Just who first provided my nephew John with that stuffed-animal kitten remains unclear to me. Little John must have been no more than two or three years old - old enough to speak, if a little indistinctly.
It was clear to us all that the kitten's name was ''Furry,'' but that wasn't quite how he said it. It was something between ''Phooey'' and ''Fuwwy.''
Furry was small and white, with a blue ribbon tied around his neck. There may never have been a kitten, real or stuffed, so well loved as this one. Wherever John went, Furry went. Waking or sleeping, John kept the kitten within reach.
After a year or so, the poor toy was on the verge of disintegrating from too much love. And that's when my mother - little John's grandmother - asked if she might have the little pet to herself for a few days, and she'd get him a new ribbon and a new coat.
Happily, nephew John agreed to this. And my mother proceeded to buy a replacement cat - identical in all respects. ''Furry'' returned to the loving care of its master with fresh, clean fur and a new ribbon around its neck.
It is still fairly easy, more than 30 years later, to recall the sparkle and smile in the eyes of that little boy, enchanted to find his familiar, worn-out cat restored to new life. There was never a minute, apparently, when the gentle deception was suspected in the least. The new cat was just the old cat. He was still plain old Furry.
But that was not the end of this tale.
The wear and tear of non-stop loving began to take its toll again. The new Furry began to look more and more like the old Furry. And so, after another year, little John's grandmother made the same generous offer: Leave Furry in her care for a few days, and she'd see to it that he got another new coat and new ribbon.
I'm just assuming, but I would guess my mother had checked with the toy department and knew that a second replacement was possible. A third stuffed kitten, at any rate, was soon forthcoming; and the result was the same - wild-eyed delight on the part of a small child, infinite satisfaction on the part of several grown-ups who were ''in the know'' about the secret switch.
Furry was such a popular companion for such a long time that a fourth and fifth replacement followed. I have a suspicion, as I think back on it, that the ribbon around the neck changed colors once or twice. But little John never seemed to mind.
Many years later, after little John had become big John with a family of his own, I undertook an attic cleaning with my mother. In a cedar chest were several identical cardboard boxes, each one containing one of the worn-out Furries. My mother hadn't been able to throw away the retired cats, each of which had so obviously been loved to pieces. There they were, each preserved in the box that had contained its successor.