My parents found a kitten a few years into their marriage. My dad was finishing law school while my mother was getting her masters and they lived in a trailer.
“A nice one, though,” my mother always adds. ”It had red carpeting and gold accents.” This would have been about 1965—More likely it was “edgy,” especially for my southern parents, who’d recently married and had no immediate children (they actually waited 12 more years. I guess the kitten was enough for them).
The kitten began ferrel but got wise to twice a day feedings on the back patio fairly quickly. And, while both my parents had grown up with animals, southern house pets are hardly the celebrated substitute comfort blankets they are in other places (I thought Paris really did a great job honoring the cat).
My dad grew up with outdoor dogs and “mousers,” female farm cats who did a better job keeping mice away than their lazy mates; and my mom was a Air Force brat who moved every four years with nothing short of a zoo tucked in the back of their station wagon. Poodles, kittens, fish, turtles and birds all seem to make the Tatum family roster for slow car rides that can only have been hell. Arkansas to West Point, New York in mid summer, with no air conditioning, three children, two smoking parents, and the fore mentioned zoo.
Miraculously, despite these animals place of prominence in the floor boards or sweating laps of my mother and her siblings, they rarely seem to have made it in the house.
And so, in 1965, when a gray tabby kitten became the first child of my young parents, it was uncharted territory. For a time the kitten had no name, and because, again, it was 1965 and Arkansas, my parents didn’t think to have her spade. Instead they did what any normal couple does and let her eat what they now know are poisonous houseplants; play with string that could wrap around her intestines and glittery Christmas tree tinsel (to match their gold accented trailer).
After Kitty (as she was affectionately/lamely) called, returned to the trailer pregnant, my mother gave her a disapproving shake of the head that surely went unnoticed, then played midwife. Once Kitty had her litter, they gave one kitten away and kept the other as her playmate, and decided to have both cats spade.
In 1960s photos of my mother, she is small and cleopatra-like in her hair and eyemake up. One 1969 candid (too candid, it turns out) shot shows her with her arms around two of her elementary school student. She is wearing a mini skirt and thigh highs with a guarder belt. You can see the lacy black triangle of her panties.
I pointed this out when I was about 15 and in a particularly nasty mood. Thirty years later and she still blushed. ”That was the style back then,” she told me stiffly. Sans the underpants, I’m sure. Either way, my mother is always some what fashionable, but fashion wears her. I can only imagine her struggling with two female cats back in ‘66, probably before people did things like used pet taxis; filling out paperwork while kitty one and kitty two scratched, clawed and bit their way down to the floor.
“You left the name line blank,” the receptionist told my mother. Surely distracted by her cats, (and many, many things—she’s an easily distracted little person) my mother reviewed her work on the forms before her and said breezily, “Oh, no. They’re just, um, you know, Kitty. Kitty one, Kitty two. Or if there’s only one around, that’s Kitty.”
This was pre-Annie Hall and the receptionist didn’t understand that sort of humor and lack of interest is adorable. She stared benignly and said, “They have to have names. That’s just awful of you.”
Frustrated now, my mother, in a tizzy, said, “Her first name can’t be Kitty?” The receptionist shook her head again.
“And neither can her’s,” she said, pointing to the baby. ”And whatever their names are, they have to not be ‘Kitty’ and they have to be different from one another so we can tell them apart.”
“Is this a law?”
It wasn’t. But the receptionist, who’s gone down in history as only that, said it ought to be.
In the end my mother won. The veteranarian was summoned in order to provide the final vote on wether “Kitty,” was a first name. It was, he said, so long as it had a middle name.
And so, “Kitty Marie Cat,” was christined at the same time as her infant daughter, Muffy Marie Cat. The receptionist scowled, too, at the use of “Cat” as the last name and suggested my mother use her own.
“That’s just stupid,” my mother told her. ”It IS a cat we’re talking about here.”
Kitty Marie lived until 1980. My mother talks as much about Kitty Marie’s kitten-hood, teenage years, adult and old lady antics (she started to go senile and peed in an electrical socket, making the whole house smell “like burnt piss.”) with as much if not more gusto than the formative years of either my brother or I.
I come from a long line of cat people.