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Just a Pile of Stripes

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This story contains graphic or mature content.

He only weighed a few ounces, a fluffy pile of black and gray stripes, but the first time I looked into Tabby’s emerald green eyes, I was hooked. And that was before I noticed the six toes on each of his four feet.

Of course he wasn’t Tabby when I first met him. He was just a kitten that Grandmother Nana was giving away. Her hilltop acreage in Mamaroneck, New York, often attracted stray cats. Though it was difficult enough for her to feed her own children after her husband’s death from smoking-related lung cancer, she tried to give the stray cats and kittens away instead of calling the Humane Society.

In some ways, receiving Tabby from Nana was a huge dichotomy. On the surface, it looked normal. My family was expert at making things look normal—even better than normal—when underneath, life was full of rubbish, sludge, and filth.

So on the surface, this is how it happened. My grandmother called my mother and said she would like to give me, her oldest grandchild, a kitten. My mother said she’d talk to my father, which she did. We went to my grandmother’s genteel nineteenth-century mansion, a gray and white abode complete with a turret on one side that overlooked the Palisades. I chose the gray and white kitten that batted his brothers and sisters away from his mother’s milk. The strongest one.

That’s what it looked like on the surface.

That would make a pretty boring story overall.

What was actually going on was this:

Our tiny property in a working-class neighborhood in Butler, New Jersey, also attracted strays. I’d found litters of kittens in the lopsided storage barn at the back of our property. I’d fed them the hot dogs that my mother had intended for dinner. Or the leftover meatloaf that she had planned to make into sandwiches for my father’s lunches. Or whatever I could find.

I had cooed over them and loved them, and had intended to raise them all.

That was, until the sound of my mother’s fingernails tapping against the metal supports of our swing set broke into my reverie. 

“How dare you steal food from your father, you little brat!” she sneered.

She’d dug her scarlet-coated fingernails deep into my scalp and dragged me back into the house. She’d told my father that the strays were eating our family out of house and home.

My father’s solution to my frivolous behavior was to place the kittens in a burlap sack left over from potatoes, and take the kittens and me to the river the following Sunday morning. Though I was only five, he made me hold the squirming bag over the rapidly flowing water.

Then he performed a short ceremony, so that my siblings would know how bad I had been and how disloyal to the family my actions had been.

“We’re all here today because of Kriss. She has taken food away from our family and fed these stray kittens. Because of Kriss’s selfishness, these kittens must die. Kriss will drop the bag holding the kittens into the water and then will spend the rest of the day in her room, without lunch or dinner, so she can know what it feels like to be hungry.”

My fingers wouldn’t let go. I had promised the kittens that I would take care of them. I couldn’t harm them. Besides, my father’s words didn’t make sense to me. I knew what it felt like to be hungry. I’d been hungry, off and on, all my life. I knew the kittens were hungry too. That’s why I risked stealing food from the refrigerator to feed them.

Just as my face crumpled into tears, my mother slapped me hard between the shoulder blades. My fingers let go, and I looked back over my shoulder in shock at my mother who was dressed in her Sunday best, white gloves and all, looking resolutely at the cloudy sky as if she hadn’t even touched me. The bag holding the kittens arced over the water and plunged deep into the roiling depths.

This would have been a huge dichotomy with the scene I described in the beginning of this essay, even if it had only happened once. But that too, wasn’t the case.

The scene with the kittens—even puppies sometimes—was repeated dozens of times.

“She never learns,” my mother would sneer to her best friend, Gene.

Yet, all of that—the killing, needing to take care of young animals so much that I risked the wrath of my parents over and over again, my willingness to go without food myself to give them a few more days of life—turned my compassion inside out. As well as the other dark current—what my father did to the mother cats. He only put the kittens in the bag, and even though the whole neighborhood mourned when our next-door neighbor’s cat was found dead in a nearby woods, I knew that my father knew how to end a life with a sharp twist to the neck between his strong, blocky hands.

So, when my mother told my father that maybe if he let me have the kitten my grandmother offered—that maybe that would stop me from feeding strays—it seemed logical to them. After all, in that moment, they were being sane. This hadn’t turned into the dark nastiness that undercoated every ordinary action with evil.

So we brought Tabby home and loved him the best we knew how. For me, that meant feeding him, making beds for him, and playing with him. For my parents, that meant cooing over every scrape and scratch he got, as if that made up for all the death and abuse.

It was so bizarre, I can barely put words to it now. Sure, I can describe what happened, but I’m still struggling to convey the underlying energy, the motivation, the utter refusal to take any kind of responsibility, and the desperation to have the outer shell of life look normal and happy while a cesspool writhed beneath it.


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