No man who has a cat can ever claim to be king of his castle. (No man who has a wife and children can ever make that claim, either, but that's another story.)
I found this out in 1989, when my wife, Sue, and I moved with our young daughters, Katie and Lauren, from an apartment to a condominium in Stamford, Conn. The girls, who longed for a "real pet," had grown tired of goldfish whose life expectancy was approximately as long as the Super Bowl halftime show. They wanted something that could return their affection, that had some semblance of intelligence, that would respond to their every command. True, they already had me. But they wanted something more. Specifically, they wanted a cat.
So, on an overcast Saturday, we went to the Humane Society and saw cats of every conceivable make and model. Asking not one child but two children, ages 9 and 7, to pick out the pet of their dreams borders on cruelty, not necessarily to the children, who would gladly devote their lives to such an endeavor, or to the cat, who couldn't care less because there's a sucker born every minute, but most definitely to the parents.
Ultimately, the decision was in my hands. Or, more accurately, on my feet. That's because one little kitten, a black and white cutie of almost unimaginable softness, climbed out of her box, scampered over to me and began to rub up against my size 11 sneakers. When I picked her up, she snuggled against my cotton shirt and purred contentedly. It would be years before she showed me such affection again. Of course, I couldn't have known that. But it was late, the girls were hopelessly confused and I was hooked, so I announced, "This is the one."
Katie named her Ramona, after Ramona Quimby, the title character in a series of books by children's author Beverly Cleary. It was a monumental misnomer: Ramona, the fictional 8-year-old girl, was charming, lively and smart; Ramona, the real-life 8-week-old cat, was grumpy, boring and stupid. But the girls were happy. Sue and I were, too, because for all her mental deficiencies, Ramona quickly learned how to use the litter box. I like to think she followed my example because, of course, I was already housebroken.
Ramona became internationally famous in 1992 as a charter member of "Who's Who of Animals." Here was her entry in that prestigious publication:
"Ramona Geraldine Zezima
"Ramona is a 3-year-old domestic house cat. She is small, sleek and coal black except for her white paws and whiskers and a white hourglass patch on her throat and chest. Ramona's greatest claim to fame is that she is even dumber than our goldfish, Pumpkin, out of whose bowl she likes to drink. A recent intelligence test pitting Ramona and a loaf of Wonder Bread proved inconclusive. She also is lazy, aloof and virtually unemployable. Still, we all love her because, frankly, we are only human."
Ramona's cushy lifestyle as a pampered princess who rarely deigned to associate with commoners ended in 1995 with the arrival of the newest member of the family, a puppy named Lizzie. Sensing competition, Ramona finally began warming up to us.
Her miraculous transformation into an affectionate sweetheart continued in 1998, when we moved to Long Island, N.Y., and got another cat, Kitty, who then had her own kitties, Bernice and Henry, all of whom ignored Ramona, who was only too happy to reciprocate and focus her attention on us.
Just before her Sweet 16th birthday party, Ramona began emitting a series of loud, strange, agonizing cries that sounded a lot like me when I get out of bed in the morning. Sue didn't help matters when she shook her head sadly and said, "It's her time."
I rushed to Jefferson Animal Hospital with Ramona, who sat calmly as Dr. Jeff Rose checked her teeth and, at the other end, took her temperature. Then he listened to her heart and began feeling her stomach. "Have you watched her when she uses the litter box?" he asked.
"I don't make a habit of it," I replied. "Why?"
"Because," Dr. Rose announced, "she's constipated."
"You mean I worried myself sick over this stupid animal, thinking she was at death's door, and the only thing wrong with her is that she can't have a bowel movement?" I said incredulously.
"I'm afraid so," said Dr. Rose.
The bill: $165.10. The prescription: a stool softener.
Our first "real pet" enjoyed good health for four more years, until about three weeks ago, just a few days before the end. She was two months shy of her 20th birthday.
For two decades, Ramona had us all wrapped around her little paw. She lived on her own terms and was loved unconditionally.
I guess she was pretty smart after all.
Stamford Advocate columnist Jerry Zezima is the author of the forthcoming humor book "Leave It to Boomer." He can be reached at JerryZ111@optonline.net. His blog is www.jerryzezima.blogspot.com.