Our first child was born two weeks early, and we still hadn’t bought a car seat. When it came time to bring the baby home, my husband drove around to the hospital door, the nurse handed me the baby, I climbed into the back seat and off we went.
It was a 45-minute drive, over twisting country roads. We stopped once, at a store where I ran in for a nursing bra, something else I still hadn’t bought. I could say we didn’t know any better, and it would be the truth.
It’s also true that we didn’t have smoke detectors, bike helmets were optional, and sunburns were just part of summer. We considered Jell-O health food. We worried plenty, but now, it seems, about all the wrong things. Yet at the same time, in many ways, we were more in control of our lives back then.
My husband could fix whatever was wrong with our pre-digital cars and appliances. I could turn off the TV and that would be the end of the kids’ screen time. And when our daughters — by then there were three — begged and pleaded for a cat, I finally gave in and said we’d go to the pet store. We’d just look. No promises.
In those days, pet stores could be seedy, even shady, places. They didn’t necessarily smell very good, and most people didn’t question where the pets for sale came from. In the very front of the store, the first thing you saw when you walked in was a cage full of kittens. They were doing kitten things — curling into fuzzy spirals, play-fighting, licking their tiny paws with their impossibly pink tongues. The bored pet store guy told my girls. “Sure, you can pet them.” As soon as we opened the cage door, a bundle of black and white fur sprang out into their arms. We were goners.
I handed over $5 and that was that. We strode out into the sunlight, instant pet owners. By the time my surprised husband got home, the girls had named their new kitten Marbles, because of his eyes.
Marbles turned out to be something of a thug. He went outdoors, like most cats in our neighborhood back then, and he defended his territory tooth and claw. He got in brawls with other cats and probably wild animals, too. Once in a while, he’d slink home with a nasty bite and we’d have to take him to the vet. Marbles the Five Dollar Cat lived to a ripe old age, adventuring by day, sleeping on the heater by night. Now, everyone knows you should keep your cat indoors — it’s much healthier for him, not to mention the songbirds. But those were different days.
I’m no fan of nostalgia. I grew up in the ’50s and early ’60s, pre-feminism and pre-civil rights. You won’t get much good old days talk from me. Yet a person can’t live more than 70 years without being astonished at the ways life — or at least how we perceive life — shifts over time. Change, even change for the better, doesn’t always come easy. It can make us cranky, make us dig in our heels. Why not stick with what we know?
I was thinking about all this recently because we’ve decided to adopt a new kitten. The pet store where we bought Marbles is long gone, so I drove to the new one. Just to look, I told myself.
The store is part of a chain, big and bright, with every product imaginable to enhance the life of your mammal, bird, fish or reptile. What they didn’t have, it turned out, was kittens. The cages were empty, and the clerk told me that I needed to register online. The adoption form turned out to be several pages long, asking for personal references and questions about our finances. There would be a home visit, to make sure we qualified as responsible pet owners.
I bristled. What overkill! Nobody quizzed us about this stuff when we got Marbles! Back then, when people adopted pets, they thought they were doing the animals a favor, not the other way around.
The longer I stewed, though, the more I realized how lucky we’d been with Marbles. We got a great cat, and he got three girls who adored him. Nowadays, the adoption system doesn’t rely on that sort of fortuity. It tries to guarantee that every animal gets the good home it deserves. And who can argue with that?
So I will grumble, fill out all the forms and wait. Sooner or later, we’ll bring home a new little guy to pounce on our toes, curl up on the heater, lick his tiny paws with his impossibly pink tongue. We’ll keep him indoors. Maybe we’ll let our granddaughters name him. Some things will be different for sure, but the things that matter most — those will be just the same, or even maybe a bit better.