A Stray Sneaks Into the Family's Hearts

'Mama, come see the darling little kitty,'' my six-year-old daughter, Carol, called through the back screen. I went to the door, and she held a ball of black fur toward me. I knew that the neighbor's cat had given birth to a litter and that the children had visited the kittens every day.

''Can we keep it, Mama?'' three-year-old Max asked. ''Can we? Huh, Mama? Please, Mama?''

''Now, both of you know better than to ask us to keep a cat,'' I said. My husband and I had agreed when we got married that we would have no house pets. He refused to sit on a couch or chair after he had seen a cat or dog on it, for fear of getting hair on his pants. And I thought that only careless housewives allowed animals to contaminate a house with animal hair. Our children had been told our rule regarding pets.

''But, Mama,'' Max said, starting to cry, ''they gave all the others away, and nobody wants this one 'cause they said it's ugly. And it isn't ugly, is it, Mama?''

The kitten was, in fact, very ugly. It had short rusty black fur, narrow green slits for eyes, and a skinny, snake-like tail. ''Of course it isn't ugly. But we can't keep it.''

With her chin quivering, Carol said, ''They said if nobody wants it, they'll drown it.''

''Oh, they wouldn't do that,'' I said.

''Yes they will, Mama,'' Carol sobbed. ''They said they'd put it in a sack with a rock and throw it in the Chena River.''

''Don't let them drown it, Mama,'' Max howled, tears pouring down his face.

The thought of even an ugly kitten being thrown into the swift Chena River that runs through the center of Fairbanks, Alaska, sent a pang of pity through me.

''Oh, don't cry. We'll ask Daddy.''

The minute Glenn stepped through the door, the children descended on him with the tale of drowning, accompanied by tears. He was trapped into saying, ''Well, OK. You can keep the kitten, if you promise to keep him on the back porch and never bring him in the house.''

They promised.

I lined a grocery box with an old sweater and put it on the porch, and that's where the kitten stayed. Until bedtime.

''Mama,'' Carol said when we kissed the children good night, ''we can hear the kitty crying.''

''He wants his mother,'' Max said.

''Can't we bring him in at night, Mama?'' Carol begged.

''Just at night, Daddy?'' Max coaxed.

Glenn and I looked at each other, remembering that temperatures sometimes dropped to 50 degrees below zero in Fairbanks during the winter and that the kitten would have to be indoors eventually.

''Well, OK,'' Glenn said. ''We'll bring the cat's box in the house if you promise to keep it under the sink in the kitchen.

They promised.

We put the box under the sink, and the kitten stayed in it. For two days.

Then the children pleaded to take the kitten in the family room with their other playthings.

''Please, Mama. It's no fun in here without the kitty.''

''Well ... OK, if you make sure the cat stays in the box.''

They promised.

After a few more days, the children wanted to hold the kitten on their laps while they sat on the couch or chair. ''Please, Daddy?''

''Go ahead, but see to it that the cat stays on your lap and off the furniture.''

''We will, Daddy.''

The next week, they begged to take turns having the kitten sleep on their beds. ''Please, Mama.''

''No, and that's final!''

''But, Mama, he's lonesome in the kitchen, and we're lonesome in the bedroom without him.''

Well ... after all, what harm could there be in letting a clean little kitten that had regular baths sleep on top of a child's quilt? ''OK,'' I said, ''as long as you never let it under the bedcovers.''

''We won't, Mama.''

So the kitten became a full-fledged member of our family. Glenn and I stopped setting rules about where he could or couldn't go, and he wandered through the rooms whenever he chose and curled up wherever he pleased, mostly on the couch or in a chair. Without a word, Glenn brushed black hair off his pants, and I silently vacuumed black hair off the carpet and furniture. Before long, the kitten slept under the blanket with one of the children. Glenn pretended he didn't see the cat curled up in bed with a child, and I pretended I didn't see black hair on their sheets.

The older the kitten got, the more he looked like an alley cat. When spring came, he developed alley-cat traits, wanting to prowl around all night.

He may not have been beautiful but he was smart, for he learned to go in and out of the house by himself. He would push the screen door open with his paws and slip out before the door slammed shut. When he came home, he opened the screen with his claws and slipped back into the house.

''Well, it sounds like the cat's home,'' Glenn would say when we heard the screen slam during the night.

That homely black cat changed our attitude toward keeping house pets. We left Alaska the following year, and as the children were growing up, they had several cats, a dog, a parakeet that was allowed to fly through the house for several hours a day, and even a chipmunk that escaped from its cage and had the run of the house, leaving tracks everywhere. To earn a poultry-raising merit badge in scouting one spring, our son kept 25 baby chicks under a heat lamp in his bedroom. Glenn and I were careful not to set house rules that were certain to be relaxed or broken.

The one rule Glenn did make - and enforce - was that never again, under any circumstances, was an animal to share a bed with a human.

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