Cats! (Not the musical, but the real thing)

Tawny stretched, yawned, and then mewed out her version of Good Morning. She’s lying on top of an old garden bench inside our carport, comfortably embedded atop two chair cushions. The cushions belong on wrought iron chairs on the patio, but after several months, they’ve been commandeered by this four-legged house guest.

Outside house guest, I should emphasize.

Tawny, named for her crazy-colored fur coat, has commandeered several prime spots in and around the carport. For the first couple of months after her arrival, we weren’t quite sure if she was a boy or a girl. Her original name was Tawnzie, like Fonzie, the Henry Winkler character from the 1970s hit TV show, Happy Days.

She appears to be a female, but who knows? Frankly, we’re not sure of anything with our collection of feline freeloaders.

They’re Cats

Before I go much further, let’s get a few things straight. Yes, I know we shouldn’t indulge the neighborhood cats, or feral cats, or roamers (as one neighbor calls them), or whatever category (Sorry, bad pun!) these fuzzy four-legged critters fall under. Yes, I know statistics tell us that outdoor cats can be destructive to a suburban ecosystem. Yes, I know that we’ve had to modify our own ecosystem so that the cats and the birds can both hang out around our yard.

But, they’re cats. They’re small beings. For the most part, they’re sweet. And, frankly, these creatures are a nice distraction from the day-to-day monotony of being at home, especially during this long, hot summer. They’ve become an obsession—feeding, tending to, and trying to care for them. A couple of the roamers are still aloof—there’s a shocker—but they’ve also come to trust me…as much as cats trust any human.

Small Gesture

Late last year, something clicked inside me, well before our current feline boarder made her appearance. As the weather grew colder, I decided to leave a bowl of food outside in the carport. A small gesture on my part…an opportunity to help another living being. Maybe a response to our pandemic-saturated lives? Maybe a way to gain back control over my own cancer journey? Either way, my not-so-well-thought-out action led to this recurring cast of characters.

Remember, we don’t own any of these cats. Two of them come-and-go as they please, and, as far as we can tell, they’re fed elsewhere in our neighborhood. We have, however, attempted to name the cats, but, other than standard descriptors, we couldn’t seem to agree on proper names. So, instead, they have easy-to-understand monikers: Black Kitty, Momma Kitty (or, Momma Cat), and Baby, who has since moved on to greener pastures—or, maybe, better cat food. With her orange-brown fur and those gray and white highlights, Tawny’s nickname was pretty obvious.

Cast of Characters

Black Kitty arrived several years ago without much fanfare. We’d find him sacked out on our front porch, lying under an iron rocker, soaking up the sun, or hunkered down behind a potted plant shielded against the rain or cold. Eventually, he’d leave, come back—sometimes with a gap of several weeks or a couple of months—hang around for a while, then leave, again.

He’s a beautiful cat with entrancing green eyes. Back then, Black Kitty looked healthy and, at times, even well-groomed, so we assumed he was a neighbor’s cat that roamed around. Lately, Black Kitty has begun to show his age…a little less mobile with a slight hitch in his step. But he maintains a “don’t mess with me” attitude—like he’s still the big man on campus.

I now refer to him as “Old Man.”

Sometime in late spring 2021, Momma Kitty arrived with a kitten in-tow that we simply nicknamed “Baby.” Momma, as we refer to her, and Baby hung around the house, keeping their distance from us and our border collie, Zoe, by hiding under overgrown bushes or underneath the firewood rack cover.

During the day, Momma would leave Baby to hunt or scrounge for food. Baby stayed hidden until Momma returned. When she cried out, Baby would resurface and head right to her. Momma always licked Baby in greeting. Watching mother and child interact reaffirmed my belief that animals care for and love one another.

For most of 2021, both cats remained somewhat skittish around us, so we left them alone. Like Black Kitty, who continued to make occasional appearances, Momma and Baby would leave for a while and then return.

As Baby grew up, she—at some point later, we figured out that she was female—became more inquisitive and trusting. She’d watch me work in the yard and follow me around. Trailing behind me, she’d keep her distance. Sometime in late fall, Momma and Baby moved on, or, so we thought, and, for a while, we’d only see Black Kitty stalking around.

Soft Touch

On a particularly cold morning in November, I went to open our back door and Momma Cat was standing there, meowing. At first, I thought the worst—something bad had happened to her kitten. After several more appearances at the back door, I soon realized that Momma was cold…and hungry.

When it comes to cats and dogs, I’m a soft touch with a big heart. On my next grocery store run, I bought a small bag of Kroger dry cat food. That small gesture soon became a morning ritual…and an evening ritual.

Feeding the cats…an obsession.

As it turned out, Baby was still around, and she showed up, every so often, to sample that premium dry cat food from Kroger. Black Kitty also made his presence known.

I guess word got around the neighborhood.

The Interloper

Winter of 2022 became a bit routine—Momma at the back door. Black Kitty lurking nearby. Then, in early spring, Baby made a return visit. She had grown-up quite a bit. A beautiful young cat with gorgeous markings. She looked healthy and happy.

And she brought a friend.

Gangly and definitely a juvenile, along with those wild markings, Tawny was an odd addition to our feline corps. Black Kitty and Momma grudgingly tolerated her. Unlike the two roamers, Tawny laid claim to the carport and the backyard and showed no signs of leaving. We think she may have been abandoned by a family or simply runaway. We’ll never know.

She adopted us, and we have adopted her.

Tawny hopped down on the slab floor, staring up at me with those piercing yellow eyes. As I pour out her breakfast, I sense movement behind me. Black Kitty is situated behind my car, watching me with anticipation. I grabbed his bowl and filled it, placing the bowl in front of him. He meows his thanks, then hisses. The old man wants to be left alone to eat his breakfast.

An hour or so later, Momma slinked down the driveway, her raccoon-striped tail swishing back-and-forth. Momma’s never in a hurry. She always moves at her own pace. With her food bowl strategically located at the other end of the drive, Momma ate while taking in her surroundings. From underneath my car, Tawny eyes Momma warily. An early morning truce while bellies are filled.

Cats! What a cast of characters!

Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.

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