The cat only a child could love

Our daughter, Eleanor, started asking for a cat of her own when she was about three years old. My husband and I felt she was too young for a pet, much less "of her own" (and every parent knows there is no such thing), but we had to be careful. We had to measure our parenting principles against the fact that neither my husband nor I particularly like cats. In fact, if all people can be divided into two groups, as so many claim, a very good divisor might be Cat People and Dog People. We fall squarely into the dog camp. Especially my husband. In fact, he has one foot in the Anti-Cat area.

So we wondered, much as two dark-haired parents might gaze at their tow-headed toddler: How did we give birth to this - Cat Person? We wasted no time or energy figuring out the answer, as we spent the next few years creatively staving off requests for a cat. For birthdays and holidays, Eleanor received various plush toy cats; the book "How to Draw Cats"; Veterinarian Barbie, complete with cat; and a little sweat suit covered with kitties. Then, when she was 5, we said "yes" to our first family pet. We got a dog.

To assuage her desire for her own pet, we all tried hard to forge the tightest bond between Eleanor and Petey, a lovable Wheaton Terrier mix we found at the Humane Society. To Eleanor we enumerated Petey's many catlike qualities. To Petey we allowed that Eleanor's bed would be the one piece of furniture he could be on and that she would be the one to feed him.

Initially, Eleanor was game. But alas, Petey was not. Oh, he loved Eleanor, but since I was the one who was home the most (and the one who reminded Eleanor to feed Petey, which I think he somehow knew) he bonded instead to me.

Given this, and the fact that Eleanor had quickly discerned that Petey's catlike qualities were quite limited, we once again started hearing the feline laments. Every Christmas list looked like this:

Things I Want for Christmas:

1. hugs

2. kisses

3. a cat

4. for no one to be hungry in the world.

(p.s. not nessahsarilee in that ordr.)

We complimented her on her altruism, showered her with hugs and kisses, and made our best guess with other gifts, but still did not get a cat. Then last year, her ninth, it seemed that every nine-year-old we knew had received a cat for Christmas, Hanuka, or Kwanzaa. We should have realized the connection: nine. As in nine lives. As in Eleanor's impending birthday. But we were oblivious and we cruised into the new year confident that we'd established our house as a cat-free zone.

But then, when we were least suspecting it, we entered the Cat Twilight Zone. Two weeks before Eleanor's ninth birthday, we were with my sister picking Petey up from the groomer. Part of the reason we patronize a particular pet-supplies chain store is that they don't sell animals, and instead provide space for the Humane Society to showcase three or four cats and one or two dogs. Basically, it's their "Most Unwanted" list that gets in there, I think.

Neither Eleanor nor I had it in mind to look for a cat that day, or any other. I think she'd resigned herself to waiting until college for cat ownership.

But as we strolled toward the groomer's door, we passed the windowed area the Humane Society uses, and I experienced a double take of almost whiplash proportions. There, in cage No. 4, was truly (and I have witnesses who'll back me up here) the World's Ugliest Cat. I just had to get a closer look. Looking led to holding. Holding led to Eleanor holding. On her face was a look of pure love and acceptance of this bedraggled beast. I weakened. I filled out a "hold" card and spent the rest of the day practicing introducing the subject to my husband.

My sister described the cat thus: "It looks like someone whirled this grayish-white little cat around by its tail, flung it into a raging river, where someone far, far downstream plucked out what was left of it, swung it around again by its tail, letting go only to have the cat fly face-first into a brick wall." (This is why I did not not let my sister tell my husband about the cat.)

That night, I was tactful, diplomatic, and only slightly dishonest. "Well, he's a little scrawny - he's only about five pounds. His fur's patchy. Well, he actually has very little fur at this time. He's part- Persian, so his face is a little pushed-in, and he's missing some teeth. But he's very sweet, and we may be his last chance."

Though he is an avowed non-Cat Person, my husband is an advocate for the downtrodden. He always roots for the underdog. Would he do the same for this lowliest of undercats?

He would, it turned out. We named the cat Albert (as in Einstein, for the unkempt shocks of white hair protruding from behind his ears), and he came to live with us just before Eleanor's birthday. He was, in fact, the sum total of her birthday gifts from us, and she was completely satisfied.

Despite his ratty appearance, Albert, like Petey before him and like so many animals adopted from shelters, seemed to know he'd been rescued. Saved, even. And he seemed to know Eleanor was responsible. His purr rumbled like a lion's as she proudly introduced him to her grandparents, neighbors, friends, the mail lady, the meter reader, the UPS guy, and anyone else who ventured onto our property. Their expressions were all similar: Was he supposed to look like that? But Albert and Eleanor were oblivious. They were in love.

SO, that's the end of the story. Except for one thing. After several months of basking in the glow of a little girl's love and TLC, the cat has metamorphosed. He's grown thick, luminous white fur, accented by silvery points on his head, ears, and tail. He's doubled his weight and tripled his size, the latter by sheer volume of his angora-like fur.

No one can believe it's the same cat. Least of all my husband. He never would have agreed to adopt a handsome cat. But the other day, Eleanor, Albert in her arms, met her father at the door upon his return from work. Father and child hugged, in a cat-filled embrace. I believe they were all three purring.

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