My father’s episodic novel, his ninth book, includes: an opera libretto; a retelling of the tortoise and the hare in which the tortoise rides a roller skate to the finish; a story told in funny-paper style captions that gave the publisher fits; and the one attempt I’m aware of he made at realistic horror fiction. That chapter in Now Playing at Canterbury (1976) is titled “The Man-eaters of Dueyville.”
During the year he was finishing the book on sabbatical abroad, we were riding a train in Spain, my mother and older brother sharing pages of the manuscript between them. The only piece of it I was allowed to read was the the tortoise and the hare story. It would be another few years before my parents allowed me to read my father’s oeuvre. I started with his very first published novel, The End of My Life (1947), and I remember my critique when I finished was, “It was pretty good. I liked it. It’s a lot like A Farewell to Arms.”
Did my father sigh? “That’s what the critics said, too.”
I read through each of his books, then, in chronological order, skipping just two, the collections of nonfiction that were too rooted in hunting and fishing for my taste. When I arrived at Canterbury, arguably his last critical and commercial success, the man-eaters story made my hair stand on end.
Crazy cat ladies aren’t a new phenomenon. Long associated with women who live alone, unable or unwilling to leave home and finding more and more solace in the comfort of an unrealistic numbers of cats, these women are often the objects of ridicule or pity. In my father’s novel, the cat lady in question has shut herself up in an old farm family home with cats so inbred that the vet, the only visitor the old lady allows aside from her alcoholic son, reports the cats are on the verge of becoming “real monsters, with manes and extra limbs and claws like knitting needles.” There’s a big cat, Custard Dan, who weighs nearly thirty pounds. The story doesn’t end with the awful demise of the cats’ caretaker—Custard Dan and his pride have a taste for human flesh that terrorizes the county.
I reread the story shortly after the arrival of two new fur balls in our house. More than thirty years after I first read it, I am awed as always by my father’s stylistic gait and his creative ability. Against the backdrop of the Grey Gardens Bouvier Beales, crazy cat lady merchandise and the Simpsons’ recurring cat lady character, my father’s character, Mrs. Woerber, could be a cliché.
And so, I worry a little, could I. When Ten and Thirteen are Eighteen and Twenty-One, I assume they’ll be elsewhere and I’ll have four cats. They won’t be, as I tell myself now, two cats and two kittens, somehow adding up to less than four. They’ll be four cats, two of them twelve, two of them eight, with potential lifespans of considerably longer. They won’t be easy-care by then, as older cats begin to require special diets and more. I won’t have Thirteen around to clean the cat boxes or keep the kibble bowls filled.
But even knowing all of that, when a friend recently tagged me in a rescue kitten’s photo on Facebook, I was quite sure she was the one. We’ve been talking about more pets—the children have been asking—for a year or more. Together we climbed in the car and made the drive over to Furry Friends Refuge to meet the kitten in the picture. She was stunning, soft, very sweet, and not afraid to rough and tumble in the kitten room. Ten and Thirteen were dressed for a matinee ballet performance, but there they were in their finery, sitting on the floor of the kitten room with their arms full of purring babies. If I had any single rational thought that maybe we should limit ourselves to one new adoptee, as precious whiskered face after precious whiskered face was held up to me, it became hard enough to limit our take to two.
They played with kittens; I filled out the paperwork. When I got to the bottom of page two, I had specified that we would pick a male and a female and we had all agreed on Starling. A scrawny grey male curled up purring with first Thirteen, then Ten. He wasn’t as robust as some of the others, but he was younger, too. He was the kitten they could agree on, so “Cole” went on our application as well.
Then I had to explain to the administrator that we’d be back. Would she hold the kittens? I had carriers in the trunk but ballet tickets first. If she was surprised that we would squeeze kitten adoption in around the performance, she didn’t show it. Yes—she would process our application and let us know when we got back. Could these kittens be ours? We would have to wait to find out.
The next two hours were beautiful and fraught. As a parent, I take managing expectations seriously. “We’ll have to see,” I cautioned, “if our application gets approved.” I couldn’t think why it wouldn’t. We headed east into Des Moines.
We would have had plenty of time to drive to the theater and get settled in our seats were it not for an intersection-closing accident that sent us several miles out of our way followed by running into more streets closed for the Des Moines Marathon. A four and a half mile trip turned into a twelve-mile dash, and only because there were plenty of pre-show announcements did we grope our way to our seats just after the house lights went down.
The ballet was wonderful, but not one of the four of us—my mother was along for the kitten-ballet relay—fully settled in for the performance, especially when audio problems delayed the beginning of the middle piece. We knew Furry Friends closed at five and we knew we wanted to get back to those babies. We applauded loud and long with the rest of the audience, so grateful for professional dance in our city. And then we leapt into the car—the drive back was mercifully swift.
The joy in the eyes of Ten and Thirteen when they learned our application was approved and the kitties would be heading home with us was immeasurable. Safely in their carriers, the kittens rode home on the laps of my cat-crazy children. We secured them in the laundry room, soon renamed Kittenville by my mother. Safe there, they had time to adjust to us and talk to the big cats, Katy and Leo, through the door. Both kitties are growing beautifully and Starling becomes more beautiful every day. Cole, renamed CharCoal, was rescued from a dumpster. His rough start tugs our hearts as we watch him fill his tummy, climb and play. His purr is easy and loud and his courage for one so tiny is inspiring.
At the end of another day, well after I should be asleep, I stop in to Kittenville to check their food and water. They rise and greet me, purring and wanting to be held and stroked. The living is easy in Kittenville, stress-free. How could this make me crazy?
A few days early for the November new moon, here’s a little piece of what’s churning at my house. Wishing you new delights in this season of gratitude. Namaste, Rxo