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A Family is Born

by Ken Sanes

I can’t say that I was surprised when my fiancé broke up with me. After all, we’d been having the same fight for six months. It usually started when he talked about the big family we were going to have, with six kids just like his parents. Then I’d get angry and tell him I wasn’t ready to start having babies at twenty seven so I could spend the next decade dealing with diapers and kindergarten. “And six is four too many,” I’d say. “Two, maybe three, tops.”

Then he’d accuse me of not being nurturing like his mother, and I’d say that we didn’t need to have six kids just because his parents did, and we’d go round and round like that until one of us stormed out. So he broke up with me, and I avoided getting stuck with an oversized family. But I lost my soul mate. Then again, maybe he wasn’t such a soul mate or he would have respected my feelings more.

Fortunately, after we broke up, there was a nonprescription medicine available to soothe my pain. It came in a range of types and flavors. And I’ll say this for it, it certainly was effective. The day he broke up with me, I had a half gallon of it in three marathon sittings. My approach was to consume it until there was no more room, then wait a few hours and do it again. The second day I consumed three quarters of a gallon. The first day it was vanilla, which was all purity and light. The next day butterscotch, which has a lot going on. The first ten days after the break up, it was medicinal ice cream that got me through.

Not surprisingly, I ate a lot of it right out of the carton. Or else I’d hold the open container upside down and squeeze out the entire block of ice cream onto a plate, then stick a fork in one side and take a steak knife and cut off the side with the fork in it. Then I used the fork to lift up the separated section and voila -- ice cream on a stick, which I quickly reduced to just a stick. Then I sat there until I was ready to do it again. It wasn’t much but, for a while, it was my life. One of my friends called it a “voluptuous hell” -- said she’d been trapped in it for years.

The first few nights after he broke up with me were the worst. I kept getting out of bed and walking around, turning the TV on and off, then on and off again, over and over. I was like a caged animal. Underlying it all, I hated myself. I hated what I’d done to my life. I hated the way I looked with this short haircut -- I don‘t know what I was thinking when I got it. Maybe that’s why he broke up with me. Who knows -- people do dumb things. I really felt like banging my head against a wall. But I didn’t. I ate ice cream and didn’t get much sleep. And, slowly, I started to gain weight, although I didn’t notice it at first.

But the morning I want to tell you about was about ten days after my fiancé ended our relationship. It was somewhere around 3 a.m. and it was still dark out when I heard a noise coming from outside my apartment. Sort of a squeak. I was wide awake or I might never have heard it. There it was again. It had a kind of a -- yes, it was sort of like a plaintiff squeak. Like a baby bird had fallen from its nest and was stranded on the ground.

I looked out the window but I didn’t see anything. So I walked into the living room and there was the squeak again, coming from outside the glass doors at the back of the room. That meant whatever was making the noise was either on my first floor balcony just beyond the glass doors or in the large grassy area beyond my balcony.

As the squeak repeated, at first I thought it was a mouse. Then I realized it was a cat. It was definitely a cat. Or much more likely a kitten.

So I went back into my bedroom, put on my robe and pink slippers, the one’s with the fluffy bunny tail tassels in front. Then, as I walked over to the glass doors in the living room, I was already regretting my decision to investigate. After all, it’s not my job to give stray cats a place to stay for the night or the leftover half of my tuna fish sandwich. But the squeak sounded young and vulnerable, and it was 35 degrees out -- not dying weather for kitties, but none too comfortable either.

Of course, I may have responded because I was feeling vulnerable myself. I knew what it was like to be adrift and in trouble. “Gotta see,” I said to myself, half under my breath, and pushed back the curtain concealing the glass doors. And there, in the corner of my balcony, was a stray mother cat and a brood of kittens, huddling together for warmth.

I opened the glass door, walked out onto the balcony and closed the door behind me.

“Hello” I said to the mother.

The mother let out a surprisingly loud “Meow.” I think she was making an appeal right off, hoping I would help. I could see that she didn’t have a collar and was obviously a stray.

“You’re a nice kitty, aren’t you,” I said to her. I don’t know why people think they have to talk baby talk to grown cats, but that’s what I said.

As I looked at them, I could see what had happened. The mother and kittens had obviously come through the grassy area in the center of the apartment complex to my low balcony wall. Since the wall had a small space running along the bottom, they had squeezed through, intending to use my first floor balcony as a shelter for the night.

But as I was musing about all this, one of the kittens walked over and touched my slippered foot with its paw. I could see where this was going and, sure enough, there it went, as the kitty took a swipe at the bunny tail tassel on my right slipper, then attacked it like a ferocious tiger killing its prey.

Even though it was reasonably cute, the kitten’s frontal attack reminded me of what I didn’t like about cats: when I looked at them I saw lions and panthers and other ferocious predators that I had watched on dozens of nature specials. They’re cute too -- when they’re not killing something.

As the kitten continued its attack, the mother meowed again, plaintively. Since she was looking directly at me, it was clear that her plaint was directed to me.

“Alright,” I said. “You can stay the night. But this is a one night thing. When it’s light out and warmer, it’s back outside, unless you want to go to a shelter.”

So I picked up the little fur ball that was working over my bunny tail tassel as it gave a familiar sounding squeak. Then I pushed aside the curtain and carried it into my apartment. The mother quickly followed, with two other kittens trailing single file behind. They were mostly black, but the chest and neck and part of the face were white. The one that attacked my slipper looked white all along the underside. Quite attractive really.

But as they walked in, looking dignified and at ease, if a bit worn for wear, I realized there was something else going on that I hadn’t been aware of. There was a fourth kitten that had been hidden between the mother and the balcony wall. It was lying on the concrete floor of the balcony, very still. I stepped back out onto the balcony and picked it up. It was warm on one side from being in contact with the mother, and cold on the other, where it had been in contact with the balcony floor. It moved ever so slightly.

“Meow” the mother cat said plaintively as she looked out onto the balcony from inside my living room. I wasn’t sure if she was telling me they were hungry or asking me to help the fourth kitten. So I carried the sick kitten inside, sat down on the couch and tried to figure out what to do, while I cupped my hands into a kind of nest and held it there. As I did, it opened its small eyes very slightly into tiny slits and looked at me.

“I guess I can call an animal hospital,” I said to the mother cat. But I was really saying it to myself because I was trying to figure out what to do.

“Meow,” the mother said again, while her other three kittens were rolling around on the carpet, purring. Two of them were wrestling. Well, actually it looked more like the larger of the two was mauling the smaller one. The third was once again attacking the fluffy bunny tail tassel on my slipper.

“If I call an animal hospital and drive you all the way downtown, will you promise not to die?” I said to the fourth kitten cupped in my hands.

Then I had an idea. So I placed the sick kitten on the couch and went out the front door of my apartment and down the open air hall of the apartment complex, to the door of a neighbor I‘d spoken to a few times before. He was very smart and he owned a male cat. He was also blind, and he was the director of a library for the blind at a local school, which I thought was pretty impressive. I could never figure out why he was living in this rundown apartment complex.

Unfortunately, he was groggy and none to happy to see me at 3:30 a.m. But he gave me the name of a good animal hospital a short drive away.

I went back to my apartment and picked up the sick kitten. It didn’t move. I nudged it ever so gently. Still, there was no movement. It had looked me in the eyes just a few minutes before. Now, nothing. How could anyone understand that -- or accept it?

I then set the dead kitten down on the coffee table while the mother walked up and began to sniff it.

“Sorry, Mom,” I said to her. “One of your little ones isn’t going to be playing with my slippers.”

I then went into my bedroom closet, pulled a shoebox off a shelf and removed the new shoes I was going to return because they were too tight. Really, I don’t know why I ever bought them. Vanity, I suppose. Then I carried the empty shoebox into the living room and placed the dead kitten inside, putting the open shoebox on the carpet so the mother could see the kitten and say goodbye. Sort of an open casket.

In response, the mother took a paw and tried to move the kitten ever so slightly. Then she sat down next to it. Since she was a stray, I don’t think this was her first encounter with death. She may not have been able to put it into words, but I knew she understood. I then taped the cardboard container shut and wrote in big letters on the top with a felt-tipped pen:

“Goodbye little one. May you do better in the next life because -- ”

At that point I ran out of a place to write and had to continue on the side of the shoebox:

“-- because you sure didn’t get a break in this one.”

I wrote the extra “because” to maintain continuity for readers. Who would be reading it other than me I had no idea. But my mother taught me that consideration for other people is never a waste of time, even if you don’t know them, which I think is a good thing to remember.

I then left the box on the kitchen table and turned to the mother cat and the three kittens that were still alive.

“Whose hungry?” I said, as I broke out two big cans of no salt tuna fish packed in water. I put the tuna on a large flat plate and put the plate on the tile floor of the kitchen as mother and kittens quickly crowded around and went at it voraciously.

Then I put some water in a sturdy shallow bowl and put it next to the plate of tuna. But the four of them were too busy devouring their meal to notice.

While they ate, I stood there admiring the way they looked. I learned later that cats with this black and white pattern are called tuxedo cats. I like that. But I noticed that the largest of the three kittens kept pushing the smallest one away from the plate. The little one would come right back, but he’d get pushed away again.

“I’m going to name you Small Fry,” I said to the little one. “And I’ll name the big one Busters because he comes on like gangbusters.”

So far as I could tell, Small Fry and Busters were males. So was the third one, who I named Jack, after my fiancé -- or my ex-fiancé. I should have named him Bunny Tail Tassel or maybe just Bunny because he was the one who kept going after my slippers.

But as they were eating, Busters continued to stop Small Fry from getting his fair share of the tuna, So I fished out a piece of leftover chicken from the refrigerator and fed it to Small Fry by hand, breaking off one small piece at a time, mashing it with my fingers and examining it to make sure there weren’t any bones. But Busters kept coming over and making a grab for the chicken. Finally, I distracted Busters with a piece of the chicken in one hand, so it always looked like he was just about to get some, but never quite did, while I fed Small Fry with the other. At the end, Busters got his one piece of chicken plus a hearty portion of tuna, and Small Fry got his full portion of food.

I looked at the clock. It was six o’clock in the morning. Fortunately, it was a Saturday. So I went back to bed, cuddled up in the covers and drifted off into a sounder sleep than I‘d had since the breakup, leaving the cats to their own devices.

The next thing I remember was waking up groggy with a cat in my face. It seems the mother cat had decided to curl up right by my head, with her three kittens tucked somewhere half inside her body.

I looked at the clock. It was 10 a.m. Finally I’d gotten a decent amount of sleep. Putting that together with the sleep I got earlier in the evening, it even added up to eight hours! I’d been so desperate for a full night’s sleep I almost felt like crying. These cats were good for me!

“Okay, here’s the deal,” I said to the mother, scratching her as she purred and stretched out on the bed. “You can stay for a few days while I figure out what I’m going to do with you.”

“How do you like that,” I said to myself. “I ended up with a big family after all.”

“Meow,” said the mother cat.

“Yes, I know, Meow,” I replied. “I’d like to think you’re saying thank you, but something tells me from the scrawny look of you that you want to eat again.”

So I put on my robe and pink slippers with the bunny tail tassels and shuffled into the kitchen, where the foursome attacked a plate of the leftover chicken. But once again Busters kept knocking Small Fry away from the food. If I didn’t do something, there was going to be another dead kitten. So I made a separate small plate of chicken for Small Fry and put it off to the side where Busters couldn’t get at it. I then lifted Small Fry up away from the main food plate while his legs flailed about like he was trying to run or make contact with solid ground. One minute he was fighting to get his face in the food and the next he was flying through the air. It’s not easy being the smallest. Then, as I lowered him next to his own personalized plate, he immediately started to eat. Just in case Busters got any ideas, I sat on the kitchen floor while they ate, with Small Fry dining on his portion of chicken leftovers on one side of me and the other cats devouring their shared plate on the other.

Then I heard the garbage truck outside making the clatter and roar it makes every Saturday. I ran outside, clutching the shoebox with the dead kitten in it, and asked the two guys who pick up the trash if I could put something in back of the truck. Then I showed them the box and what I’d written on it, rotating the box partway through so they could read the part I’d written on the side. So they let me place the shoebox in the giant trash container in back of the truck. They even let me say a few words and, while I did, one of them took off his hat in a show of respect, which endeared him to me for life. I even invited him to a big party sometime later. But that’s getting ahead of my story.

So over the next few days, I took care of the Meow family, which is what I had started to call them, and bought lots of cat food and a litter box, along with a few toys, including a mouse on a string that I dragged around the apartment while the three kittens madly chased after it, each one trying to grab it with their paws. Meanwhile, the mother cat liked to curl up between me and the arm of the couch when I watched television. If I was too close to the arm, she’d jump on my lap and begin squeezing herself in until I relented and moved over. I think she was hiding from her three incorrigible children, who could often be found running amok, jumping on the furniture, swiping paws, wrestling and engaging in generalized mayhem.

Unfortunately, Small Fry kept getting the worst of these encounters. So when Busters would come around looking for trouble, Small fry would sometimes hide under the bed or in the hallway closet. He also tried to wiggle himself down between his mother and the arm of the couch, but she would scowl at him, and he quickly figured out that wasn’t a way to stay safe.

Watching this family drama unfold, I realized something had to be done. Fortunately I’d seen the movie, Rocky, with my fiancé, not to mention The Karate Kid. So I started sparring with Small Fry, using my first finger to teach him how to hold his own and fight back. He’d go after my finger with his paws and then my finger would take the advantage and advance on him, waving back and forth. Then he’d fight back a little until, sooner or later, he’d dart away, hiding who knows where in the apartment. But not long after he’d reappear and we’d go at it again. It was all about advance and retreat. The kitten advances, the finger takes a step back. The finger charges, the kitten jumps and then flees in mock terror. After a few days, I added my second finger and gave Small Fry a two-finger fight against his alternating paw swipes.

After a few more days of this, Small Fry was holding his own, and I decided it was time to see if he could stand up for himself in a real situation. So when dinner time came around, I put all the food for the three kittens on a single plate, instead of giving Small Fry his own plate as I’d been doing. All three kittens scampered forward and immediately began to partake. Then Busters pushed Small Fry away. Small Fry responded by coming back to the plate and Busters crowded him out again. It seemed that Small Fry wasn’t getting it. Then I stuck my two fingers between the two of them and started to spar with Small Fry. He immediately fought back just like I’d taught him, jumping on my fingers and my hand. Then I pulled back my fingers and Small Fry turned his attention back to the food, only to once again be pushed away by Busters. This time, though, Small Fry leapt on top of Busters like Busters was the main dish, and the two of them began rolling around on the kitchen floor, amid screeching and meowing. Well, Small Fry had certainly figured it out. I restrained my natural instinct to break it up right away but I didn’t let it go on too long. Then I placed both of them in front of the plate. Busters started to move to push Small Fry out of the way -- and Small Fry meowed at him.

I’m happy to say that Busters never did that to Small Fry again. All it finally took was a cute little meow.

But it was getting to be time when I had to decide what to do with my family of cats. The older the kittens got, the harder it would be to give them away. So I called the nice blind guy down the hall and he gave me the name of a local animal shelter that would put them up for adoption. In fact, he said, he got his own cat, Lucky, there.

So I called the animal shelter and got the director to promise that, if they weren’t able to give some of the kittens away, he’d call me up and let me take them back again, so they wouldn’t face the terrible alternative that I didn’t even want to think about.

The day after I talked to him was a Saturday, precisely two weeks since I took in the cats. That morning, I went grocery shopping and came back with a last meal for my feline family, plus an oversized cardboard grocery box. The box was really too wide to carry three kittens in, but it was all the store had available.

That morning the cats dined on tuna and liver. Then, while I watched a little TV, during my last moments with them, much to my surprise, Buster jumped on my lap and then my shoulder, curled up and went to sleep. Small Fry then jumped up on the other shoulder and did precisely the same thing. How they balanced themselves there I’ll never know. But we sat there for about a half hour as I watched television, wearing the two kittens like epaulets. I didn’t know how I was going to break it to them. They felt safe and contained in their little world, and had no idea what was about to happen.

Finally, I gently removed the curled up kittens from my shoulders. They acted surprised and a little disoriented as I had awakened them from what was obviously a deep sleep. Then, while the mother was sitting on the living room carpet licking her fur, and Jack was mauling one of my slippers, I went to the glass door in back of my living room and opened it, but kept the curtain in front of it closed so the cats wouldn’t run out. Then I picked up the mother and cradled her in my arms on her back, while she played with my finger with her paws. As she did that, I walked over to the glass door, lowered her down onto the floor of the balcony outside and shut the door. Unfortunately, she understood right away that something was wrong and started to meow plaintively.

I then picked up Jack and carried him as he too playfully tried to fight me with his paw. I then lowered him into the oversized cardboard box, which I had placed at the edge of my bed. Jack immediately began to cry with a meow that was a lot stronger than he could have mustered two weeks ago, while his mother was meowing outside on the balcony.

When I walked back into the living room, the other two kittens were standing one each on the couch and the carpet, listening to their mother’s cries outside. I tried to pick up Busters but he darted away and ran under the couch.

“Come on,” Busters, I said as I crouched down with my head stuck partly under the couch and my arm reaching in. He was pressed against the far wall, breathing heavily. It seems I had become the enemy.

I then decided to leave him for a while and went after Small Fry. I was soon able to grab Small Fry, but he squirmed right back out of my hands and ran into my bedroom. Clearly I hadn’t thought this through very well in terms of strategy. I then took my broom and brushed Small Fry out from under my bed. He was obviously more afraid of the broom than he was of me and, as he rushed out, I grabbed him. Much to my surprise, he scowled and swiped his claws, giving me a small gash on my right arm. It seems that his self-defense training had gone a little too well. But I did get him into the cardboard box. Two down and one to go. I then closed the top of the box as best I could with those cardboard flaps, and went after Busters again. But he wasn’t under the couch any more. I checked behind the curtain and he was standing with his front paws pressed against a glass door, looking out, while his mother meowed on the other side.

“Come on, Busters,” I said, as I picked him up and carried him to the cardboard box. By this point, we were both breathing heavily. I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye as I walked into the bedroom, but I didn’t pay attention to it.

“There comes a time when you have to leave your original home and get a nice new home with people who love you,” I said to him. “They’ll feed you and take care of you and make sure you’re healthy and happy. I promise.”

Then, as I placed Busters in the box, I saw that the top of the box had popped open and there was only one cat inside. Small Fry had escaped! That was obviously what I saw out of the corner of my eye. So I went back into the living room, back to the curtain and there Small Fry was, looking out the glass door, seeking help from his mother on the other side. I grabbed him quickly and held tight. Maybe I was squeezing a little too hard but I didn’t intend to let him get away again. He began flailing around and put up a pretty good fight as I placed him in the cardboard box with the other two.

“So you turned out to be the strong one,” I said to Small Fry.

Now I was worried that he might not be adoptable. What if he tried to scratch people when they picked him up?

But I didn’t have time to worry about that. So I taped the top shut and walked to the front door of my apartment, trying to keep hold of an oversized, meowing cardboard box. While balancing it, I opened the door and, much to my surprise, who was waiting for me on the other side but the mother cat! Somehow, she had figured out that I would be leaving the apartment through the front door. And she must have had some kind of map in her head of the apartment complex because she went all the way around the building from my first floor balcony in back to my front door. Remarkable!

I smiled at her as she looked directly into my eyes and once again meowed plaintively. I was concerned for a moment, but she didn’t attack me or follow me to the car. She just stood in the open walkway of the front hall, meowing as she watched her family being taken away, without understanding what was happening or if they would be alright. So off we went in the car and Small Fry, Busters and Jack were deposited with the local animal shelter, after which, I assumed, I would never hear their cute little meows again.

When I returned from the shelter the mother was nowhere in sight. But as soon as I opened the front door she bounded out from a hiding place somewhere down the hall of the apartment complex. I let her back into my apartment and scratched her, while she gave me one of her signature meows. But I really didn’t know what I was going to do since I didn’t feel ready to take care of a cat.

Then I had an idea.

So I picked up the mother cat, held her against my chest with her front paws on my shoulder, and went down the hall to talk to Marcus, the blind guy with the male house cat.

Well, it turned out that the mother cat and Marcus’s cat Lucky hit it off immediately. So we struck a deal. Marcus would adopt the mother cat and I would buy the food for her the first year. After that, Marcus was on his own.

“Welcome to your new home,” Marcus said, as he took the mother cat into his arms.

When I went back to check on things two days later I was amazed at how well the mother had adapted. Marcus had moved all the furniture from the combined living and dining room away from the walls, creating an open space on all four sides, between the furniture and the walls. And, lo and behold, the mother cat and his other cat, Lucky, would run around the big double room along that “track” like it was a race course. I couldn’t believe how fast they were able to go in such a confined space without hurting themselves. First the male would run out in front and the mother would chase after him full speed. Then, all of the sudden, the male cat would turn around and race toward her and she would turn around, as well, and now he was chasing her. Apparently, this could go on for quite a while without a break.

I checked back with Marcus regularly to make sure that the mother cat (who he named Meow) was alright. And I regularly bought food for her and Marcus’s other cat too, since I was buying cat food anyway.

About two weeks later, I got a call from the animal shelter. Two of the kittens had been grabbed up the first day. But one wasn’t and then they got a lot of young cats, and the kitten cried all day and it didn’t look like anyone was going to take him in time.

So I drove down to the animal shelter with Marcus to rescue the third kitten.

“Let it be Small Fry,” I repeated over and over to myself. “Let it be Small Fry!”

When we got there, an attendant came into the waiting room holding a meowing cat carrier with air holes in the sides. I could see something moving inside.

She handed it to me.

“Good luck!” she said.

“Let it be Small Fry,” I repeated to myself as I clumsily opened the top with my shaking hands.

Jack, the enemy of bunny tail tassels, recognized me right away and, still meowing, jumped up on his hind legs as I picked him up and cradled him in my arms.

When we got back to the apartment complex, he was reunited with his mother, as the two of them affectionately rubbed against each other. Then mother and child and Marcus’s other cat curled up together and went to sleep.

I couldn’t ask Marcus to take another cat, so I ended up with one after all. But I brought Jack over all the time to be with his mother and the other cat, Lucky. One day Marcus asked me to give him a ride to the grocery store because his usual ride was sick and he was out of both human and cat food. So I started driving him to the grocery store. And, well, you know the rest of the story. We were married eight months later. He said he fell in love with me when I asked him if he would take the mother cat because I was so nurturing! At first, I was worried he wouldn’t like me physically when he touched me because I’d put on a few pounds after the breakup. I wasn’t overweight but I had lost that thin look its so easy to maintain when you’re young. But he made a joke out of it and out of his own disability, and said he liked me a little chunky because it made me easier to find. I loved the way he could make a big problem seem to go away like that with a joke.

In any case, we’ve been happily married for 55 years. Meow had two more litters, both with Marcus’s male cat, and she led a long and happy life. Her progeny can now be found in households around the neighborhood and well beyond. We went on to have three kittens of our own -- I mean the human kind, of course -- and we brought them up in the big house that we sold just last year.

Since it’s our anniversary, today, I wanted to write all this down for you before the family celebration starts. We told this story to our children because they wanted to know why we had five cats in the house. We explained that our household was actually made up of two families -- our own and the offspring of a cat we loved very much. And that was also why I liked watching the cats play with the surviving slipper with the tassel on it.

Then, we told this story to our eight grandchildren because they wanted to know why their grandparents and their parents and their uncles and aunts had so many cats! And we explained that, despite all their colors and patterns, all the cats had a common ancestor, a mother cat who, in a way, created two dynasties.

But now our oldest grandchild, Isabella, is married and pregnant. And I wanted to leave something personal for her child and all the other great grandchildren who will eventually join our family. So I thought I’d write this story down now, so all of you will know how our families got their start.

And I want all of our great grandchildren to know that we love you very much, even if we’ve never met you. One thing I’ve learned in my life is that we’re here to fill the world with as much good as we are capable of. I think I started to figure that out one night when I heard a plaintive meow coming from the balcony of my first floor apartment and made a fateful decision to see what it was.

 


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