Christmas Kittens

 

 

The year was 2002, and for the first time — after years of cramped apartments and frequent cross-country moves — my family was living in a house of their very own. Nothing fancy, certainly; my younger brother and I still had to share a room, with what was then a small office eventually being converted into a third bedroom to allow us each our space. But it was a permanent place all our own, and that was exciting.

It also meant, thrillingly, that pets slightly more significant than a goldfish were suddenly a possibility. My little brother in particular, exceedingly fond of a children’s book series about an old man and his cat called Mr. Putter and Tabby, requested a kitty of his own on his Christmas list that year.

One chilly December morning, just a few weeks before Christmas, my brother and I were going about our lives as normal. Our parents had gone out for reasons unknown (probably Christmas shopping, in retrospect, but as an eight-year-old at the time it never occurred to me that they might have to go out and sneakily acquire “Santa’s” gifts), so my visiting grandmother was keeping an eye on us in their stead, which in practice mostly amounted to putting up with our over-imaginative games for a few hours.

Then, as our parents pulled up in our driveway, my brother and I were called into the kitchen and handed a very special letter. Printed on elegant, festive red-and-green-trimmed stationary, a picture of a jolly bearded Santa in the corner, the missive was written in a neat yet decorative cursive script. It was from Santa, apologizing for having to drop off one of our presents a little earlier than Christmas Eve - but someone, he explained, simply couldn’t wait any longer to come and meet us. I remember my jaw dropping in delighted realization, and as if on cue, the door opened and my parents walked in from the cold with a big cardboard carrier. They placed it on the floor in front of us and opened up, and sure enough: inside were two tiny, wide-eyed tabby kittens.

In seconds, my brother had scooped up one - the smaller and scrawnier of the two, fur a ruddy brown - and declared him “Tabby”, just like the cat in the books. I nabbed up the other, with butterscotch-colored stripes and a soft white underbelly, and dubbed him “Gold. E” (having been tragically convinced, between early introduction to the internet and a preschool that included two other Mackenzies in the same class, that appending initials to the end of a name was a perfectly normal naming convention). My parents laughed and shrugged at the way we had managed to christen the new additions not a minute into the house, and that was that. We had our new Christmas kittens.

Gold. E and Tabby, our brothers from the same mother — not that you could tell looking at them. Photo courtesy of author.

Tabby, as we would find out years down the line, had been my mom’s choice when they looked at his litter to choose a pair of kittens to adopt. Pretty much every other kitten in the litter looked more or less like Gold. E — butterscotch fur, white markings — but huddled in the corner of the room, scrawny and flea-bitten, was Tabby, the off-colored runt of the litter. My mom, the compassionate and nurturing animal-lover she is, nearly burst into tears. We have to take him, she declared, and so my dad picked out another boy kitten to match, who, of course, would turn out to be Gold. E.

The differences between Tabby and his littermates only became clearer as our kittens grew up alongside us. The flea-bites cleared up with a bit of extra love and care, and he eventually made up for his previous status as the runt with a voracious appetite — for his usual food, sure, but even more so for tuna sandwiches, scraps of chicken, and most bizarre of all, baked goods of all kinds. One couldn’t have a cake or cookie or pie without Tabby lingering near with pleading eyes, never bold enough to try and take anything (just the opposite, he remained a timid personality, to the point that our vet outright diagnosed him with an anxiety disorder), but waiting and hoping for a treat all the same. My dad, who he grew especially close to, was almost always happy to oblige, to the point that he would sometimes get a butter cookie off the shelf and crumble up chunks of it specifically for him. And he would always be rewarded by a rumbling purr and a bump of Tabby’s head against his chin; despite his general nervousness and absolute fear of strangers, Tabby adored all of us, and spent much of his time curled up at our sides or keeping watch on us from a nearby shelf.

Tabby, in the midst of one of his favorite activities. Photo courtesy of author.

Gold. E, meanwhile, looked like he could hardly be related to Tabby. Where Tabby was pleasantly plump and heavily built, with big paws and a slightly round face, Gold. E was slim and sleek, with seemingly always-overgrown claws that click-clacked when he walked like stilettos on tile. Though no less wary of strangers than Tabby, he was bolder in most other respects, always being the first to creep out and “report back” to Tabby when we returned for a long trip or a guest had just departed. Where his brother was a timid yet warm fellow, Gold. E was pleasant yet difficult to read… except to me and my brother. We joked that he was our “nanny cat”, spending his every waking hour doting on us, to the point of going first to my brother’s room, then to mine at night till we fell asleep, waiting in the hallway between us till morning, then repeating the process as we woke up.

"Nanny cat" looking after one of his charges. Photo courtesy of author.

We spent many Christmases with our most lasting and loved presents — mostly uneventful, though one year a sudden infection made us terrified there would be no more with Gold. E. After several days with him at the vet, my mother was informed that we best come in and see him, as there was a strong possibility he wouldn’t make it through the night. Heartbroken, my mother brought me in to see my cat for the final time, and he nudged lovingly at both our hands with all his might just before we left… and the very next morning, the vet called to inform us that, not only was he still around, he was miraculously better, so much so that he could be home the next day. He remained in temporary “quarantine” in our upstairs bathroom for the next few days, and on Christmas day, we opened up the door with great fanfare to officially welcome him home. (He didn’t seem as enthused, and in fact stayed lounging in the bathroom sink as if the door hadn’t even been opened.)

Graciously, this was the last health scare we had until over a decade later, when we’d moved to California with our now-senior kitties in tow. In May of 2017, at 15 years old, Tabby came down with a serious infection without warning, to all of our shock and disbelief. A few days later, we said our heartbroken goodbyes to our beloved boy. Gold. E soldiered on several more months, but it was clear both age and the absence of his brother were taking a toll on him, and in October — on my 23rd birthday, in fact — he finally could go on no longer. I distinctly remember being awoken by his distressed meow as he crawled across the upstairs, first to my parents’ room, then my brother’s, and finally to mine; a final set of rounds from our “nanny cat” before he had to leave us.

It was the first time in fifteen years that we had been without pets, and the house seemed too quiet, too empty. Every time you entered a room, there seemed to be an absence, and far too often we’d see something out of the corner of our eyes, only to be disappointed when it turned out to be a box or a sweater rather than our cats. But we weren’t ready to move on right away, we all agreed. We needed time to grieve the lost members of our family before we rushed into looking for another pet.

That resolve lasted about a week. My father and I came home from a weekend trip to find my mom flipping through cat and dog breed guides, stating plainly that it was simply too quiet and lonely with both of us gone and the cats not around. We needed another pet, plain and simple.

My mother and I joined forces in searching Petfinder and shelter websites and adoption events, all the while struggling to decide what we wanted for our next foray into pet ownership. Should we finally look for a dog? Perhaps a dog and a cat at the same time, so we could raise them together? Or two kittens again, to give them each a playmate? None of us were sure, and our luck in searching wasn’t great.

Then, one day, our whole family was spending time together in the living room, my mom and I scrolling adoption websites as had become habit. “Oh, my goodness,” she exclaimed suddenly. “Look at this ugly cat! What kind of cat even is this??”

While ‘ugly’ was perhaps a strong word, the kitten in the picture was certainly all kinds of unique — wide-eyed and multicolored, with what looked like a black bandit mask over an otherwise tabby-patterned face. We all had a good laugh about it, and it seemed like that would be it.

The fateful Petfinder picture. Photo courtesy of author.

The next day, I was skimming my list of adoption “leads” on a break from work, figuring out where and how to follow up, when I happened to glance at that bandit cat’s profile again. The kitten was a girl (which we’d been hoping for, as a contrast to our two boys), and located right in our town. I thought to myself, hm, it probably wouldn’t hurt to at least inquire about seeing her, would it? So I informed my mother as such, and fired off an email to the contact listed on bandit cat’s profile, figuring — as with my previous less-than-successful inquiries — I’d be lucky to hear back in a few days.

Much to my surprise, I had a call back within the hour, and an offer to arrange a visit at the kitten’s foster home that very day, to see both her and her littermates. Some frantic back-and-forth and an otherwise-nondescript day at work later, my family picked me up and we headed off to the foster home. The kittens had their own room in her home, filled with toys of all kinds, and pretty soon we had bandit cat in our laps, in the flesh. She seemed absolutely miniature compared to Tabby and Gold. E; after 15 years, it seemed impossible to believe cats even came so small! We talked with the kittens’ foster mom casually as bandit cat and her siblings played, discussing our years with our previous cats and how lonely it’d been since we lost them. I quietly filled out a potential adopter form with my contact info on the couch, not entirely convinced yet, but feeling, more and more, a connection.

As the meeting wrapped up and we attempted to leave, there was a sudden blur past our feet — one of the kittens, head-to-toe black with big pointy ears, had managed to bolt out of the confines of the room and across the hall, eagerly staring out through a picture window. I dashed after him and scooped him up to bring back, and was stunned to find the little thing settling into my arms, rumbling with a purr. My heart couldn’t help but leap. Secretly, I had always hoped to adopt a little black cat the next time I chose a pet — my favorite movie growing up was Kiki’s Delivery Service, and I always wanted a Jiji of my very own. Was this little kitten darting out after us and purring against me a sign? (I would later learn that it was not quite a sign, but more on that later.)

There were no solid decisions made that very day, but I think all of us knew, deep down, as we drove back. Midway through more general discussions about the cats and the visit, my mother, offhand, pointed out that we could call the bandit cat “Frankie” — since she looked like several cats patchworked together like Frankenstein’s monster, you see. I laughed, and admitted I’d had the exact same idea for the exact same reason, and my brother agreed. And, they both pointed out, if we got the little black cat too I could finally have my Jiji.

I slept fitfully that night, thinking about our too-empty house, and the tiny kittens running about, and the feeling of the little black kitten purring in my arms. The very next morning, with the blessing of my family, I sent the fateful text to the head of the adoption program. Two days later, on November 1st, Frankie and Jiji came home.

Just when we thought we couldn't find cats who looked less like littermates. Photo courtesy of author.

Though part of it was probably going from 15-year-old seniors to 3-month-old kittens, Frankie and Jiji quickly proved nothing like our previous cats. Where Tabby and Gold. E were shy of strangers and nervous about strange noises or opening doors, Frankie and Jiji preferred to be somewhat independent and mostly reluctant to snuggle up close, and were immensely curious about just about everything in the house, including doors to forbidden areas of the house. Jiji, in particular, was ever-eager to squirm behind television stands, jump onto high shelves covered in breakables, and even poke his nose into the garage our out of the front door. It didn’t take long for me to realize his bolting out of the kitten room wasn’t an eagerness to be adopted, but a general propensity for mischief — and as the icing on the cake, every time he was recovered from a bout of rule-breaking, sure enough, he would be purring enthusiastically in our arms. That fateful “sign” had really just been a naughty cat charming his way out of trouble, and in the process, scamming me into adopting him as a bonus.

Jiji, midway through mischief. Photo courtesy of author.

Frankie was slightly less a rule-breaker (though she certainly wasn’t without her misadventures, on one occasion accidentally singeing her fur while trying to walk across an in-use stovetop), but all the same a personality all her own. We quickly grew used to her staring at us from a distance with her big, wide eyes, often leaning over railings to watch what was happening below, whether that was us walking in and out of the front door or her madman brother doing backflips in chase of feather toys. And though she was not a cuddler — quite the opposite, she rarely liked to be touched — she was immensely talkative, giving us chirps and warbles and whines for attention as she followed us around the house. Really, both of these kittens were far more talkative than our old boys; we could count the number of times Tabby and Gold. E had audibly meowed on one hand, and now we suddenly had Frankie and Jiji yelling for us at all hours.

Oh, and Frankie also proved to be a fan of video games. Photo courtesy of author.

Christmas rolled around a month later, our first since Tabby and Gold. E’s passing — and in turn, our first holiday season with Frankie and Jiji. Since moving into our current house, my mother had started ringing in the holidays by decorating our big kitchen window with toys and lights of all kinds in an elaborate display, and this year was no different… so we thought. The trouble was, while our old boys had never really come to appreciate the picture windows in our new homes (much preferring to curl up on our beds and watch from a distance), Frankie and Jiji had come to think of that window as theirs, spending hours curled up in it, watching the world go by. An elaborate display, they quickly decided, was no deterrent. After a few attempts to admonish them and perform repairs, my family became resigned to the fact that the kittens were now a semi-permanent installation in the Christmas window.

Even our Christmas tree quickly proved an issue with the new additions. Though we’d long since had to resign to a plastic tree (getting a fresh one every year proved too much money, effort, and mess, especially considering we would spend several days every Christmas out-of-state at my grandparents’), Tabby and Gold. E had never minded much either way, with the most interaction they had with it being Gold. E occasionally drinking from the tree-water. Frankie and Jiji, on the other hand, were immediately fascinated by the tree — Jiji especially, troublemaker that he was. It didn’t take long for him to climb up nearly to the top of the tree, biting at wires all the way, and soon he had taught his less athletically-inclined sister to do the same. Again, interventions and reprimands only did so much, and ultimately the tree ended up staying out, undecorated and anchored to the stair rail to avoid tipping, only as a special treat the few days immediately following Christmas.

This picture was one of their less destructive romps. Photo courtesy of author.

Fifteen years after first getting our Christmas kittens, everything was different. We were in a new house, on the opposite side of the country. Everything was sparsely decorated, and the decorations that were out had been thoroughly tested for cat-proof-ness. My brother and I had gone from excitable kids to hardworking adults (albeit no less over-imaginative). Tabby and Gold. E were gone, and though we had new pets in our lives, they couldn’t be more different than the ones we had lost.

And yet, coming home from work every night, Christmas lights twinkling in the window, Frankie and Jiji screaming at me through the glass in the middle of the ruined display, I knew there was nothing I would change.