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 This occurs a lot less than it used to, as writing workshop in my district has been replaced by a curriculum with embedded writing.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.”
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:
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.