When you live in a farmhouse, cats tend to just appear. They show up two, three, seven at a time and suddenly you have a veritable army of semi-feral cats living all around your property. They form alliances and develop systems of government and kill a ton of mice. Sometimes it starts with just one swollen mama kitty who arrives one day out of nowhere, hungry and on the verge of labor. She looks pitiful and you feel terrible for her, and so you give her milk and hot dogs until she disappears for a few days to have her babies in one of your outbuildings. You can hear the babies, but it takes you ages to actually find them because she dragged her fat, preggers body through a precarious heap of old crap that has been chilling in your outbuilding since probably the turn of the last century. (This applies to basements and attics, too!) Cats are surprisingly adept at birthing their young in super weird locations. This is probably by design, some relic of their ancestry when they needed to hide their offspring from predators. And maybe there are still predators on farms like foxes or stray dogs, but when there is an army of cats to contend with, likely those babies are perfectly safe.
The mechanism that is put into place to protect them keeps you from being able to reach them, but that doesn’t stop you from trying. The siren song of baby kittens is too much to take and you can’t stop yourself from searching. Not to mention, usually mama cats will mess with your head. Meow! Wanna see my babies? C’mere! They’re in here! She’ll circle your feet. She’ll boop your shin with her head. Mrrrrow. She’ll rub her whole body along each of your legs. Mrrrrow. She’ll purr and be adorable and stare up at you and like a sucker, you will fall for it.You are a bleeding heart idiot fool.
So you’ll follow the evil enchantress into one of the outbuildings, in a walking coma from the overwhelming need you have to squeeeeeeeze those sweet baby kitties. Suddenly you’ll come to, shaken back to real life from your baby kitteh reverie, and you’ll find yourself with one of your arms jammed through a pile of of stuff, your other forearm and shoulder shoved against a different pile of stuff that promises to crash down on your head if you so much as shift your weight. There will be cobwebs in your hair and dirt in your eyes and dust in your mouth. You’ll panic at the realization that you are probably contracting Hantavirus and maybe a touch of Diptheria right this minute. You’re resigned to the fact that you’ve probably already gotten tetanus, along with at least one mysterious rash. And while you’re crouched there, your hand just centimeters from actually being able to get a hold of one of those babies, the mama cat will boop your face. See? I told you my babies were in here. And then she’ll eat your soul right there on the spot.
We had a lot of stray animals that turned into pseudo-pets growing up. When I lived with my dad at a farmhouse in rural Macon County Illinois the year after my parents got divorced, we had a big outside dog named Mac and tons of cats. Eventually I also got two gerbils, and an inside dog named Snuggles. No matter the fluctuation of our other pets, one thing was constant: cats. My dad’s brother lived a few miles down the road with his wife and four kids in their own rural house and they, too, had a standing army of felines. I think we may have swapped cats here and there, even.
Give you this tiger stripe for that tabby? You got it!
I loved all of the cats. My love for animals as a child was perhaps the only thing consistent about me, unless you count unpredictability as a form of consistency. Sort of how change is the only constant, right? No? Fine. Every free minute I had was with animals, alive or dead. My necromancy is a different post for a different time, but we’ll get there. Even when my dad had lost track of how many cats we had, what they all looked like, what absurd names I’d given them, I knew precisely each detail. I was attentive to every subtle shift in the population, even those that had to do with some wicked mama cat wandering off for a few days to pop out kittens in some impossible to reach corner of the barn.
On some mornings after he would plunk me into the tub for my morning bath, my dad would take his coffee and stand on the front porch of our old farmhouse and take in the morning air. It was peaceful there, save for the occasional car that would race past on the blacktop. He would listen to the birds and the bugs, sipping hot black coffee and smelling of Zest and original Listerine. I would be playing barbies and administering a quarter of a bottle of shampoo and conditioner to myself.
One day as he stood on the front steps the sun was at that perfect place in the sky when the shadows are still long, dew lingers on the leaves and the grass, and a slight chill hangs in the air. The morning was just being bathed in the bright orange light of the day and my dad stood on the front steps breathing it in. And suddenly he saw it. Something out of place. A lump in the road. He descended the few steps and walked gingerly toward the road, looking back over his shoulder toward the house, paranoid and hoping I wouldn’t suddenly emerge from my bath.
He had not yet reached the road when he realized that what he feared was correct: there in the middle of the blacktop, having been mowed down by some jackass motorist who thinks it’s okay to drive 75mph on a rural road, was one of my favorite cats. Not so long before, I had asked about her offhandedly, had speculated about her whereabouts. Which one? My dad tried to keep up, and he is a detail-oriented man. But there were just so damn many of them and they were always in flux.
He stood there for just a few seconds contemplating what to do. He glanced nervously back toward the house. This is one of my dad’s favorite stories to tell from when I lived with him, and it is one of my favorite stories to hear. Parenting comes with no rules, as we all know. You have to make it up as you go along, and do what seems right in the moment and hope that you made the correct decision. Most parents will move heaven and earth to spare their children pain and heartache, and my dad is no exception to that rule.
My dad made a game-time decision with the facts in front of him. His daughter was inside in the bathtub, happily going about her seven-year-old life. Within the hour we would plop me into the front seat of his truck and we would exit onto this very blacktop to head into town where he would drop me at McGaughey Elementary School and he would go to work at his shop, Advanced Auto. My heart for animals was crystal and delicate. As a two-and-a-half-year old I refused to speak to him for weeks because he had killed a deer and had its head mounted. Again, another story for another day, not unrelated to my necromancy. Surely in the handful of seconds that he was considering what to do, all these facts scurried into his brain.
He marched out onto that blacktop, glancing quickly back at the house once more just, to be certain that I hadn’t emerged for some reason. My dad grabbed that smashed dead cat by the tail. He raised its carcass above his head. And then he swung that dead cat body around like a lasso, and tossed my fallen soldier kitty into the bean field across the street from our house. This whole decision making process and swift removal of The Threat to Our Peaceful Existence took place in a minute or less. He came inside, washed his hands thoroughly, got me ready for school, and we went about our merry way for the next fifteen years of my life.
Though I am not a parent, I have to say I think he made the right choice. Probably within the week he was crawling around in some outbuilding at my behest, digging a new batch of babies out of an obscure hole for me to charm out of being feral little beasts.