Paws in new digs

Stretching my afternoon across the park's greenery, I planted myself on the nearest park bench and felt the warm, gusty wind turn my thoughts to autumn tennis and softball. In the distance on a strip of sodded turf, I spotted a tiny creature: wind-blown but pressing on its course, with its eyes fixed on me, it stalked my bench. I stepped toward it and was unwittingly abducted by two almond-shaped eyes.

I had heard about these primitive creatures - Felis catus to be precise - that had been domesticated to lie in laps or to purr discreetly when touched. But the National Geographic magazine was as close as I ever got to a member of the Felidae family, although I always felt that a puma or lynx would make a much more impressive pet than a common-derived alley cat.

But there kneeling in Central Park, I impulsively made a decision to scoop up the scrap of muff-ball fur and take it back to my already cluttered apartment. Who knew that, once dumped amid my jumble, it and its soon-to-be adopted brother would change a disorderly apartment into a cozy home?

Many cat lessons later, I learned that felines are not collectibles to be seated prettily on a mantel until dusted for an admiring eye. Kitties are Orphan Annies, kids with wide eyes, gawky limbs, and hungry howls. They are sly critters perfectly versed in the art of befriending any outstretched hand. But they have no lap etiquette. Their quests for attention at the end of my hard workday are a persistent reminder that perhaps a home needs as much love and attention as do worldly affairs.

Flattery got Roscoe and Dexter where they are today. Roscoe was the Central Park stray that caught my coattail and never let go. Dexter presented a more pitiful picture. Born in an experimental laboratory and somehow escaped, Dexter made me feel vainly outraged and maternal.

When their first hungry cries pierced my morning's sleep, I knew that my independent days were numbered.

Friends tried to smooth my ruffles with ''how-to'' suggestions and with colorful stories. I began to receive kitty paraphernalia: kitty glasses and pot holders and beach blankets and even kitty sheets. Who knew that all too soon those sheets would be bed and blanket to ''the kids.'' I often awoke to a lump of fur roaming around my head until, finally satisfied, it settled in an ear. I thought it a pubescent stage of small cat growth and tried to sleep on. Wouldn't they ever become quiet fireplace fixtures, I fantasized?

I had heard about Morris the cat and his finicky tastes - but peculiar eating habits, too? Roscoe was purrfectly content only in an elevated window-seat, dining as the pigeons fluttered by. I often worried about little Dexter, who inhaled food twice his size. He ate anything, anywhere, including M&Ms (preferably plain), bananas, and a seven-foot palm tree.

I labeled it adolescence and patronized their quaint musical tastes: they reclined with the classical, took cat treks around my walls with rock-and-roll, and chewed the leaves off plants during country and western. Once, having arrived home slightly late for a feeding, I found my stereo on and a favorite rope chair being shredded to their melodic clawing.

Soon I too exchanged kitty quips with those who would listen. But I still clung to the principle that feisty small cats matured into sleeping fat cats who looked better on rockers than in the branches of my sensitive ficus. Home was still a place, and kitties merely mouths to feed.

I became a bewildered surrogate parent with two hungry dependents. When I started a monthly cat-savings for toys (they always seemed to dematerialize behind a couch), I heard myself saying ''the kids need it.'' When I found myself renting a larger car with better rear kitty-viewing, I reasoned that I needed this particular car for the family outing. And then it hit me - Roscoe and Dexter had played cat and mouse with me, they had cornered my heart on a scratch pad and were etching in their names on my family tree.

When they left a recent party for the greater seclusion of a private room, I explained that the kids preferred not to be disturbed and shut the door. I later found them with my electric blanket and TV set on (dont't ask me how), munching a leftover snack (popcorn) while watching the evening news.

I've been captive for nearly two years now. Oh, not by the kitties, but by their sense of home and the atmosphere they've helped create. Love found them, or found me, or found all of us right where we were. Love holds us captive, and their love, like one large Cheshire smile, swallows the uglies of my day with each fluttering purr.

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