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Lessons from Leppy

Finding holiday inspiration in a feline mama.

When I got Leppy last spring I hadn't had any cats since I was in my twenties. It was fascinating to me how exact and intricate were the similarities of Leppy to the cats I had long ago.

I was delighted to rediscover the markings of tabby cats, the stripes and the "fearful symmetry" of the calligraphy on the sides of her face, and the chin that glows white.

I'd forgotten cats' tendency to dissimulate. You yell at them to stop tearing up the newspaper and they'll pretend to see a little bug under the end table and walk away. Or she'd come capering out to see me in my cactus garden and when I turned to see her, she'd look in the other direction as if there was something very interesting over by the fence.

I was charmed by the way she rolled in the dust, curling her body prettily.

My friend Martha in Palomas gave Leppy to me when she and Manuel moved away. We had grown to feel somewhat like sisters, and I was touched by her selfless gift. They called her Lepe, which means orphan, they said, although I can't find it in a dictionary.

As a Mexican cat, one difference is that she is smaller than most American cats I know. To me she looks kind of like an Egyptian cat, with her small head and long haunches. These haunches are like parts that have been slapped on by mistake. They look like they belong to a dog.

Her back is bony like the ridgepole of a roof, so it's difficult to pick her up sometimes. She seems all sinew and bone. But through some kind of sorcery that I don't understand, she turns into churned butter at my ankles and behind my knees when she curls up with me on the couch.

She was only half-grown when I got her, and very active. The $1 shower curtain that had lasted over a year didn't have a chance with her. She tore it to shreds. I found Leppy swinging in the breeze one afternoon hanging desperately onto the tattered screen in my bedroom window. I decided to leave it open all summer and let her use it as a door.

There's hardly anything that she hasn't tipped over in the house: the box of matches and sandwich bags on the top of the refrigerator, the room deodorizer on the washing machine, the piles of paper on my desk. She gets very embarrassed when this happens, and then comes back for more.

One thing she does that's unusual for a cat is that she goes up on the roof of my trailer just to hang out. I had accidentally left a ladder leaning against the roof, although she sometimes prefers getting down by scrambling down the metal awning over a window and landing on the fence. She's kind of a tomboy.

Martha had actually told me Leppy was a male. I strongly suspected she was wrong, and this notion was confirmed when a big lop-eared Tom came calling in the backyard. In a couple months three kittens were born, with their little knob heads and rat tails.

Immediately after becoming a mom, Leppy changed dramatically. She incessantly watched her babies like a hawk from the moment they were born. Or like a vulture, perched above them on the arm of a chair. She has perpetually emitted anxious interrogatories for over seven weeks now.Prrrrttt? — I've heard over and over. Her carefree days are gone.

The kittens' blue eyes opened after a couple weeks, and when I looked into their box I'd see three pairs of eyes simultaneously looking at me, candid and passive. They hadn't quite realized they were separate entities, and acted as if they were just one. When they drank out her milk, the exact same curve of their bodies repeated itself in stunningly simple harmony like low, sonorous chimes, clear as the music of the spheres.

Before her kittens were born, Leppy had a wispy little meow calculated to make you feel sorry for her and give her some food. But post-partum Leppy became a mandona (bossy woman) and demanded canned cat food, hot dogs, milk, sour cream, mozzarella, American cheese and bologna, all because of her maternal imperative. Her well-kept children have nice tubby tummies because she is such a nag.

Whenever she'd hear a little mew from the other room, she would race to where the kitten was. She'd teach them to play, slowly sweeping her tail back and forth over the carpet. To my horror, she'd bring in crunchy little mice for them to eat.

But when one of them was misbehaving or wanted to get out of the box, her arm would come down on it like a heavy boom, or she would bite its neck and make it shriek. When they started running around in their separate ways in the living room, like the control freak she is, she would go a little crazy, leap around, and play rough with them.

Most people guess that life's blows happen to us so we'll learn some tough lessons. If we didn't believe this we sometimes couldn't put one foot in front of the other. We hope that the mama-kitty of the universe has loving designs behind her toughness.

Leppy with her back a big curve and her paws stretched around her nursing kittens is a perfect symbol of maternal care. There hardly could be a more tender picture of mother love.

An image I'm going to carry with me into the holiday season is Leppy with her arm too tightly wrapped around one kitten's neck, a sweet look of bliss on her face and a deep, full purring, with the bundle of other kitties nursing in the darkness between her front and back legs. This is my Christmas wreath, a durable ring of affection.

Although these kittens have hardly stepped outdoors yet, their harmony resonates beyond the walls of my house, into this town that has in too many ways been my torment and my wilderness.

It's the mama-cat love that includes everybody — all the illiterates around this town as well as the handful of PhDs; the nursing home residents staring at the ceiling and the high school track stars raring to get on with life; policemen and meth addicts together; the sweet children making everyone around them smile; the fieldworkers, their faces too often a strange reddish-orange from drinking, and the crusty old farmers not listening to anyone else's opinion; Latinos and Anglos; women and men.

May you all know something of this heavenly peace this holiday season.

Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming and
is looking for loving owners for her kittens.


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