No Goodbye: A Cat Story

Five years ago, when the gardener and I adopted Kana, our black cat, I wrote a little bit about my first cat who also happened to be black. I thought I’d tell you the whole story this time. Here is TOBY’S STORY (and I’m sorry, but it’s not a pretty one):

The cat that lived with the Cuban brothers across the street had kittens the year I was seven. My parents had never shown an interest in animals, but because I was an only child and begged so desperately, they gave in and let me choose an all-black kitten.  My mother named him Toby. The only other interest I remember her taking in him was when he had a hairball, and she read up about how to care for cats with hairballs.

Toby spent most of his time hiding under my bed or in the basement.  Mom would tell me to take him outside to go potty, but he would refuse to come out. I had to find him in a dark corner downstairs or slide under my narrow bed and grab him so that he wouldn’t make a mess in the house.  I wonder if Toby and I were afraid of the same things in that house.

I don’t know how I got this pic of Toby in the living room!

One day my mother screamed. “Look what that cat’s done to my drapes!!” I ran into the living room. Tears streamed down her cheeks. The silk drapes had dozens of snags on them. Unfortunately, the drapes were the most elegant furnishing in our bungalow. They were cast-offs from one of my grandmother’s wealthy clients, and she had altered them for my parents.  I realized then that my secretive cat ventured out to the living room when everyone was asleep or not home.

A few months later, we picked up the baby brother I had been waiting for from the adoption agency office. Ted was a 6-week-old infant with a red rash covering his face. My mother hadn’t taken care of a baby for many years, and she became nervous and worried, imagining dangers.

One day that spring, when I got off the school bus, my father met me in front of the house. I was not used to seeing him home during the day. He sat me down and explained that Toby was gone. “Toby had to go away because of your new baby brother.” He told me he took Toby to a house in the country where he could live with more freedom. I don’t remember particularly believing him, but grief welled up in me like bile. Up to that point in my life, the only other serious loss I had encountered was three years before when I accidentally saw my mother cramming my white blankie into the garbage. Later, my mother would tell me, “Cats are dangerous to babies, Luanne. Toby could accidentally smother Ted.” But in those moments after I arrived home, only my father was there for me.

I still feel ashamed about what happened next. To stop my tears, Dad offered to take me to the store right then to pick out any toy I wanted. I had never in my life been able to pick out a toy. A Golden Book, yes, but not a toy. When I did receive something lovely, it was usually a hand-me-down or a gift my grandmother had sewn. We always had enough food to eat, but we were upwardly mobile poor, and my parents never bought me trendy, name-brand toys. While my friends had Barbie dolls, I had a Miss Suzette doll from Grant’s basement.

Although I continued to cry, I followed Dad to the car, and we drove to a fancy children’s store I had only seen from the outside. Once inside, my tears and confusion made it difficult to concentrate. I tried to focus my eyes, and the first item I noticed was a black imitation patent leather Barbie doll case. It epitomized the type of toys I could never dream of owning, so I pointed at it.

On the way home, I clutched the case in my hand, knowing I had betrayed Toby. I had begged to have him, which altered the course of his life. Then I accepted an empty plastic box with a handle in exchange for his silky fur and beating heart.

###

I don’t know what ever really happened to Toby. I think it’s probably true that he went to live in the country because my father knew a lot of people and could have easily made that happen. But was he safe in his new home? That I don’t know. I hope he was happier than at our house. My father yelled too much, and that probably scared Toby. Since he would hide under my bed, I have to assume he wanted me to protect him. But I couldn’t protect him while I was at school. My parents would have never intentionally hurt Toby, but they didn’t make his life any easier. While I think it’s a likely story about Toby going to live in the country, I have never actually asked my parents if that is what really happened.

Alternative end to memory: I asked one of my parents, and he/she lied to me because they know I love animals and freak out about any harm to them.

I really can’t remember. What do you think?

 

63 Comments

Filed under #amrevising, #AmWriting, Cats and Other Animals, Memoir, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing

63 responses to “No Goodbye: A Cat Story

  1. Wow, Luanne. I’m hoping Toby indeed found a wonderful family in the country and lived a long happy life.
    Childhood stories must be universal, right? Because I have a memory very similar to this about my first puppy. His name was Hershey Bar (I was about 8) and he was a beautiful beagle. Long story short, I was very young and the newness of a pup wore off, I’m sure. Daddy came cone from work one day and said Hershey was going to live with one of my dad’s buddies in the country where we could run free on a lot of land. My dad was the most gentle, sensitive, kind man ever, so I believe Hershey was safe. But I still wonder about all of that. And my adult self feels terrible about the indifferent (not sure that’s the right word) treatment of our pets. They were fed and not harmed, but they certainly weren’t cared for and worshipped like my adult self’s cats and dog are/were. I struggle with the memories. My husband assured me that it was a different time in the 60s-70s for pets. I’ve written about our cats and dogs growing up as we had several. Sorry, didn’t mean to write a book here!

    • Oh dear. What a sad story for you to look back at now. Your husband is right. I think our general mindset has gotten kinder toward animals, although being involved with rescue of course I know that there is a LONG way to go. You are making me think about our other pets later on. Maybe I’ll write about those guys, too. They all had their own stories. I think one of the things that I hope parents today understand is that pets are for the family, not the children, and that children should not have sole responsibility for taking care of the pets. It is too much responsibility that spawns horrible guilt because kids are, after all, kids. And it’s not fair to animals. So parents need to oversee whatever chores the kids do that involve animals. And even make up the care and attention if the children don’t do it. OK, I’m done haha. Kind of a pet peeve. In the beginning, when I was around 20 and starting to rescue dogs I made some mistakes that still haunt me today. Times where I second guessed myself about an owner later on and wished I could change my decisions about things. Anyway, Hershey Bar sounds like a lovely puppy. I hope he lived a long and happy life with other people! xo

      • Yes, it’s definitely not reasonable to think most 9 year olds are going to be responsible pet owners. I bet you do have a lot of sad stories involving rescue animals. The adoption center where I volunteered always had older cats there after being given away by owners or owners deciding they were too much work, or whatever. Really, after 10 years you just realized it was work? That never made sense to me. Thankfully, there are many more happy endings.

        • I thrive on the happy endings. I make the adoption calls each month for the cats adopted the month before and sometimes there are less than positive outcomes (FIP in kittens, for instance), but so often they are still in love with their new cats, so that is a good feeling. Some days I get depressed though and think I just hate people because they come up with the lamest stuff. There are a lot of people who have no use (no longer breeders, for instance) for a dog and just tell a helpful neighbor, “just take her–I don’t want her.” But SOOO many kind people coming in the shelter wanting the dogs and cats that really need homes.

  2. Poor Toby. We can only hope that his new life was better. Many times people took them to a farm to be a barn cat.

  3. I think Toby lived a long fine life in the country…except that he always remembered and missed you…

  4. I do hope they were being honest with you, but can understand if they weren’t. My mother didn’t hesitate to tell me she took our dog to be euthanized because he was “vicious.” He wasn’t, but she had trouble with him. We’d flown that dog to the states from Guatemala and loved him so much, but my dad wasn’t around to stop her at the time. That’s how she was and it was something I did not forgive her for for a very, very long time. Made me wonder what she’d really done with our first pet, a cat named Gina.

    • Oh, what a tragic story, Eilene. I can’t imagine. I’m so sorry you had to be put through that. Just awful. I’m glad you’ve been able to make your peace over it. I don’t think I could forgive being told that. Sending hugs!

  5. Did your parents ever lie about anything else to soften the blow? The answer to this question will be the answer to yours.

  6. My first cat disappeared too, and only in adulthood do I realize that it’s possible my parents made it happen. Of course, they’ve never told me.

    • Oh no! Maybe not, though? So many outdoor cats do simply not come home one day. 😦

      • His disappearance was a legend in the neighbourhood – I heard many versions of what happened to him, but in truth, we discovered I was allergic to cats. Pretty sure my parents made him disappear.

  7. This is so sad, and it’s sad that you feel sad and guilty about something your child self could not help. If you didn’t pick out a toy, it would not have brought Toby back. I hope Toby had a happy life in his new home.

    • That’s true. So interesting. From reading the comments here and letting “some air in” my brain on the subject, I now see that responded to that Barbie case so quickly because it was the same color as Toby and approximately the same height. I never, in all these years, thought of that before! Thank you for your kind hopes for Toby! He was such a sensitive little soul.

  8. Oh, this was painful to read because I can so easily relate to your pain and your sense of shame. I grew up in the country and had cats but they had to be outdoor cats which meant they had short lives. I have my own shame-filled memories which I won’t share because I was old enough to know better, not a child. As Merril notes, Toby wouldn’t have come back if you hadn’t picked out a toy. You know you would have preferred Toby. I’m inclined to think you were so hurt, you were going to make sure your parents literally paid for it. I also like to think that Toby enjoyed his life in the country.

    • LOL, I don’t think I thought they would “pay for it.” My brain doesn’t tend to run that direction (that would take longer range planning haha), but I was just telling Merril that from reading all your comments and thinking about this more I now think I chose that case so quickly like that because it reminded me a bit of Toby: black and about the same height. Isn’t that strange? I never thought of it before, but now I can make that connection. Ugh, I’m so sorry about your bad memories. It’s awful how animals plague us with their memories, isn’t it?! xo

  9. I think I’d like to believe Toby went to live with a wonderful family in the country. No one ever told you differently.
    I was reminded of my dog Rocky who was with me in the very early years of my life. One day my father told me he had to take Rocky to the woods and shoot him because he was very sick and couldn’t play anymore.
    I’m not sure which loss affected me the most: the loss of my beloved Rocky or the loss of my up until that moment the unshakable faith in the goodness of my father.

    • I’m so so sorry about Rocky. How that must have hurt. That is the thing that parents haven’t seemed to understand–that how they handle stuff like this is so important to a developing child. They think they want to make the child tough enough to handle the world, but it’s a blow to the parent-child relationship. And I’m so glad that more and more people are realizing that animals have feelings. Years ago, that was a contested idea, as I’m sure you know.

  10. I do understand about how deeply this has affected your whole life. No question that when others make decisions on our behalf, they are not always the kindest. Being left in the dark about Toby’s outcome would leave an irrevocable mark on the psyche of a child into adulthood. You didn’t betray Toby by accepting the plastic box, you alleviated some of your dad’s guilt. Either way, Toby wasn’t coming back and with the toy, your dad didn’t have to suffer too.
    The things we see as children marks us forever. But it does teach us compassion and empathy. So many come into adulthood without those tools and they have my sympathy. You got your lessons from Toby so he did a good job with his one short life. Why is those memories stay with us better than the happy times? I have my share of them too. You did a good job of helping us process through those memories.

    • Marlene, or should I address you as Wise Woman, I LOVE your idea that my father was helped by me accepting the stupid Barbie case. Of course, it makes me feel a little better, but I think it also allows me to really think through something. While I’ve blamed my father for plenty in my childhood (haha), in this case I think he was probably as much a “victim” as Toby and me. My mom was very fragile in those days, and I think it’s likely that she urged him to get rid of the cat. A few years later we had other animals and it was clear my father liked them, but my mother never became an animal person. You’ve inspired me to write about the other pets of my childhood to explore this a little more! And I’ll bet my father did find a home for Toby as a way to “rescue” the kitty. Is it next Monday yet? I’m ready to write my next post! Thank you!!!!

  11. I know we had a dog or two that had to go live on a farm. I know now there was no farm except the one in the sky. But with a fairy tale like this, kids can always believe what they’d rather believe. It’s easier on everyone than telling the truth. Sadly.

    • Ugh, how did you find out? Was it something that just gradually came out in family conversations? Or did somebody let it slip? I think it’s possible that Toby did get to a farm, but only because of my father. My mother probably told him to take Toby to the shelter (Kalamazoo Humane Society was the only one operating, I’m sure). It’s almost as if I can remember that nuance in my father telling me about Toby being relocated. I picked up something in my father’s manner or his words. On the other hand, I could be wrong, and it could all be a fairy tale.

      • I think our parents were trying to spare us, but in our case, I knew that they didn’t know anybody with a farm. I didn’t ask more because I was afraid of the answer.

  12. Since I love cats I believe your dad did take Toby to a farm where he lived out his days chasing mice and having real cream from a saucer every night. Toby lived to be 25 years old and passed in his sleep.

  13. Reading the story of Toby and all of everyone’s comments, I am struck by how lucky my brother and I were with our childhood dog Soft Paws. We begged our parents for a puppy, and she was definitely the family’s dog. My parents made sure she was well taken care of, and my dad spoiled her with people food. When she got old and sick after my brother and I had left home, my parents had her illnesses treated, and they both nursed her. She died in her sleep in her own little bed.

    • May I please have your childhood, Liz?! It sounds idyllic! That is exactly how dogs should be treated–family dog that the parents take responsibility for (in every way), but that the kids can claim as their own, too. Soft Paws was a lucky girl! Thank you for this very sweet story!
      By the way, Faby and company keep popping up in my head all the time!

  14. I think it is better to believe that Toby went to the country, and that very well might have happened. I had the same Barbie doll case!

  15. Amy

    You know I can’t stand sad animal stories. But I did read this even after your warning. My next door neighbor did the same thing to her kids. Her husband died suddenly of a heart attack, and she had never liked their dog, so she “gave it away” to a farm. The kids lost their father and their dog in the space of a few days. My mother also had a similar story. They had to move when she was eleven to an apartment building that didn’t allow dogs. They left the dog with a neighbor, fully expecting the neighbor to keep the dog, but it also ended up on a farm. Or so she was told.

    There’s no point in assuming the worst. Assume that Toby lived a good life on the farm, catching mice and birds and having lots of love, and that he died at the age of 20. Why not?

    • What is wrong with your neighbor?! How awful is that. And your mother’s neighbor! Good grief. I hear this stories all the time through rescue, and it just proves I do not and will never understand human beings.
      I like your vision of Toby’s life! He was such a scared little boy. I hope life was gentle with him.

      • Amy

        Well, in my neighbor’s case (and this was when I was eleven), she was in shock after her husband died and had three children, including a toddler, at the time. I’m sure someone just took the dog because she was completely overwhelmed with grief. It was awful for her kids (she had a daughter my age who was a good friend), but I do have some sympathy for their mother.

        In my mother’s case….who knows…To this day, when my mother sees a photo of Sparky, she gets upset. Thus, when we had a cat who had four kittens and we could only find a good home for one, we ended up keeping the other three—plus the three we already had. People thought my parents were crazy, but my mother never could have taken one of those kittens to a shelter.

  16. Luanne. Your sense of responsibility is absolutely wonderful. I am sure Toby will be in better hands and better environment.
    But one thing far sure, if you committed to take care of Toby, it should have been a commitment well executed, although you were not prepared for the battle with your father, but I wish Toby’s story should have completed on a positive note.

    Looking forward to read more of your amazing blogs.

  17. This is a complicated story. I understand why you feel anguish even after all these years. I appreciate that your dad was trying to distract you from your grief over Toby being sent away. I appreciate that you accepted the distraction yet also could not give up your grief. Maybe you need to write a poem?

    • Thanks, WJ. Yes, he was trying to distract me and was just carrying out my mother’s wishes. I think he probably would have liked to keep Toby. So glad that kind of ignorance about cats is fading.

  18. Luanne, I can see why you are so drawn to cats. Toby’s disappearance must have broken your heart. Even had you not had your father buy you the Barbie doll case it wouldn’t have changed Toby’s situation. ❤

  19. Wow, Luanne, I love your story, though I’m sorry for your loss of Toby… I have a *very* similar story to tell, and now I’m inspired to tell it, also in a blog post! I will credit you for sparking my memory of it! So thank you! ❤
    P.S. – I think the 'taking kitty to the farm' is a common trope used as a stand-in for – something else. In your heart you probably know this, hence the sadness still… 😔

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  22. That must have been awful, having your kitty given away like that. It reminds me of an experience from my own early childhood. We had a little dog named Tax — open the door and in-come-Tax — who barked incessantly, and no matter what we did, he would not stop. Mom and Dad told us they’d found a new home for him in the tiny community my mother was from. Well, the following summer when we visited that community, I saw Tax’s new owner kick him. Heartbroken, I told my parents and cried all day. That’s all I can remember, and I have no idea how or if the poor mutt survived.

  23. Years ago we rehomed a dog to a farm in the country. These things happen. It’s entirely possible your dad found someone who wanted the mice driven away. He probably was a happier cat out of the house of yelling man, fearful woman, and shiny drapes.
    I knew where you were going with the case, I knew you’d have trouble enjoying it. Name brand toys are nothing compared to the love of an animal, especially for you. I’m sorry this was so sad. Release the guilt, you had NO control of the situation. ❤

  24. Luanne, I’m sorry that you had to go through this difficult situation in your childhood, and it is a fact that your mom (and many of our parents) had her own struggles with anxiety and coping with daily challenges. All you could do, as a child, was to love Toby and to protect him as best you could. That he was sent away or otherwise removed from the home does not negate your care and compassion for him, even if you did feel you betrayed him with a toy that your father hoped would take your mind off the loss. It was still a loss, you still did the best you could, as did your father, who was loving you by trying to mitigate the sadness you felt at losing Toby. I really appreciated your telling this story because it helps me review my own childhood losses and to understand a little more that the adults, while they did not do all they should have to protect me, that they were also struggling with their own challenges. As the child I was, and as the child you were, we did our best to love and care for those we wanted to protect, but we were only children, and those decisions were often out of our hands. Thank you, Luanne! – Stay safe! – T