I promised my cousin, the author JM Tohline, a story about my wonder cat, Popoki. ( BTW -today is the first day you can pre-order his book, “The Great Lenore,” being released this June),She was a foundling kitten, a Christmas present given me by my brother, Dick, through my Mom, via a little old cat-lady, a customer of Mom’s, who found the kitten cowering under her car at a department store parking lot. That was the Christmas of 1968, my Sr. year in High School – 42+ years ago. Popoki is the main character in many stories of mine and our family’s. She is still very much alive in my mind and heart. She always will be. This episode of her many-chaptered life is entitled: “Popoki and the Bird Feeder.”
Popoki was a medium-sized, solid black cat with green eyes. Except for her coloring, she was Siamese. At least one-half of her genes must have come from that breed. She was sleek and beautiful and she knew it. As she grew she took on the mantle of household queen, and she ruled with benign authority. She knew her power and wielded it judiciously. She was tolerant of her humans, and their lack of intelligence and adaptability.
The starlings were everywhere, but our yard was their favorite. Our yard received “favored nation” status because my Dad built a bird feeder. Not just any old bird feeder, more like a bird’s “Four Seasons.” The place was known for its ambience and the views from its tree-high platform. Good food, too. Only the best seed that you could find, as long as it came in the large economy size 50-lb. bags. I think one year we estimated bags that size lasted about 3 weeks. Many different varieties of birds dined there – not just starlings. Ours was a desegregated establishment, although there were attempts to oust the interloping squirrels. The “Natural law” of the suburbs made that illegal, so we had to cease and desist our efforts to throw them out. This capitulation on our part came on the heels of a home invasion perpetrated by one squirrel in particular, who boldly chewed a hole through the porch screen door and walked into the kitchen and right up to yours truly as I was speaking on the phone. He did not look happy. The gauntlet had been thrown. We knew it was either feed ’em outside, or feed ’em in. We acceded to their demands.
The feeder was quite large. It was of a common design, but beautifully crafted out of cedar and oak. with a sliding glass panel in front, and a hinged roof that allowed for easy cleaning and filling. When Dad had completed the project, and while the finish was drying, he took a walk through our back wooded acreage looking for the appropriate tree. He found a tall, straight, sturdy, and fairly young cedar tree. It was approximately 20 feet tall. After felling and stripping it of its branches and outer bark, he and my brothers hauled it to our back yard, and with the aid of shovels and some concrete, sunk that post near the edge of the clearing. The feeder was firmly affixed to the top of that tree with the aid of an extension ladder, and filled with bird seed, all ready for the grand opening. Dad figured, owing to the size of the feeder, he would only need to fill it about once every 3 weeks or so. Once filled and ready, he descended the ladder and stored it back in the garage.
The feeder was an immediate hit, evidenced by repeat customers, who regularly brought their friends. It was often every bird for itself there, and at certain times of the day, there was not a spare place to be found anywhere in range of the seed that was tossed out by the birds or squirrels who had been fortunate enough to garner a spot at the bar.
Popoki first watched the birds on a perch she made out of the window sill of the screen window of our back porch. She was delighted and entertained by the avian antics in the yard. Still quite young, she was not yet experienced in the ways of the hunter. When she ventured outside she was disappointed to find that the birds didn’t stick around when she was outside. Using a telephonic relay system, the crows, – rather like the dogs of “101 Dalmatians,” employed their unique early warning system, to the benefit of all species. It didn’t take her long to figure out bird behavior. Since she shared the house with a parrot, she understood how the caged variety worked, and she soon became an expert on the wild ones. She certainly saw enough of them. She also discovered she had the advantage of her dark coat, which helped her blend in with the dark shadows the house would cast in the afternoon and evening. She frequently would manage to skirt around the yard and hide in the woods’ edge, observing the birds on the ground, with an occasional pounce on a careless one.
Owing to the constant patronage at Chez Tohline, Dad was hard-pressed to figure out a way to save on seed bills. He noticed that a lot of the seed was wasted, or virtually given carte blanche to the squirrels because while sitting on the perch and feeding, the birds tossed the seed about with prodigality, and even the occasional deer feasted on that bounty. So Dad devised a plan, and built an addition to the feeder: a platform about 18″ below the perch that extended out proportionately about 12″ in all directions, in order to catch a lot of the scattered seed. This created a second and larger feeding station for our visitors, thus adding several tables to their restaurant. Dad also was tired of hauling the ladder back and forth to fill the feeder – sometimes twice a week – so one day he decided to just leave it there, propped up in place against the tree.
It did not take Popoki longer than a New York minute to decide that Dad had constructed that platform just for her. In her mind, an open invitation had been issued for her to lounge in the sun, high above the landscape, and wait for the birds to come to her. It was interesting to observe the backyard community that lived at out house. The squirrels took care of each other, the birds took care of the birds, and Popoki endeavored to take care of all of them – from the moment she stepped out the door of the house until she came down the ladder – head first – and trotted back in to be catered to by her humans.
There is still in my mind a very clear picture of Popoki, stretched out on the feeding station platform, 20 feet above the ground, taking in the sun, her tail occasionally twitching as she waited, and waited, thinking perhaps, “Let the little birds come unto me, for of such is the dream of a cat.”
Years later when Mom and Dad moved to New Hampshire, they of course left the feeder there, but they did take the ladder with them. Popoki had come with me when I married, and she was to live out 15 years, throughout which she was ever the subject of a great deal of family lore, ruling whatever household she graced.
She was unique, she was fun, she carried with her, always, enough. . .