A week went by, and then we were certain. Not that I needed more than a day or two to really feel that something was off, but it didn’t hurt to be sure. She was gone, off cavorting in that great litterbox in the sky. The opening of our front door failed to trigger that distant mewing, fast approaching, that signaled her imminent landing at our doorstep. There would be no new clumps of white fur to vacuum up from strange places. (Across the stove top? Behind the toaster? On the aquarium hood? All over the TV?) We would no longer find chewed-up rodents and small birds in our shoes. She disappeared as quietly as she entered our life, some fifteen years ago at a dumpy campground in British Columbia.
I remember we four brothers were playing in a nearby stream, building a dam with rocks and chasing the tiny trout that swam between our legs. It was nearing dusk and the winged termites were flitting about. We saw a small white cat wandering through camp, apparently looking for something to eat. She was out in the road, swatting the termites out of the air and gobbling them up as soon as they hit the ground. This kitty needed some proper vittles, we decided, so we grabbed a net and yanked some trout fingerlings out of the stream and brought them over. The little fish flopped pathetically in the dust, and she gobbled these up, too. Later that night she infiltrated our tent, and since we thought she was the coolest cat around, we let her bunk with us.
When it came time to leave we naturally begged our father to bring her along. The owner of the campground told us someone had abandoned her there a few weeks back, and that we were free to take her off his hands. We named her Arlene, after the girlfriend of Jim Davis’ cartoon fat cat, Garfield. We smuggled her across the border (it was an innocent age then) and thus began her American life with the Pearsalls.
Arlene changed everything. For starters, she was already pregnant (unbeknownst to us), and when it was time she decided to have her kittens in the trunk of our neighbor’s sedan. How she got in there, no one really knew. But I remember our neighbor knocking on the door one morning with a milk crate in his arms, demanding that we take our cats back. There were three kittens, two white, one brown and striped. The runty brown one would die shortly after birth, but the other two grew up to be our resident feline patriarchs, Grayspot and Purewhite. (As kids, we opted for the glaringly literal naming of the cats, thus obviating the need to describe physical appearances. This could also be interpreted as an extreme lack of creativity on our part.)
At this point we had three cats, and Arlene became known simply as “Momma Kitty”. She would live up to this moniker again in a rather big way. Her next litter came immediately after the first was weaned—we kids were thrilled, our parents were not—and this time there were seven little kittens. Needless to say, Momma Kitty was spayed shortly after this debacle. Never before had our family kept pets other than some fish and the occasional frog or turtle, so all of these cats to play with was a real treat for us. Kittens were furry and warm and rambunctious, traits not often attributed to fish or turtles.
Not long after the second litter was weaned, our family moved from West Seattle to Kenmore. Most of the kittens were summarily given away to friends and neighbors. Our new property was a veritable forest compared to the lot on Delridge Way, and the cats went to town on the bustling bird and rodent populations. It was gruesome: moles, voles, mice, squirrels, robins, wrens, sparrows, even a Steller’s jay once, all slaughtered and left on the doorstep like gifts from Satan. In Kenmore the cats were happy, their sadism sated. Over the years they dropped off one by one, some hit by cars, some simply vanishing without a trace. But Momma Kitty toughed it out. She outlived her progeny and grew old and strange in her ways.
She was compulsively habit-forming, for instance. Upon finding a desirable sleeping spot, she would return there, without fail, for a good two weeks or more, never altering her behavior until some inexplicable urge led her to relocate once more. Sometimes it was on a couch. Other times it was in a box. Sometimes it was atop the fridge, or in a closet, or on the bathroom floor. For a while, a favorite nook of hers was on the neighbor’s roof, near their sealed-off chimney flue. She would spend hours up there, sunning herself, preening, and, as it turned out, occasionally taking shits. It was only after the neighbors complained of cat turds blowing onto their deck from the roof that we tried to deter Momma from hanging out there any longer.
Toward the end of her life Momma stopped keeping up appearances. She sort of let herself go. Her once snow-white coat became grayish and matted, and she began yanking out tufts of fur with her teeth whenever the fleas nettled her. Her voice even changed, taking on a more plaintive yowl-like quality that irked us to no end. “Maowwwww…..Owwww….Meeeaowwww…” She was lonely, she wanted food, she wanted to go out—I just wanted her to shut the fuck up. She drooled profusely whenever she purred, so it became difficult to keep Momma in one’s lap without coming away with a giant drool-stain on the crotch. She flaunted the litterbox and all that it stood for, preferring instead to leave turds in all the houseplants for us to discover later. But one endearing trait of the now almost-infirm Momma Kitty was her desire to be held. When I picked her up and held her to my chest, front legs wrapped around my neck, she would nuzzle my ear and nip at my chin, purring and drooling all the while. She ached to be held and never made a move to get down; it was always with reluctance that her claws pulled away from my shirt collar when I at last lowered her back to the ground. She was so light: a bag of old cat bones covered in dirty white fur.
Goodbye, Momma Kitty. I’m sorry to have made you the target of so much verbal abuse over the years—it was just tough love.