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Jonathan's ark

Our son's first word wasn't ''dada'' or ''mama'' or even ''juice.'' It came out sounding something like ''dizzy,'' but those of us who had seen his face light up at the sight of his grandmother's cats knew he was saying ''kitty.''

Long before he could get a good grip on their enticingly striped tails, Jonathan had decided that he and the two cats - who live upstairs - were going to be fast friends. In the days when he was still strapped into his infant seat and placed on the table at mealtimes like some cherubic centerpiece, they used to make faces at each other through a window that opens onto the second-floor stairway. Later, when he graduated to solid foods and a good sturdy high chair, the more adventurous of the two cats would sometimes dart in and out of the dining room to snatch up gooey morsels of fish and chocolate cake that he was forever throwing her way.

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As the months passed, however, the cats became increasingly wary of Jonathan. As long as he kept his advances to a crawl, they seemed to enjoy an occasional slow-paced chase. But when the day finally arrived that he pulled himself to his feet, threw his arms out ecstatically, and lurched off in their direction, they decided they'd had enough. Now when we see them, it's usually just a glimpse of a tail disappearing under a bed.

Although his kitties are nowhere to be found when he's looking for playmates, Jonathan has plenty of stand-ins to turn to. Thanks to aunts and uncles and dozens of well-meaning friends, he's received easily enough stuffed animals to fill a latter-day ark. He not only calls them all by name, but he also has to make certain that each one brushes his or her teeth and gets a drink of water before going to bed at night. Thankfully, only Teddy and Baby Raccoon have to join us in the rocking chair for evening lullabies.

Whether he makes the connection between his sedentary menagerie and real-life look-alikes, we can't be sure. We only know that we've done our best to establish their kinship.

Let a rabbit stumble into our backyard and the talent show begins. While one parent searches under beds and sofas for Honey Bunny, the other hustles Jonathan to the screen door for a close look at the real thing. ''Hop, hop, hop,'' we sing in chorus, bending our knees and preparing for liftoff. ''Op, op, op,'' he echoes, with a spreading smile of anticipation. And sure enough, off we go, bounding foolishly around the dining table while he dissolves in hiccups and giggles. Captain Kangaroo would be proud.

Before the rabbits arrived this spring to devour our daffodils and tulips, we sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to find animals for Jonathan to point and babble at. There was the rainy Friday at the end of a long, wet week when we sloshed out to the car and drove down several four-lane rivers to get to a shopping mall where we could spend a short half-hour in front of a tropical-fish tank. And there was another, icier winter afternoon when we set out on our weekly visit to the feed store to see the ducks and chickens - and found a blinking new litter of kittens nestled into a flannel-lined cardboard box beside the toasty coal stove.

''Dizzy!'' Jonathan chirped, while we proudly explained to all the customers in sight that although he was just beginning to talk, he already knew a number of mature words - like ''kitty.''

One accomplishment down, Jonathan turned to his favorite cage of baby chicks and squealed, ''Dada! Dada!''

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Well, he's actually a lot younger than he looks.

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