It was the end of the summer of 1992. Ed and I had bought a beautiful big old house and moved into it with my two children, seven-year-old Sabrina and four-year-old Ben. It seemed like the right time to get a kitten. We knew if we took the kids with us to the animal shelter, making a decision would be complicated — the two of them could never agree on anything. So we decided to go on the weekend, when they were at their father’s house, and then surprise them when they came home.
At the shelter there were many sweet kittens to choose from. I fell in love with a fluffy little brown and black tabby who reminded me of my first cat, Loretta (named after the character in the Beatles’ song “Get Back” so that I could say “Get back, Loretta” in a Paul McCartney voice when she was being annoying). Ed was much more interested in an elegant all-gray one, which we later learned was a Russian Blue. We were at an impasse. So we solved the problem the only way possible, by adopting them both. They were both female, about the same size, and even though they were from different litters, we were confident we could raise them as sisters. We put them in the cardboard carrying cases and took them home.
What to name them? We decided that we would pick out names before the kids got home. We feared that they would come up with names that might not wear well, judging by what they had named their stuffed animals and other objects. For instance, Ben had named one of our oven mitts, which looked like a frog, Happy Siding. We have no idea how he came up with that name, and at this point neither does he, but we still have that oven mitt, and we still call it Happy Siding. However, if you were trying to get your cat to come inside, that isn’t the kind of name you would want to be calling out all over the neighborhood.
Since the 1992 presidential campaign was in full swing, we were inspired to name them Hillary and Tipper. We joked that if the election went the wrong way, we would have to change their names to Barbara and Marilyn. But we were betting on winning that year, which we did, so the names turned out to be perfect.
The kids were ecstatic when they came home and were introduced to Hillary and Tipper. Here is a picture taken at some later point when we managed to get all four of them to sit still for a minute, a rare event.
The cats soon learned to jump on the kids’ beds in the morning to wake them up, and they became known as the “furry alarm clocks.” For several years Ben thought it was a good idea to wear Hillary as a hat, and he invariably got scratched as a result, but that never deterred him from trying.
Six years later, in 1998, Hillary got hit by a car. Molly was two years old then, and we had a nanny who took care of her during the day while I was at work. The two of them were standing looking out the picture window in our living room and actually saw it happen. Hillary, being gray, blended in with the asphalt. There is a speed bump right outside our house, and she was lying in the curve of the street and the speed bump, and was perfectly camouflaged. I don’t think the driver in the car even knew what had happened. Hillary’s leg was bleeding, but she managed to drag herself to the bushes in front of our house. The nanny called me at work, and in her best calm-nanny voice said, “Molly is fine [they always have to assure you about the kid first], but Hillary just got hit by a car.” I had her call a mobile veterinarian who would come to our house to treat Hillary. The vet gently picked her up from the bushes and took her into his RV hospital parked at the curb. He determined that her leg was broken, but she was otherwise uninjured. He cleaned her up, put a cast on her leg, and said he thought the broken bone would heal and be fine.
The nanny kept a daily log the whole time she worked for us, where she wrote down everything important that happened. I have dozens of spiral notebooks filled with these details of Molly’s life. On May 14, 1998, under messages, it says “The mobile vet arrived at 10:05 am to treat Hillary, who was hit by a car this morning. The doctor left at 1:20 pm. I put Hillary on a towel in a box and gave her lots of TLC.” Under the list of “Molly’s Favorites” for the day was “looking through the yellow pages under vets (pictures of dogs and cats)” and later, after the swings at the playground and a walk through the neighborhood, “taking care of Hillary.”
It turned out Hillary’s bone did heal, but she developed gangrene, and the leg ultimately had to be amputated. Amazingly, she learned very quickly how to get around on three legs, and managed to do everything she had done before, even climbing on the roof of the house.
Twelve years after the accident, at the ripe old age of eighteen, Hillary died. She seemed listless for a couple of days, and we debated taking her to the vet, but we procrastinated about it, and then one morning she was gone. We were grief-stricken, and lavished extra attention on poor old Tipper, glad that she still seemed to be healthy. But I think she missed Hillary even more than we did. One day a couple of months later, without having shown any signs of being sick, Tipper died too. Neither Sabrina nor Ben was living at home then, Ben at college in Cambridge, and Sabrina in graduate school in England. It was so hard to tell them that their sweet pets were gone. Molly had gotten her own kitten the year before as a bat mitzvah present, so even though she was sad about the older cats, she was comforted by Mitzi, the mitzvah cat.
Hillary and Tipper are buried close together in our back yard near the camellia bush. Their graves, along with those of numerous goldfish, are why we can never move away from this house!
For a dog person to enjoy a cat story says a great deal about the story teller (and story told). In many ways, the story was about loss — nearly, and then finally, but in that way also made clear just how meaningful Hillary’s and Tipper’s lives were to the whole family. Very moving.
Thanks John. I tried to make it amusing as well as moving, don’t know if I succeeded or not. When Hillary Clinton ran for president the first time, in 2008, our Hillary cat was pretty excited about it.
Lovely, poignant saga of your cats and how they became full members of your family. I especially admire the creativity of their names—Hillary, Tipper, Mitzi, and Loretta. (A male would have been Jojo, right?) In contrast, my unimaginative family had a cat named Fluffy and a miniature schnauzer named Heidi.
Thanks John. Mitzi came to us with the name Gretel, but Molly didn’t like that, so we needed to think of a new name. I was the one who thought of Mitzi for mitzvah. We later learned that Mitzi is a common name for cats in Austria and in Israel (not too many things those two countries have in common).
Suzy, I am very impressed with your cat-naming skills and how much your family embraced Hillary and Tipper. Can’t believe Hillary lasted as long as she did after her terrible accident, a great testament to the great care and love she received. I think you are correct, Tipper died of a broken heart. So glad you already had Mitzi…made things easier for all of you. Thank you for sharing your loved ones with us.
Thanks Betsy. We name everything here, not just cats — oven mitts, cars, computers, and of course myriad stuffed animals. So we have had lots of practice!
A well-made and emotive story, Suzy. I was surprised, as I should have been, by the forceful introduction of injury, taking the normal world of cats, kids and grownups into the realm of life and death. Even through the ‘taking care of Hillary’ healing, you wrote with lovely emotion about caretaking and jeopardy. You also captured Tipper’s grief beautifully. I hope most readers can empathize. A sweet tale.