My family inherited a cat from a little old lady named Miss Barham when I was about 7 years old. Miss Barham looked exactly like a gnarled old woman from one of my storybooks. I suspected she might be a witch although not a bad witch. Miss Barham had been renting our house in North Carolina and had moved all of her belongings out a few days before we began the process of moving in. She had left word with my grandparents that she had taken everything except her cat, which she could not find when she was all packed up. However, she promised that she would be back to fetch the cat. My parents had spied the cat about the property and assumed it belonged to the old lady. I saw the cat, too, and secretly hoped that Miss Barham would not come to get her. I liked the look of her whiskered face and I liked the idea of having a cat for my own pet – even though this particular cat did not come close enough for me to make friends. Miss Barham showed up as promised on the day we were moving in.
After cordial greetings were exchanged my parents continued their work and Miss Barham began looking around for her cat. She called “Here Kitty kitty” many times but her kitty did not come. After quite a long time someone spotted the cat sitting regally among some cabbages in a garden behind our house. Miss Barham chided the cat for not coming and beckoned her with more “here kitties” but the cat remained in the garden regarding Miss Barham with what seemed some disdain. Miss Barham tromped off to the garden whereupon the cat hastily changed her position to a now plowed up tobacco field beside our house quite a distance from the garden. When Miss Barham made for the plowed field the cat made for the woods. Miss Barham shook her head, grumbled and returned to our yard. Every now and then Miss Barham would call out, “Here, Kitty-kitty”. After some time the cat strolled out of the woods and sat herself down in the middle of the plowed field, her eyes looking directly at the exasperated Miss Barham. The old lady called her kitty over and over but the cat was clearly not interested in coming anywhere in her proximity. At long last Miss Barham admitted defeat – whether from exhaustion or embarrassment I couldn’t say. She had stayed her limit and it was apparent she would not be able to take the cat with her. My parents had continued with their moving work but were aware of the current impasse between the old lady and her obstinate cat. They promised Miss Barham that they would feed the haughty creature. And Miss Barham promised that she would be back another day to collect the recalcitrant cat.
The cat appeared daily for meals and stayed for head scratches and belly rubs. As it turned out we had all gotten a bad first impression of the cat. Although she had appeared regal, aloof, and indifferent she was, in fact, quite the opposite – sweet, affectionate, and docile. Miss Barham had not introduced us formally and as far as we knew her name was Kitty. Be that as it may, any cat who allowed herself to be dressed up in my doll baby’s clothes, set and stay in a doll’s high chair, and pushed around in my dolly’s baby buggy without complaint needed a better, more substantial name, in my opinion. I declared that she was the sweetest cat ever and that I was going to name her after my Sunday School teacher, “Miss” Clara, who was the absolute sweetest person I could think of. Neither my Sunday School teacher nor the cat seemed to mind and since “Miss” Clara had laughed out loud and said it was a lovely compliment I was quite sure that Clara the Cat was honored. For a while I worried that Miss Barham would come back to claim her cat but she never did.
Now one thing you should know is that my daddy was not a cat lover – or at least, he did not want a cat for a house pet – but he was impressed by Clara’s courteous nature. Unlike other cats he had known, she refrained from winding herself around his or my mama’s legs, kept a polite distance, and only sought affection from me or my brother. The respectful Clara never once deigned to even step one little paw into our house – not that she would have been allowed to stay there but that she knew her place further swayed my daddy positively on her behalf. Clara also occasionally left generous gifts on our doorstep – dead things or pieces of them: mice, rabbits, birds – which horrified my mama but assured Daddy that she was a good hunter and was earning her keep.
After some time had passed during one of her belly rub sessions I noted that Clara’s soft tummy was overly fat. My parents told me that she was likely to be a mother soon. My brother and I were thrilled. My parents sighed and rolled their eyes. I knew that cats usually hid their kittens from prying eyes and predators and I wondered where that somewhere might be. As it happened, Clara had a big surprise in store for all of us!
In the middle of the night my parents were awakened by the meowing of a cat. The meowing became louder and closer. Mama wondered if it could be Clara. Daddy, firmly assured of her usual genteel nature, was certain it could not possibly be. He went to their bedroom window, opened the curtain, and there on the window ledge was the pitifully wailing Clara. He was surprised but thought that surely something was wrong for her to behave in such an unusual manner. He decided to investigate. Flashlight in hand he went to the front door, opened it, and to his further surprise there stood Clara. Then to his utter amazement she walked right into the house as if she’d been there a hundred times before and headed straight for the basement door. Daddy figured there was nothing to do but to oblige the cat and when he opened it she went straight downstairs. By this point, he had deduced that the poor Clara was in labor and needed a safe haven to bear her offspring. Daddy followed her down but then escorted her to the garage where he walked to the very back where he had built wooden bins to house potatoes for the winter. He placed an empty box in one of the bins and lined it with a burlap bag. It seemed that he and Clara had reached a mutual agreement through sheer telepathy for she quietly got into the box and nestled down to begin her business of child bearing. Daddy came back upstairs shaking his head and chuckling to himself. The next morning I could hardly wait to go downstairs to see the new arrivals but Daddy cautioned us that despite Clara’s usual amiable disposition being a mother might make her overly protective and unwelcoming to prying eyes. So my brother and I went quietly to the kitten nursery and peeked into the box. Clara looked up at us with her sweet face and although obviously tired she was pleased with her litter. She rolled over just a little to allow us a peek at her six little kittens nursing cozily among her soft fur. We were delighted. I was more than a little astonished at how Clara had managed access to our garage and even more so at Daddy’s part in the little miracle. I didn’t want to press too much – afraid Daddy’s grace would only extend just so far – but I had to know more. I asked Daddy what he thought. He shrugged, “Well, it’s spring time and sometimes Tomcats come around and kill newborn kittens. I think she just wanted them somewhere she knew they’d be safe.” (The reason for this being: so the female would go into heat again – which I learned later) “But how did Clara know which window was yours? And how did she know about the basement?” Daddy just shook his head. “She’s a smart cat.” What other answer could he give? It has remained one of life’s mysteries, that’s for sure. Later that day Daddy opened one of the small garage windows, which were high up on the wall and leaned a 2×4 board on its sill so Clara could enter and exit the garage at her leisure. I’m pretty sure Daddy earned some extra stars in his crown for that favor but nobody in our family said a word – although my mama smiled at me and winked.
When the kittens were up and walking Daddy allowed them to stay in the garage until they got big enough to move out on their own accord. There is nothing is much cuter than kittens at play and we all enjoyed watching them grow. As it often happened in the country back then cats find their own way. As they grew some of them lingered but some left. Still Clara stayed on our property for a number of years. And with every litter of kittens she and my daddy played out their original agreement: she went into labor and he let her use the garage for her nursery. Over time it was no longer astonishing although we continued to be reminded that Clara certainly was a remarkable cat.
One particular spring when Clara was again with a new litter of kittens we were all awakened by a great commotion in the garage – a clattering, thudding, loud squalls, shrieks, and hissing. Daddy leapt into action. He grabbed his shotgun and ran down to the garage. I heard him shouting and a few minutes later I heard him fire his gun. I was panicked. It was a little while before he returned. When he did his face was downcast as he reported that a tomcat had come into the garage and, of course, that was what all the commotion was about. Daddy said that Clara was a fierce mama and had fought valiantly to save her babies. Unfortunately, the old Tom had killed one of them before Clara could fend him off. When Daddy arrived on the scene Clara had the intruder backing up the 2×4 board toward the window. At the sound of Daddy’s voice the mean old cat turned tail and ran out the window. Daddy ran out into the yard and fired buckshot at the cat’s backside, which sent him into a forward flip and tumble across the field. The last Daddy saw was the attacker’s frayed tail disappearing into the dark of the night. Daddy returned to check on Clara who was examining her babies. Daddy removed the poor little thing who had not survived and buried him near our garden.
Being a country cat who mostly lived outside Clara came and went as she pleased and there came a time Clara went but did not come back. I can’t say what happened to her. Sometimes in the wild when animals know their time has come they go off somewhere alone to die. My daddy said that’s likely what she had done. There was no way for us to know how old she was but we calculated that she was pretty old. She had lived with Miss Barham before she lived with us and for how many years we didn’t know. Then again maybe she had never belonged to any of us. Perhaps we all lived on her property as far as she was concerned. All I know is that Clara was the best cat I ever knew. We were lucky that she chose to grace our lives with her presence. I like to think of her lounging in the sun – soft and sleepy and perfectly content.