The Three O’Clock Cat by Gretchen Legler

When we first moved to rural Maine, like any newcomers, Ruth and I wanted to know things: where to buy groceries, how to get our internet hooked up, the best restaurants, where to shop for clothes and hardware, the hours for the local transfer station (the new name for the dump), recommendations for dentists and doctors, and, high on the list, where to see good films. There was a theater in our small town that showed family-oriented films and the latest blockbusters, but some of the other kinds of films we wanted to see were shown at an independent art theater in Waterville, forty-five minutes away. It was always a companionable adventure to head to Railroad Square Cinema, sometimes just Ruth and I, sometimes with friends, in the twilight of a summer evening, or in the snowy winter dark, navigating back roads and watching for deer. The theater, home to the annual Maine International Film Festival, also served as an art gallery, showing local amateur work, as well as that of professionals. While we munched our popcorn and waited for the movie to start, we often spent time looking at the artwork. We didn’t have much money to spare then, especially for art, but one show in the small gallery moved us so profoundly we could not resist. The paintings were by artists with mental disabilities who were participating in a course taught by a local painter. One artist had created a series of paintings of cats. Many of them seemed to be in prison. Some stared out at the viewer, their paws grasping black bars in front of them. One was dressed in an old-fashioned striped convict suit and hat. One orange cat reached a paw out from its cell to touch a butterfly flying outside the bars. One, a purple cat, sat perched on a counter beside a vase of daffodils, the clock in the background showing the big hand on twelve and the little hand on three. We learned later that the artist had kept dozens of cats in her home and recently had been “shut down” by social service agencies, the cats rehomed to new owners and shelters and the woman put in the care of an assisted-living center.

The way the artist expressed her desire for freedom of movement, her sense that life for her was now violently constrained, must have resonated with me, although I couldn’t then articulate why. The paintings’ whimsy juxtaposed with the poignancy of the woman’s situation was also striking. And I loved cats. We bought the painting of the purple cat and hung it in our new home. Ruth named it the “Three O’Clock Cat.” It
was “primitive,” with its bold, slightly sloppy brushstrokes and refreshing, unbalanced perspective, and there was a hint of heaviness in it too. We couldn’t look at the painting without remembering its maker and how she had been moved from her home, losing her independence and having to leave her cats.

Some years into our farming life, we registered our farm with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. To register, we needed a name. We were at the kitchen table, brainstorming a list over morning coffee. We had all manner of good examples from friends who had given their lands honorable and elegant titles: Windy Acres, Stoney End, Rustic Roots, Sugar Brook, Pine Top, Full Circle, Counterpoint, Wildflower Farm. Ruth glanced up at the painting. “How about the Three O’Clock Cat Farm?” she said.

And so, it stuck. Ruth would go on to make labels for our jams and jellies and pickles, our handmade soap, our bottled maple syrup, our homemade granola, our goat sausage, and our eggs, all of which we produced and often sold or gave away at holidays, all sporting the purple cat with the crooked smile and the clock striking three behind him. When the seed orders came to our roadside mailbox in the spring, from Johnny’s or Fedco, in their small cardboard boxes and envelopes, I was always happy and proud to see them addressed to Three O’Clock Cat Farm, Jay, ME. It seemed one more sign to me of the solidness and reality of our life. We owned a home—we had an address. We had created a farm—it had a name. We were a couple—
Ruth and Gretchen.

Excerpted from Woodsqueer: Crafting a Sustainable Rural Life by Gretchen Legler; published by Trinity University Press 2022.

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