When we were children, our household pets all met an ill fate, and that ill fate was us.
My parents were not pet people. My father, for a time when I was very little, kept bird dogs. He drove them to the Moroccan countryside in the trunk of his Peugeot, into and out of which, unaware of animal rights or the chemical properties of carbon monoxide, they leapt with unbridled joy.
“Those dogs loved to hunt, just not for me,” he recalled years later. Rather than retrieve, they snacked.
After we moved to America, Daddy stopped hunting and my mother refused to let him get another dog. But he always had a soft spot for them. When we visited friends, their hounds invariably would find their way to my father, rest their chins on his knee, and gaze up with soft eyes.
More than anything, I wanted a kitten. But cats, to my parents, were vermin that prowled the Middle East spreading disease.
“Tro-cho-ma!” my father would say when I asked for a kitty of my own. The word, I was meant to infer, stood for some terrible disease one contracted from petting cats. Years later I looked it up and discovered he was probably saying, in his Armenian accent, “trachoma,” an eye disease of questionable connection to cats (a study is underway) but that could get you turned back at Ellis Island. To this day I don’t know if he was pulling a fast one or if he really believed that if I adopted a kitten, we’d all go blind and get deported.
Cat forbidden, I turned my attention elsewhere. First came the brief but tragic tenure of Harry the Turtle. Harry was a Red Ear Slider, trachemys scripta elegans, a two-inch salmonella delivery system who today would scrabble over pond and pebble as a federal fugitive. In the 1970s, the U.S. government banned the sale of sliders Harry’s size when thousands of little girls just like me grew ill after handling them, which I did regularly, or after putting them in their mouths, which by mutual agreement I did not. Unlike a kitten, it turns out, Harry really could have killed us all. Except I killed him first.
Harry came to us from the basement pet area of a Korvette department store, where I begged shamelessly until my mother forked out the required ninety-seven cents. Her capitulation might have been a strategic alternative to strangling me on the spot or to acquiring an even more objectionable creature from the order rodentia. Harry had a yellow-rimmed green shell etched on top in a black geometric pattern. His head, legs, and pointy tail were green with yellow stripes. Two red strips ran along the side of his head toward his eyes, which were beady and peered at me expressing unfathomable reptilian thoughts. When Harry walked across my palm and onto my fingertips, perhaps wisely attempting a swift getaway, the scratch of his toenails on my skin was thrilling.
Red Ear Sliders can grow up to twelve inches long and live fifty years, with proper care, which was not to be Harry’s lot. The pet data sheets of today discuss electrical heat sources, water filtration systems, an amazing array of habitat products, and nutritional supplements. Mine was not a family given to such extravagances. Harry was provided a cobalt-blue Portuguese glass bowl with Rococo feet that had failed to sell at the gift shop we ran in Garden City. My mother helped settle Harry into his Rococo residence with a little dish of water and pebbles from the backyard. There he might have clung to life, however tenuously, but for my catching wind on educational TV of a phenomenon called “hibernation.” Did you know that animals like bears and turtles sleep for months at a time? Can you say hi-ber-na-tion?
This new intelligence regarding Harry’s metabolic imperatives posed a dilemma. How was he going to hibernate in his Portuguese bowl, next to the living room hi-fi, with the lights going constantly on and off? I devised a solution. Lifting Harry up gently, I wrapped around and around his flailing green body a giant roll of toilet paper. Then I lowered him gently back down.
What people noticed eventually was the smell. Then the white mound. Each family member reacted to the loss of Harry—and my explanation for his wadded state—in his or her own way. My father was heartbroken for me. He placed his hand tenderly on my head and tried not to laugh. My mother knew she shouldn’t have bought herself that moment of Korvette peace, and promptly disposed of the remains. The Portuguese bowl moved to a shelf in the basement next to another failed amusement, a jack-in-the box whose demented painted face, and explosive appearances following tinkly music, had long filled me with terror.
The worst thing about the Harry debacle, aside from the stain of murder on my soul, was the ammunition it gave my older siblings. My brother, Ara, was nine years my senior, my sister, Anais, six. They were not pet people. To my knowledge, Ara never wanted even a hamster. Anais in the dim reaches of time had asked for a kitten, but was bought off with two stuffed facsimiles in a basket. These two were suckers neither for bright slithering things nor soft cuddly ones. And they brought to their relationship with baby sister the compassion of Mafia hit men. Learning of my unfortunate ministrations to Harry, Ara and Anais could hardly believe I had handed them so rich and inexhaustible a trove.
Indeed, some fifty years after the death of Harry, my sister and I recently were driving together to a county park when we passed the carcass of a roadkill deer.
“It must have needed to hibernate,” she said, steering her Honda Fit past the remains.
The carnage did not end with Harry. Following the turtle came a sullen, songless canary, which expired clutching its empty water dish after being moved, prior to a dinner party, from its regular spot in the dining room to an upstairs bathroom, where I promptly forgot about it. Regarding Harry’s death I had been regretful but not, to my recollection, seared with guilt. It was an honest mistake; how could anyone guess he wouldn’t like his custom-built spa? I still feel bad about that canary, though.
I was learning some things about my parents. They were not exemplary pet-care supervisors. The willful invitation of disease carriers into the household was alien to them, a baffling American practice. However, when I wanted something, they had trouble saying no. My parents had wanted so much when they were children—new shoes, schoolbooks, sometimes even enough to eat—that they couldn’t bear see me suffer. This gave me evil powers.
From turtles and birds—and an unspeakable interlude of tropical fish that supplemented their food flakes with one another—I graduated to mammals. For a time, we had Bilbo the beagle. We adopted him as a puppy, but my parents wouldn’t dream of letting him sleep in my room. I set him up in the garage with a dog bed, warm blankets, and a ticking clock so he wouldn’t feel alone. If they’d have let me sleep there with him, I would have.
I should have read more into that ticking clock. Bilbo turned out not to be like Snoopy at all. Numerous alarming characteristics emerged. Housebreaking did not go according to the instruction book. Outdoors, Bilbo was an even worse menace. Some genetic drive made him find every dead bird in the back yard and haul it into a pile under the elm tree, where he’d toss the rotting carcasses cheerfully up and down for hours at a time. It got so I couldn’t go outside or even look out the dining room window. Then he started wrapping himself around my shin and pumping furiously. What was that all about?
My parents found Bilbo a nice new home with the local butcher. Having seen the contents of this butcher’s freezer hanging skinned on metal hooks, I’d always assumed Bilbo’s fate would not bear close inspection. But my sister last week told me that yes, one of her classmates really wanted the dog and her family adopted it. So maybe Bilbo made out better than I knew. I hope so.
After Bilbo ate the big bone, whether in the sky or across town remains unclear, I scaled the last bastions of my parents’ resistance, opened the floodgates to tro-cho-ma itself. I brought home a kitten. As with its ornithological and reptilian antecedents, its life was brief.
My literary tastes had progressed beyond Tolkien and I’d entered my Classical period, enjoying the historical novels of Mary Renault and Robert Graves, and the dactylic hexameter of Homer (Lattimore translation). Thus I named the little tabby female “Agamemnon.”
Like many a Homeric hero, she perished in the field. One morning I called and called her for breakfast but Agamemnon did not come. My mother looked vaguely uncomfortable but said nothing. Amazingly, it turned out my aunt had seen the cat dead by the road on her way to work and telephoned my mother, who perhaps hadn’t had time to dispose of the remains, a task at which she had grown proficient. In any case, my mother said nothing as I went searching for my cat. I called in the front and back yards. I walked up and down the driveway. I checked to make sure she wasn’t stuck in the garage. Finally, I headed down the street—and there found Agamemnon, lying very still as if asleep, but in a spot where she would never sleep. I wept over her as Achilles wept for Patroclus. Then I arose with the same grim fury.
Down in the basement, next to Harry’s now-dusty Portuguese bowl and the psycho jack-in-the-box, sat a white box. Perhaps it once had held a coat or several sweaters. For the purpose I had in mind the box had a tragic flaw. Embossed on its lid in gold script were the words “Bonwit Teller,” the name of a high-end purveyor of fashion and footwear. This was not how I wanted Agamemnon to enter eternity.
“It says ‘Bonwit Teller!’” I sobbed to my mother, showing her the box I’d brought up from the basement.
“It’s ok,” she said.
I carried the box to the end of the street, crouched down and picked up my cat, who had stiffened into a board. Her head and limbs did not droop to gravity, but rather came up together in one awful slab. I dropped the Agamemnon slab into the box, slammed down the Bonwit Teller lid, and carried her to my chosen burial spot in the back yard under the crabapple tree. I’d anticipated the loveliness of yearly blossoms but not the intractability of the root system. It took me hours to dig deep enough, hacking around and through roots, tears blinding my vision. I refused comfort, I refused help. My mother stood at the dining room window wringing her hands.
For much of the time I’ve been writing this account, I’ve had a cat curled on my lap. Cats, when they manage to avoid vehicular manglement, make wonderful pets. They sincerely resist encasement in toilet paper. If you forget to provide food or water, they don’t expire quietly in the corner, but rather tiptoe across your chest to sniff your cheek and then pat it, at first politely with claws sheathed and then not. I have visited Ellis Island and made it safely back home with no ocular or geopolitical consequences.
The cat on my lap is white with a grey smudge on top of her head. She likes to tuck her face into the crook of my elbow as I type. One of her many names is Cat Eight, Gadu Oota. Cat Seven is asleep on the radiator, cooking himself like the pot roast he resembles. Seven and Eight lack the wit to ask what happened to One through Six, which perhaps explains their easy sleep. If they did ask, though, I could tell them Five lived eighteen years and Six lived twenty. Through trial (theirs) and error (mine), I got better at caretaking.
We love as best we can. It’s a terrible thing, to be responsible for another life. Sometimes we smother, sometimes we don’t know how to set limits, sometimes strike the wrong balance between holding close and letting go. When comfort is most needed, words fail us. My parents never did figure out how to deal with my desire for pets. But they tried. Years later what strikes me is how they tried to let me be who I am even when I became someone whose choices they could not understand.