A Slow Arc Toward Sweetness

by Olga Ronay

In the photograph, you can’t help being drawn to the kitten in the foreground, soft white and grey fur, bands of darker grey like a necklace, bracelets, many-ringed tail. Ears pivoted forward—alert. Ears that would fit better on a grown cat. The left paw is raised slightly, a most tentative of greetings. The eyes are tentative, too—big, clear, and colored that luminous blue that nature gives to kittens to protect against being thrown into a burlap sack and drowned.

It’s easy to overlook the other kitten, the one in the background—only its face peering from the cover of a rhododendron branch. Appears to be a grey tabby like the first, but smaller, with more subtle stripes. The eyes are blue, too. A ring of white highlights each eye, heightening the look of fear.

The kittens are standing on a wooden deck, looking toward the camera. At the bottom left of the photo you can see a corner of yellow wood—the frame of a door. The kittens are looking in through the glass. I am looking out. I’ve never seen these kittens, but I know who they are.

There had been a cat hanging around, a grey-brown tabby, thin and mistrustful. I had been shooing it off; we already have a cat. Then one day my friend and I are eating our lunches at the picnic table and the cat jumps up and onto the table, catches a chunk of roasted potato in its teeth and runs off. We look at each other. That is a hungry cat! Dan is Irish, I am Russian. We are potato-loving people from potato-eating stock. Given a moment to reflect, the cat might have chosen the sausage instead of the potato. But the cat didn’t reflect, it just acted.

We are taken by this potato-eating cat. I get some of my cat’s food and put it in a bowl for the hungry cat.

Now I go out and buy more cat food. Nursing is the most energy-demanding stage of a cat’s life, I learn online. Nursing cats have two to six times the energy requirements of a healthy adult cat. I buy the kind of cat food made for mother cats and kittens. I start calling the cat Lily. She seems a thin, wild reed, appearing at the end of spring. I think the name is pretty.

In the photograph, two children are standing on a beach. Not a beach-ball-and-ice-cream-truck beach, but a rocky shoreline, the high-water line marked out by dark sticks and clumps of seaweed. It’s hard to guess the time of year; both children are wearing shorts, but also sweaters. The sweaters are heather grey with intricate patterns at the neck, wrists, and hem. They look handmade. It’s overcast and windy—the girl’s gossamer hair is blown into her eyes. She looks to be six or seven. The boy is smaller. His hair is even more blond, almost white. He is ten paces behind. He wears silver gauntlets on his hands and a helmet, like a knight might wear. A plume of red sticks up on top. The children are facing the camera, but not looking at it.

I have seen this photograph many times. It’s in an album my mother made for me. The album is big, with a black leather cover. The leather is smooth and raised up a bit, like a pillow. Inside, the photos are arranged on thick sheets of sticky paper, covered with a layer of clear plastic. On the first page, a newborn baby sleeping on a bed. Black and white, with a note written in blue ink: Oak Park Hospital 1960. Next to it a picture showing two rows of hospital cribs, each holding a baby. An arrow points to the first crib in the left row. A few pages later another baby, lying in a bassinet. Leaning over the bassinet is a little girl with a joyful smile. Next page, the little girl with a big smile, a red kerchief framing her round face, the top of a butterfly chair sticking up like green wings at her shoulders. The photos vary: small and big, edges scalloped and straight, some colors vivid, others faded or sepia. On some photographs the colors have bled together—water damage from a leaky roof, but they look melted, distorted like a carnival mirror.

My mother was in art school when I was born. Many of these photos were taken with a camera my father had given her, an Olympus PEN that he bought while in Japan on business.

Lily won’t let anyone touch the kittens but otherwise seems willing to make the lodge her home base. I see the three of them napping in a sunny spot behind the garage, or in the boxwood bushes around the porch. Often I can’t see them but can hear them rustling around in the dead leaves under the porch.

I can’t touch Lily, either; she won’t get that close. I’m working on that. I sit on the porch steps, her food bowl near me. She circles, comes closer, not quite. I slide the bowl out a few inches, and a few more, till we find the distance she can bridge for today.

The kittens are growing. They’re steadier on their feet now and soon they are eating out of the cat food bowl, too. I sit close by, watching them, enjoying the warm summer air on my skin, listening to the crunch of kibbles. The bigger, darker kitten is the most confident of the three. I stretch out my arm to touch it, but it ducks my hand. Not today.

The photo of the children on the beach is about halfway into the album, after the christening by the long-bearded Russian Orthodox priest, after the red Chevrolet with wide whitewall tires and dapper older man behind the wheel—my mother always tells me that’s my grandfather, my father’s father, nagypapa in Hungarian. And after the many variations of baby—sleeping, holding a bottle, pulling up on the crib rails to stand. Taking tentative steps, wearing blue sneakers and a white baby smock, tiny ponytails held in white, bow-shaped clips, steps steadied by a hand that I would recognize anywhere, my dear babushka, my grandmother.

What’s especially striking about those early photos are the child’s eyes, round and blue. You don’t notice this so much when the child is laughing, as she often is. Laughing, the eyes crinkle in the corners, sometimes nearly lost in a squint. But when open, pensive, they are big, blue, bottomless. This has not been lost on the photographer: there is one photo where two images have been blended, the baby’s face and the girl’s face, the eyes exactly the same.

There are more photos after the one on the beach but they come in spurts, with gaps between. A girl with the round face of a pre-teen, wearing a long, flowered dress, her toes curling around a bentwood rocker. A young teen, perched on a mini-bike, looking tough in a T-shirt and motorcycle helmet. Then a young woman who fills out a bikini, in equipoise behind a screen door, the expression on her face clouded by the rain on the screen.

We move in a comfortable rhythm that summer, Lily, the kittens, my friend Dan, me. My husband John and I have moved out of the lodge and into our new house just up the hill, so there are no other cats at the lodge to worry about. The kittens have a lot of personality, but no names. Once they’re old enough, we plan to take all three cats to be spayed or neutered, whichever is appropriate, and adopt them out.

My friend Sandy comes by, lifts up the kits’ tails and tells me they’re both males. The next time she visits she brings a pet bed lined with faux sheep fur. The kits take to it instantly. Sometimes Lily joins them in it.

The kits have also taken a liking to the rattan settee that’s on the porch. I have endless photos of them lying on it, circled together, stretched out long, sitting attentively like sphinxes. I can sit on the settee with them now. They purr when I pet them, sometimes rolling over and showing me their bellies. Both of them have pale bellies with dark stripes. On the smaller kitten, the stripes break up into spots. I find a picture of an African Wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica, an ancestor of the domestic cat. It’s the spitting image—could be his father.

Lily does not lie on the settee with us. She wants to, but she just can’t. She has let me touch her a few times, briefly. Once she licked my toe. And she brought me a chipmunk. When I didn’t eat it quickly enough, she took it back.

Lily has made peace with the passage of strange people through the lodge; she makes herself scarce, but does not run away. Dogs are another thing altogether. When she hears a dog or a coyote she freezes, makes a low growling sound and spirits the kits off somewhere. I’ve tried to find them, checking under the shed, in the barn, along the creek path, calling them with the sound I learned from my mother, kss-kss-kss-kss. Sometimes they don’t come back for days.

The county animal shelter is having a spay-and-neuter clinic. I ask my husband to go register the cats. He comes back with the paperwork.

“I had to give the kittens names,” he says. “Otherwise they couldn’t be registered.”

“What did you name them?”

“One is Homer and the other is Hector.” John is a classical scholar. All our cats have had names from Greek and Roman history. Homer is no surprise; I know that’s one of his favorite poets.

“Remind me about Hector,” I say.

“He was the great hero of the Trojan War,” John says, and tells me the story.

“Which one is which?”

He points to the bigger, darker kitten, the one that first came to the door, the one that first stretched over to me to be touched. “That one’s Homer.”

That makes the other one Hector. The small one that hisses when taken by surprise, covering his fear with bravado. I tell John he’s got it backward.

We have been strategizing for weeks about how to actually get the cats to the clinic. I might be able to pick up one of the kits and get him into a cat carrier, but by then the jig would be up, the other two would be going nuts.

We decide we’ll spend the night in the lodge. The cats have been coming in and out of the lodge, even sleeping on the sofa, but they don’t stay long if we’re not there. We’ll put the cat carriers in the bedroom a few days early so they get used to them. In the morning we’ll close the bedroom door, put treats in the far end of each carrier, and when the cat goes for the treat, swing the door shut.

I wake up a lot that night, poking through the dream-fog to remember where I am, and why. The kits are sleeping on the bed, Lily on an armchair. I worry that this won’t work.

The kits are lively in the morning. They hear the treat bag crinkle and follow its siren song into the carriers. Even after we lock the doors on them they don’t seem to be upset. We throw in a few more treats.

Lily is under the bed. I reach for her but she swipes me hard. A line of blood wells up across my wrist. I call the shelter. We have to load them on the van by nine, but if you can get her to Asheville they will be able to do the procedure. I call Dan to see if he can come over and help with Lily, then I put the kits’ carriers in the car. When I get to the shelter, there are a dozen cages lined up outside. They put Homer and Hector in a separate section. Tags on their cages say *** FERAL *** in big letters.

They are not even four months old.

What drives a person to suicide? A young woman, let’s say, with two small children that she must love.

Let’s say she is travelling abroad, staying a few weeks with her friend Godelieve in Belgium. She last saw Godelieve when they were teenagers, before her parents emigrated again, this time to America. Godelieve has a child now, too. The children get on together; the mothers have time to talk and explore—Godelieve’s farm with its ducks and cows, the village, the beach, where concrete bunkers were left behind from the war. In Bruges they chat with the old ladies wearing traditional bonnets and selling lace.

Her husband is back home at work but will join them later. She has someone to help with the children, a student whose father works with her husband. She will pick up a car in Paris, a red Renault, and drive it to Denmark, where a friend has offered a summer house on a remote fjord.

Let’s say she makes a phone call to her husband, at home. Let’s say a woman answers the phone. The woman says she is living there while she has her baby. Let’s say her name is Manuela.

Her husband says Manuela just needed help and he is helping her. It’s not his baby. What’s the problem?

Her husband flies to Denmark. This time there is no hitting—only “talking.” The children are sent to their room so the parents can have their talks. This goes on for days.

The children come to dread the word “talk.” It will be years before they can talk about anything.

By the time I get to the clinic with Lily they are deep into the work. There are cats lying on blankets all over the floor, motionless. It’s quiet and cold. I start to panic, seeing all these dead cats. And then my mind puts the pieces together in a different way: there are people wearing scrubs and surgical masks. A woman takes Lily, talking to her in a comforting way.

All three cats come back okay but it was more complicated for Lily—seems she was pregnant again. She will have to stay inside for a week to recover. We fit out the back room for her. She does not fight.

I remember a few things about the trip back from Denmark. Our father took us back on a plane. I remember feeling sick and vomiting. We stayed in a hotel in New York. My brother and I were awake in the middle of the night, jumping up and down on the bed. It didn’t feel like nighttime. Our father tried to calm us down.

When we went back home, we didn’t stay at our house. We stayed in an apartment with our father. He got us ready for school, then, I guess, he went to work. He brushed and braided my hair, as my mother had done, but it took a long time and hurt sometimes when he’d brush through a knot. I didn’t complain. At night he played records. Don’t sleep in the subway, darling; don’t stand in the pouring rain. Petula Clark.

When you're alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go downtown…
The lights are much brighter there
you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
so go downtown
Things will be great when you're downtown
No finer place for sure downtown
Everything's waiting for you.

I’m not sure how my mother made it back. But there’s the photograph: the four of us around the dining-room table. The table is teak, Danish modern. It’s someone’s birthday. Maybe mine. No one looks happy.

I would have been seven. My parents will split for good in five years. For a few years I won’t speak with my father. We will never really talk.

My father was married five times. Plus some live-in partners. My brother has never married.

John and I have been married for twenty-eight years. Everything about this surprises me: the fact that I married, that I’m still married, how hard it is sometimes, how the years arc toward sweetness.

I visit Hector sometimes. He lives with my neighbor, Babs. She has a warm lap, two birdfeeders, and no dogs. She will open the door for him as many times as he wants—a hundred times a day would not be too much. I think he made an excellent choice.

The small, scared kitten is curled up on my bed as I write this. Homer.

The kittens turned seven this summer.

There is another photograph, a collage. Me as a baby, lying down, holding a rattle in my hand. Me sitting up, a bow in my hair. Me sitting on the floor, playing with a splash of sunlight. A girl and a boy, posed on a wooden chair. The girl looks to be five or six, blond hair, smiling with her lips but not her eyes. The boy is a couple years older, his arm over the girl’s shoulder. He looks straight into the camera. My father and his sister.

I think about how much we shared. Things we never talked about.

Olga Ronay left a career in city planning and is finding her way back to writing things more substantial than to-do lists. She is grateful to instructor Catherine Reid and to her fellow students in the Great Smokies memoir class, where this essay was written. Although specific action steps are as yet unclear, her to-do list now includes writing.