July 23rd, 2007

Eleanor the First

From Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1917)…possibly the best-loved book of my childhood…possibly the best-loved book of my mother’s childhood, too. I hope you like it.

“[Aunt Abigail] seemed for the moment to have forgotten all about the new-comer. Elizabeth Ann sat on the wooden chair, her feet hanging (she had been taught that it was not manners to put her feet on the rungs), looking about her with miserable, homesick eyes. What an ugly, low-ceilinged room, with only a couple of horrid kerosene lamps for light; and they didn’t keep any girl, evidently; and they were going to eat right in the kitchen like poor people; and nobody spoke to her or looked ar her or asked her how she had ‘stood the trip’; and here she was, millions of miles from Aunt Frances, without anybody to take care of her. She began to feel the tight place in her throat which, by thinking about hard, she could always turn into tears, and presently her eyes began to water.

Aunt Abigail was not looking at her at all, but she now stopped short in one of her rushes to the table, and set down the butter-plate she was carrying, and said ‘There!’as if she had forgotten something. She stooped – it was perfectly amazing how spry she was – and pulled out from under the stove a half-grown kitten, very sleepy, yawning and stretching, and blinking its eyes. ‘There, Betsy!’ said Aunt Abigail, putting the little yellow and white ball into the child’s lap. ‘There is one of old Whitey’s kittens that didn’t get given away last summer, and she pesters the life out of me. I’ve got so much to do. When I heard you were coming, I thought maybe you would take care of her for me. If you want to, enough to bother to feed her and all, you can have her for your own.’

Elizabeth Ann bent her thin face over the warm, furry, friendly little animal. She could not speak. She had always wanted a kitten, but Aunt Frances and Aunt Harriet and Grace had always been sure that cats brought diptheria and tonsillitis and all sorts of dreadful diseases to delicate little girls. She was afraid to move for fear the little thing wouuld jump down and run away, but as she bent cautiously toward it the necktie of her middy blouse and the kitten in the middle of a yawn struck swiftly at it with a soft paw. Then, still too sleepy to play, it turned its head and began to lick Elizabeth Ann’s hand with a rough little tongue. Perhaps you can imagine how thrilled the little girl was at this! She held her hand perfectly still until the kitten stopped and suddenly began washing its own face, and then she put her hands under it and very awkwardly lifted it up, burying her face in the soft fur. The kitten yawned again, and from the pink-lined mouth came a fresh milky breath. ‘Oh!’ said Elizabeth Ann under her breath. ‘Oh you DARLING!’ The kitten looked at her with bored speculative eyes.

Elizabeth Ann looked up now at Aunt Abigail and said, ‘What is its name, please?’ But the old woman was busy turning over a griddle full of pancakes and did not hear. On the train Elizabeth Ann had resolved not to call these hateful relatives by the same name she had for dear Aunt Frances, but now she forgot that resolution and said, again, “Oh, Aunt Abigail, what is its name?’

Aunt Abigail faced her blankly. ‘Name?’ she asked. ‘Whose…..oh the kitten’s? Goodness,child, I stopped racking my brain for kitten names sixty years ago. Name it yourself. It’s yours.’

Elizabeth Ann had already named it in her own mind, the name she had always thought she WOULD call a kitten by, if she ever had one. It was Eleanor, the prettiest name she knew.

Aunt Abigail pushed a pitcher toward her. ‘There’s the cat’s saucer under the sink. Do you want to give it some milk?’

Elizabeth Ann got down from her chair, poured some milk in to the saucer, and called: “Here, Eleanor! Here, Eleanor!’

Aunt Abigail looked at her sharply out of the corner of her eye and her lips twitched, but her face was quite serious as moments later she carried the last plate of pancakes to the table.”

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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