When my Beloved and I went over to our friends’ apartment to pick up Tessie-cat (then only a Tessie-kitten) in early 1994, we found her cowering behind a couch.
Now, over 18 years later, she still loves couches, but now mostly as a place to sleep, all day, every day. Those of us who are wise in our old age all learn to chill out.
My friend, Dave—not his real name, but the same “Dave” as in the Love-Idiot book— Dave and his bride had brought home a pair of 2½-month-old kittens, both beautiful, jet-black sisters. One they adopted and named Nikki. The other we adopted, and we named her Tessie.
Nikki was curious and friendly, as a kitten should be. Tessie was terrified. Not terrified of any danger in particular. Just terrified. If it’s a jungle out there, she was Monk on 78RPM. I have no idea what had happened in her short life to make her so neurotic. But we had to get her out of there. We cornered her; she growled and hissed at us; she tried to escape, but I grabbed her. Then she tried to scratch my eyes out with her tiny, tiny claws, and I said, “Oh, ain’t that precious! She’s tryin’ to scratch my eyes out!” (Or words to that effect.) I had fallen in love.
I held her like a baby and gently petted her belly hair, and she immediately calmed down. And we became fast friends: Tessie, Margaret, and I.
Cheech was our old cat, old and fat when Tessie was young and tiny. A cinnamon tiger who resembled a basketball more than he did a cat, Margaret had adopted him before we were married, and brought him home with us, separating him from his brother Chong. (Seriously, no joke.) In a traumatic earlier incident, he had survived a collision with an automobile, and it had not made him any less curious or adventuresome. But now with my Beloved and I both working full-time, poor Cheech was spending a lot of time home alone, and we thought he might enjoy a little company. So when we brought Tessie home, the first thing Cheech did was, naturally, to stroll over and say, “Hello. I can afford to be friendly to you, because you’re too small to threaten me.”
Of course, Tessie was having none of that! She hissed loudly, begged him to try and start something so she could rip his eyes out, this black comma of a kitten, who fit nicely into my left hand, challenging a full-grown cat as big as a small whale, who had formerly battled a ton of steel and won.
And Cheech was the one who backed down, but not before getting in a hiss of his own for good measure.
Little Tessie spent the next weeks camping out on our bed. And when we snuggled up under the covers, she did too. She burrowed under the sheet and bedspread, about-faced, and poked her head out from under the covers just like she was a little person. And that’s the way she slept with us, until one day when I accidentally rolled over on top of her.
(And that’s what that pitiful little “mew! mew!” sound was.)
Of course, Cheech also liked to snuggle with us on the bed. But Tessie would not allow him to get any closer than four feet. Poor old cat, he had to take a rain check. After several days, I worried that there would be a permanent schism in the household. But in the fullness of time, he and she finally made peace. They never became soulmates, but they did learn to live under the same roof as close friends.
As we moved from apartment to apartment, expanded our family to include two little (human) girls, Tessie’s character did not change. The day of our first move, she handled it well not at all. We thought she’d adjust to the new surroundings, but she didn’t know how to be curious about change. Instead, she perched herself on top of a door in the master bedroom, and just sat there. She was so freaked out, so high strung. Didn’t eat. Didn’t drink. And when hours turned into days, Margaret and I, worried, took her to the vet, who gave her some IV fluids, and gave us some Valium (to give to her).
That fixed her up right good.
It was worse even than the time we had her spayed. She had come home still high on anesthetic, and the vet had warned us not to leave her alone. And he was right. She didn’t freak out on the ride home, but she also could not walk a straight line.
But under the influence of Valium, Oy vey! Not only did her appetite return, she was now crown monarch of the new house. I had mentioned that she and Cheech had come to an amicable peace. But when he came within eyeshot, boy did she let him know how she felt. No hissing. No growling. Just, “Don’t cross me, you big hairy ball, or else.” That was all that was necessary.
That behavior was the exception that proved the rule. She still hated change, hated things she didn’t know. She handled successive moves more easily. But anytime we had company over, for example, she disappeared into one of her favorite hiding places. Some of our friends didn’t actually believe that we had a black cat, because they only saw the yellow one.
Tessie’s now an old lady, a geriatric cat. And Cheech is gone. She spends most of her time sleeping, and if I’m sitting on the couch, whenever I move, she meows at me gently, for attention, and closes her eyes and purrs as I pet her. She’s still my little girl, still my kitten, even though she no longer fits in my hand.
And she’s mellowed, a lot. She lets my daughters’ friends pet her— actually touch her, with their hands. That’s new. Even just a couple years ago, she would never have stood for that. Now, she doesn’t seem to care. It’s like, she’s seen it all, and there are really only a few things that actually matter: to enjoy life and to enjoy friends. It’s like, it’s just not worth getting upset about all the horrors that others see behind every new development.
Leave that to the youngin’s. Those of us who are wise in our old age all learn to chill out.