Renie Szilak Burghardt
When my nineteen-year-old mother died two weeks after giving birth to me, I inherited her cat, Paprika. He was a gentle giant, with orange stripes and yellow eyes that gazed at me tolerantly, as I dragged him around wherever I went.
Paprika was ten years old when I came into this world. He had been held and loved by my mother for ten years of his life, while I had never known her. So he was my link to her. Each time I hugged him tightly to my chest, I was warmed by the knowledge that she had done so too.
At that time we lived in the country of my birth, Hungary, and I was being raised by my maternal grandparents because World War II had taken my young father away too. As I grew, the war intensified, and soon we were forced to become migrants in search of safer surroundings.
In the spring of 1944, as we traveled in a wooden wagon pulled by two oxen, Paprika and I snuggled together in the back of the wagon. During the numerous air raids of those times, when we scrambled to find safety in a cellar, closet, or ditch, he was always in my arms, for I refused to go without him. How could I, when one of the first stories I was ever told as a child was that of my dying mother begging her parents to take good care of her baby as well as her cat?
During the Soviet occupation of our country in the winter of 1944, Paprika made friends with a Russian soldier, who treated him to sardines, because he reminded him of his own cat back in Russia! And always, during the trying times that persisted in our country, Paprika's love made things easier to bear for me.
By the fall of 1945, Grandfather had gone into hiding, to avoid being imprisoned by the new communist government. The solemn Christmas Grandmother and I expected turned into my worst nightmare when on Christmas morning I awoke to find Paprika, still curled up on my bed, lifeless and cold. He was nineteen years old, while, I , only nine, vowed never to give my heart to another cat.
Christmas 1951 was our first Christmas in our new country, the United States of America. The horrors of war, the four years of hardship in a refugee camp were behind us, and a new life filled with hope, ahead. We went to midnight mass with thankful hearts that Christmas Eve.
On Christmas morning, 1951, I awoke to a tantalizing aroma, for Grandmother was cooking her first American turkey. And one of the presents under the Christmas tree seemed alive, for it was hopping around to the tune of "Jingle Bells" playing on the radio. I rushed over, pulled off the orange bow, and took the lid off the box.
"Meow," cried the present, jumping straight into my lap. It was a tiny, orange tabby kitten, and as I looked into its yellow eyes, the old vow crumbled away, and love filled my heart once again. There have been many other cats over the years. But the memory of the first cat, which I always like to think of as reunited with the first human he ever loved, will always remain the closest to my heart.
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