Years ago when my husband and I were first married and before we had children, we lived in a beautiful 100 year-old farmhouse in Sanford, NC. We rented the home from Rosemary and Randy McLeod. Rosemary's parents, John and Margaret Dalrymple lived on the farm as well and they all became some of our greatest friends. The farm was the homestead that had been in the family since the Dalrymples had arrived in Lee County. The farmhouse stands sentinel on the 140-acre working tobacco farm, surrounded by a bower of pecan trees.
While we were living there someone dumped a cat out by the road. I'm told folks will do that. Choose to dump an animal near a farm because they know farmers are partial to Gods creatures and are more likely to give it a home.
The feline was female. A very old, skinny tabby cat missing most of its teeth; David inadvertently petted it and said "Hey there, Tiger". Big mistake, once you name it you have certain ownership rights. The cat was sweet and obviously grateful to be given some attention. It hung around the farm and we eventually ended up feeding it (this cemented the relationship).
Within no time at all Tiger became a fixture around the farm. Always friendly, a good mouser that earned her keep...she even hung out on occasion with some of the feral cats that lived in the grain barn across the road. One cold day she crept from beneath Granny Margaret's garden shed followed by a small gray kitten. We looked to see if she'd had more but apparently it was a small litter. Who knew such an old cat could have kittens? We did the right thing and found a home for the kitten, getting the assurance of the new owner that they would have it spayed when the time came. We'd planned on getting Tiger spayed as well. Since she was able to reproduce there was no sense letting her single-handily over-populate the region of the county where we lived.
Well, we missed the cutoff date. Before we knew it Tiger appeared as swayback as an old horse. She hung low as she dragged her swollen body around the farm. Granny Margaret's dog named Splash, an Australian Shepherd, loved to chase Tiger and soon it became clear that Tiger needed somewhere safe to have her new litter. That cat was super smart. She used her paws, head and eventually even her swollen belly to open up a small hole on the top half of the old screen door on our back porch. When the dog chased her she would run, jump and use her claws to climb the screen door and force her way inside where the dog couldn't reach her. It always ticked the dog off and I've gotta admit Tiger looked a bit smug each time she got away.
One day as I passed through the hallway near the back door I heard a soft mewing noise. Recognizing it as a potential "kitten" sound I opened the back door to find a newly born, still slightly bloody kitten lying on the back porch, just inside the screen door. Looking to my left I saw a red trail leading away to a second very "newly born" kitten. The remainder of the trail led me to the clothes hamper sitting in the corner...where Tiger had managed to climb in and was still in the middle of labor. Eyes are truly a window to the soul, I'll never forget the way she looked at me when I placed the two kittens from the floor into the hamper with her. Either she was good at showing gratitude or she was somehow psychic because I knew what she was thinking. "Thank you...oh, thank you...I had no idea how I was gonna get out and get them in here with me". She immediately began cleaning the two kittens and within a short time, she had a litter of 7 or 8 little ones.
As the days and weeks went by the kittens grew and eventually made it out of the clothes hamper. As a side note, we discarded the clothes.
One day while I was walking through the back hall I looked out the glass of the back door and witnessed Tiger laying on the porch, nursing several of her now mobile kittens and being attacked and used as a launching pad by the others. I watched as she stood up and began walking away all the while dragging half her still-suckling brood as she went. She leaped onto the door and using her getaway hole she exited. The kittens stood mewing and a few tried to follow but quickly fell off the door.
I was horror struck. What a terrible mother! I couldn't believe she could do such a thing. To just up and leave like that was appalling to me. The feelings I had were much more powerful than they should have been...but I recognized them and the heaviness of the moment stuck with me.
Years later I look back on that day and now I see it differently. She knew she needed time away from those kittens, and she knew they wouldn't just sit back and offer to let her go. To be a better mother she knew she needed time for herself. By getting up and leaving, all the while knowing her kittens were fed and safely enclosed in the porch, she gave herself the freedom all mothers need. As a human mother, I see where we need the same thing...and that advice, when asked for, is what I readily give to all new mothers.
Now I think back and can only smile. That was the smartest cat I've ever seen.