My Dad remarried six months after my Mom died and, a year later, we moved to a bigger house. Some of my Mom’s belongings migrated to the new place and as years passed, I discovered what she left behind. In my Stepmom’s jewelry box, I found bracelets I remembered my Mom wearing. In the bathroom was her half-used bottle of Rose Milk lotion, and on the kitchen counter, a box of recipe cards in her slanted writing. I was six years old and was comforted by these items.
My biggest discovery happened when I went looking for Christmas presents in my parents’ closet and found my baby book, stuffed with congratulations cards and a single faded photo of a baby taped to the front page. I laughed at my bald head with a pink bow. My date of birth was filled in as June 7th but the “Baby Comes Home” blank was filled in as August 13th. I saw my Mom’s handwriting in the margin, “Katharine came home in a King County Hospital kimono, and very hungry!” I didn’t like knowing I had been hungry, or in a county hospital, but a kimono sounded fancy. I wondered whether there had been other babies sleeping next to me, or if I was alone. I imagined a nurse feeding and changing me for two months. I knew I had been adopted but I thought they brought me home right away. I jammed the cards that had fallen out back into the pocket sleeves and put the book away. I never asked any questions and no one mentioned my poking around, just like no one said a thing when I slipped one of my Mom’s bracelets into my room, and years later started to wear it.
While housesitting for my parents in my twenties, I found the baby book again and decided to take it home with me. I began reading bits and pieces of what my Mom had written, usually around my birthday. This year I would be turning fifty-one and between futile attempts at online dating, and the enforced isolation of a pandemic, I was berating myself for having ended up alone. I tried to envision how I wanted the coming year to be different and, instead of a dating app, I opened “Petfinder”, where I scrolled through pictures of animals waiting to find homes. When I saw that I could sort by “Longest Time at Shelter”, my interest grew.
A woman stood next to the heavy iron gate, motioning for me to drive through. I watched in my rearview mirror as she shut the gate behind me, while I parked on a patch of dead grass. After introductions and small talk, I asked her, “Where is he?” The woman pointed toward a shed. “Been in there a year, but it’s heated,” she said, “Go on in, see what you think.”
I approached where he lay on a big cushion covered with a purple fleece blanket and extended my hand. He pushed himself up to a seated position and I began to stroke his head, he pushed his chin against my hand, and I felt the vibration of a purr coming from under his chin. Eight years had passed since I lived with my former fiancé and his son, along with our sixteen (at last count) Koi that swam in a deep pond behind the house. That was as close as I had ever come to fully committing myself to any person, place, or thing. I was devoted to my independence.
When I was twenty-nine, I landed a temporary position at a growing company. After a year, my boss offered me a permanent position but I turned it down, citing all the examples of how it would cramp my style of “living untethered”. She would not have it– “I’ll add in an extra week of vacation, take the job. You can always quit,” she demanded more than stated. Grateful for her insistence, a few years later I was spending my three weeks paid vacation in Peru and contributing to a 401K. As for committing to people or animals though, I defaulted to my usual solo existence, surrounded by loved ones...but at arm’s length. A few years before my engagement broke up, when I was thirty-nine, my brother had suffered a seizure he did not survive. These losses continued to eclipse the original wound; that I had been given up for adoption by my biological Mom.
The details of my adoption are fuzzy but I was able to obtain my original birth certificate, which was identical to the amended one I had seen in my baby book, except for one section. In the place for “Name”, the original used my biological Mother’s last name and read: “Girl, Wanderer”, while the amended one showed the name my parents gave me: “Katharine Harvey”, Katharine was my adoptive Mom’s middle name. So, I had stayed true to both my maternal names but I had come to a point at which my wandering was getting the better of me.
I knelt on the floor and watched the cat move from the cushion to circle around me. The Petfinder profile listed him as a ten year old tabby, over thirty days in a shelter and in foster care for over a year since, with the comment: “Friendly, but will do best in a home with no other pets, children or noisy surroundings.”
“Why do you think he was given up?” I asked his foster carer when she came to check on us.
“We never get the whole story,” she answered.
Leaning in, I met the cat’s eyes. He did not retreat. “I’ll come back for you, okay?” I said.
He sniffed my forehead and the wet around my eyes where tears were pooling.
“I’m going to come back and get him, I just need a couple days to prepare,” I told her.
I called a good friend as I drove home and shared my reservations about whether to return.
“What if I want to travel again?” I wondered, “What if he’s actually sick and dies?”
“He lives in a shed, right?” she replied, “Anything you give him will be better and any time you get together will be worth it.”
I thought about my Dad paying for me to get braces on my teeth, family trips to Hawaii, winter nights when we read The Hobbit as a family, about his sound advice telling me to spend my money on experiences instead of things, about learning to keep a positive attitude from my Stepmom, which gave me tenacity. After my parents brought me home, I was given the basics, plus a whole lot more. I never wanted to measure the quality of a person or an animal’s life in terms of “how bad it could be otherwise”. Two days later I pulled up to the gate, which was already open this time. Fifteen minutes later, my new cat and I were on the highway home.
“Sweet boy, what are we going to name you?” I thought aloud from my couch while watching him sniff around the perimeter of my apartment. We had been home two days and he was already eyeing my floor to ceiling bookshelves. Jumping onto the second shelf, he began to sniff at the book bindings. I looked at the titles alongside him, Lonely Planet Guides for half a dozen countries, travel memoirs, books I’d bought in Spanish but hadn’t yet read. He used the spine of “Residence on Earth” by Pablo Neruda for a good chin scratch.
Finding a haven in a warm, welcoming place is finding home. When we find this safety and warmth with others, that is the basis for love. As I make my home welcoming to Pablo, I watch his trust grow. After a month he graduates from sleeping on a dining room chair to curling up at the foot of my bed. Two months in, he nudges me to get room on his favorite pillow. This afternoon, he is curled up by my feet on the couch, the sun streaming in, turning his brown stripes a coppery hue. I feel him stir and anticipate his leap to the floor. Instead, he rises and stretches his body out long before pushing the length of himself snug against my side.
“The sun shines just for you.” I say, stroking his warm fur. We have given each other the basics, and a whole lot more.
Katharine A. Harvey is a Seattle based writer. Professionally, she manages translation projects. Personally, she loves to hike with friends and hang out with her cat, Pablo.
She has lived in Mexico and her blog Americana Mexicana (wordpress.com) details her passion for experiencing everyday happenings, everywhere else.