I think it started when I was five or six years old. My sister and I were in the grassy yard of an old farmhouse, having followed our neighbors down the gravel road and away from the white plastic tables where our parents sat finishing their ice cream. It was a balmy night in the middle of July, and we were at an Amish creamery in Lancaster County. Our parents had piled the two of us and our younger brother into the family minivan, and a few families from the neighborhood had caravanned from our homes in nearby Chester County, in search of what one neighbor deemed, “The best ice cream you’ll ever have.”
After finishing my rocky road ice cream, which I actually remember my younger self feeling apathetic toward (to me, all ice cream was the best, because it was my favorite dessert), my sister and I had followed the neighbors to the yard because one of them said she wanted to “see the kittens.” This neighbor, Elyse, could not contain her excitement over these kittens.
“You guys, they’re so soft and fluffy,” she said, jumping up and down as she talked. “And they let you pick them up!” Her brown eyes grew wide.
I had never seen a kitten. They looked cute in the pictures I’d seen in the books about animals at the school library. I assumed they were like puppies – mini cats with a lot of energy. Puppies were fun. They squirmed when you held them and liked to climb on you and lick your face.
So in that grassy yard at the creamery, which was covered with 10-15 kittens from several litters, I watched Elyse pick up one of them, a fluffy white one, and assumed it would be like picking up a puppy.
Elyse moved fast, chasing the kitten as it ran and then waiting until she was directly over it before she picked it up with both hands. Soon, she was smoothing its fur as it nuzzled its head into the crook of her arm.
The Opposite of Puppy Love
I was curious, since I had only ever held a puppy. And these kittens were really cute. So, I figured I could do the same as Elyse. As an orange kitten darted past me, I ran after it, and when I was close, I reached down to pick it up. I grabbed the midsection of the kitten and started to lift it into the air, but its arms and legs seemed to get in the way of my hands and all of a sudden I felt this searing pain. I looked down and saw that the tops of my hands were covered with slashes of blood. In shock, I dropped the kitten, who willingly escaped my grasp.
“Ow!” I shouted.
Elyse glanced over at me, holding a different kitten. “Oh, that’s just their claws,” she said.
Cats have claws? I thought. With a dog at home and with friends who either didn’t have pets or had dogs, I hadn’t spent much time around cats.
“Why do they have them?” I asked Elyse.
“It’s so that they can protect themselves. Most people get their cats declawed, but kittens still have them,” she said.
Declawed? This concept of domestic animals with claws was so foreign to me, that I couldn’t imagine electing to “declaw” an animal.
Declawing aside, I tried to pick up more kittens that day at the creamery, and each time, the same thing happened, until I became so afraid of getting scratched that I actually ran away from the cats, and Elyse, rather than running toward them.
After that day, nearly every time I visited a house with a cat, I became obsessed with getting the cat to pay attention to me. Usually, the cat would ignore me. But on more than one occasion, the cat lashed out at me, had claws, and I ended up with scratches as a result. The more I got scratched, the more fearful of cats I became, and the worse my interactions with cats were, because the cats could sense my fear.
I finally developed a fear of cats, namely, of getting scratched by cats, that was so bad that I often refused to visit friends’ houses who had cats. I’d make plans to meet for dinner or have friends over to my place instead, or I’d wait in the car rather than going inside when picking someone up, just to avoid an interaction with a cat.
By 2017, my fear of cats had become completely irrational and downright inconvenient. I had to meet a nice cat (with claws) to shift my thinking and bring me back to reality.
Billysky to the Rescue
And that’s when I met Billysky. She’s a rescue cat whose owner is Paul, the creator of Paul Sees the World. Billysky is a beautiful black and white, long-haired cat with green eyes, a near-perfect profile, and claws. And I’m terrified of her.
After months of avoiding the interaction, Paul invited me over to meet Billysky, knowing of my plan to overcome my fear of cats. We sat at his dinner table and chatted, and Paul instructed me to “pretend as if she’s not even there.”
“She’s trying to figure you out. But, if you act disinterested, as if she’s not even there, it gives her the opportunity to do so.”
This was a breaking point for me in my understanding of cats, because this behavior is the opposite of what we usually exhibit for dogs. Dogs usually approach us, albeit cautiously, and genuinely want to be acknowledged with either an outstretch of our hand or maybe a pat on the head.
But, as we chatted about Paul’s plan for fall gardening, I listened to his advice about growing sweet potatoes, and Billysky climbed onto a kitchen chair, slinked across the table, and paused to sniff me. I focused on the seedlings and worked hard not to look at her. After what felt like the longest minutes, she crossed in front of me, climbed down a chair, and lept up to the windowsill, perching there to gaze at the traffic outside. The conversation continued, and eventually, I realized that Billysky was no longer on the windowsill. I glanced around until I saw that she was sitting at the bottom of the stairs, on the landing, staring at me. We locked eyes, and in an instant she was gone, having retreated upstairs.
“See?” Paul said.
Billysky eventually returned from the top of the stairs, assuming her spot on the landing. And again, I worked hard not to look at her.
“Eventually, she’ll get comfortable with you,” Paul said. “But for now, assume that she’s not there.”
I’ve visited Paul a few times since, and each time, I have ignored Billysky, in all her curiosity. And she has stayed downstairs, helping bring clarity to my lifelong curiosity about cats.