Willie Morris wrote a wonderful book called "My Dog Skip" (1995) before his too-early death in Jackson, Miss., last August at age 64.
At that time, I learned that he'd written another book called "My Cat Spit McGee." Last week, I got my copy of "Spit McGee" and read it at one sitting.
I'm here to report that it is a good book, but not a great book. It's not quite as good as "Skip" (rightly described as an instant classic) and I think I know why.
Morris admits right at the get-go that he was never a cat person. He was a Southern man, and that means a dog lover, not a cat lover.
He came to know cats through his second wife, JoAnne. His devotion to cats late in life was heartfelt, but lacked the history and depth evident in his relationship with Skip, the dog he grew up with.
Morris needed a little more seasoning to write of the subtleties of cat life. You can write about a dog's life in broad strokes: Morris wrote vividly about teaching Skip to drive a car and play football. But please, don't expect a cat to get involved with such activities. Still, considering his handicaps, Morris did a good job. He just didn't have the life experience to do a great job.
Morris graduated from Yazoo City High School in 1952 and left his home state for University of Texas at Austin. He won a Rhodes Scholarship and studied history at Oxford University. Later he returned to Texas where he edited a crusading liberal weekly newspaper before moving to New York City. There, he was named associate editor of Harper's in 1963. He was named editor-in-chief four years later, thus becoming the youngest editor of the nation's oldest magazine. He moved back to Mississippi in 1980.
But back to Spit. Spit McGee was born in haste, and with little maternal respect, on the dining room floor of Morris' home. Paper towels in hand, Morris rubbed life into the tiny kitten, shouting at it, "Live, kid, live!"
Spit grew up to be a beautiful white cat with one gold eye and one blue eye. Contrary to popular wisdom, Spit was not deaf or even hard-of-hearing as blue-eyed cats are supposed to be.
"He could pick up dinner conversations in Memphis, 200 miles away," wrote Morris.
But Spit was no Skip.
"One entire afternoon, for example, I was determined to get him to approach me when I said, 'Come here!' I repeated this about eight dozen times, punctuating this most sensible of commands by pulling him bodily toward me so he would get the idea. He looked at me with his two-pronged eyes as if I were deranged.
" 'Why doesn't he do what I tell him to do?' I asked (JoAnne) in my honest exasperation. 'Because it isn't his idea,' she replied."
But when Spit made an appearance, it was sweet and memorable in a dignified, understated sort of cat way.
For instance, when Morris and JoAnne got married, their wedding was a quiet affair celebrated with family on the back porch.
"During the vows themselves I heard a rustling in the nearby bushes," he wrote. "Sensing something momentous, who should walk up the steps and stand on the other side of me but young Spit McGee? I considered him in that instant my co-best man."
Any cat lover worth his or her whiskers can identify with that passage. When you need a cat, one appears. Sometimes, cats appear when you don't want them. They pick their occasions. (Take the time that I had a very formal friend over for a spring dinner on the deck. My cats are adept at weaving their way around furniture, avoiding candle flames. But at this crucial dinner my fattest cat strolled across the dinner table, brushing his tail (on purpose?) through the flame, setting his tail on fire as he ran into the house, causing an unbelievable stench and general pandemonium. And, needless to say, ending that dinner quite early. )
And of course, Spit had the brushes with death that daily threaten so many cat lives. Once he was hit by a motorcycle and suffered a broken leg.
"He came back home a tripod, his back leg heavily bandaged," wrote Morris. "For three or four days I put him in bed with me and nursed him. I would put the sheets over him just up to his neck, tuck him in, prop his head on the pillows, draw him close to me, help him go to sleep. 'Sleepy-time now, McGee.' "
I love the way Morris and his wife named their growing household of cats after family members, specifically, their grandmothers (the notable exception being Spit McGee, thank you). A calico waif became Mamie Harper. A female tortoise longhair became Bessie Graham. Now I have the idea that I might name one of my future orange cats Elizabeth Egan.
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