Piwacket

When my children were young, we owned a series of travel trailers that allowed us to take vacations across North America. Most of our down times during winter months were spent planning trips we could take in the summer to destinations that we believed would give our daughters a sense of the grandeur of this extraordinary continent. Over the years, we managed to drag them to a remarkable number of places – from Canada’s beautiful Maritime Provinces to the Great American West to the central flatland of Florida and all points in between. We tried to select locations that would have a little of everything – sightseeing, historic venues, recreational activities like fishing, boating, and swimming. Some were more memorable than others.

One summer we selected a campground on the shores of Lake Erie in northern Ohio. We thought that it might provide a break from Philadelphia’s sultry summer heat and humidity, and that access to one of the Great Lakes would give the girls a chance for expanding their horizons as well as ample opportunity for water activity. We got more than we bargained for.

I came back to the campsite early one afternoon after an unsuccessful morning plying rod and reel. As I walked toward the trailer, I saw my middle daughter sitting outside with a cat in her lap. “Where did the cat come from?” I asked. My daughter looked at me with a smile beaming with the pride of ownership and said, “She’s lost, Dad! But she likes us! I gave her some tuna fish.”

Every parent who has heard the dreaded words “Can we keep him?” knows the feeling. We had just acquired a cat.

On the long drive home, we debated the merits of various names for our new family member. We finally settled on Piwacket, the name Kim Novak gave to her familiar in the 1958 film Bell, Book, and Candle. After all, any cat who could seduce a family to embrace her (fleas and all) and transport her to a life of comfort 350 miles away must have magical traits. Her other traits were typically feline – she was diffident, aloof, opportunistic, and continually displayed her motivating belief that we were privileged to provide for her.

For some reason, Piwacket chose me as her lap of choice. For the next 15 years, whenever I moved from the vertical to the horizontal, Piwacket would jump on me, press her head into my open hand and demand scratching. Early on in this one-sided relationship, I made an important discovery as I ran my hand from the top of her head down her shoulders, along her back and toward her tail. Like cats everywhere, she would tuck her head down and arch her back to gain the maximum amount of pressure on her spine. But as soon as my caressing palm reached her hindquarters, she turned her head faster than I had ever seen protoplasm move and sunk her teeth into my hand. It was immediately apparent that in her former life, Piwacket had been abused.

Piwacket lived with us for fifteen years. For fifteen years, I fed her, emptied her littler box, scratched behind her ears, brushed her coat, transported her to and from the vet, and dutifully stroked her gently for a minimum of an hour a day. If any cat had demonstrable data indicating that she was loved and that her human had nothing but kindness and care to offer, it was Piwacket.

But until the day she died, if my hand ever accidently strayed toward her butt in some loving caress, she would turn and bite me.

More than anything else, Piwacket taught me that love and care in and of themselves can’t eliminate the deeply physical memory of abuse. In my working life, I engage many people who bear similar scars, old and deep. They are a constant reminder that young things, fragile things, are easily and permanently marked and that care must be taken.