Properly Revered Cats


A home without a cat—

and a well-fed, well-petted, and properly revered cat—

may be a perfect home, perhaps,

but how can it prove title?

—Mark Twain, Puddn’head Wilson                                                      

William and Ernest
William and Ernest: An Evening at Home




Dad and Kathy, 1952
Frank Waller dressed for painting, Fentress, Texas, ca.1953

“My grandfather thinks stop signs cause wrecks.

“That’s what he told Mama when they put up those signs at FM 20. If you just go on across, you’ll get out of the way, but if you have to stop, you can’t build up enough speed and somebody’ll come along and hit you for sure. Mama didn’t argue. She’s a firm believer in safe driving, but she says when you marry into the Coburn family, you learn to choose your battles. In the meantime, you’re polite. Of course, with Daddad driving, stopping isn’t an option anyway. He hasn’t had a car with brakes since 1925.”

The lines above open my short story “Stop Signs,” winner of the 2000 North Texas Professional Writers’ Association’s fiction contest.

The story is fiction. The first two paragraphs, however, are pretty much true. Frank Waller did think stop signs cause wrecks. But instead of telling my mother, he said it to Mr. Farr, a new neighbor about his age. Although Mr. Farr nodded, I was sure he  was just being polite. I was seven years old, and I thought the idea was crazy. The reasoning seemed sound, but the facts were skewed.

Of course, I also knew my grandfather was capable of making outrageous statements just to see the listener’s reaction.

But having been his passenger the day he tested that theory, I’m satisfied that in this case he believed what he said.

The flaw in his system was that he drove so slowly he rarely built up any speed at all. He also drove on the wrong side of the road. If he saw a car approaching, he moved to the right, but not until he had scared the bejeebers out everyone else in the car.

His five sons, four daughters-in-law, and several dozen “adopted” relatives called him Dad. He was especially delighted when one of his tenant farmers addressed him that way. Rejecting the suggestion of Granddaddy, I called him Daddad until I got too old for such juvenile behavior and joined the adults.

Dad was tall, built like a scarecrow and, as is evident from the photograph above, mostly leg. He wore khaki shirts and slacks and a scruffy old hat. When he did house painting, he wore white overalls. I think I saw him wearing a suit once, but I can’t remember when or why.

He farmed. In the 1920s, he also ran a filling station and sold Chevrolets. When I was very young, he turned the farm over to one of his sons and moved to a little house he built on his sister’s lot in town.

When he wasn’t sitting on the bench outside the post office with the other old men, he did painting and paper-hanging. He was slow and meticulous. Seams he taped and floated became invisible. Wall-paper he hung was perfectly aligned, and he used enough paste to keep it up for decades. He fell short in only one area: according to my mother, every room he papered was missing two or three feet of border.

Everyone who hired Dad knew he would interrupt the job to indulge in his great love, trotline fishing in the San Marcos River. He used Crystal White soap for bait. The picture below is an average catch. By the time I was seven, I was helping him skin the fish. He then filleted them and put them in his freezer. When he had enough, he’d host a fish fry on his front porch: fried cornbread, Aunt Bettie’s potato salad, Aunt Jessie’s tartar sauce, my mother’s pecan pie.

San Marcos River Catfish
San Marcos River Catfish

The summer I was eight, while I was spending a week with him, a friend who’d been hunting gave Dad two wild rabbits. Dad told me we’d have fried rabbit for supper. When I mentioned the plan in front of my uncle’s wife, she said, “You’re not going to eat a bite of that rabbit!” Thinking her just a tad bossy, I ate extra to spite her. Ten years later in a college biology course, I learned why I shouldn’t have eaten the rabbit. It’s a wonder I’m alive today.

A widower for over forty years, Dad lived on canned Pillsbury biscuits, sorghum molasses, instant coffee, and roll-your-own Bull Durham cigarettes. A daughter-in-law occasionally got him to eat a square meal.

He saucered his coffee and gave lessons to anyone who asked. On a camping trip, I watched him coach a thirteen-year-old boy. They sat side by side on the edge of an army cot, the boy holding the steaming, trembling saucer halfway to his mouth, Dad saying, “Now you’ve got to let go with that right hand.”

He let me roll cigarettes and smoked them even though they were severely deficient in tobacco.

The day he died, one of my uncles called to say Dad was sick but refused to see a doctor. My mother and my uncle’s wife convinced him to go with them to the hospital.

When he was settled in a room, a nurse came in and said, “Mr. Waller, I need to get your temperature.”

He replied, “Now, you just call me Dad.”



“The naming of cats is a difficult matter.” — T. S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

Head of Townhome Security: The cat formerly known as Mr. E.
The cat formerly known as Mr. E. guarding purse and keys

Mr. E.  has decreed that henceforward he will be known to his friends as Ernest.

We welcome Ernest’s decision to drop the Mr. We believe it evinces his desire to establish a closer relationship with us. We also like it because Ernest is easier to say.

When Ernest announced the less formal mode of address, we asked whether William might like to be rechristened Julio. William said no.

So now we have William and Ernest. The literary-minded among us remember those who share the names: William Shakespeare, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Ernest Gaines.

We also remember poet William Ernest Henley, whose “Invictus” our entire freshman class had to memorize and recite, one by one, to qualify for a passing grade. The final stanza of the poem follows:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul. 

We can think of no verse that better expresses William and Ernest’s philosophy of life. Whether lungeing at the crystal vase atop the piano or switching the laptop from Windows to DOS, they are the masters of their fates. They are the captains of their souls.



Teenaged Gang
Gang of Two

For questioning regarding gang activity, including but not limited to (1) biting our ear at 4:00 a.m. [William, possibly abetted by Mr. E.], (2) tiptoeing through the china, (3) tickling the ivories, and (4) chewing the hose of a blood pressure monitor in two, thus rendering said monitor useless.

A third party charged with and found guilty of monitor neglect was sentenced to 30 minutes in line at Walgreen’s buying a replacement and has vowed never to do it again.

A similar vow from the perps pictured here will be deemed sufficient and no charges will be brought.

Top: Mr. E.
Bottom: William of Orange