Right before my 28th birthday, my mother announced she was moving to a retirement community in Central Florida with her boyfriend. Both thoroughbred New Yorkers, Mom and her partner decided to toss the majority of belongings accumulated from their separate lives, leaving most of it curbside. A few days prior to their departure, I went to Mom’s for a farewell/birthday dinner.
“I know how much you love my cat,” Mom began, cutting nonchalantly into her chicken cutlet. Like a feline, I wanted to arch and hiss; I knew where the conversation was headed. I did love our family pet, stoic black Sheba with her verdant eyes, but my reluctance to accept her as a “gift” was heavy.
“Um hmm,” I said, shoveling a mound of mashed potatoes into my mouth.
At twenty-seven, I was not ready to nurture another life form. I was barely making it on a teaching wage and my poor indoor orange tree, a housewarming gift from a cousin in celebration of my new studio apartment, had just shriveled into itself in a corner of the living space.
Still, Mom persisted, “You know, Steve is allergic to cats, so I was thinking…”
My fork picked up speed, now nervously galloping from plate to mouth. Mom stopped and placed a warm hand on my arm. “Honey, are you okay?” I dropped the utensil and swallowed hard.
“I could bring her to an animal shelter, but I didn’t think you’d want that for her.”
There it was. The guilt. “Fine. I’ll take her.”
Mom pumped her fist in celebration of another item ticked off her “Things to Purge Before I Move” list.
Acquiring Sheba would be no easy feat. The co-op I had just settled into did not allow pets, which meant my newest compadre would have to be smuggled in. This didn’t hinder Mom’s agenda. The woman I grew up with — a straight-laced role model who abided by every rule, was now rolling up her shirtsleeves and concocting a scheme.
“We’ll give her a mild sedative and sneak her in through the back entrance where the trash receptacles are,” Mom said, pointing out of the window of my apartment. “And from there we’ll bring her up on the freight elevator.”
I was shocked she was willing to jeopardize my living arrangement to accommodate her future. Then I thought, maybe she was just nervous, and trying to make sure her furbaby was left with the most trustworthy human she knew. Still unsure, I glanced out of the glass casement, wondering if we’d really get away with it.
“Ready to do this?” Mom turned to me and smiled. I looked at her and gave a meek nod.
According to ancient scripture, the queen of Sheba went to the king bearing gifts. It also says that her visit could have been a trade mission arranged for business purposes.
“Oh, and before I forget,” Mom said, dipping into her purse. She pulled out a small envelope and handed it to me. “It’s a gift card for Petco. I’ll send you one every month. You know, to offset the costs of litter and food.”
I studied the yellow card, my official golden ticket into cat-lady-hood, and shoved it into the back pocket of my jeans. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”
I held the door as MacGyver, I mean Mother, led the way out. In the back seat of our family sedan was Sheba, awake but tranquil, in the plastic carrier Mom had managed to secure her in. I stood back as my mother shimmied the case out of the car. When the cat let out a screeching howl, I jumped away expecting Mom to do the same. Instead, she casually reached into the car and grabbed a blanket from the floor. I watched in wonderment as she draped it over the cage and hushed the animal back to a calm silence.
“Have you done this before? You’re like the cat whisperer,” I said, only half-joking.
“No, I’m just a mom.” She winked and put a finger to her lips, signaling for quiet. I proceeded with caution.
As we approached the freight elevator, I jabbed a finger on the button and scanned the area for the nearest surveillance cameras. Luckily, they were aimed in the direction of the exit doors, out of view from where we stood.
“Geez, don’t ever try to rob a bank,” Mom said, and nudged me.
I laughed, but shrank in the corner like the orange tree. As a kid, I’d been bullied into things at school and now, it seemed my family were taking up where the bullies left off. Suddenly, there was a burning sensation in my gut and I was beginning to loathe the cat.
A loud grinding noise followed by a thud of heavy metal echoed in the vestibule. Mom jerked the door to the freight elevator open and waved me inside. Slowly, the machine lifted us to my eighth floor apartment. As we ascended, a black paw poked out from under the blanket and swatted at my leg. I swatted back. The cat did it again, but this time rested her paw on top of my hand.
“She’s playing with you,” Mom said with a grin.
“I know.” I knelt down and rubbed the side of Sheba’s head through the grate. She let out a rigorous purr, the vibrato of her throat tickling my fingers, and, surprisingly, my heart. I realized then that maybe, just maybe, this gift was better than a shirt stuffed into a box.
The elevator jerked to a halt. The cat retracted into the carrier as Mom yanked at the door handle to free us. Like the stealthy cougar that she was, Mom eased down the hall and into my residence. Once we were inside, she set the holder onto the carpet and let Sheba out. Her head darted in one direction and then the other. I was sure she was going to run and hide under furniture – either the sofa or the bed. I lowered myself and sat on the rug, cross-legged and curious, waiting to see which way she’d go. When she noticed me sitting there she strutted over, stepped into the crook of my lap, arched her spine into a big stretch, and then nestled down into a big black ball of fuzz.
“You’re a natural,” Mom said.
I looked down at Sheba and petted her warm, velvety fur. We bonded instantly, and I laughed. Maybe, just maybe, moms do know best.