When I was in first grade, the neighbor's cat had kittens.

I really loved playing with those kitties...and Rene promised that I could have one.

Now, I just had to convince my parents.

No small feat at that age, especially since our "pets" was a tank of topical fish.

I was determined...relentless.

Long story short, out of sheer exasperation, my parents finally gave in.

One day, Rene walked over with the gray and white kitten, that she had named Valentina.

Valentina ended up being the "puuuuurrrrrfect" cat for a house of 4 young kids.

She was patient...put up with "abuse" (my sister would dress her)...

Queen Valentina. (Craig Allen photo archives)

...and, yet, Valentina would jump up into my lap, and watch TV with me.

Cartoons, of course.

Valentina also traveled. Each Christmas, we would pile into the "family truckster," and "over hill and dale to grandmother's house we go."

From New Jersey to Wisconsin.

"The Val" as she came to be known, didn't know a cat carrier...

Want a treat, Val? (Craig Allen photo archives)

...she hid under the driver's seat for about 18 hours.

Val and my brother, during the long drive. (Craig Allen photo archives)

Did I mention that there was a dog at grandma's house?

As you can see, Val would "chill" on the radiator in the front bedroom, during Christmas vacation.

After a few uneventful Christmas treks, my sister was walking to the car with Val in her arms, when something spooked the cat.

She jumped from my sister's arms, and ran around the house...into the backyard...disappearing into the cold, starry, December Jersey night.

The car was warm...loaded down with Christmas presents...it was time to go (probably an hour or two behind the planned departure time, as usual).

Us kids grabbed flashlights, and hunted everywhere for Valentina...who did not want to be found.

My mom went to the neighbor's house (Valentina's birth place), and asked them (and their kids) to keep an eye on our house. Surely, Val would show up at the back door, but no one would be home to let her in.

It was a sad 900+ mile trip.

Where was Valentina?

It was really cold...and I'll add that there was several inches of snow on the ground in New Jersey.

Each day...yes, on Christmas...a long distance phone call was made.

No cat sighting.

On the the third or fourth day, (finally) one of the neighbor kids saw Valentina pawing her way into the camper in our backyard...going through the unlocked "trap door."

Not only was "The Val" one cool cat, but she was smart.

So, she lived to do many more treks from New Jersey to Wisconsin.

"Loverboy" is Valentina-approved. (Craig Allen photo archives)

From the age of 7, until after I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had the best cat ever.

The one that almost got away, one Christmas.

Valentina, "living the life," and posing for the camera. (Craig Allen photo archives).

"The Val."