The Great Depression clung to the land. I was 8 years old in 1932. Our tortoise-shell-colored tomcat was at least six years my senior - very old in cat years. Time had polished his senses. Could he really read our minds, understand us? Was he endowed with a special guidance system and smartness? It seemed so. He was named Mickey, probably before Disney gave that name to his mouse.

Lew and Nora Olsen reared five of us children; Mickey seemed a part of the family. We lived in the small farming village of Weston, southeastern Idaho. We'd heard our parents talk of "money scarce as hen's teeth - where would it come from to make Christmas?" But we enjoyed the simple pleasures as a family.Winter hit hard and early. October piled high drifts and froze. I could even walk the snow pack over fences. Our small three-room adobe frame house didn't hold out the cold. Early mornings, even the hot flatirons Ma had so lovingly stuffed in socks and put in bed at our feet, were cold. After Pa had kindled a fire in the stove, it was roaring warm and we all dashed to stand on the oven door to get warm. This before a trek to the outhouse or chores.

At these times, Mickey would scratch the weathered, wooden door with a low meow to come inside. Nights, his perception told him when Pa might rudely oust him. He always managed to beat him.

Mickey should have been neutered; he sired too many litters. But then, Weston neither had a doctor for man nor animals. We'd always had animals, in variety, but Mickey always seemed special. He was a hunter. When Mother saw a mouse in the kitchen, after she shrieked, she watched where it went. She simply called Mickey. He bounded to her side, poised like a pointer dog as she carefully moved cans, bottles. He always caught his quarry. We liked the way he dispatched them quickly - not toying with them as others we'd had.

Even Saturday night baths no longer held disdain for Mickey. After we'd heated water in the stove reservoir and an extra boiler, we all took turns bathing in the round galvanized tub. Mickey knew his turn was last and relished, not the bath, but the aftermath, as Ma held him in her ample lap, drying, stroking and petting. He purred his contentment and chorused along with Pa mouthing his harmonica and songs we'd sing.

When December arrived, we kidded the folks about what Santa was going to bring us. With forced cheerfulness, Pa uttered his usual "You'll all get a `little red nothing with a string tied to it.' "

The next morning, with a new disaster, we forgot about Christmas. Mickey had vanished like smoke. We searched the town. A week passed. Ma cried, "Where could he be? What if he's hurt . . . and starving . . . and freezing . . . and needs our help?"

Pa pretended gruffness. "Quit snifflin'. He's old, his time was up, he's crawled into a hole t' die peaceable, 'n' like'a that there."

We didn't own a car. Dad exchanged the wheels on our wagon with sleigh runners, mounted a canvas top (like the old covered wagons), with a small coal stove inside. When a new storm piled snow too high for the school bus to get through, he hitched our work team, Flax and Doll, to the sleigh and his outfit served as the school bus. And always he had our admonition to look for Mickey.

He never saw Mickey, but after dropping the children off one evening, he cut a beautiful pine in the hills hoping to cheer us all. We popped, threaded garlands of popcorn; we made chains of varied-colored paper and with the shiny icicles and ornaments Ma had so painstakingly retrieved from last year's tree, we trimmed that tree in a manner to make a pioneer proud. Though none of us voiced it, we thought of Mickey, wondering and a bit sad.

Christmas Eve morning arrived. The night had been the usual bitter cold. Frost lay thick even on the inside of our kitchen window. All was still and quiet. We gathered near the stove again to get warm. Then we heard a weak scratching, meowing at the door. Could that be Mickey after being gone most of a month? We all dashed to the door.

We gaped, astonished as that old tom limped inside. His paws were bleeding; his body nearly skin and bones. Chunks of hair were missing down to the flesh, attesting to apparent fights. He limped up to Ma, rubbed a stub of one ear, meowing pitifully, as if to say it had frozen off.

"Mickey, where have you been, you poor creature?" Ma scooped him in her arms, both crying and expressing joy and thankfulness to a kind providence that preserved him. We all felt lumps rise in our throats, and I believe even Dad did also. Ma quickly washed and dressed his wounds, then lavished him with warm milk, cream and meat scraps. Even after what he'd been through, he purred weakly.

Christmas morning was anti-climactic. Somehow our stockings were filled with nuts, candy and fruit, and we all had a present - some made lovingly by Mom. Others we exchanged between us. It was a joyful time made more so by Mickey's return. We thanked God for the real meaning of Christmas, the birth of his son, Jesus, and for the special joy of that morning.

We didn't learn where Mickey had been until some years later - long after he'd died naturally. I was reminiscing with a longtime childhood friend about his miraculous survival. My friend's face looked troubled . . . finally he confessed:

"I've been sorrowful for what I did. I was tired of your old tom impregnating our cat - and I was mad at you for some petty reason I don't even recall. Well, I had a chance to go to Pocatello, so I took him, dropped him by the road near there. I've always been amazed he survived and how he could have found his way back home. I'd heard of dogs doing it, but not cats. Anyway, I apologize now."

Our family was also amazed. Old Mickey had come about 75 miles through fights, bitter cold and hunger. Ma exclaimed with pride, "It was the good Lord who guided him. He's mindful of all His creations."

However he was guided, whatever uncanny homing instinct he possessed, old Mickey arrived home a day early.

He helped save that Christmas so long ago.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

About the author

Roy J. Olsen, author of today's "Christmas I Remember Best" story is a graphics artist for the Newspaper Agency Corp., production arm of the Deseret News. Olsen learned his craft at Utah State University under the well-known artist Ev Thorpe.

But it is Olsen's story-telling ability that puts him in the spotlight today. The author has written several other pieces that have been published, but is particularly proud of this story in which the family pet is the subject of Christmas giving.