Takeout Box of Kittens

I’m fairly new to creative nonfiction, but I love the freedom it gives me to write about experiences my family, friends, and I had without having a set structure. When I began exploring creative nonfiction, I thought it was only stories about life. But it goes deeper than that. Creative nonfiction can be a teacher, a friend, a comfort, or simply a good read. It goes beyond writing and into the realm of deep thinking.

This is an experimental creative nonfiction piece I originally wrote for school in April. It’s about an experience I had when I was young that I tried to connect to a bigger picture; it’s one of only a few creative nonfiction pieces I’ve written.

Takeout Box of Kittens

As my mom and I drove past my dad’s printing company, we saw a box. Just a small, red takeout box turned upside-down on the parking lot, under the big, familiar awning. We went there every day, but usually we didn’t see litter. My mom said she hoped it was nothing bad, and she decided that we should pull over and pick it up because it made the parking lot look trashy, in turn making my family’s business look trashy. “Who would have left something like this here?” she said. Her tone said “yuck” and her face said “I’m appalled.” So, we pulled into the lot. Leave it to my mom to leave a parking lot looking spotless.

She pulled in and parked diagonally because no one was there, and we wouldn’t be long. It didn’t take her long to rush out of the car and over to the box, with me tagging along behind her like I always did. As we got closer to the box, we heard a small squeak coming from underneath it, and I think we even saw it move, but that could have been my imagination. We looked at each other skeptically. Surely there couldn’t be something alive under that disgusting box. I think my first thought was “Food is making a noise?” followed shortly by “probably a mouse or something.” Most of my memory of this moment is blurred except for getting out of the car and standing behind my mom, peeking around her because this felt like a big deal to me. It felt like we were doing something dangerous or even that there was something dangerous under the box, ready to jump out at any moment. It was kind of like an adventure to me. I think I had seen too many movies.

We walked a little closer to the box and I said, “That sounds like a cat.” When I said it, I didn’t think I’d be right. She hesitated. Then she picked up the box, still looking at it like a monster with three heads. But as she turned it over, sure enough, there were three kittens, probably only days old. One was black, one was spotted, and the other was gray. They were matted and scared, pawing helplessly, and their eyes weren’t even open yet.

Once mother cats have weaned their babies off of their own milk, they try to teach them to hunt for food or want them to start eating solid food instead of drinking milk. They want them to learn to be disciplined enough to live on their own after roughly ten weeks, according to The Nest. If they’re wild cats, the mother will teach them how to hunt outside. If they live inside, she might move them near the food bowl so they know what to expect and what to try to eat. She wants to put them near solid food to make their transition easier. Around ten weeks old, they can begin the transition to living on their own.

At this point I was thirteen and I needed to know how to start transitioning to making decisions on my own. I would also be more surrounded by things my mom couldn’t control, but I was still dependent on her for because I hadn’t fully grown up.

I still stood behind her with jumbled thoughts going through my mind. I took most things I did pretty seriously, and I was always worried about the next decision I’d have to make: school, friends, whether or not I should tell my mom I wanted to quit piano lessons, and now these kittens. I wasn’t really sure what how to feel about this, but I remember being angry at whoever abandoned them and sad because I thought it was inevitable that they would die. Is it really that hard to take them to a shelter instead of dumping them in parking lot like trash? Luckily, my mom made this next decision for me. She decided it would be a good idea for me to take care of them, probably as a learning experience or just something for me to play with because they didn’t look diseased, but mostly likely the first answer.

So, I took them home even though my dog Sammy wasn’t too happy about that, and my brother is allergic to cats. I took care of them anyway because I thought Sammy needed to learn to have visitors of all kinds. I snuck them past him quickly, even though I knew he caught their scent, and followed me, wagging his tail all the way to the back of the house. We told my dad and brother as soon as we got home, and they thought this was a random experience, but it was a great idea to take care of the kittens.

As much as I wanted to, I didn’t name them. “We can’t get attached,” my mom said. I still needed to find a place to keep them. The best place we could find for them was the little screened porch on the back of our house. We got a bigger, cardboard box, filled it with old blankets, and let them sleep in it. I think it was either spring or summer, so they wouldn’t have gotten to cold back there, plus it was the best place so that Sammy didn’t try to eat them before I could save them. I knew he would try because I saw him kill a baby squirrel once in the backyard.

For three weeks I took care of my new little friends, and I almost felt a motherly instinct come out even at age thirteen. I bottle-fed them warm milk in the mornings, after I got home from school, and then before I went to bed every night. It was no easy task making sure I gave them all just as much as they needed before leaving them alone. My mom made sure I took care of my new responsibilities along with my homework. Every morning I would go back out there, feed them, and rub their little heads before I left them alone for the day. What I didn’t know then was that my mom was teaching me responsibility, teaching me to be a mother, and I never even knew it, so I couldn’t even whine about it. This was a task I actually enjoyed.

By ten weeks old, kittens probably already know how to hunt and take care of themselves. At first, the mother might not know what to do, and some say she will even roam around the house looking for her babies. But once she realizes that they aren’t there, it isn’t too hard for her to let go and let them go off into the world on their own. Kittens, on the other hand may be more confused when they have to leave their mothers because they don’t yet know what to do since they have been more used to being dependent on another animal to show them how to live.

I always made sure to play with them and cuddle them because they didn’t have a mother to welcome them to the world. I thought they must have known they were left alone for who-knows-what to happen to them. So I had to love them. After a week or so, I saw got to see their eyes finally open, and this was amazing to me. I had taken care of these kitten to the point where they could even walk on their own. I took care of them so much that I forgot my cardboard, blanketed box isn’t where they were going to stay. Eventually I would have to take them somewhere else and trust a different family to take care of them if they stayed healthy. I realized why my mom said we couldn’t get attached – because we couldn’t keep them.

When the time came – when they were big enough, and their bellies were full enough, my mom and I went together to take two of them to the animal shelter. One of my friends had decided she wanted the little black one, so she took it home the day before. I gathered up the two that were left in their box with the blankets we gave them, loaded everything in the car, and went to shelter.

We walked into the big room full of animals in cages; I had my box of kittens in hand and a sinking feeling in my stomach. I looked around, taking in the horror and wished even more that I could keep the kittens. I wasn’t sure if they would be able to make it in this loud, unfriendly place. My mom explained the situation to the workers, her tranquil voice trying to reach above meowing, barking, and yelping. They agreed to take the kittens, and told us that the shelter would try to find them a home as soon as they could. They said that usually people would rather take the babies than the older animals, so they had a good chance. I doubtfully handed over the box of kittens I mothered back to health with tears welling up in my eyes. I was uncomfortable handing them over to a stranger after being their mother for three weeks. The rest of this story is blurry to me except for the drive down the hill, away from the building. After my mom and I made sure they would be taken care of and given to a good home, we left the shelter.

It seems like driving is always the worst part of a situation – a recurrent theme in my life, and a result of my sentimental nature. There’s either anticipation about where I’m going or the anticipation of the future once I leave.

As we got in the car, our eyes overflowed with tears. We didn’t speak as we drove away, and I think my crying made her cry, too. We seemed to both have a silent reflection, and we laughed in the middle of our tears, as we always do because we feel like we look silly. I’m not sure what she was thinking, but I realized later that I think she loved the kittens as much as I did.

Unlike the human mother, the cat mother won’t always recognize her baby after going long periods of time seeing it. Because they no longer have a similar nesting smell, it’s harder for them to recognize who each other is. They will treat each other as strangers. But if the mother and babies stay together, it’s said that their bond only grows stronger, much like my mom and me, and even other children and their parents. The cats may form social groups and work together to raise any new litters of kittens that come along, as I like to think my mom and I will do when I have kids. I already was feeling that maternal instinct to take care of the kittens.

I think my mom even loved seeing me grow up a little bit. Since then, when I’ve brought this up, she’s told me how great it was that I took care of them, even telling me, “You nursed them back to health! You were a good little mom.” I’ve realized how proud she is of me in everything I do, not just because of kittens.

My mom and I seem to have a similar relationship to cat families. There’s the recurrent theme of motherly nurturing and discipline together. When I was a kid, I was dependent just like kittens. I needed all the help I could get to learn how to properly function in the world. That’s what I think is so important about this event in my life. Like the cat relationship, if human mothers and children don’t have these kinds of moments, and don’t allow themselves to spend time around their mothers, they can lose touch and lose that familiar feeling they once had with their child.

If they’re sent away like strangers, they will come back acting like strangers, and they won’t be recognized as the children their parents are used to knowing. Once human babies grow up and have their own babies, they can work with their mothers as a team to raise the new additions. The relationship between human mothers and their babies, no matter how distant, isn’t meant to be breakable, especially if it’s allowed to nurture and grow. Universally, the maternal instinct between mothers and children is something that might not only have to be understood after you have a child for yourself; it’s something that starts forming long before then. Maternal instincts are almost built into us. We just have to train ourselves to know what to do with it.

The instinct women have to take care of their children is so similar to cat mothers, and it might even be universal. These weren’t human babies; they were cats, and I still felt the need to raise them myself. I didn’t know then that this moment would be something that I treasured or learned, but as soon as we left that shelter, something had changed.

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