Cat’s cradle: Life lessons from the family game closet

girl holding cat - most special mother's day
Deirdre Malfatto/Stocksy

Of all days, how lucky that this miracle would take place on Mother’s Day. My twin sister, Rebecca, and I, both ten, were kneeled over, crouching down into the family game closet—more like  a catch-all storage depot, really—in our rundown, two-story nondescript tract home in in an even less descript neighborhood of Huntington Beach, where we grew up. Our cat, Herbie, a calico, and still a kitten herself, was giving birth. She made a nest in that closet among the broken jump ropes, deflated basketballs, unstrung tennis rackets, and 20-year-old coats. Those coats belonged to my dad. And since he would never return for his belongings in this house that also used to be his, Dad’s outwear was put to much better use, in my sister’s and my opinion, for this miracle of birth among the mess.

Herbie was still too young to be spayed, and her pubescent dalliance with an alley cat resulted in one more problem that our mom, an exhausted single mother, didn’t have the money, energy or inclination to deal with. The cat’s own birth only a few months prior was a severe, calamitous event. She was left for dead, along with her litter mates, in a taped-up box somewhere outside of Laughlin in the ghastly early summer heat, before a friend of a friend found the wretched lot and brought them home. My mom agreed to let us keep Herbie only because she was too tired to argue against it. Rebecca and I both obsessed over that cat from the moment we brought her home. And, because we didn’t have cable or game consoles growing up, Herbie was our primary source of entertainment after school and on weekends, at least until Sally Jesse Raphel came on the local broadcast television, followed by Donahue, and our attention turned to more mature matters.

All our familial snags set themselves aside that glorious Sunday afternoon, that most special Mother’s Day, when one, two, three, and then, finally, four tiny kittens, the size of an eggroll, or a small pair of socks, entered into the world, one by one. The blood, the membranes, of each were a beautiful and wretched sight to my sister and me, living in a house where shame hung like funeral drapes, and nobody talked about things like ovulation, menstruation or impregnation. But the membranes, the kittens, left little to be denied about the cause and effects of the birds and the bees. Whatever matters of adulthood  we didn’t learn from the afternoon talk shows, we learned from the cat.

Rebecca and I remained crouched in that closet for hours that Mother’s Day as Herbie expertly licked, massaged, nursed and cleaned each new life. The carpet stains, barely noticeable remnants that didn’t come up with the Pic N’ Save carpet powder, would remain in the game closet, along with the headless G.I. Joes, random Parchesi pieces and broken jump ropes, for as long as we lived in that house. And every time I opened that overstuffed closet, struggling with doors that were forever off their tracks, I would see those remnants and remember that day with wonder.

I’ve been a mother for thirteen years now, and each of those Mother’s Days have been very nice, most especially my sons’ lavish breakfasts in bed, served on teetering trays, and the ultimate display of love, a hand-painted macaroni noodle necklace, that I wear with pride. No Mother’s Day, however, can ever match the magic and the miracle I witnessed in that closet 30 years ago.