Puppy love, kitty love

"What would you like for breakfast, Kathleen?"

"Oatmeal and a puppy."

This exchange, a few days after my daughter's eighth birthday, made me realize that her campaign for a pet - on-again, off-again since she could first lisp, "Doggie? Me?" - was back on, full force. So I made a bargain. I told Kathleen that her father and I believed a child had to be at least 10 to take on the responsibilities and duties of pet ownership.

We would consider moving up that day to age 9, however, if she would not ask for a puppy again until her ninth birthday.

I thought I was so smart, ensuring myself a year of no whining (about puppies, at least).But, like a lovesick adolescent who finds any excuse to mention the object of her affection, my daughter took to unsubtle stratagems: "You know that thing I'm not supposed to ask for? Well, if I did get one, could it be the kind I saw on TV?" Or, "I know I'm not supposed to say the 'P' word, but Megan - who is the same age as me, you know - just got a really cute one."

Then, in a move worthy of Solomon, Kathleen suggested that we could go ahead and get an "animal that starts with the letter P," because it could technically belong to her older sister, who was already 10.

"Elizabeth can walk it and clean up after it," she explained, "and I'll feed it and play with it." Neither her sister - nor her parents - took that deal.

As the year passed - so slowly for her, so quickly for me - Kathleen found other ways to assuage her longing. She read bagfuls of library books on dog breeds and care, followed the Crocodile Hunter's exploits on cable TV so faithfully that she picked up an Australian accent, and added picture after picture to her gallery of cute "P" photos, cut from magazines and taped onto the wall next to her bed.

In February, Kathleen's ninth birthday finally arrived. "We'll go to an animal shelter the first Saturday we can," I said.

But watching my neighbors step cautiously on icy streets and fumble with plastic bags in gloved hands as they walked their dogs prompted me to suggest Plan B.

"How about a kitten, Kathleen? They're not so much work - and aren't they cute?"

To my surprise, she agreed. My craven diversionary tactic had an unexpected bonus, for every shelter we called told us to call back in late spring, "kitten season."

The delay was just enough time for my easygoing husband to reveal a hitherto-undisclosed prejudice against - no, make that outright dislike of - cats.

Finally, after much discussion, we came to a decision as the school year ended. After our August vacation, we'd go back to Plan A, with a slight modification: We would look for a fully grown, housebroken (we hoped) dog from a shelter. Then we'd have time to train it - and me, the resigned walker/scooper - before school began.

But events intervened, with Plan C. As my husband read the newspaper on our front porch one Saturday morning, an orange-and-cream tabby walked by his chair.

Then the cat jumped onto his lap - and began to purr. What a clever cat, I say. My husband immediately forgot his feline aversion and began a "Can I keep him, please?" campaign of his own.

We asked around. The cat was a family pet that had been abandoned when the family moved. Once Montrose (my husband named him) was cleared by a veterinarian, we happily invited him inside.

And how is Kathleen, the child who so desperately wanted a puppy, taking this turn of events?

She seems to have decided, like many a veteran of puppy love, that the real thing - even if the loved one isn't quite what you imagined - is better than you dreamed.

At breakfast the other morning, we joked that God had sent Montrose to our porch so that his "Daddy" could overcome his prejudice against cats.

"No," said Kathleen, suddenly serious. "He came to answer my prayers."

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