I handed my daughter, Skye, a glass bottle of clear soda, “Here Sweetie, try the plum one first.” She was sitting in the third row of our SUV, wedged between the cooler and a precarious pile of pillows. It was late afternoon and we were just about to leave St. Louis. The air conditioning was still not working well, so I’d bought cold soda’s for everyone.
“It tastes pretty weird,” she said. My husband, Eric, who was in the driver’s seat next to me, had picked the grapefruit flavor. “It’s not soda!” He said looking at his bottle.
I looked at the one in my hand and started laughing. In fine print it read 13% alcohol by volume. Aside from the surgeon general’s warning and the flavor, the rest of the label was printed in Korean. In a pre-pandemic U.S.A., I never would have been able to purchase alcohol with my Bimbimbap takeout and walk away, so it never occurred to me the cooler next to the cash register might have contained alcoholic drinks!
After a few more laughs and some curious sips (by the adults) of the open one, we threw the bottles in the cooler and promised everyone a Starbucks stop in 30 minutes. Luckily, we weren’t in a hurry.
Four days earlier, while we were still in Colorado, I'd received an email. “Christine, it is your turn to pick a kitten! I will be sending you info and photos so you can see what I have available.”
Eric and I had promised Skye a kitten for her 12th birthday in June and had put down a deposit with the breeder. We weren’t expecting word until late August though — surprise! The breeder lives 400 miles from our house, but it would only require a 10 mile detour off this trip's route — nice!
However, the distance between St. Louis, Missouri and the breeder, 700 miles away in Pennsylvania, was awkward. I assumed a 2:00am pickup was out of the question and had asked for 8:00am: not ideal, but not a deal breaker. It meant there was no rush. We could make as many cold drink stops as we wanted!
Eighteen hours later, after countless non-alcoholic milkshakes and sodas, I was ringing the breeder's doorbell. I noticed on the door jamb there was a political sticker for a candidate I don’t like very much. We were standing on the far end of the covered porch that ran the entire front of the house. The porch’s paint was peeling so badly that there was almost more raw wood than paint and the floor was packed with trash bags full of… I don’t know what. The neighbor's porch wasn’t so different.
A car parked across the street had all of its doors wide open. There were a bunch of people hanging around it listening to music. The bass was turned up so loudly I couldn’t hear if the doorbell had actually rung, so after a bit I rang it again. I felt uneasy.
A few minutes later the door opened, “Hi,” said the breeder. She fit my "crazy cat lady" image to a T. Her once blond hair, now a mix of blond and gray frizz, flew out of control around her face. Her fire-engine red tank top showed off skin that draped as if it had been ordered a size too large. She had a couple of small, square band-aids on her chest and there was a heavy sprinkling of thin scabs and scars on her shoulders.
The pandemic-required face mask covered her nose and mouth; I’ll never know if she had all her teeth. I was glad I was wearing a mask too and she couldn’t see my expression. “Hi,” I said, “I’m Christine and this is my daughter Skye.” She opened the door and gestured towards the room behind her, “Yes, yes, come in.”
Even through my mask the ammonia smell of cat urine overwhelmed me and I had to blink to keep my eyes from watering. We entered a poorly lit room where 6 large, black wire cages lined three of the four walls. Each one held a mama cat and her babies. All the cats were beautiful and seemed happy enough. I relaxed a little.
We were invited to sit on the couch, which occupied the fourth wall. It looked like it may have been rescued from the street some twenty years earlier and was covered in tiger printed blankets. “Thank you. We’re happy to stand, we’ve been sitting for a long time.” I said.
She went to the cage nearest us, which held a mama and two kittens. She got on her hands and knees, opened the door and reached in. The kittens scrambled away. She stretched to the far back corner, “Aw, come here mama’s girl,” she said in a gentle tone. I’d never purchased a cat or dog before, I hadn’t taken into consideration this moment. My heart constricted in pain. We were taking her from her mama. Oh no!
The woman’s shoulders emerged from the cage and she was holding a delicate, tawny kitten with dark brown markings and the sweetest of faces. She placed it in my daughter’s arms. Skye's face glowed, her eyes moistened, and she nuzzled her cheek to the kitten’s head. My heart relaxed a little, at least in our home she would be cherished.
The breeder hadn’t finished our paperwork so she left us to get it. “She’s really scared,” I said to Skye. The kitten was clinging to her chest with her paws spread wide. She looked like a cartoon cat clinging for dear life to a cliff wall with only miles of ocean below her. Her fellow kittens, safely in their cages, were wildly running, spinning, and jumping as their mamas watched in silent boredom. In the back of my mind, I was wondering how much longer it would be before Eric got concerned and came looking for us.
“Here you are,” the breeder said, finally returning with our paperwork. She sat on the arm of the couch and went over how to care for the kitten. It was clear she was experienced and loved her cats. When all was said and done she walked us back out to the porch and waved as we descended the stairs. “Take care. Call or email me with any questions… and I love pictures,” she called after us.
“Thank you,” I waved back over my shoulder. As my daughter and I walked the half-block to our car my mind wandered. During our drive we’d been listening to Trevor Noah’s book called Born a Crime. It's his account of growing up mixed race and poor during, and through the fall of, apartheid in South Africa.
First of all, I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s insightful, funny, honest, and heartbreaking all at once. He paints vivid pictures of what it was like to be poor; not just on food stamps or government assistance poor, I’m talking there are no food stamps and the government hates you poor.
He described how hustling stolen goods didn’t look like a crime, it just looked like a reasonable way to survive. Listening to his story I wanted him to succeed, I didn’t care that what he sold was stolen. But it occurred to me that if I’d randomly met him on the street all those year ago, I doubt very much I’d be rooting for him.
I didn’t know the cat lady’s story. I have no idea what she’d been through, no idea what trials and tribulations life has brought her; no clue about what support system she does or doesn’t have.
I’d known her for less than 30 minutes and I’d already decided she “wasn’t like me,” she “wasn’t my people,” or even worth getting to know. That realization broke my heart more than taking the kitten from her mother.
I profess to be someone who helps people, especially when they're having a hard time or down on their luck. I profess to be someone who cares. I profess to be someone who is understanding. Yet here was a woman who had found her way to survive in the world, and made one of my daughter’s dreams come true, but I couldn’t even take a few minutes to learn more about her? Or to discover any of the ways she is like me?
Who was I to be judge and jury? She’d never been anything but kind and professional towards us. I took a deep breath as a wave of shame washed over me.
We climbed into the car and Eric turned the key. This time the air conditioning spat hot air in my face. It seemed fitting.
By mid afternoon, the air conditioning situation had not improved. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky and the outdoor temperature hovered in the 90’s. Everyone, including the cat, was lying limp like melted chocolate.
We stopped at a Target just north of New York City. Eric and Skye went for cold drinks and I went looking for squirt bottles or anything else to cool us off.
We reunited in the car. “I couldn’t find squirt bottles, I had to improvise,” I said to our crew. I handed a bag of frozen corn to Skye, “this is to put in the kitten's carrier under her blanket. She can lie down on it.”
I pulled a long, thin, blue sports scarf out of its packaging, soaked it in water, wrung it out and handed it to my husband. “Here, you wrap this around your neck and it’s supposed to cool you off.” He put it on and exclaimed, “Oh, that works!”
Turning to the kids in the back, I held up my last purchase, “this was the closest I could find to a squirt bottle. It’s aloe face mist,” I said, then closed my eyes and liberally sprayed my face and neck.
Four long, hot, sober hours later we came to our street. We live in the only log cabin on our road. The houses around us are more modern and some of them as large as 12,000 square feet. We have an acre of wild forest, but most of our neighbors have an acre of manicured yard and at least another two acres of woods. Our real estate agent tried to talk us out of buying this house, but we were in love with it. It felt like a storybook chalet.
We turned into our driveway and my eyes swept over the two giant, abandoned piles of tree limbs and sticks I’d started collecting to take to the town transfer station. Left unattended for three weeks, the weeds in the front garden reached at least 5-feet tall and the ferns had engulfed all our walkways. Pine needles overflowed from the gutters and the moss dotting the roof had turned brown from the summer sun. The place looked deserted, as if no one had lived there for years. The only hint of occupancy were the trash barrels lined up by the garage and the string of fairy lights from the front door to a stand of trees. If I were a stranger passing by, I might even think that it must be the home of a crazy cat lady.