Ghost of Christmas cats

We liked to say we saved Holly from the life of a junkyard cat. My mom answered an ad for “FREE KITTENS!” and scoped her out a few days before Christmas inside a brick duplex in a rundown part of town while I waited, ignorant, in the car. I had a perfect view of the junkyard across the street and found myself wondering what if I were the sort of kid who didn’t follow orders. What if I opened the door and took off? I imagined peering inside old wrecks, wandering the neat paths I could see from inside the car, palming small things I found on the ground. I didn’t even know about Holly at the time, but maybe we didn’t save her from a bad life at all.

Both parents managed to keep her a secret until Christmas morning. My brother and I had just finished opening presents when mom walked over with a big box and set it down with a weird smile. We knew something big was happening. My brother lifted the lid and then…nothing. It was an empty box. Weird. No wait! A very small head popped up and my brother reared back like he’d been bitten. That’s how we met Holly, the Christmas cat.

I gave her that name. No one else remembers it that way, just like they don’t remember that I’m the one who named our first boat TipOver I. There never was a TipOver II and TipOver I was kind of a dud, a glorified dinghy with a sail that went missing after bored neighborhood kids took her for a joy ride one summer night (though how joyful could it have been?). Maybe she tipped over that night in the river – fingers crossed – but after that she just hung upside down in the garage.

The thing I remember about Holly that first Christmas is my mom letting her lick runny egg yolk from a pie tin. We had to put her in the basement before we left for my grandparents’ house and the longest Christmas dinner in the history of Christmas dinners.

Every night at bedtime my parents made Holly go in the basement. She wasn’t happy about it and I wasn’t either, but my mom pointed out a nest she’d made in a corner of the basement from old rugs and a purple shawl someone spent a lot of time knitting and no one ever wore. My first instinct was to fluff up the shawl and make the nest neater, but my mom said cats preferred things a little messy.

Holly was allowed to go outside, but the garbage trucks scared her so bad she scratched a cat-size hole at the bottom of the screen to get back inside. My parents flipped the screen upside down and she made a new hole on the other end. She was a fastidious cat and bathed at least daily. She was white with grey striped spots and the face of a tabby. As she got older she got kind of fat, something I now realize happens more or less naturally to all of us.

Here’s where I want to say something hard that I’m not proud of. Once or twice I put a barrette on the end of Holly’s tail to see what she would do. It was one of those cheap, brightly colored plastic barrettes you might see if you happen to look down in a Walmart parking lot. I was old enough to know better and I didn’t dress her in doll clothes or anything like that. It wasn’t innocent on my part. Holly yelped and writhed as soon as I snapped it on and until I took it off.

All I can think of now is that I felt very small then. I used to play school with my stuffed animals and everything would be going swimmingly – Henry the Dog always acing lessons, clearly the teacher’s pet but well earned – and then something would come over me like a flipped switch. I’d tell Wile E. Coyote or Generic Fair Donkey he was an idiot or flatulent or a flatulent idiot. I’d feel cruelty flood my brain, an awful but irresistible release, followed by remorse and lingering fear about who I really was.

Mostly I was sweet to Holly and if she remembered the barrette incident(s?), she didn’t bring it up. By the time I was a teenager, she was well into adulthood and my parents had long since ditched the work of rounding her up every night for the basement. She was free to roam and spent a lot of time in my room. When I left the country for awhile after high school, my parents made a point to tell me she still went in my room every night looking for me, a sharp dagger to my heart.

One of the last times I remember seeing Holly was when I came back drunk from a wedding and sobbed on her fur because I missed her so much but mostly because I was drunk. When my dad called me at college to say Holly was sick and they were putting her to sleep, I had just gotten back from the gym and sobbed again.

I remember Holly’s personality better than a cat my husband and I had for many more years who was just as sweet and personable. It bothers me that I can’t remember more about this other cat. If I concentrate, I can clearly picture both of them, separately, walking towards me with the faint crunch crunch of paws against carpet like boots on freshly fallen snow.

Occasionally I used to pick up Holly and try to get her to look at herself in the mirror. I read once that cats are smart enough to know their reflection is not another cat, but they also show little recognition or interest in their own image. They do not appear to possess vanity or even curiosity in this regard. When I used to look at Holly’s reflection in the mirror, I noticed a dark patch around one of her eyes that I never saw any other time. I didn’t like this dark patch and thought it made her look kind of ugly, but every once in awhile I held her up and looked at it anyway.

Note: neither one of these cats is Holly, but in order to find a picture of her, I’d have to start rooting around the bedroom in the dark for old photo albums and my husband would look madder than these two. I moved on from barrettes to bow ties and Unicorn Horn for Cats but please note these were seasonal/one-time indulgences. 

This was a little freewrite exercise in response to Christy’s December writing challenge, which you can find HERE. Anyone can participate. Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays, everyone!

20 thoughts on “Ghost of Christmas cats

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  1. I absolute love how you take a prompt and give it life beyond the type-set on the page. The details, the nuance – you capture it so perfectly.
    This line gave me goosebumps: “Iā€™d feel cruelty flood my brain, an awful but irresistible release, followed by remorse and lingering fear about who I really was.”
    It jerked me back to my childhood, a fallen bird’s nest, and a remorseful memory about burying the baby birds because I knew they would die without their mama anyway. So many times I’ve wondered if I was a bad person for not looking for the mama longer than what I did.
    Gorgeous, Kristen – absolutely gorgeous.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They might have fed a snake if you’d left them out but I doubt very much that the mother could have done anything if you’d intervened differently. It takes real courage (the opposite of cruelty) to spare suffering. You doing this as a kid doesn’t surprise me but it does impress. We have to carry these things around forever. They’re more or less normal parts of being human, but they’re heavy to lug around.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Birds nests bring such anxiety every spring. On the one hand, I’m always thrilled to see a new one in a bush or tree, but I feel like there’s a 50/50 chance it will end in heartbreak. And I said courage earlier, and I do think it was very brave thing to do (so strong and wise at 6!) but mercy might be a better word and feels the opposite of cruelty.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much! The picture on the right, with the angrier looking cat, is the unicorn horn for cats. It is not a great shot because we were trying to work very quickly. It says on the box “cats love it!” But they don’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kristen I love this post. My grandmother always fed stray cats. I have terrible allergies to cats as a whole and when I would pet hers, I would end up swollen and sneezing. My daughter has my same allergies. We both love cats and would probably have a houseful if we were not allergic. We did have outdoor cats when my kids were younger. We were very good to them, making sure they had their shots and a warm place to sleep in cold weather. I wrote a post a few years ago about the last one that passed away. We were all upset over the loss. At the end of his life I did keep him warm and safe in a room in the house. I couldn’t stand keeping him out doors while he was so frail. Ah, what we feel for our pets.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That shows how big your heart is to show that love despite being highly allergic. Cats are misunderstood a lot, so I’m always happy to meet someone who gets them. Merry Christmas, Joanne! Enjoy the special time with your family, especially your sweet little granddaughter.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I like the possible tension you can’t trust the narrator (not sure if they’re telling the truth) about being mean to the cat. I like the idea of playing with that, good story. Nice to see you’re able to go back there with such clarity, in time. Enjoy your present, your ghosts of Christmas present that is, and all the gifts it brings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That clarity is misleading. I’m fascinated by how two (or more) people can remember the same thing differently. Neither version is wrong, and that’s what I like to remind myself when going back to mine old, unreliable childhood memories. Merry Christmas to you and yours, Bill!


  4. Pretty amazing that a few people have mentioned your writing – the craft as much as the content. You have a gift and it shows here. Like Mama mentioned, I too was intrigued by the line of cruelty flooding you, as if possessed. One day I would love to hear more about that. But regardless, you make having a cat interesting. It’s easy to prattle on about a beloved pet (I love cats too), but you put in a few elements that make me want to read on (plus your fabulous writing). Thanks for this! I loved reading this. Have a wonderful new year, Kristen!


  5. Kristen this was superb. I agree with everyone how sharp and crisp and poignant your writing has developed. You’ve always been so crazy good, but your imagery….wow. I was sitting in the car at the junkyard with you, and putting barrettes on cat tails, and feeling the stab in the heart when Holly looked for you in your bedroom, and then remembering the sound of cat feet on carpet. Geez Kristen! So so good.
    Happy new year my friend! ā¤


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