We had lots and lots of cats when I was a little girl. Cats had a job to do. Sure they were pets, too, with names and everything, but never, ever in the house. That would be like bringing Old Belle or Red Rose into the house. Even Bernie, our dog, only came in the house when it was super-duper cold outside.
Mom said cats and cows and pigs keep each other warm in the barn. Plus they had on winter coats just like us, only theirs was attached and they grew it instead of going to Penny’s or getting a hand-me-down from Uncle Frank’s kids. Not the Uncle Frank that was Dad’s brother, the Uncle Frank that was a doctor and was Grandma Z’s brother. Dr. Uncle Frank had a whole different last name that made it seem like he never saw Poland. Mom said that’s because it was hard in the old days to be Polish and be a doctor.
Anyways, Uncle Frank gave us lots of clothes his kids got tired of or never wore in the first place. Sometimes they still had the tags on. Sometimes we wore the clothes just like they were, but most the time Mom made the clothes into something else brand new and never gotten tired of before. Except for that green plaid coat with the furry collar that she made me wear because she said it was so stylish. I hated that coat, more than I hated anything in my whole entire life. I wished I could grow a coat of my choosing like the rest of the farm animals.
Mom had a soft heart for dogs, even though she said Bernie only got to come in when it was super freezing outside. Still, she let him come all the way upstairs and wake us up for school sometimes.
If a cat tried to come in the house, she gave it the boot. She never really kicked an animal, but she put her toe under the belly of any cat that thought it was as good as Bernie, and sorta booted it through the air. Cats always land on their feet, that’s for sure.
One day Mom came home with a greyish, long-haired cat. She never meant to bring it home, it just came with her like it was possessed or bewitched or it was some kind of crazy cat.
Mom went down to Ballard’s Gas and Grocery Store to get some Koegel’s hotdogs and cottage cheese. The owner of Ballard’s had greasy black hair and glasses that looked like the bottom end of coke bottles. He had a bunch of food in trays behind a glass counter: hotdogs, cottage cheese, bologna, dill pickles, polish sausage, and pickle loaf. Everything back there got wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string; even the cottage cheese. My friend Annette said that it was Farmer’s cheese, not cottage cheese. That’s what her mother used for perogies. My mom never made perogies, just glomkies and sauerkraut, and poppy seed rolls.
Anyways, when Mom came out of Ballard’s with her packages, there was the Witch Cat sitting on top the car. Mom got in the car and drove away. For sure, she thought, any cat with a brain would jump right off a moving car. The Witch Cat made it all the way home, with Mom driving at least 55 mph most of the way, ‘cause Ballards was about 3 ½ miles away, with no stops signs. Big semis went barreling down there and if you didn’t go fast enough, well, you were in danger of getting squished like a bug. Unless you went through Rankin, in which case, you better slow down to 25 mph, or be ready to get a ticket. Rankin was hardly big enough to be called a town, on account of no church and no bar, not even a blinking light to warn people to slow down. Still, Rankin had a police department with so little to do, the police were happy as clams to stop and chat before they handed out a ticket with a friendly ‘good day.’
The Witch Cat stayed around our house forever. She had some kittens that she refused to take care of. My cat Davie adopted them like they were her very own. The Witch Cat’s ugly grey hair got all matted into balls and dirty as an old dust mop, ‘cause she never learned how to clean herself like cats do naturally. Sometimes the Witch Cat clawed at Mom’s feet and bit her ankles. Mom hated the Witch Cat. It’s a good thing the Witch Cat wasn’t a rooster or Mom probably would have chopped her head off and cooked her for dinner.
Mom just tolerated the Witch Cat and hoped she would run away. Instead, the Witch Cat hung around the back door, and tried to sneak in any chance she could get. She never learned to hang out in the barn, like ordinary, normal cats. The Witch Cat got the boot way more times than any other cat, ‘cause she never seemed to learn who was in charge.
For some reason, Mrs. J, who lived across the road thought Mom loved cats. She bought Mom two ceramic Persian cats, one black and one white that looked just like the Witch Cat. Mom smiled and said, “Thank you. You are so thoughtful.” That’s as close to a lie as I ever knew Mom to get. I saw the little muscles along her jaw ripple.
Mom put those ceramic Witch Cats on the hearth, then on the porch, then on the mantle, and every other place she thought a Little Kid might knock them over and break them (accidentally) to smithereens. The ceramic Witch Cats held on for more years than the real Witch Cat.
In spite of all her wisdom or maybe because of it, Mom believed more in survival of the fittest than molly coddling. Of course that philosophy can work against a person, if she has a soft heart, and something as resilient as a Witch Cat is in your life. Years after Mr. and Mrs. J had passed away, Mom stopped hoping someone would break the ceramic Persian cats. She became fond of them; a reminder of old friends and past times. Last year Mom got herself a couple of kittens, even though she no longer has any farm animals. When she sits outside under her arbor, a cat climbs into her lap and onto her shoulders. She even lets her new friend paw in her hair. Now that’s something Bernie or any other pet, would never, ever be allowed to do.