Mama and the Cat, installment 2

Published 2:44 pm Tuesday, February 13, 2024

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By Lloyd Albritton


This day had started out normally enough for a wash day.  Ossie Lee had awakened the children early and fed them their usual breakfast of fried eggs, buttered grits, and a heaping plateful of hot biscuits, all washed down with fresh cow’s milk.  The family milk cow, a Jersey named Bess, produced four gallons of milk every day between the morning and evening milkings.  Ossie Lee did all the milking.  Milking a cow by hand is a skill most people find difficult to master, but Ossie Lee was good at it.  Her nimble fingers would get going in a steady, alternating rhythm and the warm white liquid would squirt into the milk pail in missle-like streams, as if it had pump pressure behind it.  As the milk filled the pail and began to foam at the top, the rapid-fire squirts took on a rich, mellow sound.  It looked good enough to drink right from the bucket.  Ossie Lee would first strain the milk into a jug and put it in the refrigerator where thick cream would rise to the top.  The cream was skimmed off and sopped with a hot biscuit at breakfast.  Ossie Lee loved to sop fresh cream with sugar sprinkled on top.  The remaining jug of rich, whole milk would be gulped ice cold by a family of insatiable milk lovers.

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Ossie Lee loved Old Bess and did all the tending to the cow.  In fact, all the family referred to Old Bess as “Mama’s cow.”  Her husband, Bud, on the other hand, favored chickens.  Bud owned a flock of Rhode Island Red laying hens which kept the family in eggs aplenty.  Ossie Lee hated chickens.  She would eat eggs, but she would never eat chicken cooked in any sort of way.  She fried chicken regularly for the family, but she would never eat it herself.  She avowed that she had gotten a bad taste in her mouth from plucking and cleaning too many chickens during her childhood.

“Now boys, I have to wash clothes today,” Ossie Lee said to the children as she cleaned up the breakfast dishes.  “I want you boys to try to stay out of trouble because I have a full day ahead of me.”

Old Tom followed at Ossie Lee’s feet as she moved about the kitchen.  For that matter, he usually stayed underfoot wherever she went.  She would reach down and scratch his head every now and then and Old Tom would purr and rub against her ankle with the greatest of contentment.  Ossie Lee did not have much use for dogs, but she loved cats.  She often spoke of the pleasure she derived from cold wintry mornings in front of the family fireplace when she was a child, her cat slumped peacefully across her lap, listening to the little crackles of static electricity as she gently stroked its sleek coat.  Her parents did not talk much, she said, and as an only-child, she learned to love those introspective times when she would sit for hours reading a book and reflecting, just her and her cat.

Ossie Lee had raised Old Tom from a kitten.  He was her pick of the last litter from her old pussycat who had been her constant companion since the age of fifteen, but had died just a few years earlier.    Ossie Lee related to cats the same way she related to people.  She preferred them just one at a time.  Old Tom, therefore, was her only cat, and the two of them were bound by an obvious affection for one another.


Pow! spat the rifle for the second time.  Old Tom screeched wildly and vaulted from his hiding place on the tree limb.  He scrambled to keep his footing as he hit the ground running and bolted into the corn crib through a large crack in the door.

“DADBLAMEIT!” Mama cursed as she stamped her foot in frustration and wiped the sweat from her eyes with the back of her hand.  “I can’t believe I missed him again.”

“COME BACK HERE, TOM!” she screamed at the cat.  “YOU’RE NOT GONNA GET AWAY WITH WHAT YOU DID.  I’M GONNA KILL YOU, TOM!”  Mama’s voice was shaking with rage as she screamed hysterically at the outbuilding where Old Tom hid.  Great salty tears of anger and frustration streamed down her flushed cheeks.

Meanwhile, the boys gathered in a cluster to watch and curiously began to edge closer.  Mama suddenly became aware that they were getting dangerously close.  She turned and shouted at them, “YOU YOUNG’UNS GET BACK NOW.  GET BACK TO THE HOUSE AND STAY OUT OF THE WAY.”  Pointing a finger at her oldest son, she said, “Ronnie, get the baby and keep him out of the way.”

At age ten, Ronnie was not only the oldest of the children, he was the bossiest, and took seriously his inherent mantle of authority over his younger siblings.  With Avis, the youngest toddler, tucked underneath his right arm, Ronnie herded the others back to the safety and shade of a china berry tree near the back door of the house.

“What’ne world’s the matter with Mama?” four-year-old Gregory asked his brother.  “It seems like she’s done gone crazy.”

“Mama’s mad,” Ronnie scolded.  “Can’t you see that?  Now shut up and do like Mama says.”

The boys watched intently as their mother inserted another bullet into the rifle chamber and stalked cautiously toward the corn crib door, her rifle raised for a quick shot in case Old Tom should suddenly spring from his hiding place.  She reached high, flipped the latch and threw open the heavy, wide door.  A broad beam of sunlight flooded through the opening, revealing a huge mound of unshucked corn piled loosely inside.  The air was thick with corn dust.

The crib floor was as high as Mama’s waist to accommodate unloading corn from the back of a pickup truck.  There were no steps, so she turned backwards and hopped up to the crib floor on her buttocks.  She quickly got to her feet and turned around to face the inside of the corn crib.  She stood motionless for several minutes, her eyes carefully scanning all the nooks and crannies where Old Tom might be hiding.  Mama’s eyes could not find Old Tom, but Old Tom’s eyes were watching her from his hiding place and they could see that Mama was gravely serious.

Mama quietly scanned every dark corner of the crib from the doorway, saw nothing, then took a few cautious steps up onto the pile of corn toward where she knew Old Tom must be hiding.  The pile started sliding and she suddenly slipped and fell right onto her face, filling her eyes and mouth with dust and shredded corn shucks.  Old Tom saw his opening.  Before Mama could scramble to her feet, he ran right over her back and out the crib door.

Stay tuned next week for Installment Three of Mama and the Cat.