In 1947 I was eleven years old and had been wishing for a pet for a long time. I told my parents I’d settle for a dog or a cat. What I got was fish, in a tank, which was not my idea of a pet. One day, alone in our apartment, the phone rang, startling me. It was rare for anyone to call during the day and when it did, it meant trouble. I picked up the receiver, worried that something bad had happened.
It was my 6-year-old cousin, John. “Hi Nancy, our cat had kittens and they’re ready for adoption. Want one?
“Sure,” I said, enthusiastically, oblivious as to how I’d explain this to my mother who hated animals and didn’t much like me.
“If you do, you need to come now. Lots of people want one.”
“I’ll leave now. Don’t let anyone take one before I get there.”
I walked three blocks to the subway, put my nickel into the slot, and got on the next train. It took almost an hour to get to his Greenwich Village apartment, but during the ride, all I thought about was the kitten. My cousin greeted me, holding a bunch of snuggled kittens. I was entranced. “Can I hold them?”
“Okay,” he said, “but be careful, they don’t know you.” I took the kittens into my arms, enchanted by their soft, warm, cuddly bodies.
We both heard the mama cat yowl. “You better put them down,” said my cousin. “I think she wants to feed them.”
I stooped to let them go, but one of them stayed in my arms. “I think this kitten loves me,” I said, full of hope and need.
“I think so too,” he said. “You can have it.”
“We need to hide it,” I told him. “They don’t allow animals on the trains.” He found a carton and we made small holes with the end of a scissors. Worried about the cat not having enough air, I decided the holes were too small and made them bigger. Big mistake. As I happily walked to the subway, the kitten popped her head out of the box and purred.
Ignoring subway rules, I put my nickel into the slot, walked through the turnstile, and waited for the train. When it came, I got on and found a seat. As the train started to move, the kitten popped her face up. I pushed it down. People around me looked on with surprise—some pleased—some not. Unfortunately, she popped her head up and meowed just as the conductor came by. “You can’t bring animals on the train little girl. You need to get off at the next stop.”
People around me told him, “Don’t be so mean.” “It’s only a kitten.” “She’s just a kid.”
Nothing helped. He made sure I got off at the next stop. I got on the next train, was asked to leave, got on the next train after that, had to get off. It took a long time before I finally got off the train at my stop. I walked home, suddenly feeling the trouble I was in. I kissed the kitten’s face and said, “Don’t worry. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” I pushed her face back into the box, walked up to the front door, up the stairs, and stood before the locked door to our apartment.
Trembling, I took out my key, wishing I had someplace safe to go. My mother often hit me for no reason. Now she’d have a whole lot of reason. I opened the door and heard my mother and sister in the kitchen. I rushed into the bedroom I shared with my sister, and closed the door. I took the kitten out of the box and nuzzled my face in her silky fur. I didn’t hear the door open.
My mother’s wrath was swift and immediate. She knocked the kitten out of my arms and smacked me so hard I fell on the floor. My sister yelled, “It’s running away!”
“Where did you get that thing?” she demanded to know. When I told her, she immediately called John’s mother, full of rage.
I ran after the kitten, picked her up, and crooned. “Everything will be all right,” something I didn’t believe. I poured milk into a dish I had covered with tin foil so my mother couldn’t complain about my using our dishes, and took the kitten and dish into the bedroom. My sister came in and closed the door. “You’re in big trouble.” I shrugged. Nothing new.
“She’s gonna make you give it back.”
“No. She’s mine. I love her.”
“Mama’s furious. She won’t let you keep it.”
We heard the front door open. My father was home from work. My sister and I heard our mother yelling about the cat, about me. I held the kitten, waiting for the worst to happen. My father came into the bedroom and closed the door. Hugging the kitten, I said, “I’m keeping her. I love her and she loves me.”
He told me all the reasons I couldn’t keep the kitten. Nothing he said made a difference. “I’ll go to the library. I’ll get a book to teach me how to take care of a kitten. I’ll pay for her food out of my babysitting money. I’ll keep her in the bedroom when I’m at school. I’ll clean up her messes.”
My mother stormed into the room rushing toward me. I was too worried about the kitten to care what she did to me. “I won’t let you hurt my kitten.” My father put his arm around my mother and whispered something to her.
There was a strained silence. I looked at my father, begging him to help. He finally spoke, quietly. “We’ll be going to the country after school lets out in a few days. (Our parents rented a small bungalow every summer.) It will be easy for Nancy to take care of it there.” My mother shook free of my father and stomped out of the bedroom.
That night the kitten and I slept snuggled together. For the moment, all was well.
When you were a child, what did you wish for?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.