Zelda was a friendly stray who moved into the crawl space under the first floor balcony of our Victorian three-flat with a litter of two feral kittens. It's very likely she had been abandoned, a common practice when people won't be responsible for pets they no longer want or can't keep. It's also possible she answered the call of the wild and never returned to the home she escaped.
Whatever the reason, she was camped in Kenmore Street the same summer I quit drinking and started gardening.
Zelda watched me endlessly as I gardened. I watched her endlessly as she mothered her litter.
Every now and then, she came to me and rolled on her back for a tummy scratch. Nothing feral about that. Her kittens, on the other hand, scattered like leaves ahead of the wind any time you approached.
I thought I was doing a good thing to feed her. I thought I was doing a good thing to save her kitten from strangling himself in a wire over the gap in the crawl space. After the landlady's sheepdog almost killed one of the kittens, I thought I was doing a good thing to trap the lot of them and take them to a shelter.
Small problem that I didn't anticipate. No-kill shelters don't take stray cats. I called all the no-kill cat shelters in a 25 mile radius of Chicago. No strays. No way. Imagine that.
The Humane Society didn't consider Zelda a stray.
Because I fed her, she and the kittens were considered unwanted pets. They would be euthanized immediately.
Regretfully, I left the kittens to a humane fate. Zelda came home.
I didn't want another cat in my home. But I didn't want the Humane Society to kill her. So I determined to give her a chance.
I vetted her, inoculated her and quarantined her for two weeks.
This was more complicated, i.e, dramatic, than it sounds.
Keeping her in the basement sent the owner of the building into apoplexy. She channeled Faye Dunaway in "Mommy Dearest": NO FUCKING CATS. Fostering Zelda with a friend was short-lived - she clawed the furniture. I had no choice. I quarantined her inside my apartment in the maid's room, kept the doors closed to the rest of the apartment and did my best to rehome her.
I pestered all my friends and alarmingly, all my clients, to adopt this cat. No takers.
So after 2 weeks quarantine, moving her from here to there to there to here, she was granted freedom in my apartment, bringing disruption, cat spats and fleas.
When Sissy erupted in flea dermatitis, I took Zelda back to the Humane Society with a shot record and a letter of recommendation. I don't want to think further about the outcome.
I felt like the world's biggest creep.
Fast forward to the first spring at Donegan Street. A tortoise-shell cat sleeps in the budding spirea beneath my office window. She is young, scrawny, very pregnant and the spitting image of Zelda.
Against experience and better judgment, I bought special food for pregnant cats. Once a day I called her; Calli came racing across the road to be fed and petted.
I didn't own her. Technically she was owned by the farmer and his wife who lived across the road. In reality, Calli owned herself.
Pete and Eileen, were good people. They had three yappy little shih tzus they doted on. But the barn cats were another matter.
He wouldn't feed them because he believed they'd quit mousing. He didn't vet them; it cost too much money. He drowned kittens when it suited him. And while he was tolerant and friendly, he showed no real affection for them. As a result, they bred indiscriminately, earned their keep by hunting and lived the free, often painfully short lives, of semi-feral cats.
This made it easy to lure Callianna with food; I like to think she stayed for the affection.
In about eight weeks, in the lee of a frightening summer storm, with dark clouds roiling on the near horizon, lightning bolts arcing to the ground and the thunderous booms that foretold how fast the storm was moving, Callianna showed up at my door with three kittens.
She crossed the well-traveled road first, then crouched facing them willing them to come.
My heart was in my throat as one by one, tentatively, awkwardly and way too slowly, the kittens crossed the road to follow her.
They were so cute, so small and every experience was new. Their body language expresses surprise and confusion as lawn gave way to blacktop, cool gave way to heat.
Step. Stop. More steps. Stop. Skitter skitter skitter. Safe!
The first two moved cautiously, but cross the road with only a slight hesitation. The third kitty got halfway across, then balked, right in the middle of the damned street.
I wanted to scoop her up, but I feared any movement from me would only spook her and send her racing in the wrong direction. So I bated breath and waited.
Finally all three kitties were safe on the town side of the road. I found clean towels, an empty box and let Callianna and her kittens move in just as the storm clouds let go a deluge.
Well, what would you do? Let them drown?
No worry about fleas. No worry about Feline HIV. I kept Sissy in the house. I housed Callianna and her kittens separately on my sun porch, an unfinished addition to the cottage. For the next month or so, I enjoyed watching Callianna's kittens grow.
They were Poppy, the most beautiful tortoise-shell I've ever seen, Daisy, a winsome calico and Opie , an orange tabby who hid under the couch every time I entered the room.
Because she was a calico, I had this notion that keeping Daisy would make it easier to let Sissy go. As if.
Anyway, Daisy had another destiny.
When Callianna's kittens were old enough to wean, just when it was time to either rehome them or release them to become barn cats, Daisy and Opie were adopted.
They went to live with friends in Chicago who had lost both their housecats to cancer and chronic renal failure the year before. My friends changed their bumpkin names to something pretentious and the barn cats became sophisticats, living in the city during the week and spending weekends in their country home.
I kept Poppy.
Redemption one day; more karma the next.
This "doing a good thing" caused a little tension, well a lot of tension, between me and Farmer Pete.
He allowed as how his grandson felt that these cats were his. I stated that if that's how he felt, then his grandson ought to vet and feed them. I didn't respect his laissez faire approach to breeding cats. He translated it to no respect for his wife and him. I regretted he felt like that.
We argued back and forth in this way for a long, uncomfortable moment. Never heated. Never giving ground. We stayed agreeable, but we strongly disagreed. Our friendly relations cooled for quite some time afterward.
Pffft. No one owned Calli. She wanted me. That was that.
Even when I tried, for the sake of neighborly relations, I couldn't keep her out of my house.
Once I locked her out when I was at John Deere for a business meeting. I glanced into the loft when I returned. There was Callianna on the guest bed looking down. She had dashed inside the basement door when the Culligan man delivered rock salt.
No one had to feed her either.
She was a formidable predator, coming and going, day or night as she pleased.
I can still see her ginger mask lit by a ray of sun as she coolly surveyed her territory from within the shadows of the copse of trees at the edge of my property. A stone-cold killer when it came to birds, mice, moles and bunnies, she was a good mother, an affectionate lap cat, a great queen.
Given the ambiguity of Calli's ownership, my vet would not spay her the first time I asked. She was concerned about liability, litigation.
Before you could say, "bring it on," Callianna delivered another litter of four kittens in my towel closet.
Thus came Archie, a ginger cat, Beatrice, a tortie, Aimee, a calico and Snow, a black cat with white socks.
Watching four kittens develop from the squirming stage to weaning was a gas.
Every day I spent time in the nursery, sitting in the middle of the floor, permitting four tiny kittens, with 16 sets of needle-like claws, crawl all over me. I felt like Mount Rushmore.
When they were ready to wean, I ran out of friends before I ran out of kittens.
Archie and Bea, who were great pals, went together to a new home. Although they still lived in Galena, their bumpkin names were changed to something pretentious. Snow was adopted by the son of a friend, where she became one of many house cats. No one picked Aimee. This suited me just fine.
So then I had Sissy, Callianna, Poppy and Aimee.
Aimee & Callianna, Galena, IL - 1996After the second litter, I threatened to take Calli to the "other vet" in town. Dr. Barbara spayed Calli, discovering a uterine infection that would soon have killed her.
Amusingly, I gained a reputation in my community for the love of cats.
For a time, I got calls whenever someone found a litter of kittens (or didn't want one.) I was in danger of becoming the eccentric cat lady of Donegan Street until I got a dog.
Had I done a good thing with Callianna and her kittens?
In the next seven years, I eventually reached detente with Farmer Pete, though we stayed on our respective sides of the road when we spoke.
From 1993 to 1999, the year I left for Austin, natural attrition had decimated his population of 19 barn cats who bred indiscriminately and earned their keep by hunting to exactly zero.