My beloved cat Babby painted by my father in 1966. He sold this painting when I was a kid and it turned up at auction in Florida in 2007 and my husband won it for me for Christmas.
Tiger Cat by Bernard Safran, 1966, oil on masonite 18″ x 24″
When my parents decided in 1972 that we were going to move to Canada I was heartbroken about leaving Babby – the independent, and sometimes feral tabby cat that visited our home everyday in Bronxville, NY.
I first saw Babby when I was just a tot. A neighbor, Mrs. McLelland, called my mother to tell her to bring me over to see a litter of kittens that her cat had just had. The kittens were all piled up together in a cardboard box in the kitchen behind the warm stove. Babby was one of those kittens.
He soon moved into a house across the street from us with the Jantz family – they had a dog, and two kids that I played with. One time when I was over at their house and the kids and I were playing in the backyard, the dog and the cat somehow opened the fridge and dragged out a turkey carcass – we found them both happily gnawing away at it on the floor.
Babby quickly decided that visiting my family was part of his daily rounds. Though he obviously enjoyed our company, garden, and house, he was a fierce cat and not very cuddly. I got scratched and clawed a lot over the years, but I just loved him more and more.
It didn’t take long for Babby to find life at the Jantz house too hectic. He soon preferred the home of a Russian artist living up the street. He may have changed houses, but he continued to visit us everyday. In the summer he would often sit under my mother’s lounge chair in the backyard. In the winter he would climb our back screen door til he could peer in at us at the kitchen table. That was the only way we ever saw his spotted tummy for those first few years.
a cat that resembles Babby by the artist Feodor Rojankovsky
He eventually moved from the first Russian artist’s house to another Russian artist’s house a street over. (my Dad was technically the third Russian artist Babby lived with)
Feodor Rojankovsky was a famous children’s book illustrator and he painted tabby cats into a lot of his illustrations. Perhaps when Babby showed up at his door he liked the look of the cat.
We learned that the Rojankovskys were leaving Babby to starve when they went away for vacations. People used to think (and still do it seems) that cats can manage on their own. Poor Babby was suffering and had to resort to eating scraps of garbage, birds and mice, and whatever he could beg. One neighbor, Mr. Varley, shot pebbles and marbles at the cat with a slingshot because he was eating birds – I really resented that and never liked the man much because of it.
My father forbade us from feeding Babby at my house. He seemed okay with the cat coming inside and hanging around – he would even pet him sometimes – but no food ever. I know though, that during those times when Babby was starving, my mother did sneak things to him by our backdoor- tuna, chicken and other scraps.
Girl Scout Betty with Babby
Over the years Babby spent many happy hours with us – I’d come home from school and he’d be sleeping on my bed. Sometimes he’d come in in the evening and watch TV with us in my room – things like Star Trek or the Ed Sullivan Show. I remember one night the cat went absolutely freakishly wild and zoomed around my bed coverlet upside down with all four feet hanging on and his eyes like giant shiny saucers.
When we were facing the reality of moving far away and leaving Babby in New York, my mother and sister and I plotted to take him with us. My mother sent my sister and I to Manhattan one day late in the year to go to the Canadian Embassy and find out if we could bring a cat into the country. This was the only time I’d ever gone into the city with just my sister and though she was 5 years older than me (and in 1972 she was then 17 and I was 12) it felt like a daring adventure.
Somehow we ended up at the wrong address and we traveled up the elevator to discover that the building was being gutted and there was no embassy there. It was very scary and eerie stepping off the elevator – there weren’t any walls – just sheets of dirty plastic blowing around stripped girders and the debris of the wrecked building.
This is what it looked like when we stepped off the elevator, but imagine the wind blowing through sheets of dirty plastic hanging down. This picture isn’t of that particular building – but it is a destroyed building in New York City taken around the same time.
Photograph: Bernard Safran
Had we stepped too far we could have fallen down stories to the street below. It was shocking. We quickly got back on the empty elevator and went down to the safety of the street.
We persevered that day because this was for our beloved pussy cat. We somehow found our way to the proper address and the appropriate person to answer our question. The Canadian embassy staff were delighted by us girls showing up and were so nice to us – and we happily found out that we could bring a cat into Canada without quarantine.
Okay so this is what I knew about Canada when we moved there: Canada had a lot of snow and ice and igloos….
Igloo on Atlin Lake BC, photo by Juergen Weiss
We returned home triumphant and my mother then tactfully asked my father if we could bring Babby with us to the great white north.
This is very much like the ONLY picture of Canada in my grade school social studies book that went along with a couple of paragraphs of text that included such useful information like Canada grew potatoes and had trees.
So the sum of my knowledge was that I knew there were white people who went to white churches and there were igloos in Canada…. and they had trees and potatoes.
My father relented – seeing how distraught we were and that’s how we became cat-kidnappers. When the time came for us to leave, my mother had a makeshift crate for Babby and we smuggled him into the back seat of the car between me and my sister.
So that’s how and why Babby left New York to live the rest of his long life in true bliss in the Canadian wilds with the one family that truly loved him.
Babby lived to be twenty years old.