By Garrett Bauman
We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance.
The "Free Kitten" sign was nailed to a tree outside a rundown stone farmhouse. Carol and I drove in. Our four children, ages two to seven, were squeezed in the back seat like a litter of kittens in a shoebox. It was our first summer married, each of us bringing two children from first marriages. People predicted we wouldn't make it. Too much baggage on both sides, they said. Too much harm had been done to everybody involved. Damaged goods. Don't jump into something like this. Give it time to be sure. What they were really saying was give it time to die. But we were not dead inside. If you love someone, you should go for it with all you have. We got married before the ink on the divorces was dry, scraped together a minimal down payment for a handyman's special house, and now wanted a family pet to help bond our blended family. We had decided there would be no stepchildren in this family, no "her" children or "my" children, only "ours." A kitten would be a life that belonged to all six of us.
The farmwoman searched the barn without luck, then hollered for her nine-year-old daughter. When the girl appeared, the woman said, "Where's that dang cat of yours?" The girl pulled a dirty gray fur ball from her jacket pocket. The tiny kitten lay limp. Crumbs and pocket lint clung to it. Its mother had been run over and killed by a truck. The plucky girl had fed the litter of three-week-old kittens with an eyedropper, but they wasted away and died one by one until only this kitten remained. He came from barn cats, probably had fleas and worms, and was about as damaged as goods come. But he was gentle from being handled and could now lap milk. Our children cooed and giggled as they passed him around. Like us, he needed a second chance.
In our kitchen sink, we lathered him to kill fleas and to clean off the grunge from the pockets he'd been carried in. The grime rinsed away to reveal bright orange fur. He was like a little orange sun in our drab kitchen. When we dried and fluffed him up, our oldest, Cindy, said, "What'll we call him?"
"How about holding a family meeting to decide?" I suggested.
"Let's do it like Indians!" our second-oldest, Amy, said. We had been pretending we were a Native American tribe with names like "Tiger Lily" and "Princess Moon Flower" to help bond us.
"Indians don't have meetings," Cindy said.
"They have powwows," I said. "They sit in a circle by the fire and vote to make decisions."
"And they eat cake," my wife added, to encourage enthusiasm.
So we sat in front of the fireplace, happily eating "buffalo" cake while the orange kitten scampered inside our circle. He jumped after strings and spun tiny paws as he skidded across the wood floor. "What'll we name him?"
"Cake!" our youngest, Jeremy, said.
The three girls groaned.
He tried again. "Truck!"
"You can't call a cat 'Cake' or 'Truck'," Diana sighed.
"Now, girls," I said. "In a powwow everybody has a chance to speak."
"Let's call him Powwow!"
Powwow? Carol looked at me and I looked at her. A ball of fluff named Powwow would represent our new family? I'd hoped for a name with more zing or glitter, but the looks on our children's faces told me this was exactly what we wanted. They solemnly passed little Powwow around the circle, each kissing him on the head.
We've brought fourteen other cats into our home since then; all but one were strays or orphans. Almost all have now passed on, but Powwow lived with us for twenty-three years. That's a lot longer than anyone would have guessed. He attended many naming powwows for other kittens. He supervised three litters, and unlike most male cats, he let kittens climb over him and wrestle his tail. If one annoyed him too much, he would only rest a paw on its head to hold it in a gentle time-out for a few seconds, then lick the kitten to let it know he forgave it, like a good father. I needed to be reminded of that at times during the next twenty years. Maybe he was grateful for the kindness of that little farm girl. Maybe it was just his nature. But he taught us that since we are all thrown together in this world, we ought to care for each other and not be stingy with second chances. Several times he even brought home stray cats for shelter and food. For him, strangers were simply family you have not met. That was a good message for our blended family.
Powwow saw our children off to kindergarten and college and was there when they returned on vacations, standing in line with them for a sample morsel of turkey before dinner. When a boyfriend turned sour, when Carol was in a car accident, when any of us needed comfort, Powwow sensed our distress and curled close, pressing his warmth into us. He visited the neighbors and sometimes stayed for a meal and slept in bed with them. He was a sociable guy who made up for lost family by liking everybody. He taught us that the world was our family. And that second chances can be the best thing that ever happened to you.