Character: Olive Oil
Whenever I think of character, a small black cat trimmed in immaculate white glides across my memory. Her name is Olive Oil. She was named for the stick-like girlfriend of Popeye the Sailor Man in the comics. From the tip of her long black tail to her white nose, she was scarcely any thicker than a stick figure, but inside her sleek narrow body was as much character as an elephant could hold if size were the measure of that commodity.
Olive Oil lived at Heathermoor Farm with us. She had far too much gumption to encroach upon our living quarters at the house. Her domain was the barn. She lived there on equal footing with us. She was certainly not an indulged pet, rather she was on “staff,” one of our operation being in charge of rat control and the producing and rearing of her replacements in the ranks of her crew. She did her job so well that she was quite entitled to the dignity she claimed for herself. As any faithful employee of an organization, she expected her wages on time. Hers were expected in the form of plenty of prepared cat food for herself and her offspring. Being a lady of great taste she had a decided preference for the most expensive brand. When at times our unimaginative grocery store ran out of her choice, she very firmly registered her dislike for the inferior grade offered as a replacement. At first she greeted the strange food in her bowl with an expression of bewilderment, then turning away from it, tail and nose high she slowly and deliberately walked over to a favorite spot and by gentle, but firm, meows registered her disappointment with us.
In the morning when I came down to the barn followed by the frolicking dogs, Olive sedately emerged from under the front door of the barn. Never ever losing her dignity she trotted up to meet me uttering a greeting and standing on her hind legs and bowing her head offering me the back of her neck for one caress. No one would ever take liberties with Olive Oil or try to reduce her to the status of pet by picking her up or cuddling her. Our relationship was strictly as equals – creatures who enjoy each other’s company, have a great deal of affection for one another, and who are engaged together in the big job of running Heathermoor Farm. However, the mettle of Olive’s character showed up best as a mother. We gave her the title of “Mother of the Year.”
When Olive and her gray husband arrived at Heathermoor, the gift of our neighbor Mr. Poole, the place was infested with rats – big bold rats that would stop and stare at you as if to tell you to get off their property. Although Olive and her husband were only kittens they began to work on the rat population right away. Eventually Olive and her offspring completely wiped out the rat population.
Before the year was out, Olive became a mother. In my observation of several generations of cat families, it seems that all family responsibilities belong to the female. The male grows up depending on his mother to feed him until in desperation she drives him away. After that the Toms just hung around and ate for about a year until their necks and heads filled out full “Toni Cat” size. At this point they began to wander more and more often until finally we seldom saw them again. Occasionally they would drop in just to say hello and then disappear again. They seemed to live only to breed and fight, never giving a thought to the families they left behind. And so Olive was abandoned by her husband and left to raise three babies in the tack trunk. She spent long hours nursing and licking her kittens interspersed with increasingly longer and more frequent hunting trips to bring home fresh meat she needed to meet the ever increasing need of her children, and her already frail body. When the babies opened their eyes and began to take an interest in their surroundings she began to bring them birds and mice in addition to her milk.
As the babies grew they began to run out of their safe nest which by now had been moved behind the tack trunk. Their very real danger was being stepped on by the horses. Horse legs standing on the concrete floor of the barn hall must have seemed like giant trees in the forest to the tiny kittens. Although Olive darted around the huge legs with split second timing, the kittens were as yet incapable of that maneuver. The horses’ feet took their toll on the kittens. Olive seemed to realize this as the litters went by for she dearly loved her children.
One day her babies were playing on the sun warmed floor by the big barn door when someone brought in a thousand plus pound horse. Olive darted in to assist me as I was grabbing and kicking kittens out of the way. Realizing the apparent futility of our efforts, Olive decided there was nothing to do but match her two pounds against the hind legs of the horse. She arched her back and flung her fiery self at the horse’s legs. I don’t think the horse hardly felt the little cat attack him, but miraculously he stepped around the kittens!