by Bobbi Holmes
This is a story I wrote a number of years ago.
My mother always claimed she wasn’t a cat person. Dogs were her preferred pet. It wasn’t that she disliked cats. In truth, Mother loved all animals. She adorned her home with paintings showcasing a variety of wild animals, from cougars to wolves. And while cats weren’t her chosen pet, she was often their choice.
The first cat to come into our household was a feline simply named Mother Cat. Mother Cat first strayed to my sister’s bedroom window, eagerly searching for a handout. This battered, worn, short-haired huntress awaited the baloney and milk my sister and I secretly offered from the open window.
These clandestine meals went on for several weeks until my mom realized why this stray was lingering by our home. Her first reaction was to discourage this animal, certain my father would be unhappy with a new pet.
Ceasing the handouts did not daunt Mother Cat. She persistently staked her claim to her new-found home. When an attempt to actively discourage the animal failed, Mom tried something drastic, especially for an animal lover. She filled a plastic bag with water and threw it on the stray. Mother Cat, drenched to the bone, shook off the water and stood her ground, looking pitifully into Mom’s eyes. My mother, overcome by the callousness of her own actions, sat down on our front steps and broke into tears. The cat was ours. Or should I say we were hers.
Mother Cat came and went at will. Several days after the drenching, she brought us a gift; a wild little ball of gray fur. The kitten we named Walter, in honor of my father, whose own head of hair was prematurely gray.
As the months passed, Walter Cat grew into a beautiful long-haired feline who often fooled people into believing his lineage was Persian Blue rather than alley cat. Walter, whose first weeks were spent living as a wild creature, was always elusive and timid.
About a year after Mother Cat came to us her origins were revealed to our family. A neighbor from down the street came to speak to my mom and spied Mother Cat.
“That’s our cat!” she exclaimed. “I wondered where she went.”
“Oh?” my mother quietly replied.
“She looks pretty good,” the woman mused. “She had kittens and our dog kept killing them,” the woman explained. Then she suddenly spied our beautiful, sweet natured Walter Cat, who was lazily sunning on the porch.
“And that’s one of our kittens!” the woman announced possessively.
“Oh no,” Mother interrupted quickly, fearing the woman was about to lay claim to our precious Walter, “We’ve had that cat for years.”
Several days later the neighbor’s teenage daughter appeared, laying claim to Mother Cat. The girl told us her cat’s true name. It was long and exotic, an Egyptian sounding name, difficult to recall. The girl snatched up Mother Cat and carried her home. Mother Cat returned that afternoon.
Mother Cat and Walter remained with us. Although they were never our cats, our home was theirs.
When Walter was a little over a year old, we noticed his mother was once again pregnant. This of course was in the days when controlling the pet population was not yet an issue. My sister and I were delighted.
Father, who was a contractor, had his office located in the garage. One day my mother decided to fix a comfy bed for the new family and placed it in Dad’s office. She busily filled a large clean box with soft rags, arranging the material carefully. My dad noticed her activity and inquired as to what she was doing. He laughed heartily after she told him.
Dad sweetly reminded Mom that cats have kittens wherever they choose and she was wasting her time deciding such a location for this very independent outdoor feline. Yet, Dad soon discovered he couldn’t have been more wrong. One day, while doing bookwork in his office, he heard noise coming from the box Mom had prepared. There he found Mother Cat giving birth to four mice-like creatures. One would eventually resemble Mother Cat, another favored Walter, the third looked like Sylvester the cartoon cat, and the fourth was a calico, whom I named Gypsy.
Our greatest concern for the kittens was the threat of Walter. We had always heard that male cats kill kittens. My mother went to great lengths to separate Walter from his siblings. But much to her chagrin she soon discovered he was not only visiting his new brother and sisters, but tending for them as would his mother. We were also surprised to find this large, overgrown, Persian Blue look-alike, nursing from his mother.
Later, Mother Cat moved the kittens from the box and began stashing them in assorted locations in the garage. She must not have felt the box offered adequate protection for her offspring.
Once again, my mother intervened and moved all the kittens into a ski boat stored in the garage. Mother Cat loved it there. She could come and go at will, while her kittens were well protected.
Although the kitten experience was exciting, my parents felt it would be prudent to spay Mother Cat before more kittens arrived. The vet informed us the cat’s milk needed to be dried up prior to the operation.
Dad’s solution was to place chicken wire over the boat, preventing Mother Cat from visiting the kittens. The clever cat out maneuvered Dad. We soon found her laying atop the barrier, her nipples dangling through the chicken wire and the kittens standing on their hind legs eagerly nursing.
When it was time for the kittens to leave the boat, we found homes for three and kept the calico. As the weeks progressed our family became cat observers. We marveled as Mother Cat carefully trained Gypsy. The kitten would find her way up our large oak tree. Should she get stuck, Mother Cat would patiently follow her into the tree and lead her down.
We eventually decided to spay Gypsy, as we had her mother. When Walter came home after his first big fight, my parents decided it was time for him to be neutered.
Our three cats never allowed us to take part in their lives, yet they enriched ours. Our home was located in the country, surrounded by oaks, adjacent to a running creek. The backside of our house was a wall of glass doors, looking out to a rustic decking and the outskirts of a wooded area. Through the glass, we spent countless hours observing the relationship between these three animals.
Mother Cat was undoubtedly the dominate, although Gypsy unsuccessfully challenged her dominance throughout their relationship. Walter was simply a mama’s boy, and I’m sure the idea of standing up to his mother never once entered his feline brain. Gypsy, the same fiercely independent animal who tried to match her mother, would turn to a lovesick kitten when near Walter. She adored him. While Walter could never stand up to his mother, he was Gypsy’s master; only because the calico allowed it.
Our back yard became a theater, and as each year passed we watched the unfolding lives of these three animals. They rarely allowed us close enough to pet them and had no tolerance for even a short session of human affection. Yet, they knew they could trust us.
Once my parents heard Walter crying pitifully on the back porch. A thorn had wound tightly around his fur causing the animal great pain. The only way to alleviate the problem was to carefully cut a long strip of fur from his back. Amazingly, Walter, the cat who rarely allowed you close enough to pet him, sat perfectly still for over thirty minutes as my father slowly cut the offending thorn from his fur.
The only significant problem the cats posed came from Mother Cat. Within our house lived a yellow canary named Dicky Bird. Dicky was Mother Cat’s obsession. On sunny days, my mother would place Dicky’s cage in front of a glass window. There Dicky would sing for hours. Outside, sitting up motionless, only her tail swishing from side to side, was Mother Cat. She would concentrate on the pet bird, calculating ways in which to enter our house.
She wanted that bird. She wanted him badly. Several times each year, usually when a large group of people were visiting, Mother Cat would manage to sneak inside. My mother normally kept a close eye on our eldest feline and should the cat sneak past the guard, Mom would yell, “the bird!” and we’d all race to the rescue.
Once, after many years of trying, Mother Cat managed to break poor Dicky’s wing. But, like the cartoon Tweedy Bird, Dicky survived. In fact, the vet told my father he’d never seen a canary that was so old, his feathers had turned gray.
The cats had been with our family for several years when we had to move. Our new home was located even more remotely, in the desert along a lake. There was never a question about if we would take the cats with us or leave them.
Sadly, all three animals contacted cat fever shortly after we relocated. We were able to promptly deliver Walter and Mother Cat to the vet for treatment. But our stubborn little Gypsy just wouldn’t be taken. Some say cats leave home when they are ill, finding a place to die alone. This is apparently what Gypsy wanted to do.
After numerous attempts to catch Gypsy, my father finally succeeded. Almost. He instructed me to fetch a pillow case, in which to drop our wild little calico, and then she could be taken in for treatment. Unfortunately, I chose the wrong pillowcase, for when we dropped her into it, she slipped through a tear in the bottom of the pillowcase.
By the time Gypsy made it to the vet it was too late. The feline who adored her brother and challenged her mother was gone.
Walter survived cat fever and adapted to his new home. Yet, several years later he contracted an inoperable disk problem. My father, the man who never wanted cats, was forced to put down his namesake. Dad was crushed. He vowed he’d never again personally put down an animal.
Mother Cat was once again alone. She mastered the desert wilderness, including warning us of rattlesnakes. Once my father pulled a nasty trick on the old girl. As she was approaching a hose, Dad quickly jerked it, making the poor animal believe it was a snake. She literally jumped several feet, straight up into the air.
She enjoyed visiting the nearby lake and was known to nap in the boats moored at the docks. Perhaps it brought back some wonderful memories of her time with the kittens in our ski boat.
One afternoon my mother, who frequently fed the wild animals, placed a cup of cottage cheese on a large flat rock by our front window. Much to Mother’s amazement, she witnessed Mother Cat eating from one side of the rock, and there, on the opposite side was a young coyote, eating his share of the cottage cheese. The two animals seemed to be oblivious to the other’s existence. Suddenly, Mother Cat looked up, and was more than startled to discover her lunch companion. Cautiously, Mother Cat, her fur standing on end, slowly backed away from the cottage cheese, wisely leaving it to the coyote, who never acknowledged the cat’s presence.
Mother Cat was with our family for about ten years. Then one day she simply disappeared. We don’t know what happened to her. She wasn’t sick, so we don’t think she went off, something Gypsy tried desperately to do. I hope she didn’t grow careless and fall prey to a coyote. Perhaps she fell asleep in someone’s boat and was taken away to discover a new home. She may have left, but the memories she brought us will always remain.