Spring, it seems, has sprung. Winter is gone (for now but not forever). But my heart is heavy because this was the year that the cold finally claimed someone I cared about. I called her Fuzzy. (That’s her, in the picture. She did not like to be photographed.)
My Sainted Irish mother loved cats. One day, more than ten years ago, a cat wearing a collar that was too small for its throat appeared at her window. Somehow, she managed to cut the collar off (I have no idea how she did this but I’m guessing with scissors). The cat was a lovely tabby, choking, the poor thing. Probably lost or abandoned, definitely frightened and hungry. So my mom cut the collar off her (it took her a few tries – the cat, as they say, came back, several times). The cat was missing the tip of her tail, too. My mom took pity on her and gave her some food. And the cat, unsurprisingly, came back, as they say.
She was the first. I called her The Brat because she’d present herself at the window whenever she wanted food. So every time I went over to my mom’s house for dinner, this random cat would get up on the window and demand food and my mom, God bless her, would don coat and boots to go feed a cat that wasn’t even hers in the bitter cold. (Just kidding – whenever I was there, I’d do it. But when I wasn’t there, you better believe she did.)
Soon, another cat showed up, a splotchy grey tabby, with motley white fur, beaten up pretty badly. He had scars all over his face, very skittish around humans. He’d only eat after you left and he didn’t like to be watched. He was somebody’s cat once, who got lost or abandoned and he’d gotten in a few bad fights. I called him Tuffy, which was William Shatner’s nickname in college.*.(*No, really.) I always felt sorry for Tuffy, they way he’d shuffle around like a punch-drunk boxer, the way he’d look right through you, the slow deliberate movements he made when food was offered. My mom felt sorry for him too and so he was the one she kinda bonded with. He’d disappear for a few days every once in a while and show up almost healed or freshly scarred and she’d feed him. He eventually got used to her and would butt his head against her leg at meal-times and let her pat his scabrous scruff. He even eventually trusted me too because my mom told him I was okay.
You can see where this is going. Inevitably, Fuzzy and Diamond Lil showed up one day. Fuzzy was long-haired, grey, very regal looking, incredibly wary around people (In more than 5 years, I think I patted her glancingly maybe three times) and very … well, Fuzzy. Diamond Lil was (and is) a patch-work calico, a cute, sassy little cat, named after the famous Dawson City madame. She and Fuzzy were both somebody’s cats once, before they were lost or abandoned and they arrived together. They were inseparable. They watched each other’s backs, they hung out together, all day, everyday. They huddled together for warmth in winter in the window well. They got along with Tuffy and the Brat just fine, the four of them were like a bunch of co-workers whose only job was being a cat. My mom liked to watch them all sun themselves on the back patio.
This went on for a while, quite a while, in fact. Every time I called her or visited, I’d get the update on what the outdoor cats were up to – Tuffy got beaten up again, my mom patted Diamond Lil, whatever.
Other cats started to show up. I gave them names, because it was getting confusing describing them by colour. So we got Michael, so named because he always had the same quizzical and vaguely appalled look on his face as my uncle Michael, my mom’s brother. There was Jeff, named after an Eddie Izzard routine (you know the one). There was Brad, all black and all-pro and very pretty and pretty dumb. She didn’t really like Jeff or Brad and considered them interlopers but she fed them anyway, if they were there.
Occasionally, some random cat would wander in and get in the queue. All the regulars treated the new-comers with as much respect as a bunch of cats could muster and if they were polite and waited their turn, their bellies would get full. (Seriously, they had an informal order to who ate first.) It was the highest of feline high society, on the back porch. Oh, there were fights occasionally, personality clashes, Tuffy liked to spar with Jeff or Brad but for the most part, everyone kept the peace. And the reason for that was Fuzzy.
She was like the Matriarch. She was obviously somebody’s cat once, who got lost and never went home. She’d adopted Diamond Lil and seemed to organize the rest (mainly) in a non-violent way. I know I’m anthropomorphizing them but I honestly believe that it was Fuzzy who came up with the rules that governed their little colony. All the other cats deferred to Fuzzy; even Tuffy. Especially Tuffy.
It was my deduction that Jeff, Brad and Michael all had homes of their own and just came by for a cheeky free meal and some feline conversation. The Brat had a home too. Tuffy, Fuzzy and Diamond Lil didn’t have a home. They lived rough in our suburban backyard year round and they depended on my mom to feed them. They had nowhere else to go.
About three weeks before my mother died, Tuffy stopped coming around. He wasn’t there one day (and rarely did he miss a feeding) and he wasn’t there the next. Or the next. Or the day after that. He went away and he never came back and we all know he didn’t go to live on a farm in the country. The poor guy. The last time I saw him, his face was covered in scars, one of his ears was torn up and covered in dried blood and he let me pat him on the head. He had a shitty life, that poor cat. But he’d overcome his natural (and quite well-founded) distrust of humans and had at least a small measure of comfort in his shortened and certainly miserable life. Somebody cared about him at the end.
Like I said, about three weeks after Tuffy died, so did my mother.
The last couple of winters have been brutal. I guess it was sometime in February that Fuzzy stopped coming. One day she was there and then she wasn’t there the next. Or the next. Or the day after that. And we all know she didn’t move to a farm in the country.
Diamond Lil is still around. Some days, it’s only her. Jeff stops by but not usually every day. Brad still comes around from time to time. There are even a couple of new-comers, who I’m all but sure have homes nearby. (I call the greyish tabby Steve because he looks like a Steve.) They all know the protocol, though, they all respect the unwritten rules. Diamond Lil eats first because she’s in charge now. She’s been there the longest and she has nowhere else to go.