Bernard Spragg. NZ CC
E named the long-haired white kitten Loretta Young after the eponymous TV star of the fifties show. With that name, E meant to project a feline destiny of elegance and proper manners onto her. In many ways Loretta Young lived up to her name, but in one incident, early in the long life she shared with E, she relinquished manners to shift her owner’s life trajectory.
The human Loretta Young had radiated into E’s home every Sunday evening as a spellbound mother and daughter watched from their flowered couch. The family’s cat-eared TV set, typical of the first models, was a coke-bottle thick glass tube set in a Milk Dud brown cabinet. Three large gold buttons marched horizontally across its front like a Studebaker dashboard.
Miss Young was a whirling sashaying dancing vision welcomed into every living room in America. For E it was like seeing her mother, D, luminesce through the television. Miss Young and D shared a common identity. Both were fluent in skin toner, lipstick, rouge, eyeliner, and hairstyles. Both exuded elegance, mystery, and self-confidence. D imperiously handled the hired help and the round Kosher butcher. E watched, and learned, behind D’s skirts as she pushed through the crowd to the refrigerator case in Cecil’s delicatessen to obtain the needed smoked whitefish, pumpernickel bread, and corned beef. Years later, Loretta Young, the white longhaired cat, would embody this same model of the grand feminine: perfect attire, self-confidence, and wisdom.
E woke from an alcohol haze to the sound of shattering glass on the morning of her thirtieth birthday. The night before, her boyfriend, J, and she had partied. Friends were invited. She had slept like a free-wheeling adult child, her unconscious dialed to chill. It was 1978 and she was a single woman with a white cat, substantial career, no mortgage, and no school debt. But the morning of shattered glass funneled her forward into a new maturity.
She lived in a hack-job of a cottage steps from Lake B’s third and shallowest basin located in mid-state Massachusetts. Her boyfriend had found the place. Its appeal for both was its patched together mismatching parts, like a crazy quilt.
Their bedroom was on the cottage’s small porch. It was only a foot wider than their double-thick mattress that stretched between the low hung windows. Summer brought the humid fragrances of mud and rotting grasses. They heard mallards, bullfrogs, and great horned owls. One winter a cluster of cedar-waxwings flocked the juniper berries outside their windows. December nights, like the one of E’s birthday that had just passed, brought the haunted shrieks of shifting ice.
Since the bungalow wrapped around itself like a caterpillar, the bedroom windows offered a clear sight into the kitchen. Sometimes E pretended she was peeping at someone else’s boyfriend lurking in their kitchen. With a practiced dispassion she watched him brew his morning coffee, using the complicated French press his mother had gifted him at Christmas, or crack the refrigerator for his fifth beer of the night. She noted his dishwater-colored hair long and uncut. The ends were still blonde from his days as a California surfer dude. It was usually pulled back in a ponytail for his day job as a contractor.
The morning after her thirtieth birthday marked more than two years of estrangement from E’s parents. Their last conversation, two Septembers before, coincided with the couple’s visit to E’s hometown. On the last day of that visit E’s father invited her to walk around the block. Such invitations were never a good thing. E’s father was not a relaxed fellow fond of leisurely strolls. In fact, he was an anxious vice president of a hardware chain who was rarely separated from his suit and tie. If he was looking for recreation, it usually came in the form of a three-mile jog.
The neighborhood was a dozen houses built on spacious lots configured around an ersatz pond. It was a body of water E could never quite appreciate, even when authentic cattails sprouted at the water’s edge.
“It’s a fake. Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Why must they build more?” she said.
They were circling the family home for a second time when E’s father voiced his intentions. Her father was disinterested in the lake debate. He was happy to have been allowed to buy into the exclusive Minneapolis suburb that had excluded Jews like him a generation earlier. An artificial lake was a small sacrifice to endure for such privilege.
“Everyone wants lakefront property. I want to talk about you and J. Your mother and I don’t think he’s right for you.” he said.
“He put you in danger when you were hiking. He wasn’t prepared and made mistakes. You could have died.”
“We were in it together, dad. It wasn’t his job to protect me.”
Her father was referring to their misadventure in the Wyoming Wind River Reservation where she and J had gotten lost on a day hike. They had almost been forced to spend the night in the woods before stumbling on the trail as the sun was setting. Yes, they had been frightened and yes, they hadn’t prepared well but all had worked out. It had become lore for them.
“Dad, I’m not a helpless waif. It’s both our jobs to keep each other safe. That’s the way it works.”
And just as her father had condemned her very first love, D, a red-headed jazz musician who dressed in tight black jeans tucked into his leather cowboy boots, he had it out for J as well.
Back when she was 17, when D had picked her up for a date, her father had forbidden her to leave the house. He had screamed, “He’s junk,” dismissing him just like he was now rejecting J.
His face had gotten red, spittle flew from the corners of his mouth, his dark eyes lit with anger. E had left anyway when her father had cleared out. She had run down the street and climbed into D’s red Austin Healey. They had a night of shopping, cooking, and making out on his madras covered bed, smoking weed, and talking.
However, ten years later, while walking her suburban Minneapolis neighborhood, her father had been composed, rational. He had amassed his evidence and presented it to E.
“He’s not trustworthy. You should just forget him,” he said, as though she could return J to the shelf, get a refund, and shop for another make and model.
E felt heartbroken. She had wanted her parents to see the qualities in J that she loved. After all, he could fix or make anything. This was unlike her father, or any other member of her family, who were all born with paws for hands. J had a chest of tools he knew how to use. He was ambitious and entrepreneurial. He’d started his own contracting business and had amassed famous Boston clients from sports teams. Unlike her father who worked as a mere VP, a lot in life his wife continually belittled him for choosing. Instead of security, benefits, and a fat salary E’s mother wanted enormous oodles of money that could be made in a solitary business.
Both sides of E’s family were Jewish immigrants who became owners of Midwestern millinery shops. E’s father had decided early to never be his own boss. He recalled the panic he felt as a 9-year-old witnessing his dad’s tears when he came home and handed the store keys to his wife. “Store closed.”
The cause of bankruptcy had been “Too easy with credit. Not a good businessman.” And E had seen how it was a trait passed down. Her father was a marshmallow, despite his bluster. He was tender, kind-hearted, and generous to a fault.
In an alarming irony E realized that her father had judged J for reasons that were only a minor aspect of the reasons J was not the dreamed of future son-in-law, or the husband she desired. Her father had taken a small thing and divined a problem which had its core in larger issues. They had no idea of the real reasons she should forget him.
She had never told her parents about J’s experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs in the sixties. Most vivid of her recall about his experiences was one conversation. He had lived in California during the Haight-Ashbury era, dropping acid, smoking marijuana, and consuming hallucinogenic mushrooms. He had told her, “Some days people were spiders. I would accept that. I would tell myself, ‘Today people are spiders,’ and go out.” This struck E as courageous, but not something she would have liked for herself.
She had also never confided in them about his stubborn refusal of marriage, and all its accompanying pleasures, including shared financial pooling and children. This was a contract E had not accepted lightly and was not her life plan.
On the way back to Massachusetts E shared her conversation with her father.
“My dad doesn’t think you’re the one for me. He wants us to break up.”
“Because we got lost in Wind River. He blames you. He doesn’t think you have good judgment.”
“I knew where we were. We could see the town. If worse came to worse, we could have just walked down the mountain. Are you going to let your parents run your life?”
“It was seven miles. He doesn’t even know about all the other stuff. Like your attitude towards marriage and your overuse of alcohol.”
“I told you from the beginning I was never going to get married again. Once was enough and it only lasted seven months. I’ve never been dishonest about that.”
“I thought you would eventually love me enough to change your mind.”
After the vacation, E and her parents had limited contact. E had spoken a few times with her parents but hadn’t visited since that day. She was at a standstill.
E took the serpentine route to the kitchen after the night of breaking glass. She had to first climb out of bed and scoop her scattered clothing off the scant floor space left over from the greedy bed. She then opened the mullioned glass door, careful not to wake J, and descended five stairs into a large unfinished room he kept as a warehouse for construction materials. She passed through trying hard not to envision the vast living room it could become if they renewed their lease with the house and each other.
She then climbed another set of stairs, a dozen this time, into the oldest portion of the bungalow. She pattered through the small dining room, marveling at the antique cherry drop-leaf table they had bought while on a van excursion through Pennsylvania. She recalled how she and J parceled out who would buy which pieces of furniture and home goods, careful to avoid merging property that would make a break-up more complicated. This had been J’s idea. Initially, when they began living together, they had to both equally love a piece but only one of them would purchase it. Using this method, they built a “home” that could be easily dissembled like color-coded tinker toys. Lately they had made some large purchases together and this had encouraged E to believe they were in it for the long haul.
But if she added up his excessive drinking, unwillingness to move forward with a commitment, temporary nature of their lease, and the waste of five of her best baby-making years, she could feel hopeless, yet she had been unable to move on.
In their small kitchen E found a dozen finely etched, highly valued wine glasses, owned by her, broken into tiny shards on the linoleum floor. The glasses had been left to dry on a towel following the party of the night before. Loretta Young was glancing at the shards with innocent dismay. While E looked on the scene with horror, Loretta Young purred and rubbed her length of long-haired grace upon E’s legs. Loretta Young had forced the moment to its crisis.
Seeing only remnants of her precious glasses set off a reaction. Just as a broken wine glass as the final ritual of a Jewish wedding represents the frailty of human relationships, reminding that even the strongest love can be subject to collapse, E’s broken glassware was the fractured smithereens of a once hopeful relationship. Loretta Young, a dainty careful feline, was sending a message: “Break up with him.”.
E’s decision to leave J was met with continued passivity.
“I’m moving out.”
And then later, “How do you want to divide the things we own?” J said.
“Do you have an idea?”
“Yes, we’ll flip a coin and whoever wins the toss chooses. The other person gets two choices the next turn to make up for having lost the toss.”
“That seems fair. Why are you so good at breaking up and so bad at making a life together?”
“I’m not sure.”
This was confirmation that it was the right move. J was unable to summons the energy to protest. Within two months, E moved away, buying a home of her own. Loretta Young enjoyed her new territory stretched on the boundary of an apple orchard where both chipmunk and mouse populations thrived. Bobolinks could be spotted on fence posts in the surrounding meadows.
Loretta Young was never again responsible for any damage to E’s possessions and lived to a grand 21 years. She died peacefully in E’s arms at the end of a happy feline lifetime.
Elizabeth Rose is a writer and community activist who has published journalism and essays in the Boston Globe, New Mexico Review, Revue Magazine, Truthout, MS Blog Online, GirltalkHQ, Fifty Plus Advocate, and the Worcester Journal. She authored a chapter in Today's Wonder Women: Everyday Superheroes Who Are Changing the World, edited by Asha Dahya (Ixia Press, 2020). She received her MFA in Creative Non-Fiction in 2019 from Lesley University. Rose lives in Massachusetts where she teaches writing. She helped to found a community development organization seventeen years ago in Guatemala called Long Way Home, http://www.lwhome.org.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.