An excerpt from a memoir, A Barber’s Son — Memories of Growing Up in Toronto. Copyright is held by the author.
I RACED into the house screaming, “I won. I won.”
Mom was at the stove. “What did you win?” she called from the kitchen.
As I entered, she turned around holding a wooden spoon. Her face was beet-red and glistening from cooking in the stifling 1953 late August heat.
I held up the orange and black kitten. Mother’s eyes widened.
“Isn’t he beautiful? I won him at the movie matinee. They had draws for prizes before the first show started. His name is Matty — for “matinee” — get it?”
After being held in my sweaty hands for a long time, the kitten was damp and its hair was clumped into orange and black spikes that stood straight out. It looked like a cartoon character that had grabbed the end of a high voltage wire. I set it down on the kitchen counter.
Mother wiped a hand across her apron and looked at me, then the kitten. The little creature gazed around curiously at its new environment, peered down over the edge of the counter, and mewed.
“I think Matty’s hungry,” I said.
Mom didn’t say anything, just gave me a disapproving stare. I’d seen that look before. It was the type of frown a parent gives you just before something unfavourable is said, or done to you. I had expected some praise for my achievement.
“It doesn’t belong on the kitchen counter,” she said.
I picked Matty up and set him down on the floor. We watched him run over to the cat food dish located beside the refrigerator and start eating.
“You can’t keep it. We already have a cat.”
“I know Mom, but what’s wrong with having another one?”
She sighed. “How do you think Rufus is going to feel about another cat living here?”
I hadn’t thought about that. Our cat Rufus wasn’t in the house then, which was likely a good thing because he didn’t get along with other cats. He was a big grey tom and a good fighter. Some mornings he’d show up on the doorstep with long, bloody scratches on his nose and chunks out of his ears after a night of battling with other male cats in the neighbourhood. Occasionally he’d appear on the window sill with a mouse, the only evidence of which was a tail dangling from between his lips. Mom said he was bringing us a present, but she never let him in with it.
I wasn’t about to give up.
“I’ll look after him. I’ll feed him and clean up any mess he makes. I’ll get a job to pay for his food. I’ll keep the two cats apart so they won’t fight, and he can live in my room.”
My mother was unmoved. “We can’t keep it.”
“Please Mom. Please . . . please . . . please.”
“No — stop asking! We can’t feed and look after two cats. For the love of God, why is a show giving away cats to children as prizes? Can’t they just give them chocolate bars or something?”
A sudden look of realization crossed her face.
“Ah, I know why. The theatre’s resident mouser must have given birth to a litter and the easiest way to get rid of her kittens was to give them away at the Saturday matinee. How convenient — the underhanded devils — using kids like that. I think I’ll call the manager and complain.”
Was she crazy? Complaining about getting a free kitten?
“If you let me keep him I’ll do the dishes every night after dinner.”
“I’d rather you do your school work instead.”
“We’ll give it to your sister. She’s coming here tomorrow for lunch.”
“Awww . . . please mom . . . let me keep him . . . pleeease.” My mouth started to twitch.
She bent down and waved the wooden spoon in my face. “Don’t whine and cry or I’ll give you something to cry for. I just finished cleaning house, it’s sweltering hot, I’m trying to cook dinner and I have no patience for your nonsense. If it was up to you we’d have every stray in here and I’d be broke trying to feed them all.”
“No, and that’s final!”
She threw the wooden spoon down on the counter. “One more word and I’ll get the belt.”
I shut up, but sniffled. After a few moments of silence, mother’s usual, gentle smile appeared and her voice softened.
“Look — you love your sister, don’t you?”
“Think about how happy she’ll be with this beautiful kitten. Lilian’s talked about getting a pet. A gift like that from you will be something special for her.”
“She’s been good to you lately. She took you to the C.N.E. last Sunday and bought you lots of things. One good turn deserves another.”
“But I —”
“You must learn not to be selfish. Having one cat is enough.”
“Listen. You can see the kitten and play with it whenever we visit Lilian. You won’t really be losing it.”
She was right about that. Sis had been good to me and we went to her place every other Sunday. I’d see Matty often. The situation really wasn’t so bad after all.
She tilted her head. “Well?”
“Okay, Mom. Lil can have him.”
“I’m proud of you for being so generous. We’ll surprise her tomorrow. She’ll be so happy.”
Mom took two dishes from the cupboard and spooned some cat food onto one of them. “Take these and keep the kitten in your room until your sister arrives. Put some water from the bathroom sink into this other dish. If Rufus sees that cat when he comes home, the fur’s gonna fly.”
Mom looked down at the floor and shook her head. She went to the closet, returned with an empty shoe box, a cloth, and some newspaper which she handed to me.
“Clean up that puddle on the floor it just made, and then cut up some of this paper to put in here for a litter box.”
After cleaning up the floor, I took Matty, the kitty toilet, and the dish of cat food up to my room. I filled the other dish with water and Matty took a big drink. After exploring everything, he played on the floor with a crumpled-up ball of paper for a long time, and then snuggled into the soft, thick cushion of torn newspaper in what was supposed to be a litter box, and fell asleep. In bed that evening, I thought about how happy my sister was going to be, but still felt sad about having to give Matty away.
Before sleep overtook me, I made a mental note to watch where I stepped when getting out of bed the next morning.
Matty’s small, bright blue eyes stared up at me from the floor the next morning.
“I guess you’re hungry, eh?”
Why couldn’t we keep him? Rufus, our other cat was out most of the time anyway. Matty was the only thing I’d ever won in my life. It just wasn’t fair.
He tried several times to jump up on my bed, but his tiny legs couldn’t make the leap. I lifted him up and he spent several minutes chasing the moving bump my fingers and toes made under the blanket. I hugged him and he purred.
If Mom was in a good mood at breakfast, maybe she’d change her mind.
“Mom — about Matty. Can’t I please —?”
“No. We’re giving that kitten to your sister, I said. Lilian’s been talking about getting a parakeet or goldfish for a pet and this will be a wonderful surprise for her.”
Well, that was that. I had no appetite and went back to my room to play with Matty for as long as I could. Maybe Sis and her husband would have another one of their arguments and wouldn’t come today. Perhaps she wouldn’t want a cat to look after.
“Lilian’s here,” Mother called an hour before lunch.
I ignored her.
“Now!” she demanded a few minutes later.
I had to accept the situation. Who was I kidding? Sis wouldn’t say no to a kitten. Goldfish and parakeets weren’t real pets like dogs and cats. I decided to make the best of it and surprise her. I put Matty in a shoe box and covered it with the lid I’d punched breathing holes through.
“What’s this?” Sis asked, as I carried the box into the kitchen and passed it to her.
“It’s for you, Lil.”
I held the box steady against the jerking movements of the frightened kitten sealed inside.
“Did you make something for me at school?”
The surprise inside the box cried out.
“What?” was all Lilian said before lifting the cover and gasping. Her face broke into a glowing sunrise of delight. She picked up Matty and cuddled him close to her cheek. Suddenly she burst out crying. Lilian always got all emotional and cried about everything, good or bad.
“His name is Matty. I won him at the movies yesterday. You can have him.”
“Oh my God,” she burbled over and over, grabbing tissues to wipe her eyes and blow her nose. “It’s so cute. It’s for me? You’re giving it to me?”
“Yeah, we already have a cat.”
“That’s so generous of you.”
Actually, Mom was the one being “generous,” but I didn’t tell Sis that.
“He’s darling. I love him. I’ll take good care of him. Thank you for such a wonderful gift. He’s beautiful.”
I hated it when women kissed me. My face was all covered with lipstick and I smelled of perfume.
Lilian’s husband Harold wasn’t as delighted. His face had a “we don’t need a cat” look. He glared at Sis. “You can look after it then.”
That ticked me off. Who wouldn’t love a kitten like Matty? Harold didn’t like socializing with our side of the family anyway. Mom never kept alcoholic beverages in the house which annoyed him. He enjoyed her cooking, though, and since making water boil challenged my sister, he rarely stayed away from a meal at our house. I admired him because he was a World War II veteran.
Before Lilian and Harold left that afternoon with Matty, she gave me a brand new 1953 silver dollar. It was so shiny the sunlight reflecting off it hurt my eyes.
“You should save it,” Mom said.
Not a chance. I had sacrificed enough already. Lilian knew that I felt bad about having to give up Matty and gave me that silver dollar as compensation.
Saying goodbye to Matty was sad. Sis saw my mouth quivering as she was leaving and hugged me.
“Don’t be upset. You’ll play with him whenever you visit me and see him grow up.”
That wasn’t the same. I was still unhappy.
“Put it in that cardboard box,” Harold demanded. “I don’t want my car all messed up.”
I thought that was mean, but didn’t say anything.
That cat turned out to be a wonderful pet: friendly, affectionate, intelligent, and playful. It was interested in everything that was going on and always responded to its spoken name.
There was only one problem.
Matty became the proverbial gift that never stopped giving because it was a female cat, not a male as I had assumed. Did Mom know, and was that the main reason she insisted on giving it away? Sis renamed it Matilda.
Matilda was a prolific feline. She must have been romanced by every tom within a ten mile radius. She had litter after litter of kittens. We lost count of the number. It seemed like every time one litter was weaned and had just left the nest, another was on the way—like the schedule on a bus route.
Finding homes for all those kittens was almost a full time job. My sister’s friends got worried whenever she called them. Was it to unload a member of the latest litter?
I recall one of her telephone conversations attempting to find homes for a brood.
“I’ve saved a special one for you — an orange and brown part-Persian — a beautiful kitten — very affectionate. Everyone wants it, but I said no—it’s for my best friend, Fran.”
Sis claimed many people were her “best friends” when a litter was weaned and I thought with a pitch like that, she should have been a car salesperson. Maybe not. I don’t think Fran took that particular kitten and anyway, I don’t remember there being any female car salespeople in the early 1950s.
Lillian and her husband lived in a three room flat above a store. Entry to their living quarters was via a steep flight of stairs that led up from the back yard. Mother and I travelled on the streetcar to visit them every other Sunday morning. On several occasions I used part of my allowance to buy cat toys for Matilda.
On one of those visits, Mother rushed up the stairs from the back yard. Out of breath, and red-faced, she wheezed, “Come quick — something terrible’s happened.”
We hurried down the steep flight of stairs to the back yard and looked all around for the cause of her alarm. Everything seemed in good order.
My sister’s was upset at being been taken away from reading her Hollywood gossip magazine. “What’s the matter?
“I’m missing the baseball game on the radio,” Harold complained.
“Look.” Mother pointed up at a large tree in the yard above where its branches extended close to the open bedroom window of the flat where Sis lived. There, perched on a limb high above the ground, was Matilda.
Panic gripped me. My cat was going to fall to the ground and be killed.
I grabbed Harold’s arm. “Do something Harry. Get her down.”
“Good God,” Mom and Sis exclaimed in unison. Sis wasn’t crying which was unusual.
I started to bawl.
Harold took a sip from his umpteenth bottle of beer consumed that morning and said, “Don’t worry. She’ll come down. That cat climbed up there and she can get back down. We just have to wait.”
We were all upset, but not the cat. She peered down at us, unconcerned. The tears stopped, but I was still worried.
Sis tried to lure her back in through the window with an open tin of sockeye salmon. Matilda just climbed to a higher branch. A squirrel ate the salmon and carried the empty tin away. I sat by the window for two hours trying to coax her back inside.
“Here Matilda. Come. Come. That’s a girl.”
She didn’t. My stomach started rumbling.
After lunch, I dangled cat toys out the window.
“Look Matilda. A furry mouse. Come and get it. Maybe you’d like this puff ball instead.”
She yawned and turned away.
Soon, afternoon tea time approached and my neck was stiff from stretching it out the window to look up at Matilda. I left and went to play crazy eights with Harold. The case of beer was nearly empty and his face assumed a slack, grinning mask with one eyebrow lifted. It wasn’t long before he started to tell me stories about his experiences in the war. He never did that when he was sober and I loved to hear them. Harold was entertaining to be with when he was drunk and Matilda’s plight was set aside for the time being.
It was almost time to start making dinner, and we went out to look at Matilda. She was still up in that tree in the same place. She hadn’t moved an inch. There was talk of phoning the Fire Department, the police, or the City Works Department.
“Forget the Works Department,” Lilian said. “It’s Sunday.”
“Will the Fire Department come if there’s no fire?” Mother asked.
Harold took a sip from his second glass of whiskey and slurred, “The poleash won’t reshpond if theresh no crime.”
A big ladder was what was needed and just as we concluded that the Fire Department was our only option, a back door opened on the house next door and a man came out.
He was a big, blond, strong looking fellow with blue eyes. Harold always avoided him because he was a foreigner. Harold didn’t like immigrants.
“They ruined Europe and they’ll ruin this country too,” he said. “The government’s let them come here from all over Europe after the war.”
Harold was annoyed, but there wasn’t much he could do about it except avoid anyone who had an accent, an ethnic sounding name, or who just looked different from what he thought was a normal, Canadian, Anglo Saxon.
Harold didn’t work very much and drank excessively. Mom said him and Sis argued a lot. I liked him because he’d been a soldier in the war and gave me things he’d brought back including a bayonet, a red arm band with a black swastika on it, and his medals.
Mother made me give back the arm band.
“I won’t have you wearing that evil thing.”
“It’s just a piece of cloth, Mom.”
“I don’t care. I said no. You can keep the bayonet.”
That 15 inch blade was a lot more dangerous than a cloth arm band. Who could figure out parents?
Mother’s relationship with Harold was complicated. She didn’t approve of his drinking, but he was her son-in-law and she knew what he’d been through for six years in the war.
“The war damaged him. You can’t choose your relatives,” she said one day.
“But he didn’t get wounded,” I said.
“He wasn’t physically injured, but his mind is hurt. Drinking’s his way of forgetting about Europe.”
That was hard to do with a European neighbour living right next door. What was a hurt mind? Was it like when other kids called you bad names or you didn’t get what you wanted for your birthday?
“Vat is wronk÷ I zee you look up,” the neighbour said in a heavily accented voice that reminded me of a war movie I’d seen.
Lilian explained the situation, pointing up to the branch where Matilda was sitting. The man looked up, moved his head from side to side, but didn’t show any concern, or say anything. He turned around and went back into his house.
“Nosy D.P. bastard,” Harold grumbled.
“Don’t swear in front of my kid brother,” Sis chastised him.
Hah! I knew worse words than that.
We were surprised to see the man come out again a few minutes later carrying a potato sack which he tied around his waist like a skirt. Was he nuts or something? Later on Harold would complain about the type of foreign people they were letting in to Canada.
The neighbour climbed on the fence next to the tree, reached up, grabbed a branch, and then hauled himself up onto it.
Was he a circus acrobat?
He climbed higher, from branch to branch, pausing only to bounce lightly on each one to test it before moving up to the next. He didn’t look down or show any trepidation regarding his increasing altitude. It was fascinating. I’d seen Tarzan movies at the Crown Theatre and marvelled at his monkey-like ability to swing from one vine to the other through the trees, but this man’s feat was happening in real life.
Finally, he reached the level of the branch where the cat was poised and extended his hand out to her.
Matilda moved back a little, then stopped and looked down. A detached green leaf floated down. I shivered.
The man untied the sack from his waist, then reached out and grabbed the cat.
She squirmed and kicked before being stuffed into the bag. Next, he plucked a cord from his pocket and tied the bag closed leaving a long loop which he slung around his neck.
I started to pray.
We could see the sides of the sack rippling from the desperate movements of the cat trapped inside as he climbed back down. Once on the ground in our yard, he laid the sack down and untied it. Matilda burst out and raced up the steps into the flat. We could hear her feet clattering up the stairs as she scurried to the safe haven of the bottom dresser drawer in Sis’s bedroom where she slept and gave birth to her many litters of kittens.
My prayer was answered. The tension drained away.
No one uttered a word throughout this remarkable rescue; an amazing display of agility, strength and courage. Sis finally broke the silence.
“I’m Lilian. Pleased to meet you. That was a wonderful thing to do. Thank you so much for rescuing our cat . . . mister?”
The fellow grinned, displaying a large scar running down his left cheek and rows of square teeth with a large space between the two upper front ones. “Schneider — Heinz Schneider,” he said. Schneider took her hand and bowed slightly. She blushed.
“Thank you very much Mister Schneiderman. We’ve been worried about that cat all day long.”
Lilian was flustered and got his name wrong, but Mister Schneider didn’t correct her.
“You’re velcome, Miss Lily Anne.”
With a thin, self-conscious smile, Harold extended his arm offering a limp handshake. “Thanks Hans.” Harold didn’t introduce himself and also mangled the man’s name. I wondered if he felt ashamed of his reluctance to get to know this neighbour who lived right next door and had imperiled life and limb to rescue the pet of strangers who never gave him the time of day.
“You are also velcome, sir.”
I expected Harold to say, “Come in for a drink,” but he didn’t.
“Thank you for saving Matilda, sir,” I said.
“You are velcome also, yung man. How old are you?”
“I’m nine. How did you get that big scar on your face, sir?”
Sis grabbed my arm and shook me hard. “Don’t be so rude. That’s none of your business.” She flushed. “I’m sorry. Children say whatever comes into their heads. He meant no offense.”
Mr. Schneider drew his finger down the scar on his cheek. “Is no secret, young master. I receive this when duelling with sword. Much blood.”
“Wow! You fought with a sword?” Pirates call them cutlasses, y’know.”
He turned to Sis. “Your boy is very smart.”
“He’s my brother.” She gestured towards Mother. “This is his mother — er, she’s my mother too.”
“Yes, of course,” Heinz said, nodding his head and chuckling. He took Mom’s hand and bowed slightly.
“You’re a hero,” Mother gushed. “That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know how in the world we were going to get that cat back down. You obviously aren’t afraid of heights, are you?”
The neighbour grinned and picked up the empty potato sack. “Is notting. High place no botter me. I vas paratrooper in zee Luftwaffe. Jump from fife tausend feets. Got Iron Cross First Class.”
Harold’s face, which always flushed when he drank, drained of colour and dropped. He turned without saying a word, and went into the apartment. After getting very drunk, he passed out on the couch and missed his favourite dinner of prime rib roast beef, mashed potatoes with peas, and cherry pie for dessert that mother had cooked.
I guess it was all too much for him to bear. He went through six years of hell fighting men like Heinz Schneider. For what? This man, a former mortal enemy, was now a close neighbour and it was galling to be indebted to him because he had rescued a cat. Worst of all, that “God damned Kraut,” as he referred to him thereafter, was a hero to his wife, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law. No one had ever called Harold Cameron a hero. I always thought he was, but never told him that while he was alive. I should have.
I don’t know what Matilda thought, but my furry gift to Sis never climbed that tree again.