Those cats and kittens
We stopped to visit friends on our way back to Halifax County the other Sunday evening. Amid the hugs and hellos, I noticed the kittens. Eleven kittens, to be exact. We picked them up and scratched their heads as they arched their backs and purred. It was a cat lover’s paradise.
As we sat at dinner, I watched the antics of the kittens through the windows. They tussled and tumbled, capered and bounced from tree to lawn.
“I can’t get over these kittens,” I said to the man of the house. “What happened to the man who hated cats?”
He grinned at me, but he didn’t answer. He didn’t need to.
The story behind the cats
I knew the answer, because there’s a story behind the kittens on their farm. It’s more than just a story about cats.
It’s about a father and his little lass.
You see, there was a time when no cats were allowed at their house. Even though Alison loved cats, her father didn’t.
“Cats scratch furniture,” he said. “They shed hair. They’re always underfoot. Cats are nothing but a nuisance.”
Every time his daughter mentioned getting a cat, his response was simple and emphatic: “No!”
But she was her father’s daughter, so she kept asking.
“Please, Daddy,” she’d beg. “I’ll take care of him all by myself. You have a horse, and Nathan has a dog. I just want a kitten of my own.”
Her birthday was coming in May.
Each time she was asked what she wanted for her birthday, her answer was the same: “I want a cat.”
Finally, her father relented.
For her birthday, she got a cat – two of them, in fact.
One was a stuffed animal; the other was a wiggling, whiskery kitten. He was little and playful, and black as night.
“I’ll call him Blackie,” she said, as she hugged him to herself.
Each morning she fed her kitten. She gave him milk and fresh water. She gave him love, lots of hugs, and strokes. He grew, and so did Alison.
She became attached to her kitten, and he to her. He’d scamper outside and play at her feet. Whether she slid down the slide, skipped with her jump rope, or hung upside down from the swing set her father had built, he was there.
Her father grew used to Blackie. He became accustomed to watching as he opened the front door, to keep the kitten from slipping inside. Yet he didn’t seem to mind when Blackie snuck in to sit on Alison’s lap.
He didn’t realize he was growing fond of his daughters’ kitten.
One warm winter evening
Then one warm evening in February, a man stopped at the house. The father met him outside.
He was the only one who heard what the man had to tell.
“I ran over a black kitten,” the man said. “Does he belong to you?”
“He belongs to my daughter, the father replied.
The man offered to pay for the kitten. He was so sorry, he said.
The cat had run out in front of his car, and he hadn’t seen him until it was too late. He offered to be the one to tell the little girl what had happened.
The father wanted to tell his daughter himself. He braced himself as he went inside, where the mother was putting dinner on the table. Putting his arm around his little girl, he told her what had happened.
To his surprise, she didn’t cry. She didn’t even seem to mind.
As they ate their dinner, the conversation centered on the death of the kitten. They talked about heaven and souls and dead cats.
After dinner, the father went to get his shovel.
“I want to carry him myself,” his daughter said soberly, her lip quivering just a little.
They walked across the yard to the pasture nearby, the father with his shovel, the little girl with her dead kitten.
The father dug the grave, watching his daughter out of the corner of his eye. When it was time to put Blackie in the hole, he reached for the kitten. She pulled back.
Ever her father’s daughter, she wanted to do it herself. She reached down and put the little black kitten in the ground.
Then she watched as her father covered him with dirt.
Gently, her father took her hand in one of his. Carrying his shovel in the other hand, he walked with her back to the house.
It was quiet and still. There was no black bundle waiting to pounce at her feet.
On the back porch, he put his shovel down.
His little girl was sobbing now.
Gently, her father picked her up and sat down on a chair.
She buried her face in his shoulder, as he wrapped his arms around her. And she cried. How she cried!
He didn’t say anything as he held her. He didn’t need to.
Yet she noticed even as she was absorbed in her own grief, that her father was crying, too.
She felt his tears as they ran down his cheeks and fell onto her head.
So they sat there in the darkness, holding each other; the big man who used to hate cats, and his little girl, crying together.
In the years since that winter evening, the daughter has grown and become a teenager. Even now, when she hears folks compare God’s love to the love of a Father, she understands what they mean.
She can remember the shadowy twilight when she sat in the arms of her father and cried out her first deep ache and loss.
She will never forget that night, and the realization that she was not (and never will be) alone.
This story first appeared in a local community newsmagazine in 2000. Later it was published in my book Southside Glimmers. Alison is now a grown woman and a mother of three. And her father is still there (and always has been) for his little girl.