No, I don’t mean lip locking with sexy older women. (Sorry, guys!)
Last Friday (June 3rd) was my birthday. We’ll suffice it to say I am in my early 40′s and leave it at that. As I was casually wondering what I might get for presents, it stirred memories of the greatest birthday present I ever received. As we were growing up, our family was not the most financially stable. It was more like feast or famine, but I never really minded all that much. It made me appreciate people and experiences over material things, and not to take anything in my life for granted. In fact, I am struggling to find a way for my children to learn the same valuable lessons without living in abandoned farm houses. But I digress…
One “famine” year, my parents just didn’t have the resources to buy much in the way of gifts for me (or my 3 younger sisters). To be honest, I don’t remember how old I was (12? 15?) or if I’d even gotten any material gifts at all that year. All I remember is my father asking me to get in the car early that day. My mother and siblings stayed home, so it was to be something special shared between us. I had no idea where we were going. It seemed to take forever. After driving for what felt like hours but for all I know was only 40 minutes, my dad started to explain where we were going and why. I couldn’t believe my ears.
Since the day I popped out of my mother’s womb, I have been an enormous fan of big cats: lions, cheetahs, jaguars, leopards, lynx, ocelots. My favorites still are Siberian tigers and the cats native to North America, bobcats and mountain lions (puma). My first “big girl” book was a large, blue-green Encyclopedia of Big Cats. I still have it to this day. So excitement was a gross understatement when my dad, trying his best not to smile too hard, explained to me as we cruised down a sunny country road that our destination was a house where a man he met kept a young, friendly mountain lion as a pet. My birthday present that year was an afternoon with his incredibly gorgeous 2 year old cat! I simply could not contain myself. When we arrived, my dad and the man shook hands and introduced me. I got the feeling they were not long-time friends, and I could just imagine that my dad had contacted him with a special request on my behalf. The man was very gracious. He couldn’t stop grinning at me and my feeble attempt to remain patient as he led us to the outdoor pen where the cougar played in the yard. The holes in the fence were large enough to easily put my whole arm through. After a thorough sniff inspection, the cat accepted me (or claimed me!) by trying to rub it’s head on my hand. I pushed my arm into the pen and rubbed him behind the ears, under the chin, stroked his cheeks. My heart soared when he leaned against me and purred, a sound so loud and deep, I felt it in my chest more than I heard it. The adults kept a watchful eye but let me simply slather him with affection for as long as I liked. Suddenly, the cat gently pulled my hand down onto it’s front leg and rested an enormous monkey-like paw on top of my hand. He began to clean me, purring with his eyes closed. It was like someone slowly dragging sharp, damp 10 grit sandpaper over my fragile skin. I tried not to wince, focusing instead on the massive cool factor. His owner said he never does that for strangers, that he must like me to be giving me cougar kisses. (Did he say that to all big cat-worshipping young ladies?) For a brief instant I wondered if I tasted good and might lose my arm in a violent twist of kitty emotions, but the cougar remained gentle and affectionate. It was actually a house cat when there were no visitors, lounging down the entire length of the back of the sofa most of the day. Needless to say, I was completely blown away by the whole experience.
To this day, I still wonder whatever became of the man and his cougar. Did it mature only to turn on him and wind up being shot? Was the owner forced to place him in a zoo? Realistically, that guy had no business keeping a mountain lion as a pet, and statistically I was probably lucky that nothing bad happened to me during my visit. But the purest joy I felt that day continues to remain with me. The best gift ever had nothing to do with money or toys or games or STUFF, save a few gallons of gas and some driving time, and everything to do with the celebration of the wonders of life and that which a young girl loved with all her heart. Thank you, Daddy. I will never forget my precious cougar kisses.