Mom slipped a sun bonnet on my head and reached down to tie its ribbon under my chin. She said, “It’s windy today. This’ll keep you warm.” My eldest sister helped me put on a red sweater. First, she put one of my arms in a sleeve and then helped me put the other arm into the second sleeve. She knelt in front of me to button it shut. My white, ankle-high leather shoes needed to be tied and then I was ready to venture outdoors.
Going outside to explore the backyard was a big deal for the first few years of my life. On this early spring day, my sister was taking me to the barn to see a litter of kittens. When we stepped out the back door of the farmhouse, two barn cats were stretched out on the sun-warmed cement sidewalk. They jumped to their feet when they saw us and began to rub against our legs. Their fur felt silky and softer than any of my special blankets.
It was so warm and still next to the house that I wanted my sweater and hat off, but by the time we crossed the driveway and started up the barn hill, a surprisingly strong, chill wind buffeted me, making it hard to walk.
The large haymow barn doors were standing open. Sunshine slanted in, lighting half of the threshing floor. My sister led me to a pile of hay alongside the stairway that led down to the lower part of the barn. The sweet scent of dried summer grasses filled the air. Downstairs, a calf bellowed and its mother lowed in return. In the stillness of the haymow I heard tiny mews. Then I saw the source. Burrowed in the hay was a nest with five nursing kittens and a gray tabby cat.
Mama Cat, our farms most patient, prolific and long-lived barn cat, met me for the first time that day. Mama Cat produced two or three litters of kittens every summer throughout my childhood. Unlike other cats on the farm, Mama Cat didn’t hide her babies each time we found her nest of newborns. Through the years, I spent innumerable, happy hours sitting in the fragrant hay playing with her and her offspring.
There were other cats on the farm, but none of them as tame as Mama Cat. Some of them hissed at me if I tried to pet them. A few even hissed at each other at times. One thing they all had in common was that they were all terrific mousers. Daddy always said, “The bigger their ears, the better they are at catching mice.” Mama Cat’s ears weren’t big at all compared to some of the others, but she pulled her weight in the rodent control department.
When I asked where Mama cat came from, I was told that my brother Casper brought her home on his bike one day when I was a very small child…before my memory. She quickly earned her name of Mama Cat.
It wasn’t uncommon for our farm cats to suddenly disappear. There were many hungry, wild predators living in the fields and woods surrounding the farm yard. Cats are hunters, but they are also small creatures hunted by other animals. They are one step down on the food chain from owls, hawks, fishers, coyote and racoons.
Some cats wandered off to other nearby farms. The draw often was other cats. I once saw a black cat in our farm yard that I didn’t recognize. When I asked my brother about it, he said, “That’s a half-cat.” I gave him a quizzical look. He explained, “It’s a Tom cat that belongs to the neighbors. He likes our female cats, so he lives here half of the time.”
Mama Cat died when I was sixteen. She was old by farm cat standards. My brother Billy told me that before going out to cut hay, he had shut her in the barn to keep her safe from the machinery. she had found a way out somehow and was attracted to rodents scampering in the red clover hayfield where Billy was working.
Mama Cat hadn’t been pretty or very large. Her fur was short and nondescript. When I petted her head, I could feel bumps under her fur. She was beautiful in other ways. Mama Cat had a calm acceptance of whatever was going on around her. There was never anything but loving benevolence in her pale-yellow eyes as she purred. All who came to play with her and her babies were given a full measure of patience and a loving attitude.