The time has come to write the black cat story. It’s one of those “sister stories” – a story shared between me and my sisters. Families, be they blood or adopted, have little stories that only they know, stories that contribute to the family mythology. Stories that make the family what it is, that shape it and color it and give it flavor. This is one of those stories.
But first, for non-sisters to understand it, it will need some background. There are two parts to this background.
The first part comes from being a mom. When you have a baby, there’s too much going on to keep it to yourself. You don’t know always know what to do or how to react to this small human and its odd behavior, so you have to check with others to see if it’s normal. You can’t believe your child could draw such a lovely portrait of you or climb all the way up to the top of the bookshelf or dump glitter all over the living room floor in less than 10 seconds, so you share it with the world.
Okay, so that’s the first part of the background. Pretty normal stuff. The second part is a little weirder.
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Richard Jenkins. When he was a teenager, an English teacher and tutor named Philip Burton took him in and helped him become what he really wanted to be: an actor. Richard, in return, took on the last name Burton.
My great-great grandmother’s maiden name was Burton. Adelaide Victoria Burton, in fact. Being loyal to our name, even if it was a completely different clan, we decided that if one Burton family had adopted Richard Jenkins, we should adopt him, too. Informally, of course, since none of us ever met him. We even took to calling him Cousin Richie.
It’s nice having a famous cousin, even it’s only pretend.
And now the story comes together.
My two sisters, Greta (back then she was still Gretchen) and Rachel, shared the larger bedroom while I had the smaller one to myself. I’m guessing Rachel was around 4, and Gretchen would have been 9. One night, Rachel got up to go to the bathroom. When she came back, she climbed up on the foot of Gretchen’s bed (they were identical twin beds) and fell asleep. She probably had never been fully awake anyway.
Gretchen woke up, for reasons unknown, and when she saw a lump at the foot of her bed – a lump with dark hair – she ran for Mama. “There’s a black cat on my bed!”
When Mama came to see, she found Rachel fast asleep on Gretchen’s bed. She put Rachel into her own bed, tucked Gretchen in, and that was the end of the incident.
Only it wasn’t.
Mama had been so amused by the incident, along with being a bit miffed at being awakened in the middle of the night, that the next day, over the phone, she told her mother about it. Gretchen and I overheard her from the next room. Gretchen rolled her green eyes. “Does she have to tell Mema?” (Mema was Mama’s mama, granddaughter of the previously mentioned A.V. Burton.)
Being older – I must have been around 13 – I knew she had to tell. Moms liked doing things to embarrass their kids. Mama would tell Mema, and Mama would tell our neighbors, and Mema would tell her neighbors, and before you knew it…
“I bet even Richard Burton will hear about it,” one of us said. I’m pretty sure it was me. It sounded like me. Keep in mind, this would have been around 1976, so the famous couple was working on their second marriage at the time and was quite popular in the tabloids.
“And then he’ll tell Elizabeth Taylor, and she’ll tell reporters, and everyone will know,” Gretchen said miserably. “But it’s not fair. Rachel looked just like a cat.”
From that day forth, any time anyone did anything, one of us would simply say, “Elizabeth Taylor,” and we’d nod in sympathy, knowing what would come next.
At any rate, I try to remember the black cat story when I deal with my own daughter. My daughter is my only child and even though she has a (real) famous cousin who’s an actor (that’s another story), she doesn’t have a sibling here to bond with and tell stories with. She never had a comrade-in-arms to dream up an Elizabeth Taylor/cat story to explain my breaches of privacy. But I did have sisters, and I try to remember how awful we felt when my mother told the world what we did. Sometimes it’s impossible to keep my mouth shut because my daughter does something so outstanding or outrageous or out of control that I just have to let it out, or my brain will explode. But at least I try to keep it to myself.
Both Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are gone now, as is Greta, so the Black Cat story doesn’t mean much anymore. But you know, once in a while, I find myself wondering if one of Richard Burton’s children ever heard of the extremely distant, pretend-adopted cousin who once mistook her sister for a black cat and had to suffer the indignity of the whole world knowing about it.