One of my earliest memories is being all dressed up to have my picture taken. I remember Mother bathing me, putting lotion on my hair and curling it around her finger as she blew on it. I twisted and squirmed and she patiently told me a story as she worked on my hair.
“This will make you pretty,” she explained. “You’re going to have your picture taken and you want to look pretty, don’t you?”
I was a child in the late 40s and early 50s, and that was the time when ladies wore hats and gloves and nylon hose. Men wore three-piece suits, hats, and carried handkerchiefs. Whether it was to church, shopping, or to a special event, everyone dressed their best. There was no jeans, sweatshirts, tennis shoes, or baggy anything.
We lived in an antebellum house in Palestine, Texas, on a large two-acre lot. For some reason, we attracted the discarded and homeless pets of the area. If it was a stray, it ended up in our yard. In the evening Grandpa would fill a half dozen tin pie plates with leftovers and some cheap cat food and take them out into the backyard. He would bang a couple of plates together, yell “kitty, kitty, kitty.” After he went back into the house, a dozen feral cats would creep out from the bushes, the sheds, and the storage building and chow down. Sometimes there was even a stray dog or two. If they were tame, Grandpa would try and find homes for them.
It was 1950 and just after Christmas when I came in from school, changed clothes, and grabbed a sandwich before heading across the hall to see my grandparents. I was surprised to see my grandmother sitting alone sipping coffee.
“Where’s Grandpa?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s in the basement working on an old stray cat that snuck in the basement window. The cat is badly burned, but you know your grandpa, he’s determined to doctor that old cat up.”
I headed for the cellar. In the past we had sewn up an old hen that had been attacked in the hen house, bandaged dozens of cuts, scrapes, and injuries of assorted cats, dogs, pigs, horses, and even a cow or two. Grandpa could not stand by and let any creature suffer.
Grandpa’s back was to me and I couldn’t see the cat that Grandma had mentioned. I saw a bottle of salve and one of Grandma’s aloe vera plants sitting on the table, along with two large rolls of gauze and some adhesive tape. I thought the cat had probably blistered a foot or maybe his tail and hurried over to see if I could help.
As I reached his side and got a good look at his patient, I felt all the air sucked from my lungs. My gasp was loud and my grandfather looked at me and smiled a sad smile.
“Not very pretty, is he?” he said softly.
I couldn’t answer. I had never seen anything so horrible. One side of the cat’s face was totally devoid of hair and skin, his right ear was completely burned off and one eye was seared shut. There were large burns along his side and back, and his tail was missing. His legs and feet were blistered and raw, and the cat just lay in my grandfather’s arms trembling.
“Is he going to die?” I whispered.
“Not if I can help it,” Grandpa said with tears in his eyes.
“How did this happen?” I asked.
“He must have gotten cold and tried to get into the cellar. I figured he slipped when he got through the window and fell behind the furnace. I kept hearing this faint cry so I came down and found him. He had managed to climb out from behind the furnace.”
“But, he is one of the wild ones, isn’t he? How come he’s letting you hold him?”
“He knows, my dear. He knows I wouldn’t hurt him. He needs help. His pain is stronger than his fear.”
“Grandpa, even if he lives, he’s going to be so ugly,” I commented as I looked at the damage the furnace had done.
“So what?” my grandpa said harshly. “Would you love me less if I were burned and ugly?”
“Of c-course not,” I stammered.
“Are you sure?” he stared at me. He was smearing the burn cream from the jar over the cat’s face and stubble of an ear. “You know, I was always told not to judge a book by the cover. Do you know what that means?”
I nodded. “It means sometimes a book is really good even if the cover isn’t.”
“That’s right,” he smiled. “It’s important to look good because most people are too quick to judge by appearances. Still, it’s even more important to take the time to get to know people and find out if the person is a good person, a kind person, and a person who might enrich your life. You mustn’t associate with people who are mean, have no respect, and disregard the law, but those people usually have a reputation that is well known.”
“Mother always wants me to look pretty,” I argued. “All the most popular people at school are pretty.”
“That’s for now,” he explained. “Now is what young people think about, but now isn’t all there is to life. Animals don’t care who’s popular and who’s not. All animals care about is staying warm in the winter, cool in the summer, food to keep them from being hungry, and friends to share their lives with. They don’t ask for a lot and they only judge by actions, not looks.”
Grandpa doctored the poor cat, smearing ointment on his burns, bandaging his wounds, and all the while murmuring soft comforting sounds. We spent an hour in the basement that day. We bandaged and wrapped and squeezed out the cooling sap of the aloe vera plant and applied it to the places that were the most severe.
Every day for the next month, Grandpa and I changed bandages, reapplied medication and hand-fed the injured cat. He did recover, but his injuries had taken their toll on his appearance. He lost the use of his right eye and it grew shut and his ear was little more than a bald stub. His fur never grew back over the burn scars on his face or his body.
What I discovered, what my grandfather had tried to tell me, was that the sparkle in his good eye, the soft purr from his scarred chest, and the gentle rub of his mangled head against my leg gave me a feeling that I had never experienced before. When I gathered Lucky, his new name, into my arms, I didn’t see an ugly cat. I saw a cat full of love and appreciation, and happy to be alive.
It may sound fake, unbelievable, and mushy, but that cat changed my outlook. That cat, my grandfather, and the advice he gave me opened doors I didn’t know existed. I started looking at my classmates differently. The beautiful people didn’t stand out so much anymore and I discovered lots of new friends who made my years in school the best. I never made the most popular list, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t the prettiest, but that didn’t matter. My friends, like Lucky, knew how to be friends, how to love, laugh, and appreciate life. None of them were ugly, nor beautiful, but I discovered that there is a fine line between the two and that fine line is deep inside.
I still like to look my best, but now I look deeper, beneath, inside. After all, that’s where real beauty lies. Ugly is a word that defines a person’s action, feelings, and lifestyle. As far as I’m concerned it had nothing to do with looks.