I had just broken the news a few days before to my children that a divorce was imminent after twenty-five years of marriage. The oldest three were not surprised, and offered their good wishes and moral support. But it had hit my youngest son, then only thirteen, pretty hard.
For the next two days he looked ashen, a sad shadow of his usual cheerful self. But on the third day, I noticed he stood a bit straighter and there was color in his cheeks again. I asked him how he was doing.
Better, he replied with a hint of a smile. He was adapting to the new world order. But, he added, he was trying like heck to find a silver lining in all of this turmoil. And so came the eternal question.
“Mom, now can we get a kitten?”
I had raised a family of animal-lovers. I had rarely known any time in my life that had not been accompanied by a dog or two. I got my first horse when I was sixteen. I’d had a cat for a pet for a as a child.
But for the quarter century I’d been married, a cat had been impossible. My husband was deathly allergic to them. But that was then. Faced with the dissolution of the family unit, the wheels in my honor student son’s head had started to turn.
“You know, honey,” I replied. “I think so!” I reined in his enthusiasm almost immediately. We would certainly have to wait until his father was no longer under the same roof, I cautioned. My son took the qualifier in stride. But…that didn’t mean that we couldn’t start looking!
I called around to local humane societies, inquiring about kitten availability. Nobody seemed to have any right then, and suggested that I call back in a month or two.
As the formalities of marriage unraveled and my husband moved into an apartment nearby, my son’s enthusiasm for a kitten only grew. I finally handed him the newspaper and suggested that he start looking at the classifieds.
He took the advice to heart, and soon afterward ambushed me in the middle of a painting project. A small ad was circled in red. “Mom, would you call this lady about this kitten?” I put the paintbrush aside, pulled off my rubber gloves and made the call. The woman lived twenty miles away. She had just one kitten left, but another person wanted it first. If that buyer didn’t show, we would be welcome to drive over and take a look.
A few hours later, my husband arrived to pick up the kids to take them out for dinner. My son stayed home with me, ostensibly to keep me company. In fact, he’d had his eyes on a bigger prize. Twenty minutes after they left, the cat lady called—the other buyer had not shown up. My son could not stop grinning at his good luck.
“I just really thought that she might call tonight,” he explained, “so I wanted to stay just in case.” As we drove, a plastic carrier for the family rabbit in his lap, he was nearly quivering with excitement. I tried to dampen his anticipation. We were “only going to look” and there was no guarantee that we’d bring this kitten home.
Inside, of course, I was praying hard that this kitten would turn out to be a good one, because I knew in my bones that unless it had three legs and a bad case of mange, it would be coming home with us.
The kitten was perfect. Tiny, friendly, inquisitive, a dynamic eight-week-old short-haired fluff ball of black with white accents. He had long white whiskers, a white tuxedo front, and white front paws that looked like they’d been dipped in heavy cream. Mottled black and white fur on his hind feet made him look like he was wearing “footsie” pajamas.
Money changed hands, and we raced back to the house, stopping to buy a litter box, some food and a few cat toys. Then we whisked it all inside and hid the evidence.
Dad dropped off the kids and left, none the wiser. It took him two weeks to catch on.
The rest of us, however, were enchanted. We spent the next two days passing the kitten, who we named “Smokey,” from lap to lap, and watching him leap and pounce chasing a cat toy with a bell and feathers. I immediately hid the Easter tree that traditionally sat in the bay window, festooned with fragile eggs I had blown and hand-painted myself.
After Easter, the girls returned to college, my older son was occupied with tennis practice and a job, and I went back to the office. I had worried about how my youngest would cope with the loneliness of an empty house during spring break. In fact, he couldn’t wait to have the house to himself. It meant that he could play with Smokey all day long without interruptions.
From being a wee, short-haired bundle of fluff, Smokey grew…and grew…and grew. His white paws, which always seemed oversized, became enormous. The short hair grew out to be a three-dimensional coat of gossamer fluff as soft as goose down, and shed fur balls the size of tarantulas. And at sixteen pounds, he turned into a very big boy.
When, after five more years, my youngest son finally left for college, Smokey became my personal lap anchor. And I let my heart expand to love this perfect, miniature predator, and all the personality quirks that he brought to the table.
What I didn’t know when we brought him home was that the one small purchase of one tiny kitten would open the floodgates for more cats to join the family. First my younger daughter and her college roommates adopted a kitten. Then my older son brought home a rescue cat of his own. And then my younger son—the one who I’d bought Smokey for!!—and his wife adopted a tiny rescue kitten as well. I can’t complain, the kitten that they named Finnigan later became the inspiration for my first children’s book, Finnigan the Circus Cat.
But now, twelve years later, Smokey the “starter cat” is still with me, a fluffy constant through thick and thin. He has outlasted the family dog; the family rabbit; my former car; two other cats; a move from the country to the city; and the motorcycle-riding, cat-phobic boyfriend I kept company with for seven years after the divorce.
Smokey still leaves fur balls the size of tarantulas around the living room. I haven’t knitted a stitch in twelve years. And those hand-painted Easter eggs are still in storage.
But at night, when the lights are out and I am about to fall asleep, Smokey leaps to the side of my pillow for one last round of purring, one last reassurance that we’re still in this game together. And I think, as I smile and drift off to sleep, that for a “starter cat,” he sure has proved to be a keeper.