I like cats.
Now I know that at least half my readers just decided to click off, but hang on there! Susa Young, one of Brigham Young’s daughters, didn’t like cats. And as much as I love cats, she didn’t like cats – was afraid of them, and their claws, and their unpredictable ways – twice as much.
So no matter how you feel about cats, you have somebody on your side – either Susa or me – while you stick around to read this story.
Brigham Young banned pets from the Beehive and Lion Houses. It isn’t that he didn’t like animals – there were horses on his property, and for a time he even had a pet eagle living on a platform behind the Beehive House, but the dogs and cats that lived in the outbuildings and gardens behind the family houses belonged outdoors, not inside. Yet sometimes, kids being kids, some of the Young children would smuggle a favorite cat into the house, sometimes with the complicity of one or another of the mothers, and hide it from their father, usually in the stone basement of the Lion House, where “The Pantry” restaurant is located today.
In 1863, when Susa was 7 years old, her little sister Rhoda was born. Apparently Rhoda was a fussy baby or at least sensitive to noise, so Lucy Bigelow Young, Susa’s and Rhoda’s mother, moved her family’s rooms into the basement. That way the baby was far enough away from the noise in the rest of the house to sleep undisturbed in her blue-painted cradle.
Susa didn’t much care for that arrangement, though. She hadn’t spent much time in the basement and was unfamiliar with the shadows and creaks that filled the rooms at the other end of the long hallway. Her imagination, and the weakness of the family’s candles, left her quivering in fear on the few occasions when her mother asked her to watch the sleeping baby while Lucy tended to errands elsewhere.
One evening Susa was left to watch Rhoda while their mother went to the theater. Rhoda was supposed to sleep all the time their mother was gone, but instead she was wide awake and demanded to be carried. Susa walked with her – a difficult thing, because Rhoda was a large baby and Susa was a small girl – and sang to her, but Rhoda kept crying, and Susa was too afraid of the shadows to carry the baby to the family members she could hear upstairs.
But suddenly the baby’s cries were drowned out by the yowls of a tomcat that had apparently sneaked through an open door to sniff after the pet cat living in the basement. Susa screamed, and assorted brothers and sisters and aunts thundered down the staircase, coming to Susa’s rescue. “Take the child. I shall faint, I know I shall,” Susa said over and over, while her brothers stared in disbelief and laughter at the small, furry source of her terror. But Susa remembered later that her father came to her rescue, handing the baby to someone else and cuddling Susa himself until she was calm again. Then he renewed his ban on cats in the house.
“Take the child. I shall faint, I know I shall,” her brothers teased her from time to time over the next few months. “Take the child. I shall faint, I know I shall.”
The following summer, while Susa and her mother and sisters still lived in the basement, a sudden wind and rainstorm blew up. Lucy called Susa to once again watch her baby sister, while Lucy ran with others to close and latch the dozens of windows in the Lion House. Susa – she who became the fearless editor and world traveler of later years – was then still a timid child, afraid of lightning, and dark shadows, and cats.
And this time, in the dim basement rooms, responsible for her sleeping baby sister, Susa was once again certain – absolutely, terrifyingly certain – that there was once again a cat in the house with her. She could hear it purring, or growling, somewhere in the shadows. She knew it. She heard it.
And then she saw it.
It wasn’t her imagination. Neither was it a barn cat. This time, it was a mountain lion, a cougar, come down from City Creek Canyon just above the Lion House. A real mountain lion. Not Susa’s imagination. A cougar looking for a way out of the strange house he had wandered into.
This time the screams of the mountain lion summoned help from the family upstairs. Susa’s brother Oscar was first to arrive. He snatched the baby from her cradle and tossed her to someone in the hallway, but in his excitement he did not notice Susa sitting paralyzed on her chair. He slammed the door, locking the big cat in with him, and with the unseen Susa.
The record doesn’t tell us what weapon the 18-year-old Oscar had armed himself with, but he fought that cat to the death, there in that room in the basement of the Lion House.
“Poor little [Susa] was mercifully spared any sight or knowledge of the death scene, for when Father at last came to the door and quietly opened it, Oscar was just through with his gory work, and [Susa] was crumpled upon the couch quite lifeless. Her pale face was caught between Father’s safe and strong hands, and Father kneeled down by the couch, quite unmindful of the courage of Oscar in the suffering of [Susa].” Once again he held and comforted the little girl however long it took for her to feel safe again.
It is no wonder Susa was devoted to the memory of her father for as long as she lived.
But I still like cats.
[See Susa Young Gates, “The House with the Twenty Gables,” The Juvenile Instructor, May 1913, 299-304.]