The first that belonged to me was a small tiger cat who probably wandered into the courtyard at The Old Citadel and was adopted. I remember this tiger car more in losing it than in its care. But lost, it haunted my walks to school. I must have been in the second grade.
My calls echoed down narrow Charleston streets–Vanderhorst, was the one I remember, notable as much for its long and non-English name, as for what it took me past–the side of a large white church whose front had stout white columns; many ramshackled “narrow end to the street” Charleston houses, which hadn’t been painted in almost a century.
All kinds of stray dogs and cats wandered that long street to the “lower school” of Ashley Hall. I called and called over many days, until one morning a little tiger cat, barely grown from a kitten, came bounding up to me. Though, even then, I sensed it was not the same cat, I scooped it up and carried it to Mrs. Watkins, my beautiful second-grade teacher with the white pageboy. She like my mother was a “Citadel professor’s wife.” I couldn’t keep the kitten in the classroom, she said, but we could take it to the principal’s house and the principal would call my mother. When I came home that afternoon, there it was in our huge Old Citadel kitchen with the dark brown painted floor, waiting and mewing its little pink mouth.
Only now do I imagine what my mother had to do to retrieve it: first, leave my younger sister with the neighbor across the hall, then walk herself down long Vanderhorst street, across the playing fields of Ashley Hall behind the row of two-story little houses where the “lower school” classes met, then stepping up onto a raised copse of trees, she entered the principal’s little house. What was her name, this formidable woman with the iron grey hair pulled back in a bun, and the steel spectacles? Maybe it will come back to me. Whether she actually lived in that little house–dark green with white trim–or merely had her office there, I don’t know. Only one other time did I take notice of it. That was in sixth grade. By then I had moved upstairs to the second small house and become one of the “big girls” in the lower school. For some reason my teacher then, Mrs. McCrae, sent me and another girl across the playing fields to the principal’s house. I couldn’t help myself: there on her desk (in her absence) stood stacks of achievement tests.
This was way before the years of No Child Left Behind–that Bush-era mandate for frequent standardized testing which so bedevils educators today. But Ashley Hall did test its students toward the end of every year, and I, one of the known “smart girls,” had a yen to achieve so strong that I overstepped the boundaries between what was right and what was wrong: I looked at the ranking of the girls in my grade. There was my name, right at the top. As far as I can remember, it was the only strictly illegal thing I did until much much later.
The Catz kept coming, though not after a doggie period when we moved to Mount Pleasant, across the Cooper River Bridge, and owned first a red hound named Rover, and then a stray pooch my sister named Missy. Missy was sweet, with a round belly, and black ears and tail; her body tan like a Siamese. One afternoon I shashayed home in my starched crinolines and there in the shed, my sister sat with Missy and four puppies. My sister, with her soft heart, was weeping: she had seen the birth. I WAS way too far gone into teen posturing to pay much attention.