The Second Life of St. Nicholas, The Cat

My attempt to preside over peace between my mom and her mother-in-law's kitty.

The Second Life of St. Nicholas, The Cat

My mother once believed — mostly jokingly, but at some moments more fervently — that my childhood cat Nikki had been sent as an emissary from beyond by my grandmother (her mother-in-law), a devoted cat lover who passed away not long before Nikki sashayed out of her cardboard box carrier and into our kitchen.

My mom is allergic to cats and has always disliked them. While my brother and I carried the kitten around like an infant and dressed her in Halloween costumes, grasped her paws in our fingers and tugged her tail, my mom watched with wary eyes. She referred to Nikki as “that damn cat,” or “fat thing,” if she was feeling charitable. It didn’t help that Nikki was pompous and defiant, stalking the house as if it were her kingdom and all the food in it her rightful spoils. My mom attributed her decision to let us take the cat in to an unfortunate hiccup in judgment.

What first sparked my mom’s suspicions about Nikki was a story from my dad’s childhood.

My dad’s first pet — the cat who’d been the first in a long line of pampered kitties under my grandmother’s care — was also named Nicky. It was short for St. Nicholas, as he’d been a Christmas gift, and he looked very much like our Nikki: thick black stripes, small white chin, M-shaped marking on the forehead.

When asked what he wanted to name our new kitten, my five-year-old brother suggested “Nicky.” (It was changed to Nikki when we found out he was a she.) He’d never heard about the original Nicky and couldn’t give a specific reason for liking the name. After this eerie incident, my mother circled Nikki cautiously, as if poised for the appearance of other spirit-sent signs.

Their tense relationship erupted one afternoon about two years after we adopted Nikki. I came home to the barks of my cousins’ pug (they were visiting for the weekend), tied up in their car out on the street. Meanwhile, our portly cat, usually underfoot or snoozing in the sun, had vanished.

In the living room, my mom lay on the couch bearing four sets of puncture wounds that charted a straight path beginning beneath her knees and ending midway down her shins. The cat and the pug had brawled in the backyard, hissing and snapping around the birch tree. The cat’s blind terror — or rage, my mother believed — had driven her to climb the nearest safe haven: my mother’s bare legs. Nikki, I was told, was now quarantined in the basement.

My mother wondered if the strike was an omen that my grandmother was displeased.

My grandmother was a classic cat lady. She never fostered a colony or dragged wild-eyed strays into the living room— although she might have tried had she lived on a farm instead of in a Philadelphia twin. But her fondness for the species was unparalleled, beginning with her home decor. There were ceramic cats crawling up the trees; clay cats curled in the garden; cat statues batting playfully by the patio. Inside, cat figurines perched on every surface. Her own oil paintings of lounging felines lined the walls. The pink bathroom had a cat-shaped towel rack. She liked to gussy up blouses with a choice rhinestone cat pin, and when someone insulted her cat, she shielded both velvet ears with cupped hands, cooing, “Don’t listen to ’em, hun.”

Her last charge, Tugger, died a couple months after she did. An orange tabby with a wide, imperious face, Tugger reigned over the house from his seat on the ottoman at my grandmother’s feet, flexing his claws into the fabric. As a child, I crouched beside the ottoman and stared at Tugger’s yellow eyes, the diamond pupils sliding from slits to globes and back, as fascinated as I was afraid.

My mom’s fear of the cat in those first few weeks post-mauling was, understandably, palpable. They avoided each other, my mom jumpy at the brush of whiskers at her ankles or mewling at the door. My brother and I worried that Nikki would be sent away, and at the same time we surveyed her tiny, razored talons with a new guardedness.

But Nikki stayed, and she and my mom forged an unlikely friendship. Nikki took to napping by the pool as my mom swam nearby, and sitting under my mom’s chair while she read. My mom hung a few of my grandmother’s cat paintings in the family room, installed a cat flower pot on the sill below the kitchen window and stuck a tabby cat magnet on the fridge. There was no more scratching, except on all the legs of our furniture. And guests are no longer encouraged to bring dogs to the house.