Image by Jan Mallander from Pixabay
It was my first Christmas break at Carleton College in Minnesota and I couldn’t afford the plane fare home.
I wasn’t the only one. A small handful of students stayed on campus, many of us had been hired to dust the books and shelves of the entire student library. Monotonous enough, but it helped me to perfect the art of daydreaming. Plus, there was always a loud boombox blaring out the hits of the day – how often do you get to enjoy that in a library?
Needing all the extra cash I could get, I also worked at a local restaurant for a few shifts every week washing dishes. The worst part of that job was probably just getting there. From December through February, the temperature in that part of the country routinely dropped to -40 or -50 degrees with windchill. So cold that after five minutes outside, you could feel the liquid on the surface of your eyeballs start to freeze up. Dangerously cold.
Did I hear them crying?
I was walking along the corridor toward our dorm rooms when something caused me to open one of the hallway doors leading out to the frozen tundra of our campus. I can’t remember why I was going out – why I would open that door. But I did.
And outside it, I found a box of newborn kittens and their mother. Left in a place where, seriously, no one was likely to find them. Maybe the maintenance crew would have discovered them frozen to death a few days later.
Of course, I pulled the box inside and carried it up to the student kitchen we were all using. My fellow winter workers were pulled into the drama – “How cute! How awful! What are you going to do with them?”
The entire campus is gone and the streets are empty
What was I going to do with them? I was absolutely clueless. No cat food. No litter box. And no idea about what to do. The entire campus was empty. These cats needed a home, pronto. But there was an alarming lack of options for giving them away.
I think we cracked open a can of tuna for the mother, put out bowls of water, and laid newspaper out over the floor of the kitchen. Perhaps some genius solution would occur to us after a good night’s sleep.
Campus security guards were not cat lovers
The guards were waiting for us in the kitchen the next morning with a “You’ve got to be kidding” look on their faces. I’m not gonna lie. There was some cat poop, there was some unpleasant smell, and I could hardly blame them for the ultimatum – I think they probably gave me two days to restore the kitchen to a cat-free zone. But what if I couldn’t?
As I’ve already mentioned, everyone that we knew had gone home. All the students we knew, all the professors, cafeteria staff, library staff, maintenance crews…everyone, everyone, everyone had gone home for the holidays. And this was a very small town. There was almost nothing beyond Main Street and it could be walked in under ten minutes. Doubtful that this tiny place even boasted an animal shelter. Ill-equipped as we were, we were the animal shelter.
As worrisome and difficult as the prospect of finding homes for six healthy kittens and a mama cat were, the situation was further complicated by the fact that they weren’t all healthy. The runt of the litter was cross-eyed, sickly, and had a disturbing skin condition. I hated to even think about what was going to happen to that one – it was too bleak.
The whole town got pulled in
All the student workers on my floor were urged to brainstorm and ask everyone within driving distance if they were in need of a cat. We had to check out every remote possibility. I’m pretty sure that I not only bugged the people who worked at my restaurant, but I probably accosted a few customers as well.
When I got back to campus from my work shift – success! Two of the kittens had been claimed. Whew! But there were still too many left.
The following day, I got a call and a visit from one of the young cooks at the restaurant. She had gotten the go-ahead from her family to come and pick up a kitten. I couldn’t believe it. I tried to savor the victory, even though in the back of my mind, it felt as if all avenues had been exhausted and this would be the last of the good news.
The cook looked over the adorable litter and quickly made her selection. The cross-eyed sickly runt! You could have knocked me over with a feather. This was not a photogenic creature. And she chose him without hesitation.
And then there were four
Three out of seven. On a certain level, it was better than nothing. Perhaps it was as much as I could reasonably have hoped for. But I wanted the impossible. I wanted a happy ending for every single cat. I don’t recall if I did one of those – “If I can have this, I’ll never wish for anything ever again” moments. But I’m sure I came close.
In my childhood Christmases, I loved presents as much as anyone. And there were certain items on my wish lists that I probably developed a strong fixation on.
But as an adult, I’m very detached from Christmas presents and wish lists. I spent so many years living away from family, that presents don’t really factor into my thinking anymore.
But that Christmas, I needed so badly to help save those cats. What if they died because I failed to save them? It was an unbearable, but very real possibility.
The cavalry arrived and not a moment too soon
You know when a child’s elderly pet gets sick and then disappears and the parents tell their child that the pet was taken away to a wonderful farm and is having the time of its life.
Okay, this is a happier version of that.
Turns out, one of my sociology professors lived on a farm twenty or thirty minutes outside of town. And somehow, she had gotten word of our cat dilemma. “Yeah, I can take them. All of them.” All of them? ALL OF THEM!!!! All four of the remaining cats.
So not only would they have a barn, and mice to chase, and freedom to roam – they’d have each other as well. Christmas gifts don’t come wrapped any more neatly.
After the semester began, I had to drop in on the restaurant and check to see how the sickly one was doing. Turns out, he was being spoiled rotten. The cook and her parents lavished so much love and attention on this kitten that he probably felt like a high-ticket purebred. His health was restored and his lifelong happiness seemed a pretty safe bet. I couldn’t believe such a lovely outcome for what had seemed like the unluckiest of the bunch.
Memorable, to say the least
I always enjoy the holiday season – the friends and family, decorations, the food, and even the carols, provided they don’t start the day after Halloween. But there are so many similarities between them; they blur together in my memory. I’m seriously hard-pressed to recall the details of any particular one.
Except for the one that I’ve just shared with you. Which involved no gifts, a makeshift litter box, and a bucketload of anxiety.
Best. Christmas. Ever.