Our cat will turn seven next week. In a rare display of tolerance she allowed herself to perch on my lap as I sat in front of the computer this weekend, which reminded me of this early piece. Today folks, you get an edited "oldy but a goody." It's fun to see how my writing style has changed. Oh, and as feline demonstrations of affection go, the four of us manage, although wouldn't you know, both my daughter and the cat practice the art of ignoring each other.
A Stranger in the House (March 2003)
My mother was allergic to animals. At least that’s what she told us so straight- faced that I was an adult before I realized hardly a sniffle ever announced itself in our home. To her defense, or maybe to her credit, Mom didn’t like animals, but with six vocal children expressing a chorus of desires, her disingenuousness was a way to shut us off at the source, as it were. We believed we couldn’t have animals in our house, and therefore rarely asked.
Aside from a goldfish that went belly up I never had a pet, and my early exposure to animals was decidedly not positive. During a first shining moment of independence, my mother considered five-year-old me responsible enough to walk a bottle of vanilla to Mrs. Wiegle’s house, two doors down. Chest puffed, I marched down the street and encountered Brandy and Benny, the Wiegles’ Golden Retrievers, who knocked me down in what I recognize now as tail-wagging friendship, but which that day sent me stumbling home wailing in fear.
Then there was Pluto, another Golden Retriever who terrorized the asphalt playground at St. Paul’s School. I never had first hand experience with Pluto, but often witnessed him lunging at my horrified schoolmates, tearing their brown bag lunches away with his teeth while I cowered, invisible I hoped, against the brick wall around the corner.
To add insult to injury, Jenny, a black lab, and Patty, a black lab Irish setter mix, moved in across the street. Territorial with regard to their own yard, in addition they adopted mine. So I spent years cutting across my front lawn on the way home from school screaming “Jenny, Patty!” in a panic as they tore across the street at me, growling and barking. Name recognition always worked, but that didn’t stop my unmitigated terror each afternoon that perhaps one time it wouldn’t.
Is it any wonder that as I write this, long grown and married, with an only daughter approaching her teenage years, that our house has been empty of all but human inhabitants?
But that is about to change. Under the desk in our kitchen today rests a litter box filled with the prerequisite 2 inches. Food dishes are tucked in the corner, and Periwinkle, a 9-week-old white and tabby mixture, waits for us to drive her home from the animal shelter. Our daughter lay awake in a frenzy of excitement last night, overjoyed at the idea of a pet of her own. As I write this though, I sit contemplating how, in spite of my dread, I allowed this decision to be made -- made the decision really, that our family will welcome another member. And what I have figured is that while a kitten may upset the flowing rhythm we have developed in our home, inviting one to move in has to do with love and compromise, highlighting the way raising children requires us to become more in life than what we’ve been so far.
You see, our daughter has beseeched us for a dog. “Everyone has one,” she says, and she’s not far from wrong. Our cousins who live next door got a dog this year; her best friend did too. All the neighbors have dogs, and this year in school, when she was requested to write an essay about her “family” she was the only one in her class without a pet.
Unlike my mother but considering my dubious history, I dealt with this situation honestly. “Sweetie, Mom’s not much of a dog person. But even if I were, you know we can’t have a puppy. Dad and I both work full-time and the house is empty all day. There is no one to train a puppy. ” She accepted this, albeit muttering, “Why did I get stuck with this family?” unaware that her comments were not falling on deaf ears, so to speak.
At ten-years-old, most days she is my friend, walking hand-in-hand across parking lots and shopping malls. But there is evidence of puberty stalking her -- insecurity with regard to how to respond to the teasing of her peers, hair-trigger emotional outbursts caused by imagined slights. I am reminded of the ancient saga of my own teen years, tantrums and fist poundings into a pillow. Would it have made a difference if I had my own someone to love unconditionally through that challenging time? It’s too late for me to know, but our daughter is going to get a chance to find out.
With no siblings with whom to share the burden of parental focus, it’s clear she needs an addition to her team, an evening up of the sides. And while a puppy is out of the question, our overwhelming desire to see our daughter grow up confident and secure dictates that we engineer a concession.
A cat, based on the feedback from those who know far better than we, is at least an easier proposition. And while it took a year to step out of our comfort zone to and arrive at this point, perhaps the gift we give our girl today may also be a present to ourselves. Periwinkle will be our daughter’s cat, but after one visit to meet her as she somersaulted across the shelter, I'm pretty sure she'll take hold of all of us, inflating the love that we currently share.
It's my sneaking suspicion that since cats delegate emotion in minute doses, what they do bestow touches their owners that much more. Sure, puppies are warm blooded and generous in their devotion, but the affection that cats deign to bequeath may be treasured more for the infrequency. For our family, a trade off of sorts--tongue lapping love and messes on the floor, or purring acceptance, and claws sharpening on the living room sofa. The sofa bit not withstanding; this controlled type of love seems right for us.
So, change is in the air, and yes I’m a bit uneasy. I can’t deny that I am eyeing our pristine furniture and the kitty litter scooper with angst. But there is nothing in life that we do for our children that doesn’t force us to grow.
The smile on our daughter’s face as she danced around her room last night made it clear that in spite of my pains, this growth spurt will be well worth the trouble.