Yes, I really did get a kitten in a box under the Christmas tree when I was a child. The story is not glowingly happy and, in fact, includes a few losses, but led me to the cat who eventually became my “first” kitty, and the rest is history. I first ran this story in December 2009, and I’m reposting for new readers.
When I was nine years old, I remember telling my parents and my older sister what kind of animals I liked. I don’t know if this was in response to a question, but I know I explained completely and with enthusiasm, telling every last detail of what I liked about birds and squirrels and cats and dogs and horses and rabbits, all the animals I had encountered in my early 1960s suburban development childhood.
I remember telling my sister that I liked cats best because they were easier to take care of than dogs, and if I had to choose I’d choose a cat. I don’t know how I knew this except that in those days people didn’t get their animals neutered and, except for hunting dogs in their cages, all animals were allowed to roam. Dogs were loud and seemed to get into more trouble with fights and biting people as some roaming dogs will do, and I had my share of small bites from trying to pet dogs who weren’t interested. And then there was the clean-up issue in everyone’s yards, even yards of people who didn’t have a dog.
Cats, on the other hand, were uniformly small and seemed to be very quiet and gentle and neat, and this appealed to me. I was shy, I was dreamy, I didn’t like loud noises, I was most comfortable in the company of animals, even wild animals, because they didn’t find me odd and weren’t bothered by my silences as humans were, and they didn’t mind when I stared at them without explanation; in fact, they encountered me in much the same way. I was outdoors quite a bit roaming the old pasture that was all that was left of the farm our houses had been built on and exploring the woods and waterways of every ravine and hillside, so a dog might have seemed a likely companion for me. But I pictured myself curling up with an animal to read, and that would be more likely one of the nice kitties I had met around the neighborhood.
Every time I learned there was a litter of kittens in the neighborhood, and there always seemed to be one or two litters, I was an annoyance to the owner wanting to see the kittens, and an annoyance to my family wanting to bring a kitten home. Once I helped a neighbor catch two small kittens that had been born and raised in their yard to a mother who had disappeared, and I took them home hoping to keep them, but they only stayed overnight and likely went to a shelter, though that might have been a foretelling of rescues to come.
So the dream came true that Christmas when I was nine and there was an orange kitten in a box under the tree, a tiny six-week-old fuzzball ready for play when let loose from the cardboard carrier. I know little Rusty got no respite from me crawling around on the floor after her, and I was thrilled when, exhausted with batting walnut shells and chasing ribbon, she curled up in my convenient lap, a warm, pliable, purring bundle.
The day after Christmas she didn’t play as much, the next day she began to vomit and two mornings later she died in my brother’s lap. I was inconsolable, not understanding that she probably had the feline enteritis that killed her before she even left the shelter. With the lack of spaying and neutering, shelters could hardly handle the volume of animals surrendered by people who really didn’t know what else to do. Illnesses were rampant, everyone simply hoped for the best, and my loss wasn’t rare.
I spent the next day with my sister, who had graduated high school and had a job and took me to work with her. My parents did what they felt was the right thing for me, but was the wrong thing for the animal, and while I was with my sister found another kitten for me from a different shelter. Tiger, a handsome dark tabby with white paws and bib and a few weeks older, would probably have been okay if we had waited a few weeks and removed all the toys and dishes from Rusty. When he grew ill, my parents took him to a veterinarian who tried valiantly to save him, but we lost him a few days after the new year.
But I was by no means ready to give up on the presence of an animal in my life. I had been horribly hurt, one of those childhood hurts that remains and with time turns into a lesson. Still, the memory of the pain was not as strong as the memory of Rusty and Tiger sleeping in my lap, their fur against my hands, the dream come true of their purr in my ear at night, watching them play for hours filled with unbelieving joy that they were in my life, they were mine, even for the brief time they had shared it. I longed for it again. It would take much more than two losses to overshadow the joy.
Two months later, after I had repeatedly asked when we were going to get the other kitten, my parents decided to give it another try.
They took me to the shelter this time, and it was my first experience with the pressing overabundance of animals, dogs barking, cats yowling, the smell of urine and the sight of concrete and cages. I crept past them all, really fearful at the strangeness of it all and keeping my eyes locked on the cat cages knowing one of those kittens or cats would go home with me.
I came back to a cage at my eye level that held three kittens, two solid gray bundles who wrestled endlessly and occasionally leaped on a third who was cowering in the back of the cage, and who cringed when they came for her. She was gray with white paws and bib and a white blaze on her face, and when they took her out of the cage and let me hold her, she buried her face in my chest and trembled. Perhaps I felt a kinship with her fearful nature, her need for quiet and comfort. Bootsie rode home in my coat, me in the back seat looking down at her and telling her not to worry, feeling her warmth against me, her fur under my hand, her cold nose against my finger.
Because it was winter she was indoors with me until spring came and she was a little bigger, but she went into heat in May when she was only five months old. In those days cats weren’t spayed until they were six months old, or even older, and with my brother and me always running in and out and my father leaving for work in the bakery at night it was impossible to keep a determined cat in her first heat in the house.
We heard yowling and screeching in the front yard one night when she’d slipped out the garage door as my father left for work, and the next morning she was cowering under the stoop by the front door. Two months later she looked at me confused when her water broke on the windowsill and she tried to give birth on the couch, but my mother put her in a box on the floor with a blanket. My brother and I watched her give birth to seven kittens, she losing energy and interest after number 5 but managing to clean and nurse them all eventually.
I still remember the daily miracle of the rapid growth and development of four black kittens, two gray and white, one dark tabby with white and one all-over dark tabby—and I even remember their birth order, but that’s probably too much detail. Six weeks was over before we knew it, and we found homes for a few of the kittens, kept one and took the rest to the shelter as everyone did then.
Pieface, the dark tabby with Bootsie’s white markings and a very flat nose, hence his name, and Bootsie went out every night and killed things and dragged them back, feasting on the good parts but always leaving a choice morsel for us. Somehow it was determined that Pieface had to go and when he was about three he went to the shelter, too, though I never understood what the problem was.
Looking back at it all now, I am shocked at how we took care of them, or rather how careless we seemed with the whole process, from the kitten in the cardboard box under the tree to the roaming cat killing everything from bunnies to garter snakes and taking cats off to shelters.
It seems like more pain than joy in the retelling, and with all the losses, the messes, the unwanted kittens, anyone might think that animals were just a trouble to live with, and if it was just about cleaning up after them then, indeed, why would anyone bother?
But I wanted that bond with an animal before I had even adopted one. It was as real as the bond with a human and somehow I knew that relationship went way beyond the caretaker.
Bootsie was never playful beyond kittenhood and as an adult preferred not to be touched, but would curl up on my lap or beside me on a chair and always slept with me, and filled a supervisory role while I worked on some art or craft project. And that was all I had ever wanted from the beginning, a quiet, gentle presence to curl up with. If she had been boisterous and playful I would have been just as devoted to her. It was not because of what she did, it was because she and I had bonded that first night while she was still in the cage in the shelter, and we would accept each other unconditionally.
And so it has been with each of the cats who has come to spend some part of my life, days, months, years, decades, and by extension other animals, wild and domestic, that we at least have an understanding if not a deep and compassionate bond. But I remember a brief time when I was away from Bootsie and yearned for an animal in my life, and friends’ cats and dogs didn’t seem to count and I know that for me the bond with animals, especially cats, is permanent and deep. I can not imagine my life not shared with at least one cat who is my companion, my inspiration and my muse.
I think I knew I was a cat person as soon as the first kitten entered my life, and Bootsie reinforced that as my devotion grew. I played with others’ dogs, walked peoples’ dogs for fun and generally enjoyed their company, but the erratic schedule of a creative person and my selfish need for long periods of concentration and quiet not even broken by meals told me I couldn’t be a very good companion for a dog, though a cat can sleep on my desk, turn over and open one eye to see what I’m up to, then close it and go back to sleep if I am still in my creative fugue.
When Bootsie joined me at college in my junior year, I had already adopted a cat from a farmer I had met because I just loved cats and needed a cat in my life. Roommates had cats and even before I graduated there began the eventual parade of castaways, rescues, expectant mothers, orphaned kittens, a never-ending supply of unwanted cats brought to my notice by my deep relationship with that first cat.
From those rough beginnings and witnessing with later rescues injuries, illnesses and abuse, I also learned that keeping them inside, spaying and neutering at the appropriate time and providing an adequate diet and health care helps alleviate much of the messes, kittens and losses and leaves much more room for joy and love. Caring for companion animals has changed dramatically over the past decades, shelter adoptions are very different, and I am grateful that there are simply fewer cats who need homes than there were when I was a child though there are still far too many.
Today I’m an artist and a writer, and in remembering those early encounters with animals, quietly studying and experiencing, I now recognize my habit of gathering details for later use, and my intense devotion to whatever is my favorite subject—I could probably draw that litter of kittens nursing on Bootsie in the cardboard box. But from Bootsie cats have always been my muse and when the time came to begin writing my first poem was about how much I missed Bootsie while I was away at school, and my first short story had a cat as the subject; later I began drawing and painting and my cats were my first subjects as I tried out each new medium and style.
Because I found painting their images an excellent way to share with others my affection for them, my portfolio is heavily weighted in images of them and I began painting portraits of others’ cats and then dogs as well, and from there my current career was born as I moved out into other subjects and began producing merchandise bearing the art I created. I would not expect to earn my living by this but wanted to work in a way that I could stay close to my art, so I arranged that after years of working a day job and freelancing as a graphic designer and writer, I dropped the day job and am entirely freelance, but this creative activity and working at home keeps me close to my art and gives me more time for it than other occupations would.
So even though the actual gift my parents intended to give me all those years ago was a kitten, the gift they unintentionally gave me was the awakening of my love for companion animals, especially cats, and an introduction to my muse. Just as it was in the beginning when losing two kittens didn’t dissuade me from trying yet again, so, in the ensuing years and more losses, I would still welcome another cat into my life for the joy and love we would share and the inspiration I would find. I receive that gift every day.