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Essay

Gypsy: The Cat Who Was True to Her Name

True to her name, this cat disappeared from our lives as quickly and as completely as she had entered them, five years earlier.

No one knew where she’d come from, or why she’d chosen us.  She just sort of happened by.  She wound up staying with us for five years and a bit, which, given her nature, was a pretty fair stretch.

          I was introduced me to her on my return from boarding school to our home in Darien, Connecticut in June of 1961.  I met a smallish, rather slim cat, quiet and unassuming but also distinctive, in her black coat with white underbelly.  She came into my bedroom, listened attentively as I spoke, and then slipped out.  Unlike our neighbors’ touchy-feely cats, she rarely meowed and even more rarely sought human affection.  Nowadays you’d call her low-maintenance.

          Gypsy was the first cat we’d had in over a decade, since the untimely demise of Dewey, our previous feline. Like his namesake, a former New York DA and unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate, Dewey the cat had prominent whiskers and was pretty adept at cornering rats.  But he evidently suffered from an excess of feline testosterone, which kept getting him into fights long after he should have known better.  One night, he got into a fight from which he didn’t return.  That was the end of our cat-keeping–until Gypsy’s arrival.

          Though friends had warned us Gypsy might not get along with our three dogs, she never had the slightest difficulty with them.  On the contrary, she seemed to get along better with the dogs than she did with other cats.  Our free and easy, unstructured household with its three acres of woods and lawn was ideally suited to her independent nature.  She did her thing; the dogs did theirs.  Mostly they met only at mealtime, and since they ate different food, there was no competition over that.  The four coexisted quite happily as members of the daffy Peirce family menagerie.

          What I best remember from that first summer was seeing her chasing fireflies on our front lawn on warm summer evenings. She never caught any, but that did not diminish her pleasure in the hunt.  During daylight hours, she enjoyed hunting birds.  The first one I remember her capturing was a Flicker, a long-billed woodpecker very nearly her size.  The next day, Mother, who loved birds, put a bell on Gypsy.  But this experiment didn’t last very long, because Gypsy soon learned to hunt without triggering the alarm.

          My parents dilly-dallied about getting Gypsy spayed.  The inevitable result was that she gave birth to a litter of kittens, of whom we kept one, Rhody.  Rhody was a plump, dust-grey cat of a rather sulky, perhaps even spoiled disposition—far less adventuresome and more given to loud mewing and complaining than her mother.  Had she been a person, she’d have been the type to sit in a rocking chair eating hard candy and complaining that no one ever called her.  But the two got on famously, despite—or perhaps because of—their sharply differing personalities. Both particularly enjoyed their occasional “Smelt Nights,” when my father, before frying up the tasty little fish, would fling each of them a few, raw, just to see them leap in the air and catch them in their mouths.

          In 1964, we took a small apartment in New York so Mother could get to her graduate classes more easily.  Rhody didn’t mind the new arrangement, but Gypsy was not a happy camper. Instead of a three-acre property filled with trees to climb and birds and small rodents to hunt, there was only a four-room apartment to explore.  Gypsy soon discovered there are only so many ways a cat can climb a curtain and that killing cockroaches on the kitchen floor wasn’t in there with hunting Flickers. 

          From that point on, Gypsy was trying to escape.  Not that she was stupid about it.  She knew enough not to try to escape in New York, where her life expectancy on the loose would probably have been less than two weeks owing to the city’s frenetic drivers. But Maine, where we had a huge “cottage” on several heavily-wooded acres right by the coast, was something else again.  There, as in Connecticut, there were birds and rodents to hunt, and even the occasional firefly.  Prior to our move to the city, she had never made any fuss about returning to “civilization.” Once we moved to New York, however, it was a totally different matter.  Each year, as we busied ourselves loading the car for the return drive, Gypsy would do everything she could to keep from going back to what she regarded as her imprisonment.  

          In 1964, she disappeared and could not be found.  Though we all did our best to search for her, we finally had to leave without her. Dad had to be back at work the next day.  We’d just about written her off when we received a phone call from Phoebe Johnston, my late grandmother’s former cook, saying Gypsy had been found, and how should she get her back to us?  Two days later, she arrived at LaGuardia Airport in a big wooden crate, which cost over $100 to retrieve.

          The following year, we got Gypsy into the car relatively easily, only to lose her in Hartford, Connecticut, where my sister was then hospitalized.  Evidently she had escaped as Mary and her things were being unloaded.  The following night, we had a call from the hospital saying the janitor had found a black cat in the boiler room, and could somebody come and pick her up. The day after that, my dad left work early to pick her up, and by nightfall she was back with us.

          The year after that (1966), which happened to be just before my senior year in college, Gypsy left us for good.  Third time lucky, in her books.  Each of us spent hours searching and calling for her—to no avail.  Again, we couldn’t wait.  We simply had to leave to meet our commitments back in New York.  “Someone will find her,” Dad said, as he started the car.

          “Certainly,” Mother agreed.  But we all sensed that this time she probably wasn’t coming back.

          Ironically, it was this fall that my family moved to a much bigger, West Side apartment, with lots of little nooks and crannies for inquisitive cats to explore.  But Gypsy wasn’t there to share the new space with us.  She was somewhere in the Maine woods, chasing Flickers or perhaps even Pileated Woodpeckers.  Or maybe she had adopted some other family.  We never heard anything more about her.  Her disappearance was as abrupt and unannounced as her initial arrival had been.  To me, the miracle was that she’d stuck with us as long as she had. 

The lesson I take from our experience with Gypsy is that if someone or something is seeking freedom, it is pointless to try to stand in that person or animal’s way.  Sooner or later, if determined enough, he or she will escape—no matter what the cost.

2 replies on “Gypsy: The Cat Who Was True to Her Name”

I like the story of Gypsy. She reminded me of my older sister’s cat “Tabby” and Dickens’s pet raven, Grip. Well done Jon.

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