Meems and the Kittens
The summer after my fifth grade year, my parents divorced. The year was 1969. Meems, Kathy (my younger sister) and I moved to Waco to be close to my Uncle Bill and Aunt Wanda. My brother, Kirk, stayed in Carthage with our dad. There are many nooks and crannies of stories within the story of that parting. I'll leave those for another time. Another place.
There were so many unknowns during the first months of the dissolution of the Helen and Dobo Kinzbach family. There would be no more Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Kinzbach. Where would we live? Meems found a tiny rent house on South 25th Street in Waco that she first furnished with a wobbly card table with four chairs, a twin bed in the living room that served both as our couch and her bed and a double bed in the room I shared with my sister. How would we survive? With the help of Uncle Bill, Meems quickly secured a job teaching 6th grade science and art. Our basic needs were met. Shelter, food, and a meager school teacher income. Mom's three brothers surrounded us with love and support.
Then, came Christmas. Meems pinched pennies to keep food on the table, and she stayed up long after we went to bed sewing school clothes for us. There was no extra money for a Christmas tree. Our Christmas decorations and traditions had been left behind in Carthage awaiting the come-to-Jesus meeting during which every pot, pan, and family photo would be divided between our parents.
During Christmases past when we were still a bona fide family, we would pile into Dad's El Camino - Mom, Dad and Kathy snuggly tucked into the warm cab while Kirk and I were bundled up in our winter coats in the open back bed. Off we'd sail onto the Marshall Highway heading north into the thick of the piney woods gulping the wild, fresh winter wind that swirled around us. Kirk and I sang Christmas carols at the top of our lungs. It was a happy day. We were going in search of a youthful loblolly pine tree that bore some sort of resemblance to a classic conical Christmas tree, and we took the assignment very seriously. Dad would pull the El Camino over on the side of the highway and out we'd go traipsing into the woods laughing and hollering, "I want a tree so tall that it will touch the ceiling!" and "I want it to be giant!!!" The thrill of the hunt coupled with the fierce chops of the axe on the trunk of the chosen tree ringing out through the chill of the air sent our spirits soaring. The very best part of the adventure came once the tall and giant tree was loaded up into the back of the car. Kirk and I would nestle amongst its boughs with our backs pressed up against the cab. Our job was to keep the tree from flying out of the bed of the El Camino onto the highway as we sped back to East Neal Street.
That Christmas of 1969, Grandma Williams loaned us a pitiful 5-foot aluminum Christmas tree to help brighten up our Waco rent house. She didn't, however, have the lighted color wheel needed to simulate Christmas tree lights. An aluminum Christmas tree without the color wheel was no Christmas tree at all. We begged Mom to buy just one strand of lights to put on the tree. She assured us that they were too expensive and would probably electrocute us when they came in contact with the metalic monstrosity we were calling a Christmas tree. Ever the art teacher, she gave us some sheets of red and green construction paper so that we could make our own ornaments which would be "way better than store bought ones." She splurged on small candy canes that were lined up like tin soldiers in one long strip of cellophane. We carefully unwrapped each candy cane and placed them on the tree. I tied red curling ribbon bows on the tip of each branch. It wasn't much to look at, but it was ours.
As the days in December were checked off the calendar, Meems told us that we girls were to go to Carthage to spend Christmas with our dad. He was a man who smoked a lot, drank a lot, and yelled a lot. The thought of spending any amount of time with him was not a happy thought for me. "I'm the one he's mad at. He'll be sweet to you! He won't yell at you!" she said trying to convince us that Christmas with him would be just peachy. I begged and cried, "I just want to be here with you! It won't be Christmas without you!" She would not budge on the subject. "Your daddy and Kirk will be too sad if you don't go. You'll get to play with your friends! I'll be fine here in Waco with Aunt Wanda and Uncle Billy." No amount of tears would sway her. When school dismissed for the holidays, Meems put Kathy and me on a Greyhound bus with our flower power cloth suitcases and a paper sack containing bologna sandwiches (wrapped neatly in waxed paper), Red Delicious apples, and a few pieces of Christmas candy. With a huff and puff of the bus, off we sped to Carthage.
Daddy picked us up at the bus station and drove us home. We walked into our house on East Neal Street for the first time since the abrupt exodus the last summer. The house had grown haggard and sad. "Where's the Christmas tree?" I asked. Not only was there no tree, there was no trace of anything remotely Christmasy in sight. "I was waiting on you girls to come help Kirk and me pick it out," he answered. Half-heartedly, the next day we headed out into the piney woods to cut down a tree. Back at home, we stood the tree up on its stand and laced the multi-colored lights throughout its branches. I turned on the stereo and slipped the "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" album onto the turn table. After the scratchy intro, the Ray Conniff singers filled the room with Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. Together, we unwrapped the ornaments of Christmases past and placed them on the tree trying to avoid the stinging poke of the long pine needles. We missed our mother's laughter and singing. She was the heart of Christmas as we knew it.
Christmas eve finally came. We sat on the hard carpet in our parents' (now just Dad's) bedroom watching Christmas specials on the massive black and white TV. There were no cookie press Christmas tree cookies or squares of homemade fudge tucked into tins in the kitchen. There was no mention of who was going to get up early in the morning to put the turkey in the oven. The only thing that made that day any different from, say, an ordinary Tuesday in September was TV programming. When the 10:00 news came on, Dad told us that we needed to head to bed so that Santa Claus could come leave our presents. In our minds, it was still unclear whether Santa knew that we now lived in Waco and were simply visiting Carthage. There was just no telling where he would leave our toys. I was in 6th grade. With the upheaval in family life, I still held tight to the belief that Santa Claus was a benevolent benefactor who would not let me down.
As I curled up in my bed that night next to Kathy, tears trickled from my cheeks down to my pillowcase. I missed my mother so much, I swear it made my heart hurt. I came to the grim realization that without my mother, there would be no Christmas. Santa would never find us. Despite the presence of a loblolly pine standing in the corner of the living room and the possibility of finding presents under the tree the next morning, I couldn't "feel" Christmas without my mother. Eventually, sleep gently came and lead me to my dreams.
Just before dawn, Dad came into our room and exclaimed as he always had, "Get up! Santa Claus came!" The three of us bounded out of bed and raced down the hall to the living room. Surely, Santa had left something special under the tree knowing how sad I was without my mother. Surely.
Turning from the hall into the living room, I looked towards the tree and the piles of gifts below it. Then, I saw HER. My mother. She was standing next to the tree gently holding two kittens in her folded arms. My heart exploded. "MOM!!!" I ran across the living room and wrapped my arms tightly around both her and the kittens. "You're here!!! I can't believe it!!! You're here!!!" The Christmas of Sadness was instantly redeemed with great joy.
Meems left Waco at 2AM that Christmas morning and drove with two mewling kittens through the dark night all the way to Carthage to surprise us. She came all by herself with no fear of having a flat tire or car trouble in the middle of nowhere. She was brave, and she was strong. It was that day that she became my hero. She would go without sleep. Eat the smallest pork chop. Attend every band concert and drill team performance. Sew on Easter dresses 'til the wee hours of the morning. Drive hours through the darkness with crying kittens peeing on the back seat floorboards. She would go the distance.
She was the rock in my life of uncertainty.
So, that is the story of Meems and the Kittens. The worst Christmas of my childhood that turned miraculously joyful. God and His angels and Santa were watching over me. Hopefully, reading this short chapter of my life will help you understand why I completely, absolutely, and totally adore the Meems.
As for the Kittens:
Kathy's cat had straw-colored fluffy fur that matched her own blonde locks. Mine was a Siamese mix. Meems explained that when she saw Percy (I named her Percy), she thought of how I (after seeing "Lady and the Tramp") used to run around the house singing "We are Sigh-uh-me-eez if you plee-eez! We are Sigh-uh-me-eez if you don't please!"
What did Kathy name her cat? Kitty. That drove me cuh-ray-zee. "You can't name a cat Kitty! That's like naming a dog Puppy. That's just dumb!"
Kathy and Kitty
I still have the stocking that Kathy made for Kitty 48 years ago.