The Saga of Moira Aschenputtel

Reading with a cat (or dog!) is one of my favorite images of contentment.

There’s something soothing about the quiet it requires, the warmth of the fuzzy one curled up on a lap or on the floor nearby. It’s an image of comfort, as we imagine the person sitting for a period of time, reading in quiet companionship. And a cat or dog, who can’t interrupt (at least not with speech) evokes a shared silence conducive to reading.

I was lucky enough to spend many hours over Thanksgiving break in such a position. I feel very rested.

I have spent many hours reading with pets over the years, but this weekend was a little different. This weekend we adopted a new cat because her person, my cousin, recently died. This kitty has quite a story.

This kitty found and claimed my cousin’s husband about four and a half years ago. She was alone and needed a home, and they were mourning the recent loss of their previous cat. It was perfect. Brian was retired and lonely while his wife was at work, so the cat became his companion, and in the way these things go, they rescued each other.

But then he got cancer. He was strong and healthy, and he kicked it, but it came back with a vengeance. Through a second round of chemo and some alternative medicines, including trips to far-off retreats and Bucket List vacations, the kitty stayed close, offering what comfort she could. When he died, she was the only other heartbeat in the house, and Carrie was consoled, but still bereft.

A married woman for two thirds of her life, Carrie was lost without her partner. The kitty was a tie to him, but also a reminder of her loss. After a few months, the cat started wandering off for longer and longer periods.

She was on walkabout when the fire came.

When Carrie evacuated, seriously fearing for her house and property, she looked high and low for the cat. The school where she taught third grade closed for over a week. She took refuge at her parents’ house fifteen miles away. She feared for the little gray cat alone in the smoke and ash. Ten days later the kitty returned–haggard, dirty, hungry, lonely.

In the months that followed, she stayed home more. She seemed to sleep more. Carrie described her as lazy. The truth was they were both cocooning, trying to decide what shape their life would take moving forward. My cousin made the decision to stay in the house. She resolved to renovate and redecorate and make the house hers–to shape her next phase of life purposefully.

But just as she seemed to be finding her footing, she went to sleep one Saturday night and didn’t wake up.

The cat went rogue.

How much, really, should one little cat have to take? How much can any of us take? She came and went, and the neighbors put food out for her, but she didn’t live there anymore. No one did. Instead, she watched.

In the weeks that followed, the house was emptied. The last ties to her people were boxed and bagged and donated and dumped. What reason could she have for staying there? The food, sure, but nothing else, really–at least not until the sweet voice and soft hand of a sixteen year old girl who scratched her ears and cleaned the cobwebs off her whiskers.
We went to help clean the house last weekend and came home with a new kitty cat. We have pets, and she was dirty and flea-addled, so she needs to be quarantined for a bit while she heals and recovers and adapts. And while she does, we’re taking turns doing our various homework in the back room with her. Because reading with a cat is the best way to read.

Mothering a Man

Have you ever noticed most fairy tale heroes and heroines have dead or missing parents? The obvious explanation for that is that kids need to forge their own identities in order really to mature.
Beauty doesn’t have a mom, and her dad actually gets in the way of her growing up. Cinderella’s mother is dead, and dad is MIA, so she has to negotiate the female authority in her household and to establish her mature, romantic relationship entirely on her own (once the godmother supplies the dress and shoes). Even Jack must leave his mom (no dad mentioned at all in most versions) and enter the giant’s realm without any guidance. In fact, he comes back and takes care of her; he’s translated from dependent to provider in a few pages.
Kids seem to need serious independence in order to mature and thrive.
But I’m rejecting that today, on the eve of my son’s 18thbirthday, and not feeling a bit guilty. Conflicted, maybe, but not guilty.
I moved out at seventeen. I moved in to a dorm for my freshman year of college, but I never moved back home. That was it. I had been working for a year, driving for nearly two, and I waved to my mom as she stood in the driveway in her bathrobe, and was gone.
Most kids don’t do that these days, especially in Los Angeles county. In fact, most of my kids’ friends don’t even drive. LA is a nightmare for traffic and hazards. My son doesn’t have a job yet. He’s not moving out. His independence is coming a bit later.
He is not alone. Many have noted the expanded adolescence. Laurence Steinberg’s The Age of Opportunity argues that adolescence is both starting earlier and lasting longer these days. Lots of kids aren’t moving out. They can’t afford it. And it’s not such a bad thing.
There’s a case for extended adolescence having neurological benefits. Their longer period of neuroelasticity is allowing them greater ability to learn later in life, both in terms of intellectual content (they have more spots in their brains to pin new information later on), and they have greater emotional understanding and impulse control.
However, there is a serious dearth of awesome stories about nineteen-year olds living with their folks.
Harry Potter doesn’t have parents, but he finds lots of surrogates. Percy Jackson has a mom, but he leaves for school like Harry, so she’s not solving any problems for him. Violet and Klaus (and Sunny!) Baudelaire are largely fending for themselves too, so our stories have not caught up to the culture.
I guess there’s nothing exciting about living in your childhood bedroom in to your early twenties. They can vote; they can be drafted; they can be arrested;they can smoke. But they’re not driving or working enough to support themselves. How do you parent them?
They’re legal, but dependent.
Maybe I’m just making a mountain out of a molehill. Maybe 21 is the new 18, and 25 is the new 21, and we just chill and move on. But seriously, someone ought to write the thriller about the 19-year old who has tremendous adventures and still lives at home. We could use a script down here.
Here’s some further reading, if you’re interested:
Steinberg, Laurence. Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence. 2014.
Picture Books

Cinderella Stories

Why do we love Cinderella so?  It’s a rags-to-riches story, so it teaches us that no matter how low we feel, there is always the chance that we can escape our dismal situation and live like a princess or a prince.  (There are Cinder-fella versions as well, naturally.)  There seem to be two strains:  either the inherent nobility of Cinderella is revealed—she turns out to be of noble blood somehow; this is most prevalent among European variants, or she is truly poor in material wealth, but rich in spirit–a diamond in the rough–and her circumstances ultimately rise to match her nature.
The first kind is now as common as the Disney version in America.  Cinderella’s plight stems in part from being originally noble, a lord’s daughter or higher, who after her mother dies is reduced to servant status in her step-mother’s home.  This is the Grimms’ version, the Disney version, the film version of Ever After.  Some of this Cinderella’s trauma stems from that fall, from the shame of having to act like a servant, when she is not born to it, and her credit stems from the grace with which she adapts to her servitude.
But there are LOTS of versions of Cinderella.  The ones where she starts low have their own appeal, and maybe it lasts longer.  Wishing your nobility will be discovered is an increasingly dated notion.  Rather, the idea that there is a distinction between nobility of spirit and circumstance seems more believable.  It is an old, old notion that nobility is tied to beauty and goodness, and one propagated by the nobility.  Medieval expectations that beautiful souls resided in beautiful bodies operate on the same understanding as the axiom that “might makes right.”  God wouldn’t be so cruel as to put an ugly soul in a beautiful body, any more than he would allow a bad guy to win a duel.
In an age where those expectations are deemed foolish, though, Cinderellas who are poor but virtuous do very well for themselves.  Some come to us from different cultures, without the monarchy baggage that Europeans carry.  I’m thinking of my picture book collection here, which contains “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters,” an African tale from Zimbabwe where the girls are poor, but beautiful, and the king tests them in strikingly similar ways to Jesus testing his believers, to see who are virtuous–generous, and gentle in their dealings with others. Or there is the Native American story “The Rough-Face Girl,” about a girl whose face is scarred by sitting too close to the fire, and who wins her future husband by her ability to see his true nature (as a spirit being in the heavens, riding the swaths of Milky Way for sled runners).
In these versions, the kindness of the girl is rewarded, as well as her humility.  Those qualities are rewarded in the gender-bent versions as well.  Helen Ketteman’s “Bubba The Cowboy Prince” may be my favorite of these, where Bubba is just a farm hand who wins the hand of the wealthiest landowner around, Miz Lurleen, with the help of his fairy god-cow.  (I’m not kidding.  It’s glorious–both the fairy god-cow and the fact that the magic glass slipper has been replaced by the manky, mucky boot of a “real cowboy.”)

The upshot is the same, though, in all of these versions.  If you’re kind and humble, you’ll be rewarded by a step up socially and a happy marriage.  Those who try to trick or wheedle their way in to riches will not win.  Nice gals (and guys) do.  Maybe that’s why we keep rewriting Cinderella.  We really want that to be true.