Pets, Pleasures, a Black and White Great Dane and a Kleenex Cat
Reams have been written about how animals — pets, in most cases — contribute to the comfort of human lives. Most of us have wept over Flag in The Yearling, Black Beauty, Old Yeller, and many more. Even unfortunate city kids have an inkling of what fur-bearers offer in tacit sympathy and devotion. They see homeless people hugging a stray and get the message. The more fortunate have known a number of animals intimately.
One of the things about animals to me is their place as memory triggers. Our family has a small number of members who are unaware of what they've been missing all their lives, and it makes me wonder if it's too late to show them. My son-in-law is allergic to cats. I don't know about his sons, who are polite to our dogs. No one in that group seems ever to have wished for a pet. It makes me nervous about their children, should they ever have any. Certainly I'll never forget my mother taking a switch to my legs when she caught me trying to frighten our cat our from under a bush where he'd hidden. There was no answer to her question of how I'd like that, as I rubbed my stinging calves.
My own earliest memory of an animal is our cat Pusskit. A big tiger tom, he used to get up on the kitchen counter and steal cantaloupe slices if my mother hadn't put them in the refrigerator. Other than his color and size, that's all I recall of him, He was followed by a big black and white female improbably called Snowball. While we had her, I acquired a reject from the biology lab's nutrition experiments in what would now be called middle school. A white rat still showing evidence of malnutrition that I named Confucius. He loved to ride on my shoulders under my hair that was clipped at the nape with a big barrette. He would poke his pink nose and pinker eyes out under one of my ears and let his tail hang out under the other.
One day I came home from school to find Confucius inside his large cage along with Snowball. I have no idea what would have happened if I hadn't dragged her out, but when I found them, they were both hunkered down just staring at each other. By the time he found another home, Confucius was sleek and spotlessly white.
Having been sent to a 'progressive' camp at the age of six, I was early introduced to wild creatures. In my day, summer camps would hold reunions in the winter, presumably to attract clients for the following summer. The first one we went to featured home movies of camp activities. It's possible that the first frames on the reel were ill-chosen. They showed me with a fair-sized garter snake around my neck, and a smaller one in each hand. I remember audible gasps and three or four prospect mothers departing in haste. Of course I didn't understand why at the time.
This was the period when I took care of a handsome terrarium occupied by some kind of tree frog. We got it at Wanamaker's pet shop, which was where I went every week to buy live mealworms to feed it. That's where I got my white mice named Punch and Judy. By now you know my mother was an animal lover, or she would never have tolerated such a menagerie. I remember that Punch and Judy learned to lift the sliding door of their cage so they could wander in my bedroom at will. We kept the door shut because of the cat. My mother was unnerved by the possibility that she might inadvertently vacuum one or both of these little things up because the soot in Manhattan in the thirties (before anthracite as the common heating fuel) was legendary.
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