The same year I started (disastrously) my undistinguished career as a violist for the town youth orchestra, my parents’ honeymoon cat finally died.
After begging for years for a dog, when I was free to have one, I surprised myself and everyone else when we ended up on the front steps of sleepy strangers, holding a box of kittens, my sister and I choosing our destinies.
But, as with so much of fickle childhood, we were actually dictating our parents’ destiny. From that box I pulled a black and gray female kitten with a Maine Coon look, and named her, in a burst of naming madness I did well to get out of my system before having human children, KatNipp.
When I went to college, there was no chance KatNipp would accompany me to the dorms (my roommate and I got a betta fish named Val Kilmer instead). KatNipp stayed at my parents’, an anxious wraith darting in the shadows, surfacing only to deposit another hairball, fruit of her overgrooming neuroses.
Two weeks after college I married a boy allergic to cats (though admittedly also allergic to dogs and look where that got us). KatNipp was officially my parents’ cat indefinitely.
And eight years later, her term is still indefinite. In old age, she’s grown raggedy but friendlier. My dad, for reasons lost to the sands of time, has rechristened her Futon, and from the wisdom of 30 I have to admit this is a better name.
By now, I think my parents are done with cat ownership, or maybe pet ownership entirely. Still, Futon nee KatNipp lives on, physical evidence of my fickleness and my parents’ generosity. I feel guilty.
She is hardly the only evidence, however. My memories, and my parents’ house, are both full of testaments to passing whims and parental kindnesses. I thieve my mother’s socks and my father’s CDs; I leave behind at their home outgrown books, my wedding dress, a toilet my sister and I, as teenagers, thought was hilarious to park in their backyard. (They did finally get rid of the latter, well into my twenties.) They permitted me to leave my car, a gift from them, at their house when they helped fund my time in England, then Uganda — before they ever allowed themselves the indulgence of a trip abroad themselves. My life is marked by their generosity, often obliviously received yet freely given.
Maybe this is the job of parents, though: to support a child with warmth and generosity, giving her room to grow and change and contradict herself. Maybe every time I give Pippin the slice of pizza with more bacon or the bigger half of the cinnamon roll, I honor my parents’ generosity. In keeping Bonnie, long past her welcome, for the sake of my son who loves her, I’m emulating the responsibility they tried to instill in me. (A pet is a lifetime commitment, they’ve always taught, no matter how spectral and unwelcome she might become.) As my children grow and change, I hope I have the same grace to give them room, the same practical humility to deal with the trying on and shedding that comes with growing up, and every hairball along the way.