Posted by: deadmousediaries | May 17, 2010

Another Springtime Ritual – true story from Mitchell Kyd

There is a fresh-baked batch of kittens on my back porch. I know because I saw their mother’s furtive glances back to the picnic table as she approached the water bowl this morning. She lapped long and purposefully, her little belly sagging now, camouflaging the plump mounds beneath where the fur is wet with recent nuzzling.


Within three weeks I’ll begin to hear the scampering as I approach and soon after, I’ll see those flashes of fur as her kittens scramble for cover. It won’t be long then until they learn that I’m the one who brings the cat food and they will be underfoot the moment the door opens, their motors running. I’ve been down this path before; it’s one of the predictable springtime rituals when you live across the road from a farm.


We are cat people, by design and by default. As a kid, I always had a yellow cat, some that we chose from an unwanted litter at a friend’s house, others that chose us by striking out on their own when their mothers failed to return. I have heard that when times were tough in The Great Depression, restless travelers out of work and down on their luck could still find a good Samaritan who would provide shelter and a hot meal. The grateful wanderers would eat and sleep then continue on their quest but not before leaving behind a secret mark for the next weary traveler, indicating the location of a caring and generous family who would most likely lend another helping hand. They called it the “hobo network.”


I’m convinced that cats and dogs have secretly designed their own effective version of the hobo network; how else could you explain the parade of strays that have wriggled their way into our homes and hearts over the years? Mudslide, Moya, MC, BC, Araminta, Smokey Lonesome, Surprise, Pete and RePete, Clio, Yappy Sue, BART the Bad-Ass Rip-Terror, Blackjack, Squareface, Loverboy, Tenacious, Winston and Tom-Tom: the list is almost endless. Most arrive as half-grown kittens, wild-eyed and terrified, approachable over time only because they are hungry. Many do not make it into adulthood while others disappear for months only to return with a litter of their own.


Bubba came to us by way of MC, a beautiful wild calico that began appearing near the woodpile. We were living in the cabin at that time and I’m sure she had some luck dining on the wood mice that had sheltered there but she always gulped down the scraps I started leaving. It was months before she would even come close if I was still outside but my many years of chatting with cats finally won her over. We entered into a mutual agreement; I would feed her and could talk softly without approaching and she would stay and eat.


Her first litter consisted of one miniature MC that we only saw once before the baby disappeared. Mama learned hard lessons quickly and birthed her October litter in the safety of the woodpile. We watched them grow with a pane of glass between us, one round little black fur ball whose toes and tummy had been tipped in white, and a rough and tumble yellow sentry who hissed and puffed up twice his size every time we got too close. We had been a cat-less family for nearly a year and the thought of these two little homegrown scamps facing winter in the woods was reason enough to call it fate.


It was clear from the start that there would be no enticing them to come inside. Their mom was not enamored with us nor were they. It took tuna, three people and a pair of welders gloves to get them into the bathroom where they lived under our cast iron bathtub for three days. They emerged only when we were absent and glared menacingly if we dared to shine a flashlight into their sub-tub terrain. On the fourth day, the war was suddenly over and our fierce warrior cats turned into instant charmers.


The black one was female and very tiny compared to her litter mate so we called her Half-Pint. Her bigger brother had a bold flash of white on his stripped face that was punctuated by a small spot in the center of his chin. It was splashed there in defiance like a blob of yellow mustard. I called him Dirty Face.


T.S. Eliot tried to tell us that the naming of cats is a difficult matter and that cats in fact have three names: the sensible, everyday names; the one that’s peculiar and the one that only the cat himself knows but will never confess. My four-year-old son instantly knew one of those three names was actually Sunflower and that moniker somehow also ended up on the vet records and caused adequate confusion for the first several visits. It wasn’t until we moved into town and Dirty Face-Sunflower had grown into his full man-cat size that we realized he was actually Bubba. After two years of mistaken identity, it fit him and it stuck.


By the time we had moved into our new house, we had added four more cats to our household, including Bubba’s mom MC who finally gave up on her charade of distaste for our affections. But Bubba reigned supreme. He presided with a huge presence and a personality that loved and welcomed every new human and critter to enter his domain.


He never missed an opportunity to fill an empty lap and would claim each new visitor as his own by transferring his scent to them as he rubbed his forever-dirty face against their cheeks. This was his hypnotic way of assuring every human would do his bidding. He appeared at every closed door inside the house with a mournful meow that was impossible to resist and whether he really needed out or in was never important. He had enchanted us all.


I could count on getting all of his late-night affection as soon as the house got quiet; he would make one giant pounce and land squarely on my stomach, causing me to let loose a nightly “Whummmpfff!” as I regained my breath. I would fall asleep again to the sound of his mighty lullaby, a purr as powerful and hypnotic as a semi driving slowly along a highway rumble strip.

It was Bubba’s song.


Cats continued to come and go as we all got older. We added All-Ball and Brat, all-white Avalanche and visiting tom Jerry. Half-Pint had quickly picked my four-year-old as her human and was loyal to him through his entire high school career. My daughter had been adopted by Miss Elizabeth Sweetiepuss but it was Bubba who loved me best for 15 years.

Half-Pint took her last breath on my kitchen floor the day after my son left for college but Bubba began disappearing at a pace that I didn’t even notice at first. It was just like sharing a life with a loving spouse whose wrinkles and paunch and silver hair sneak in so imperceptibly that it suddenly all appears one shocking morning over coffee. I first noticed Bubba had been losing weight when I picked up my skinny yellow cat from the sofa then realized that long ago, his mighty pounce had stopped leaving me breathless.

Every human who shares their home with a cat faces the fact that there will be a parting. We all secretly ask that things won’t come to a vet’s intervention and that we will find our strength and grace when we need it. On Bubba’s last days, we spent our nights together downstairs. I slept on the chair and he on the sofa. On one of those nights, he laid his paw in my outstretched hand and summoned a short and rattled version of his old bedtime song. That morning he managed to sneak out the back porch door and I let him wobble into a sunny patch in the side yard. He sat tall and content, taking in the autumn air and surveying all his kingdom. I carried him back inside and the next day, cradled him in my lap on the way to the vet.


Months went by before I no longer expected his broad, dirty face to be waiting behind closed doors and I stopped bracing myself for a midnight visitor. There was a hole left in my heart that had belonged to my big yellow cat but time eventually sealed around it.


More yellow cats have found their way into my life in the years that have followed but I keep waiting for that next mystical connection. Maybe somewhere on my porch today, still sightless and mewing, my next soul-cat awaits. I’ll know him when I see him. He will be patiently perfecting his own version of my Bubba’s song.

Copyright 2010. All rights reserved. Mitchell Kyd

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Responses

  1. What a lovely story. It purrs to those of us who became emotionally involved with the barn cats that conveyed with the farm … to those of us who can’t finish an email because Isabelle has stretched out on the keyboard … to those of us whose widowhood is eased by Sophie’s warm weight in the night. Thank you.

  2. This is a very familiar story. My neighbor and I have long suspected we had the cat version of the hobo mark upon us. Our feral “customers” were wiped out by disease a few years ago, but strays still find their way to my back porch and ultimately to my pillow.

    My daughter made me a decorative slate with the “kind-hearted-woman” hobo symbol, the one that meant one could always get a meal here.

    • PS: That symbol is a cartoon-like figure of a cat.


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