She was a matriarch of sorts, our first family pet, picked out by Firstborn on her seventh birthday from a litter of fluffy, mewling kitties. Chosen for her sass. She was the one that wouldn't stay put in her comfy basement enclosure, the one that always escaped to roam upstairs where she wasn't allowed. Her first owners were glad to see the "unruly" one go.
Once home, it wasn't hard to name her - simple enough for a first grader. When she curled up on the hearth near the wood stove, her mottled gray fur could easily have been mistaken for a pile of ashes. So, Ashes it was.
We loved her feisty, somewhat aloof attitude, at least... most of us did. Husband accepted her presence in his home because he is a generous man. Third Child was a little afraid of her, and Sweetie Petite-y was allergic, although we didn't figure that out until several years later. By then, it was too late. She was part of the family.
She was a full grown three year old when Only Son picked out her adopted "little" sister, Fudge, a labshepweiller mutt puppy three times her size, who grew to ten times bigger. (Side note: Fudge resembles her name as much as Ashes did hers, though left up to me, I'd have called her Bliss.) A pecking order was established, and Ashes came out as Top Dog. She tolerated the interloper, but barely, and never played with her despite Fudge's enthusiastic attempts. The canine water bowl was deemed drinkable only after it served as feline bath water, delicately applied by paw, and Fudge waited patiently for Ashes' daily ritual like, well, a dog waiting for table scraps.
Years passed. For a few months, a stray calico kitten shared our home and Ashes' food dish - our affection, though not hers. But Callie disappeared one day as quickly as she came. Another adopted stray was Third Child's best ever Christmas present, but sadly, Tiger possessed the same wanderlust, and was gone within a year.
Ashes never wandered. Even though she spent summer nights prowling the yard and woods that surround our house - decapitating rabbits, nabbing bats mid-flight, and ridding the mountainside of field mice. And no, we never suspected her of foul play where the other cats were concerned! But over the years our fearless FirstPet did get into a few minor(?) scrapes. An occasional scratch on her nose, a small tear in her ear, and a scab on the back of her neck that she reopened time and time again attested to the fact that she could take care of herself. With each dawn she'd meow- she was a very vocal kitty! - till I let her in off the deck or opened the basement door. She'd then proceed to regale me with her nightly escapades, which I'm guessing included more than one rebuffed lover, and possibly an occasional fisher or coyote. Since she was much smaller than she looked under all of that fur, she was hard to catch. But she was always there in the morning with presents for her family, ready to find a sunbeam for a catnap.
In the winter, she epitomized the term "lap cat". If you were lucky enough to have her warmth curled up over your knees, you didn't want to move. Especially since disturbing her usually meant claws exposed on her way to the floor.
Once the cause of Sweetie Petite-y's eczema was partially pinned on her, Ashes was relegated to either the outdoors or basement at night, weather depending, and the younger girls room was deemed off limits at all times. About a year ago, Hubby finally installed a screen door over their bedroom door so that there could still be air flow with no hair flow. Both Sweetie Petite-y and I had a love/hate relationship with the cat by that point. All of that irresistible, soft gray fur begging to be stroked was like living with an addiction.
She was never a playful kitty, but there was one thing she couldn't resist - our reusable plastic advent wreath. From the moment it was set out her tail was a-quiver with excitement. One by one, she'd steal the sparkly boughs from it and bat them around till they disappeared under stove or fridge. Eventually, I took to hanging it (sans candles) from a hook on the deck door, and she would sit below, eyeing it with such longing that, each year, I would have to break off at least one bough to give her, just because.
Earlier this spring we got our first indication that Ashes would not be immortal. At first, she just seemed a little off. Then we noticed that her pupils were different sizes and she began to have some issues with balance. Firstborn was away at college when Ashes had the full blown stroke that left her hindquarters immobilized. It was finals and theater tech-week, and I was afraid that if I told Firstborn she'd be a wreck. So, even though it seemed wrong to keep it from her, I did, hoping that by some miracle the cat would pull through.
Amazingly, she did!
For over a month after that Ashes appeared normal. Her ordeal had left her a little thinner and slower than usual, but she was eating and acting like herself again. And then suddenly, she wasn't. She went off her food first, even turning down the tuna juice that was her favorite. I noticed right away, and eventually Firstborn did too. Then, she stopped drinking very much, moved very little, and took to hiding in secluded corners. I suspected the end was near. For a day or two we debated taking her to the vet, but decided not to traumatize her; she had always hated the car, the cat carrier, and the vet's office even more. Out of compassion, we decided to let her passing be natural. It was difficult to watch her waste away, even though she didn't appear to be in any pain. I took to singing to her softly while gently stroking her, missing the times I could have done so and hadn't. She tolerated it, even purring, though sometimes I could sense she just wanted to be left alone. She seemed so frail.
The morning of her passing she wanted to be outside. Rain was coming, and I had to leave for work, so I didn't want to let her out. But I did. I watched as she slowly, stoically stepped through the doorway to the stone porch, resting just outside the door. I scratched behind her ears, whispered goodbye and drove away. Firstborn, fighting the urge to put her back inside, did the same as she left the house a while later, both of us somehow knowing.....
When I got home from work after picking up the Critters from school, she was gone. I searched the house, not knowing if she'd been put back inside, and failing to find her, looked around outside. It had rained during the day, and the darkening sky portended another approaching thunderstorm. If she was still alive, I didn't want her left out in it. But she wasn't. I finally found her under our mudroom, just beyond the opening in the stone foundation and lying on some lumber we store there.
Only Son helped me retrieve her body, carefully lifting out the boards till he could get to her with both hands, wanting to retain her dignity in death. His lighthearted comments as he worked belied the catch in his voice, and I knew he was as sad as I was. After brushing her a final time, something she wouldn't stand for in her last days, I placed her in a box with a favorite towel that had been marked with our family name. Her family name. Then we waited for FirstBorn to come home. She took the news gracefully, with quiet tears.
After dinner, the whole family gathered around the little plot in the woods that was meant to be a mushroom garden, but had never produced. With its woven branch fence, it was the perfect spot to lay her to rest. Hubby dug her grave, Firstborn placed her beloved wreath over her, Only Son said a few words, and the rest of us looked on remembering what a good cat she had been. But Bonus Baby's tearful regret at never having the chance to get to really know her was heart wrenching. She'd had to keep her distance since Ashes hadn't been overly fond of little people. But it hadn't stopped Bonus Baby from loving her.
A week has passed since these events, and we're still adjusting to the meow-less mornings. As I write this I am still teary. FirstBorn has been working such long hours that I wonder if she's had time to process it. We know we won't get another kitty in this house, though she might someday.
But we will all always remember our FirstPet, Ashes.
Ashes & Firstborn in her Senior Photo