My baby sister: The Cat WhispererBy ELIZABETH QUINN,
When I was in seventh grade and my middle sister, Katie, was in fifth grade, my parents had a new baby girl. My parents referred to Alex as our ‘unexpected joy.’ And, for the most part, she has been. I have some friends whose youngest child is, or will be, much younger than their next oldest child. They told me recently that they took an ‘old mom’ picture at the preschool parent meeting. One friend said that upon rising from the ubiquitous ‘squat, kneel, and squeeze in’ girl-group photo position—there was a lot more creaking and cracking than ‘bending and snapping’ (if that means nothing to you, then Google ‘bend and snap Legally Blonde’ and thank me later).
As parents, we find ways to worry about everything but I’m sure having siblings spaced out in a way you might not have planned can add another layer to that. Consider the following an encouraging, but cautionary, tale of spaced-out-sibling families.
Growing up, I loved telling people I had a sister that was 12 years younger than me. It’s unusual and made me feel cool when I shared it. As I got older, Alex made me feel cool, too. There are few things that serve as a better balm to junior high and high school angst than a beaming toddler who greets you at the door with a level of exuberance usually reserved for Labrador retriever puppies taking flight off a dock into a lake. It is really hard to hold on to that drama-pout when you’ve got 30 pounds of joy barreling down on you (almost always naked, maybe a diaper) the second you walk in the door.
Katie and I may have been screaming at each other the entire way home from school but would manage to put on happy faces when Alex came at us like we had been gone for years. Even selfish brats like us didn’t want to poison toddler happiness with teenage toxins.
Not that Katie and I were paragons of maturity in all our interactions with Alex. We had a fridge with extra drinks in the garage and nobody ever wanted to be the one to have to go out there. It was a glorious day when Alex was old enough to be our server. All we had to do was pretend to time her, ‘One…two…’ go back to watching television until we heard the door open again, ‘Eleven…twelve! Awesome! That was faster than last time, do you want me to time how long it takes you to go get my favorite blanket from the upstairs closet?’ When the allure of timing her wore off, we said, ‘Alex, will you do me a favor?’ so often that she eventually cracked and wailed, ‘Why do I always have to be the one to do faaaavorrrrs?’
When I was old enough to be going on dates and dressing up for high school dances and experiencing all the anxiety that comes with that age, my four-year-old lookalike, baby sister would tell me I looked like a beautiful princess in my homecoming dress—and I believed her. When she was older, she asked me to do her make-up for school dances and I got to tell her what a beauty she was. I hope she believed me.
In college, when I came home for a weekend, Alex would beg to sleep with me. She would fall asleep in my bed and, after going out with friends, I would find her curled up on my pillow—and also managing to take up the entire bed the way only a seven-year-old can. She used to grind her teeth in her sleep and it was so alarming that even a self-absorbed, 18-year-old felt the need to care for this tiny creature before she cracked a tooth. I would rub her clenched jaw until she relaxed and did that smacking thing small children do in their sleep. Helping her always made me feel quite grown-up and very tender towards her.
Although, sometimes she didn’t need any help. She was a talented escape artist. One afternoon, my mom was at a party across the street and left Katie in charge of Alex—one benefit to having kids really spaced out is built-in babysitters. Alex kept showing up at the party across the street. Mom took her home and fussed at Katie for letting her out. She returned to the party only to have Alex reappear a little while later. They couldn’t figure out how she was getting out until another neighbor drove by and saw Alex scaling the six-foot privacy fence wearing nothing but a diaper and a big, red bow in her hair. It’s still unclear what happened to her clothes on that last trip over the fence. At three years old she had figured out how to escape the house via the living room windows and showed early aptitude for free climbing.
I was grown and out of the house by the time she was an obnoxious teenager, so we didn’t butt heads or fight like sisters who live in the same house will. While it was nice to miss out on that aspect of sisterhood, I missed out on some of the good stuff too.
During her senior year of high school, one of Alex’s teachers was looking for homes for a litter of rescue kittens. One kitty had been bitten by a dog and her leg healed crooked before she was found. It didn’t slow her down a bit and Alex was smitten. My parents, on the other hand, were not thrilled with the idea of her acquiring a pet that would, undoubtedly, become their pet once she left for college in a few months. Their answer was a hard no. Repeatedly.
Alex, being Alex, did what any self-respecting baby of the family would do and played the odds that she would get her way. She snuck the kitten into the house and set up a kitty-condo in our other sister’s empty bedroom. There were food bowls and a litter box in the bathroom, entertaining toys scattered about the floor, a cushy bed nestled in the corner, and a carpet-covered cat tower for climbing and scratching. She named her Hermione.
Hermione was living the good life in Katie’s bedroom completely unbeknownst to my parents for almost two weeks. You might wonder how one does not notice a cat living in their home for two weeks, keep in mind—my parents were 57 years old at this point. They had gotten two kids through college and out into the world and were *this close* to an empty nest once their ‘unexpected joy’ baby flew the coop. They were in survival-mode and checking the bedrooms for stowaway kittens was not on their radar.
Alex would visit Hermione like the Cat Whisperer, but not because she was a whiz at training her—because she had to whisper so they didn’t get caught. There is no way to know how long Hermione would have gone undetected if not for Alex’s one mistake. She left the light on in Katie’s bathroom and my mom, noticing the glow through the window, went to investigate—and met Hermione. Alex’s cloistered cat was sitting on Katie’s bed, regal and haughty in that entitled cat-way. Mom screamed (possibly an expletive but she won’t fess up), Hermione fled under the bed. My mom recalls thinking for a split-second, ‘Do I have a squatter living in my house? And they brought their cat?’ But she discarded that far-fetched possibility for the obvious and screamed, ‘ALEX!!!!!’
Being the much older sister has its perks like not being close in age during the tumultuous years and being looked up to and asked to do her makeup for dances—but there’s a flip side as well. I can see with crystal clear clarity just how much the baby of the family gets away with. They let her keep the cat! I can assure you with all that is in me—I would have been grounded and rehoming that cat before you could say ‘covert cat concealment.’ I’m sure she got a ‘talking to’ but the only punishment she received was to rename the cat because my mom said she wasn’t hollering for a Hermione for the next 12-15 years after Alex left home and didn’t take the cat with her. They settled on Minnie.
Minnie went on to live a cushy life, spoiled by my mom and encouraged to perform tricks like drinking out of the kitchen sink faucet by my dad—it cracked him up every time. My mom was not thrilled about having her furniture shredded and found out about ‘kitty caps.’ They’re acrylic claws applied with adhesive that allow extension and retraction of claws but are rounded on the ends so they don’t destroy fabric. My mother took that cat to a feline nail specialist for new acrylics every single month. Sometimes Minnie’s nails were hot pink, sometimes iridescent purple, or—if Mom was feeling fancy—glittery pink. Minnie was quite the sight with one crooked front leg, cocked out at an angle reminiscent of red carpet-walking starlets striking a pose, with hot pink claws peeking out from her fur.
Maybe it’s first-child jealousy, but I just do not think my mom would have devoted herself to the care of a creature I foisted on her the way she did for Alex’s favored feline.
I’m not trying to say that all babies of the family are catered to more than us older siblings, but I am saying that my entire family can be making sandwiches from leftover turkey the day after Thanksgiving and by the time I’m making the last one for my toddler—my mom will be asking Alex (who is parked on the couch) what she wants on her sandwich.
Being the baby and the only millennial in the family—we give her plenty of grief. But Katie framed it best when she said that like the porridge in Goldilocks and Three Bears—one is too hot, one is too cold, but that last one is just right.
The ‘baby’ sister that named me ‘Shiba’ when she couldn’t say Elizabeth will be turning 26 next week. I am not sure I will ever stop calling her my baby sister, though. These days she has a bear of a golden retriever named Remus (she really loves Harry Potter), a full-time job in D.C., a side job as a certified yoga instructor, an art habit that makes us all wonder why she does anything else except make stupidly-impressive art, a boyfriend we love who has survived enough family vacations and not been scared off, and the gift of snark (she learned from the best) that she employs with a millennial-twist leaving me feeling old and out-of-sync. I know I’m going to need her to translate my own teenage daughters for me soon, and the tables will turn on who is asking whom for help. She may be cooler than me these days, my children firmly believe that, but she will always be my baby sister begging to ‘sleep in Shiba’s bed’ whenever I came home. Happy Birthday, A.
Elizabeth Quinn makes her home in Northeast Jackson with her husband Percy and four children.