In 1977 Mum, my sisters and I lived in a cute duplex house in the Perth suburb of Maylands. It was a great place to live, near the river and close to our primary school. Mum decorated the house in the fashion of the day with orange carpet and purple wallpaper, although it may have been the other way around. One afternoon Mum gave us packets of flower seeds and instructed us to plant them. In a few weeks the front garden was a riot of old fashioned flowers like stocks, nasturtiums and sweet peas. We spent hours playing fashion shows in the garden with our Barbie dolls, the flowers making a glamorous backdrop to the festivities.
Our happiness was complete when Mum let us have a kitten. He was a pretty tabby with big green eyes and lovely tiger stripes. I am sure we gave him a cute name like Tiger or Fluffy but he was soon re-christened Killer because he killed things. A lot of things. Barely a day passed without our finding a clump of lifeless feathers, a lizard’s head or the backside of a mouse lying on the doorstep. We found Killer’s habit distressing but in 1970’s Australia, cats and dogs lived outside, not in the house. Micro chipping and enclosed cat runs were in the more environmentally aware future.
One afternoon we came home from school to catch Killer in the act, with a small yellow bird clamped in his jaws. We grabbed him and managed to rescue the bird, which wasn’t hurt but couldn’t fly away. This bird was different to his usual victims and we guessed he had snatched it from our neighbor’s aviary. After a quick conference we decided not to turn KIller in to the neighbors, which meant we had to keep our new bird a secret from Mum, who would have made us return it. Besides, we had always wanted a canary.
My sister (the middle one) remembered the old birdcage rusting away in the disused chicken run. Before long we had the canary safely in the cage and hidden in the back garden with a generous supply of Jody’s budgie food. We may have been too liberal with the food because in a matter of days the canary had grown to an astonishing size. He was almost busting out of the cage. Reluctantly we confessed to Mum, who came to evaluate the situation and informed us, with much hilarity, that our “canary” was actually one of our neighbor’s chickens. Sadly we returned our battery hen to the bemused neighbors.
A few weeks after this incident Killer’s murderous activities came to a sad end. We woke one winter morning and realized he was missing. Four days passed and still no Killer. On the fifth day Mum opened the front door and found Killer huddled on the step. He was obviously very sick or injured. Mum scooped him up and ran up the road to get help. My last glimpse of Killer was his tiger tail dangling under Mum’s arm. I knew I would never see him again.
How did my mother handle this turn of events? She told us Killer was fine and had gone on a holiday. My sisters (aged five and six) accepted this, especially after Mum reassured them Killer had telephoned her. He was having a wonderful time. As the oldest child, I was more skeptical because we didn’t have a phone. Over the next few months, Mum kept to her story and by the time it dawned on us Killer wasn’t returning from scuba diving in the Maldives we were used to his absence and eventually forgot about him.
Current parenting advice is to be honest with children about what I have dubbed the “three D’s” –divorce, disease and death. In this post GFC world, parents could add debt to the dreaded trio. Discussions about death and the possibility of an afterlife (dogs go to heaven- the jury is out on cats) can be shaped to fit the family’s spiritual beliefs. My husband attempted this with my stepdaughter (who was four) following the death of Thumper, the guinea pig. After a formal funeral and burial complete with heartfelt prayers and a pop-stick cross they returned to the house for a solemn afternoon. The silent contemplation of life’s mysteries was broken by my stepdaughter wanting to know when she could go and get Thumper, as she wanted to play with him.
Mum’s desire to protect us wasn’t unusual. A surprising number of our friends had destructive dogs that went to live on a farm, kindly arranged by the vet. Children learn the harsh realities of life soon enough. My mother evaluated our lives and decided the death of a cherished pet was something we didn’t need to be dealing with. I never did find out what happened to Killer (karma, I suspect) but I like to think of him on his eternal holiday, chasing mice. I just hope he has enough credit on his phone.