Meatball moved in a couple of days ago, a temporary gig until the end of the semester. He came with a cat carrier and a bag of “senior” cat food, in the arms of my prodigal college student son who was home for a 24 stretch of TLC and laundry service before returning to campus.
My son’s first official action upon returning home was to stretch out on the sunlit sofa in the living room and crash for three hours. Meatball’s first official action was to put Lucky, the forty pound puppy, on notice that he’d be missing an ear or an eye if he got too close. Lucky is part Border Collie, so he’s pretty smart for a five month old. Rambunctious, but smart. He took the warning to heart and is keeping a three foot radius from danger most of the time.
We’re all making some adjustments here, but for now I’m still basking in the afterglow of kicking into “mommy gear” for an entire day. I cooked dinner—turkey tetrazzini—one of my son’s favorites. I actually had the oven and three burners going on the stove at the same time.
This is no small feat. I use my stove so rarely these days that after the holidays last winter, a mouse moved in under the left rear burner. I thought that Smokey, the sixteen pound house cat who likes to stage death scenes for my enjoyment, would take care of business, but in the end it came down to me and a “live trap” I picked up at WalMart and a dab of peanut butter. After contemplating the frigid outdoor release options, I finally set the little guy loose in the garage with a handful of bird seed. He repaid me by getting in to my car a few days later and drowning in my half-full bottle of Diet Coke. Yes, I know, one mouse looks much like another. But in my heart, I know that this was the same little guy who had thought outside the box for his kitchen living quarters.
I did laundry—five huge loads of T-shirts and socks and jeans—and folded it too. This, too, was no small feat, and these days is completely out of character for me.
I made pancakes from scratch for breakfast, and served them with “real” hot maple syrup. This too, was a departure. Back when I still had four kids around the breakfast table and everybody wanted waffles or French toast, I bought the kind of breakfast syrup that comes out of a plastic squeeze bottle and costs a fraction of the genuine article.
And for the crowning piece of nostalgic motherhood, I produced two new “Looney Tunes” collections of cartoon DVDs to watch as we chowed down on breakfast. You just can’t beat the classics. I’ve always had a bit of the “kill the fatted calf” thing going on when one of the kids has come home from college.
It felt great. It felt deeply satisfying. It felt like being a retired firehorse and suddenly getting back into harness.
And through it all, Meatball kept chirping away like a canary. Yes, “meow” has generally been the expected cat commentary throughout recorded human history. Meatball just cones with a more interesting vocal range. I don’t know how else to describe it, but if you were listening from another room, you’d think I had a pet bird in a cage in there.
This wasn’t Meatball’s first trip home. He was the definition of Christmas for me just a couple of years ago.
Back then I was behind on everything because of simultaneous family disasters a hundred miles away that had started in early November with my mother's broken leg and gone downhill from there. I wrote no newsletters. I baked exactly two small batches of Christmas cookies before the kids came home, hung no garland, left the creche in the storage bin, looked for but never found the mistletoe ball. When the kids came home for a few days over the holidays, they were the ones who hauled out the ornament boxes on Christmas Eve and made sure that something was hanging on the tree. They made merry as they rolled out and decorated the traditional butter cookies in truly demented ways while I sat, exhausted on the living room sofa.
But Christmas day itself came and went with me driving solo on the tollway to Chicago and back, making a round of two hospitals and a nursing home to keep an eye on things on the only day without snow in the whole week. I was not a happy camper.
I was feeling very "Grinchy" that morning as I pulled out of the driveway at eight in the morning. But then as I drove, the sunlight and the season and the fact that I've got kids that I adore got to me, and I felt a spasm of generosity twitch in my heart that up until then still felt two sizes too small. A half hour into my drive, I called my older son, who at the age of twenty-one was most definitely deep in slumber, and left him a voice mail. Hey it's Christmas, honey, yes you can bring the cat home.
Simple words, but they masked a world of complexity. Mike had adopted Meatball from an animal shelter and brought him home to his student apartment about eight months earlier, where the eight-year-old cat promptly became known for leaving his odorous "mark" on his master's clothing. The problem seemed to be resolved by Christmas, but I was still wary. There was a very large cat who already owned my house, and so I drew a line in the sand at the plaintive requests to bring Meatball home for the holidays. I was thrilled to death that Mike had a cat, since I always think that life is far better with pets. But two adult male cats who were strangers sharing space in the same house? I could foresee only disaster.
So Meatball stayed home alone at the apartment with a big bowl of cat food and a big bowl of water while the rest of the family gathered and visited. And on Christmas Day, I wasn't the only one on the road—my son would be driving eighty miles back to his apartment that day to check on his pet.
And so during my own Christmas drive, thinking of my baby spending half his day traveling back and forth just to make sure Meatball was okay, I took a leap of faith and relented. And felt better for the rest of the day. Three days of feline togetherness passed with no accidents and no bloodshed and a new era in terms of pet visitation. Meatball proved to be no-fuss houseguest with the mind of a simpleton and the peskiness of a two year old.
Things are a little more complicated now. You could tell that Meatball knew something important was in the works as my son was leaving when his master carried out baskets of laundry…but not the cat carrier. He stood on the staircase, chirping, as I got my last, heartfelt good-bye hugs. Then there was a final pat from my son, and the household was suddenly minus one young man.
And so we are all adjusting. Meatball has taken to dogging my footsteps like a puppy, driving the real puppy in the house—restricted to the kitchen most of the time—absolutely bonkers. Smokey the cat, sensing that this new arrangement may be lasting a while, has taken to dourly stalking around in an existential funk and curling his vast bulk into an empty laundry basket as though it was his Fortress of Solitude. I can’t bear to tell him that it doesn’t make him invisible. Lucky the puppy is putting up with the topsy-turvy reality of seeing the new cat sampling his dog food. It’s got to be a dominance thing on Meatball’s part.
And if you close your eyes and imagine, you just might think there’s a canary chirping in the other room.