Kitty and Me
Nearly a decade ago, I set out across the country to track down old boyfriends, point my video camera at each, and ask: So, why’d you dump me?
Later, I planned to edit in my reactions to their responses with each riposte beginning: Oh, Really? (a sentiment that would double as documentary title). Though one old beau, a sportsman, admitted off-camera in a Tennessee drawl, "I have thrown back a lot of keepers," no one else cared to participate.
Plan B, developed on the fly, sounds vain on the surface, but proved to be deflating at times. Since I was visiting numerous platonic friends and family on this trip, I figured I’d ask them to tell me what they thought of me. The most memorable response came from my sister, Kitty.
You stole my thunder, she said into the camera, recalling how, after being the baby for three and a half years, suddenly here I came, new screaming infant. She added: To punish me when I was bad, they made me sleep next to you!
Ours was an oddly pronounced competition, louder than a whisper but not as blatant as some sibling competitions. In our family, there are eight daughters and one son, which meant nearly every sister grouped off with another sister or two to form a sub-pod. I was odd girl out in these configurations, being the only one paired with my brother.
Kitty distanced herself from me when she could and tortured me when she couldn’t, but this wickedness was reserved for home use only. In the junior/senior high school we both attended, she was the tiny one, the quiet one, the one awarded the adorable little character roles in school plays. Her shadow may have been microscopic, but over me it was dark. I was bigger and louder, the classic middle child, smarting off, begging for the attention of one teacher or another only to be asked, repeatedly, "Why can’t you be like Kitty? She’s so sweet. So quiet."
It was not unusual in our family to leave home at eighteen. In fact, it was rather expected. And so, when I was just fourteen, Kitty was gone, moved to an apartment, a working girl out in the world. Education was not smiled upon by our parents, who viewed academic pursuits as an elitist obstacle to more practical vocations: secretary, wife, mother. While our oldest sister did study to be a teacher, the next two— Mare and Kitty— partook in a typing pool (whatever that was).
As my turn approached to leave, I mulled my options. Not sure I wanted to attend college, my father’s proclamation that he was not paying for college and that I should just find a job and a husband tipped the scale. I sent out applications pronto. An excellent private school accepted me but my parents said no, funding was not available. My high school counselor (who would apologize for this many years later) failed to mention the possibility of financial aid to me. He said, "Your parents don’t have any money. Just go to the state school and be a teacher."
I did go to that state school for precisely one semester. Living at home drove me mad. I needed out. Not understanding there was a difference between Ivy League and party school, I set my straight-A, extra-curricular heavy sights on a mediocre Florida state school, largely because my crush-of-the-moment once attended (I could breathe the air he once had), plus it was over a thousand miles away from my oppressive paternal unit.
That school had this motto: With an Accent on Learning. It was, at times, the merest trace of an accent. I had no idea I needed to have a major to graduate. I was taught never to take classes between 10 and 2 (prime tanning hours), and my burgeoning drinking binges found roots in the makings of a serious alcohol problem.
Still, I learned. I did. I can tell you the names of the teachers who coaxed and prodded and demanded. I recall Frank Fabry standing in the front of class, dragging on his cigarette, giving me my first taste of Shakespeare. Pat Collins introducing me to books other kids had read in high school—The Great Gatsby, Brave New World, The Awakening. Professors Flora Zbar and Marilyn Myerson introducing me to feminism. The friends I made, and still have and see, who helped shape my life in a way that, finally, I love. And the school newspaper -- a job I fell into accidentally and the thing that launched my career.
Meanwhile, Kitty kept typing. She married her high school sweetheart, the one who got a degree from the private school I couldn’t afford to attend. They had two kids, moved from a big house to a bigger house, to an even bigger house. Added a vacation house. Went to Europe.
I pursued writing, had a kid, wound up alone with the kid, grew increasingly poorer courtesy of these circumstances combined. It took me many years to realize why Kitty thought I was perpetually depressed— for so long, this was the only time I called. Desperate, hurting, breaking up with another bad man, unsure when and how the next batch of groceries might materialize. I called her, crying, resenting her wealth. To my embarrassment and gratitude, she’d often drop twenty or fifty in the mail to help.
And yet over on my side of the fence, I would discover there was a little patch of green she envied. My education. You got to go to college she lamented, regularly. I’d point out to her: no, I didn’t "get" to go. I ran away to college, procuring student loans, doing all the paperwork, working my way through, figuring it out on my own.
I’d add that, given her financial situation and the fact that her kids were in school fulltime, surely she could go to college now. No, she said. Not until she had a plan, a plan that would lead to a career. I laughed at this. A career? Just go! I admonished. Take belly dancing, organic chemistry, comp 101. Just have fun!
Kitty made a plan, finally. My sporadic visits home, she’d eagerly describe her classes, her papers, her challenging professors. Last May, two months shy of 43, after meeting required credit hours spread over countless semesters, she graduated. I sent her a custom made trophy. On the left: a karate girl, kicking toward the right. On the right: a horse’s behind, with an inscription noting her collegiate achievement kicks ass.
I mailed it overnight express, though this was out of my budget, sending it care of Mare, who brought it to the restaurant where all the siblings gathered to toast Kitty’s achievement. I attended via cell phone.
"I laughed so hard I had to take a Tylenol," she told me, of opening her gift. "But it was so expensive, mailing it overnight!"
"Don’t worry," I said, "Steve will wind up paying for it." We laughed together at this reference to her husband’s salary, my reminder at how much I appreciated her donations over the years.
A week later, her graduation
announcement came. "Your gift meant a lot to me since you always
believed in me that I could graduate college," she wrote. I smiled.
At her words. And at the twenty-dollar bill tucked in there with them.