Not long after adopting a tiny chesnut- and-beige kitten, my daughter and her husband flew to Kenya to visit his family. They’d be gone for a month, so they asked me to cat-sit. At my house. My house, that was pet-free (and thus, carefree) for the first time in many, many years. Reluctantly, I agreed.
Though Marcy and Basil eventually came home from their vacation, the cat never did. They didn’t seem particularly eager for her to rejoin them. That’s how Zizi (short for “lazizi,” meaning “sweetheart” in Swahili, which, wow, what a misnomer) came to live with me. She was a mean little cuss when she got here, and she’s grown into a sizable mean cuss. The sort of cat who hisses at my adorable grandchildren. Who terrorizes pet sitters. Who bares her teeth at my husband and me—the very hands that feed her! She has to be sedated for trips to the vet, where, once we arrive, they give her even more sedatives before they dare to examine her. When we host parties, we have to barricade her in a bedroom and put up signs: WARNING: CAT DOES NOT PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS! You simply cannot stroke her back or scratch her chin with impunity; at any moment, she will turn on you.
Over time, though, I have come to sort of admire her attitude (catitude?). Society wants us all to be so warm and cuddly nowadays. Zizi says to hell with that. She lets it all hang out, undaunted by our chastisements or the grandkids’ desperate desire to make friends with her. She lives life on her own terms. That makes the rare occasions when she exhibits what someone might consider affection—when she wraps around my ankles as I open a can of Fancy Feast or deigns to chase one of the seven million toys I’ve bought her—all the more meaningful.
Zizi has been here for eight long years now. If she was going to warm up to us, she’d surely have done so by this point. The situation is hopeless. She makes life difficult in so many ways. And yet. This time of year, when chilly nights frost the lawn and porch lights flick on early, when I curl up on the sofa with a warm blanket over my lap, Zizi finds her way there, silent and stealthy, and makes herself a little nest. I scratch her ears, and she stretches her neck to meet my hand. Zizi and I have the same sort of détente we make with family for the holiday season, born of custom, and longing, and shared memories. Yes, cousin Sam is a stubborn boor, and Aunt Ellie drives you a little crazy with her nitpicking ways. But it’s a big cold world out there, and we seek solace wherever we can get it.
—Sandy Hingston is a deputy editor at Philadelphia Magazine.