Baby was sent to Earth in redemption for his mother, Pussy, and all the crummy deeds she had done. He was absolutely perfect: a desirable companion, half cat, half dog. There was certain goodness in him. Baby made sure that he spread his love evenly, and he tried to hide the fact that he favored our mother. He would watch over my sister and me as we fell asleep, and only then would he find his way to my mother’s bed.
He would come say hello to each of us.
Learning from Pussy’s sad story, Mother neutered Baby, and he never gave us any troubles. Except for one: like Pussy, Baby was choosy with his food. Unlike her, he was a cheap date. To most expensive meats, he preferred a fish stew — the cheapest kind ever.
The Soviet Union had a rather strained relationship with seafood. Before the revolution in 1917, Russian cuisine favored many fish dishes, like the famous ukha, made of pike, or kulebyaka, a savory pie made with different kinds of fish, eggs, onions, herbs, and wine.
As Anton Chekhov famously described it in “The Siren”:
To cut down any “temptations,” the USSR’s planned economy caused not only the most significant reduction in food diversity and the creation of the infamous Soviet menu (a tired list of salad Olivier, borscht, and cutlets), but also a strange disdain for anything “fishy” on a restaurant menu.
Ironically, in my time, Leningrad (now back to its historical name of St. Petersburg) was a seaport that never delivered any fresh fish to its citizens (with the exception of korushka, but that’s a whole different story). However, the government tried to present a nutritious approach by declaring Thursday an official “Fish Day” in public cafés and restaurants.
But people knew better.
The main reason for such mistrust was the representation of fish in the public eye. The semi-empty shelves of seafood sections in supermarkets held only towers of canned mackerel and frozen blocks of chopped pollack — eyes, tails, and all.
No sane person would touch it, but that questionable delicacy had a devotee: our cat. Baby didn’t mind the look. He cherished the taste. He even appreciated the horrific smell the fish released once thawed.
I was often sent out to buy the fish for him. Once, on the way home, I was lured by a movie poster and went in to watch the film.
In the middle of the show, my bag started leaking and released a pungent odor…
It probably looked like we were going to too much trouble just for a cat, but Baby wasn’t “just a cat.” He gave us much more than any family pet could. He became our confidante, our furry therapist.
By the time Baby joined our family, my parents’ relationship had completely deteriorated. Being as mismatched as they were, it was a miracle their union lasted for 15 years. Perhaps my father’s occupation helped. As a geologist, he was always away for six- or seven-month expeditions. His time at home was minimal and so insignificant that I can’t even remember much of it.
My fatherless situation wasn’t something special, though. In my universe, fathers were nice, but unnecessary — like luxury items, like eating consommé with an engraved silver spoon.
Only a few kids at my school had fathers present, as divorce rates were high — around 70% — in the early ‘80s.
Things changed when Father got into a bad helicopter crash during his expedition in Kamchatka. His back never felt the same, and at the age of 39, my father finally landed home in unfamiliar surroundings with his wife and two daughters, my sister already being a teenager.
Things were not working out.
At first, my mother was trying to be very civilized, but she lost her cool as the divorce became real. I was presented with a plan to make my father stay: I was supposed to beg him not to abandon me, his nine-year-old daughter. We were doing errands in Father’s car on his last day with us, and all the time Mother was giving me winks and whispers. As I proceeded to stay silent, she also gave me an evil eye.
As the door closed behind my father, all hell broke loose.
I hardly knew my father. Even more, I had no early memories of my father, or mother, or sister because I grew up in my grandma’s house. I was seven when I finally went to live with my family in their newly acquired two-bedroom apartment, as I started first grade in a neighborhood school. My sister was already going to the same school.
I contemplated talking to my father, but I couldn’t find the right words. I felt humiliated to beg someone who was basically a stranger, who never tried very hard to get to know me. I couldn’t do it, even if only out of pride. Women in my family always prized their self-reliance and independence. After all, my grandma was a fearless polar explorer and raised three children on her own.
After my parents’ divorce became final, everything spiraled down fast. To make up for “my betrayal,” I dutifully agreed to Mother’s suggestion and told Father:
But my rebellious 15-year-old sister refused to follow suit and continued to see Father, and, later on, his new wife and a baby brother.
My sister’s strong will was probably the main issue underneath her rocky relationship with Mother. Things got really dark. Mother was grieving her marriage in the most angry, ugly, and depressing way. My sister was pushing back.
I was working hard on becoming a wallflower.
But Baby went to work. Like a mighty tree in the middle of a foul megalopolis, Baby worked hard on transforming the toxic air of our household into something, well, breathable.
He wasn’t afraid to intervene, even in the most explosive interactions. He became a pro at ducking flying insults, cups, and shoes. He became a shameless flatterer.
He was a handkerchief for my mom to cry into,
and a snuggle pillow for my sister.
As for myself, I started lifelong training to attune to the needs of people around me, in order to pacify them and keep things under control. At best, I tried a peaceful approach inspired by Baby’s style.
It didn’t always work as planned
Sometimes I had to just stick to being a valerian root dispenser.
And now I came to the most difficult part of my story.
Somehow, we all survived into the summer, and as usual Baby and I were sent away to the countryside to enjoy fresh air. It was there that Baby could finally relax from his savior role and take joy in hanging out with his friends. He took great joy in it, too much, indeed. Those were times when people were still practicing unsafe sex and cats ran unprotected from fleas and other mishaps.
Upon returning to the city we discovered the dreadful spots on him.
Since I started writing this story, I’ve been trying to understand why simple ringworm caused such fear in the USSR, as it could only be compared to the fear of leprosy or the bubonic plague.
It was seen as something absolutely dreadful, potentially deadly, and very, very contagious.
The myth that ringworm in cats was incurable and that infected animals urgently needed to be euthanized was based on Soviet instructions for veterinarians. The famous Soviet “free medicine” has its own dark side: since pets did not bring economic benefits to the State, there was no point in treating them for infectious diseases. In addition, they didn’t want to have to treat an infection in a person and use up valuable doctors’ time and budget.
My mother took Baby to the vet, then to another, and another… Still the verdict was the same: the cat had to be put down immediately, and all of us should be put in a dermatology ward to be watched.
Losing Baby was a real tragedy. We all missed him terribly. We even stopped fighting for a while and united in our grief.
I would love to say that our family learned a lesson from Baby’s death, but no. The fights continued and even the sturdiest plants could not survive in our house. Some would think twice before bringing home another animal, but not us — three cats, two dogs, and a hamster met their untimely end in our home in a period of a few years.
We could have filled up a decent-sized pet cemetery.
It took my sister starting her own (happy) family to finally break out of the vicious cycle, as Nina became a loving human to many cats and a dog.
And for myself? It took meeting Murka.
Check out the previous story, Pussy From Hell.