An Apology to My Parents on the 18th or 19th Birthday of My Childhood Cat

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.

KatNipp on the left; my sister’s cat Clyde on the right, since departed like a marshmallow of glory

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.

KatNipp hiding on my parents’ bed. Confession: I don’t even have any digitized pictures of “my” cat so I stole this (like so much else) from my mother

The Long View

At the end of March, we bought ourselves a house. And I don’t know if it’s our age or the recovering economy or whatever, but in that time I’ve had four or five other close friends go through the same exhilarating/nauseating roller coaster.

Most of those friends have a kid or two, and one friend asked me how to get unpacked and settled in with kids underfoot and the answer, I suspect, is mostly you don’t, or at least not with much haste.

All of us, we new homeowners, want something Instagrammable right away. We are scouring Pinterest, so impatient to make this new house “ours.” It’s tempting to stay up late unpacking, to spend a lot of money right away for that missing detail, to hold off having anyone over until we’re really settled. We’re Millennials, and we’ve been renting our entire adult lives. We’re ready to really own a place.

Mostly, though, I try to get out of the house with the kids because hey, it’s summertime, and we shouldn’t waste it, but also because when I am chasing off the baby from the electric outlets and fielding the preschooler’s request for a toy we haven’t unpacked yet and thinking about how I should haul another box up from the basement or take a crack at a better kitchen arrangement, I’m not the kind of mother I want to be.

Luckily for me a few weeks into unpacking (or not) we headed down to Tallahassee, where much of the month I stayed in the house my parents have owned since I was seven years old.

My dad, spiffing up the back of the house in 1993

It’s a house where I can see work and evolution and process in every room. That evidence is somehow reassuring. My mom’s gardening has changed and improved as she’s gotten to know the soil and entered a new season of life without kids at home when she can devote more time. As far back as I can remember, my parents’ house has been tidier than my current acceptable level, but the level of cleanliness they can maintain now that my father is a full time homemaker differs form how I remember it growing up. And every time something has broken since 1993, my parents have replaced it with something just a little nicer, a little more to their taste.

It all combines to reassure me that there is no static moment when a house is done. It feels overwhelming to think of the projects that loom before us, but so long as we keep the back porch from completing its transformation into a rotted death trap, we’ve got all the time in the world to make this little Craftsman our home. We can afford to play the long game.