The kitten’s song

My favorite teaching moments are those when classroom teachers have invited me in to model the writing process. This occurs a lot less than it used to, as writing workshop in my district has been replaced by a curriculum with embedded writing. I’ve been remembering those moments lately. I miss walking in with a list of ideas for students to choose from. I miss drafting and revising in front of them while they ask questions and make suggestions regarding artistic or stylistic choices. I miss hearing the flood of their own ideas, their own experiences … and sharing mine with them through writing. Perhaps that’s what led me to go back and reread those mentor texts.

The writing of this one was, to me, the most memorable. I wrote it over several days for a fifth-grade class studying memoir. I explained that one way to make memoir come alive is to pick a moment of strong emotion and pull the readers in so that they feel it, too. I asked if they wanted me to write about a moment from my life when I was happy, sad, embarrassed, angry, or afraid.

They were tough. They said: “A time when you were sad. Make us cry.”

Okay …

They chose, from the topics I gave them, ‘the sick kitten.’

And so I walked back into my memory, and wrote.

Here’s “The Kitten’s Song,” with a bit more polish at every writing (for revision is never really over, is it).

*******

Free kittens – take one.

I saw the sign propped on a chair at the entrance of my college cafeteria. A disheveled guy—another student, I guessed—stood there holding a cardboard box. I hurried over to look inside:

One dark little ball of fur.

“Is that the last kitten you have?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “No one wants her because of her tail.”

“What’s wrong with her tail?”

The guy scooped up the kitten and showed me her backside. She didn’t really have a tail. Just a stump.

“What happened to her?”

“She was born this way. The only one in the litter like this.”

The tiny black creature sat looking up at me with big yellow eyes. She meowed.

Poor little unwanted baby.

There was, of course, only one thing to do:

“I’ll take her!”

I named her Moriah after a magical black cat in a wizard story, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

When she was nine months old, Moriah had seven kittens. Some were solid black, like her; the others had gray and white stripes. The three boys had long tails but the four girls had stumps like their mother.

All of the kittens were beautiful to me. The day after they were born, my mother and I were admiring them when we realized something was wrong.

In the bed I’d made out of a low box lined with a soft blanket, Moriah lay nursing her babies. The smallest kitten, the runt, had been pushed away by her bigger brothers and sisters. This tiny ball of gray and white fuzz rested at the side of the box by herself. When I picked her up, I saw a big open sore where her tail was supposed to be.

“Mom!” I cried, showing her the raw place. “Look at this! What happened?” A horrible thought entered my mind. “Do you think something did this to her? Did Moriah —would Moriah — bite her kitten’s tail off?”

Mom shook her head. “Gracious, no. I think the kitten was just born like this and we didn’t notice until now. Looks like her tail never finished forming. Could be spina bifida. It happens to human babies sometimes, when their spines don’t seal all the way. It’s probably because of Moriah’s tail defect, as she’s passed on to her daughters.”

“Will it it heal?”

“It might. We’ll have to keep an eye on it.”

“Poor little thing,” I mourned, stroking the kitten’s head with one finger.

I tried to help. I put the kitten in the pile of her brothers and sisters so she could get to the milk. They still pushed her away. I moved the biggest kitten, who loudly complained, and put the runt kitten in his place, but she didn’t try to nurse.

“What are we going to do, Mom? If she doesn’t get any milk, she’ll die.”

Mom said, “Bring her to the kitchen. I’ll get a medicine dropper.”

I came to the kitchen and sat at the table, holding the kitten. She weighed no more than an egg, just a soft warm spot in my hand. Her day-old eyes were still closed. Mom washed the medicine dropper we used when we had earaches, then she took some milk from the refrigerator and warmed it in a pan on the stove.

The kitten purred in my hand, a pleasant little vibration, and I suddenly felt that she needed a name.

If I name her, maybe she’ll get well and strong.

I was trying to think of a name when Mom handed me the dropper filled with milk.

“Feed your baby,” she said.

The dropper seemed too big for the kitten. When she opened her pink mouth, my heart leaped with hope, but she only made a cry, the tiniest cry I have ever heard in my life, so small that it was hardly a sound at all.

“Mom, I can’t do it.” By now my hands were shaking.

“Give her to me,” said Mom.

My mom could fix anything. Once she rewired our oven all by herself. She made a lot of our clothes and took in sewing for other people. She could mark patterns on fabric, cut it to precision, and every piece turned out exactly right. As I watched that tiny gray-and-white kitten in my mother’s capable hand, I was sure Mom could get her to take the milk.

I remembered a song then, from a movie I watched with Mom when I was little. The movie was her favorite, The Sound of Music, and this the song I loved best:

 Edelweiss, edelweiss,

every morning you greet me.

Small and white, clean and bright

You look happy to me.

Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow,

bloom and grow forever …

It’s about a little flower that grows on the Alps of Austria where the movie is set, but for me, in that moment, the kitten became Edelweiss. It was a perfect fit. As Mom tried to get the kitten to drink from the dropper, I sang the song over and over in my mind like a prayer:

Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow,

bloom and grow forever …

The milk only ran down the sides of the kitten’s face. When I looked at Mom, her mouth was set in a straight line. A tear rolled down her cheeks like the beads of milk on the kitten’s.

After a minute, my mother said, “She’s already gone.”

“NOOOOO!” I wailed. “Keep trying!”

“It wasn’t meant to be, honey. She was too sick.”

We held her for a moment and cried.

I wrapped Edelweiss in one of Daddy’s white handkerchiefs and buried her in the backyard. I found a nice rock in the yard with a flat surface and painted a little white flower on it. I put it on the grave and cried there a long time, for Edelweiss, for everything that has to die. Moriah came to sit on the ground beside me, a warmth at my side, purring deep and strong. She looked up at me with winking yellow eyes and all I can imagine is that she was saying Thank you.


Many years later, I wonder about that rock, if still sits in its special place, if the sun and rain have erased my painted flower. In my memory, the kitten named Edelweiss hasn’t faded. She stirs whenever I start thinking life’s not fair. I remember how she purred. You look happy to me … I don’t know if that is strange or not. I just know that Edelweiss, who only lived a day, is somehow part of me, always.

Whenever I hear her song, I remember.

*******

Photo: Kittens 001. Bryan Price. CC BY-SA

22 thoughts on “The kitten’s song

    • They DID cry … sniffling started around the part where the other kittens pushed the runt away. Even the toughest kids were wiping tears. I cried while writing and explaining. Yet it was a beautiful thing: One girl said, “Oh! I know that song!” And she sang “Edelweiss” in a clear, pure soprano. If I lived to be a thousand, I could not recreate the magic of that moment, The kids went on to amaze me with their own memoirs.

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  1. I was not ready for this emotion this morning. I can imagine that some kids wished they had asked for a happy memory instead. At the same time they probably remember forever this excellent mentor text.

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    • They wrote amazing memoirs afterward: a girl angry with her mother for moving so often and having to switch schools, a boy who stole something and faced his fear by telling the truth. He ended up reading his memoir at a family engagement event on writing. Thankfully, another class at the time asked for an embarrassing moment!

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  2. Once I had an angry mother say to me, you always have the students read sad things. The mothers are dead or the dog always dies. This made me think of that. You didn’t just make me cry, you made me feel raw hurt. That’s what you did. You showed them good writing with strong feelings.

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    • As teachers we always run some risk of making a parent angry for what we do or don’t do – though there’s truth in that parent’s statement. Life is hard; we don’t want to dwell on the hard things, but we can’t shy away from them either. The thing here is that the kids voted on this, expecting the emotion; their interest was so piqued on choosing the topic of ‘the sick kitten’ that they gave me a list of questions to answer in the story: How old was it, what was wrong with it, how old were you, what did it look like, did it die? Afterward they wanted to impact THEIR readers, too … and what I have never said, until right now, is that this memoir is in its way a tribute to my mother before harder times and losses occurred that don’t have anything to do with death. I haven’t yet had the courage to write it; perhaps one day, the strength will come. Thank you and bless you, Su – ❤

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  3. The fact that you even made the tougher ones cry is a testament to how much power writing holds. That’s one thing I think it’s hard for students to understand. That their words have power. The power to entertain (much like their favorite authors), the power to make someone’s day or to make someone cry. When I wrote the Slice a couple of weeks ago about Pap B my students sat there and watched me. I tried so hard not to cry and when I looked around I saw several sitting there with the same expression. One later told me, he tried so hard not to cry but when he saw that his best friend was about to cry he gave in and cried for his grandpa too. “Miss B thank you for making us feel like it’s okay to show emotion,” was what I was told later. Later that day they had no problem working on their personal narratives.

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    • Thank you for sharing the student’s point that “it’s okay to show emotion” – and your courage in sharing about Pap B. Truth is, grief is a part of life; if we don’t feel it, something’s wrong with our internal barometer. It’s the cost of loving and having empathy. The kids have lost pets; they have or will lose loved ones. Why should we not model grief? And healing? And, yes, above all, I wanted them to understand the power of writing and that they have it, too — from stories in their very own lives.

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  4. “She’s already gone.” My heart just fell at that line, going back and revisiting the tear falling down your mother’s face. I reread that scene several times, as our parent’s sadness so affects our own. I think you are brave, willing to revisit those hard emotions and sharing them with students. I did the same once a couple of years ago, and received some pushback from the students; their teacher said they felt uncomfortable knowing that I had felt sad about turning eighteen and becoming an adult. Makes me wonder if we need to show our vulnerable side more often, to encourage the same in them.

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    • People don’t like to be uncomfortable, do they? Vulnerability isn’t admired like strength is. But that’s where we’re most human. Truth is, our stories are our stories and why should we not tell them just because others deem them “uncomfortable” or “not right”? Naturally as educators we’re mindful of our audience (!!) but I should think many more students would find relief in your story of sadness on turning eighteen than would find it uncomfortable. I was very apprehensive about that milestone myself…thank you, Chris, for telling me the part of the memoir that struck you most. I see that scene in my mind, clearly, to this day; my mother didn’t typically show a lot of emotion and her sadness over the kitten stays with me.

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  5. What a beautiful, sad memoir. I love how you say it has a bit more polish at every writing. The description of all the things your mom has fixed was such a great way to help us see her and her possibility to help the kitten. Great post!

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  6. 😢 😢 😢
    This is a tear jerker, Fran. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this kitty. I love the tenderness and the precision of your descriptions. “She weighed more more than an egg.” Of course I’m thinking about the subtext and how society pushes away the tiny, the vulnerable, those least capable of defending themselves, but stories like Edelweiss’s teach us empathy, and that’s so beautiful.

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    • The kids wanted to know how big the kitten was; “weighed no more than an egg” was my best shot. Subtext – yes!! I wondered if someone would pick up on it. To be honest I went back and forth about posting this piece (do we REALLY need sadness right now??) but the kitten kept calling and so I answered. Not until the posting did I think about the implications of the story to what we’re plainly seeing played out around us now … those who would take all but also those who offer aid. Thank you for finding beauty in the story, Glenda.

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    • You have spoken the truth – our stories have power. The kids have no idea just how much lies in their own lives – what a gift it is to me to be there when they discover it. You have just described what a true community is. 🙂

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  7. What a heart wrenching memoir—beautiful and fragile, just like Edelweiss. I could feel her tiny warmth in my own hand as I read, and the lasting impression of her life. Thank you for sharing the memory and the emotions.

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  8. This story is so touching and beautiful. I love the expression of love for the cat, of mom’s determination “When I looked at Mom, her mouth was set in a straight line,” the juxtaposition of the frantic attempts to feed the kitten with the Edelweiss lullaby. Beautiful.

    And…I’m not sure how it fits in, but it does strike me that Moriah is also the name of the mountain on which biblical Abraham offers his son Isaac up for sacrifice…?

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    • Thank you for reading – that story is a memorial on many levels. I am grateful you found it touching and beautiful. I wanted to preserve that memory. And yes – Moriah is indeed where Abraham obediently intended to sacrifice Isaac, his long-awaited son of promise (land of Moriah, Mount Moriah). Not sure why the author of Forgotten Beasts of Eld chose that name for a black cat, in turn inspiring my choice … it’s a mysterious name, from Hebrew “mara,” bitter, or even “Yahweh sees.” As I love symbolism with a passion – isn’t it a fitting name for an unwanted black cat with a deformity? For how I felt at the loss of her child? Moriah, in fact, lived to be a grand old age; when I married and moved out I couldn’t take her to my apartment and I officially gave her to my father. Lots of little connotations … the greatest of which, I think, is remembrance.

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  9. Oh my goodness. I started reading this post this morning and then put it aside. I’m glad I came back to it: I knew it would be sad, but it is also beautiful. The sadness here is the kind that breaks my heart open so that it ends up a little larger than it was before it broke. I’m not surprised this story came back to you in these days of uncertainty. May we all remember to care for one another as you cared for Edelweiss.

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    • Thank you for sticking with it, Amanda – it is a long post! – and for finding beauty in the sadness. I treasure those words, about enlarging your heart … and thinking that if we can feel this way for a suffering kitten, how much more so should we for one another. You tied it so perfectly to the current times – which I couldn’t even see at first. The writing knows, doesn’t it -??

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