Our resident mother cat started to get tough when her kittens reached the tender age of two months. I winced at every cuff, but they soon learned to make wide circles and accepted the state of things. She was still suckling them and at these times displayed care and gentleness, but as the weeks passed the thin line of tolerance became more taut. By the time they were fully weaned their independence needed a wider arena. They and their mother were ready for them to move to new homes and now, five months later, she is still informing us that the one kitten we decided to keep needs more whisker room. Independence is fine the other side of the garden fence, but at closer range it doesn't always show proper respect for the established residents.
It was through the hedge that I myself took the first steps into the other world, the world not encircled by parents and family. I was allowed to take myself to kindergarten next door through a small gap and began to view my family from a different vantage point. Now I realize the inevitable move toward independence is often more difficult for the parent. My mother could easily hear my voice through the hedge and she held to that connecting thread.
Today I can hear the children in the school playground and sometimes think I can distinguish my daughter's voice. During her first few weeks at school I spent a lot of time tidying her bedroom. The window provides a small view of part of the playground, and if I watched long enough I caught glimpses of a bright red hat and green coat bobbing between trees. I have never confessed to her that I took this liberty, knowing she would be displeased I had tried to tiptoe with her into this first phase of independence.
Our tabby sensed clearly when independence should come and pushed her kittens toward it without compunction. Overhearing a discussion about when my daughter and a friend would be able to visit each other on their own, clear comes the memory of those long-ago foraging days. Unencumbered by adults, my friends and I explored the countryside on foot, on bikes, and on horseback. Now for the first time I wonder what my mother felt, what effort of trust she had to make.
I am asked now: ''But when can I take myself to school? When can I go on my own to my friends? How old must I be?'' I make excuses and won't commit myself.
The mother cat watches while her remaining kitten scrambles over the fence for the first time. She surveys it high up in the tree and goes back to sleep. The mewing creature finds its way down, of course. I have resumed teaching again , part time, after some anxious considerations about the effect going out to work would have on my child. But independence must be mutual, just as necessary for mother as for child. To my surprise, she is pleased to have a working mother. Tinges of sentimental regret I felt about her eagerness to step out from my protective circles are less sharp now that my activities have broadened again.
The adult cat deals deftly with her too-playful offspring. She resumes her solitary excursions around the garden and over the fence with no backward glance. The kitten is discovering her territory, exploring farther and finding her way home. She is careful never to get in a situation that is too difficult. For something so small she displays a large amount of sense.