wanted a grey kitty. There were several that I thought were really cute, but they were already a bit long in the tooth to be handled by humans, and kept running away from us as we tried to catch them. At one point Aimee did grab hold of one very pretty grey tabby, who subsequently bit her finger almost clear through to the bone. We let that one go.
Betty with prey.
After a while Mark said "look at this little orange and black one. She keeps following us around." I looked down and saw the tiniest little tortoise colored kitten in the world. She was only about as big as one of my fists, but she was plenty feisty, walking around on all fours, mewing up a storm. When you looked at her she would return your gaze and head straight for you, meowing as if to say "Pick me, pleeeeeease, pretty please, pick me!!!" I wasn't that fond of her coloring, and besides that she had a pin head with a strange orange stripe running down the length of her forehead. I kept on with my search for a grey kitten.
But she would have none of it, and would not leave us alone. Finally Mark said "well Tom, I think this one is choosing us!" And I had to admit, something about her insistence was really endearing. She was clearly very intelligent, which I figured would make up for her strange appearance. I decided to take her home, and the second I picked her up she started purring.
I drove home, and the new kitten slept on Mark's lap the entire way. "What should we name her?" I asked. Mark suggested the name "Stripe" because of the orange stripe on her forehead. Hmmm, not really my style. I've always preferred old lady names for my female cats: Shirley, Lucy, Samantha - that sort of thing. I never wanted to name a pet something that might be confused with a beer commercial mascot.
"How about Sabena?" I replied. Mark was of German descent, and I thought he would appreciate it. "Sabena? That's weird. Let's think about it some more."
Betty was an avid connoisseur of house plants.
I took the kitty home that evening, and set up a tiny little bed for her in a corner of the bedroom. (Shirley, who had not reacted well to the kitten's entrance, was banished to the living room for the night.) I didn't want the kitten sleeping in my bed because she was so tiny, I was afraid I'd roll over on her and not hear her meows. So I put the kitty in her bed, got into my own bed, turned out the lights - and then about 10 seconds later heard this little scratching noise. Then I noticed the comforter moving slightly - and up appeared the kitten, who climbed up the comforter into bed with me. After several attempts at putting her in her own bed, I had to let her sleep with me. And we succeeded - she curled up on a pillow next to my head where she was remained safe from possible suffocation.
The next morning I was talking to my friend Laurie, and we were reminiscing about an old joke of ours where we thought it would be really funny if we started calling our friend Beth "Betty". It was really, really stupid, but for some reason it just made us laugh uncontrollably. My friend Sarah had always gotten a kick out of that joke as well. Later I started thinking "Betty. Why not name the cat Betty?" I made a mental note to speak with Mark about it. I also called my friend Sarah and left her a message to tell her about my great idea for the cat's name.
Normally I would have wanted my boyfriend to like the name of my new pet. But as fate would have it, Sarah called me back later that day, before I had a chance to see Mark, and left me a message on my answering machine: "Hi Tom! Hi Betty! So how is Betty enjoying her new home?" It seemed too much like fate that the cat was already getting answering machine messages addressed to her by her name, "Betty."
Betty was a notorious cover and pillow thief.
A few hours later I talked to Mark on the phone and told him why I had decided, finally, that the new kitten would be called "Betty." "Betty?" he said. "How about Sabena? I guess I really like Sabena!" I detected downright panic in his voice. But it was too late. Betty was already becoming known in my circle.
Betty was nothing if not a charmer. She was very bright, and had a distinctive and sometimes rambunctious personality. When we lived in West Hollywood she used to sit outside in the front yard of my house and greet all the passers-by. Sometimes I would sit out front with her and complete strangers would walk right up to us and say "Hi, Betty!" She had more friends in the neighborhood than I did.
Betty loved food almost more than anything else. I used to call her "Concentration Camp Kitty" because if left uncontrolled, she would eat as if she'd been intentionally starved for months. Those early days on the farm without enough food for all the cats must have made a strong impression. I remember the first week that I had her home as a kitten in Minneapolis. I was having my dinner, and Betty was sitting on my lap while I ate. She was obsessed with trying to taste all the food on my plate. I let her sniff a piece of meat before I put it in my mouth. She wanted it so badly and she actually reached up and stuck her entire little paw in my mouth to try to get it.
Betty's religion considered it a sin to let humans eat alone.
Probably my favorite thing about Betty was her love of cuddling. I used to call her the "Teddy Cat" because she would cuddle on demand. If I was in the living room watching something sad on TV, sometimes I would decide I needed Betty to come keep me company. I would call "Betty! Come see me!" and in about five minutes she would appear from whatever she had been doing to join me on the couch. I'd never had a cat so willing to drop everything for a cuddle. She was an absolute sweetheart. She would also sleep right next to me in bed every night, letting me clutch her like a teddy bear.
There are too many Betty stories to share right now, as we mourn her passing earlier today. I had her for fourteen wonderful years, and George enjoyed her company for eight of those years. I will write more Betty blog entries as the thoughts come to me. Meanwhile, we drink a toast to the life of this remarkable and wonderful cat.
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