Christmas reminds me of Grey Shadow.
When I was growing up we had a lot of pets, but Grey Shadow was around longer than any of them. She began life outdoors near our cottage on Lake Erie, where we would later move permanently. Her mother was a feral cat, and the kittens were born on the bluff overlooking the beach. I was only three, but I remember the day one of the Salisbury girls from next door brought the long-haired grey kitten over to see if we would give her a home, and we did.
She took well to life as a pet. We had a beagle-hound cross named Snoopy, who became fast friends with Grey Shadow. In our house in Windsor we could run a circle from the kitchen through the dining room through the living room and back around again. Grey Shadow and I would chase each other tirelessly. Then she would dart to the sun room, hide behind the curtains and play with string I dangled over the back of the chair.
However, the outdoors remained part of her nature, and she preferred to be there. She was an expert huntress, so Mom always tied bells to her collar.
In grade three I went to the birthday party of a friend who lived on a farm, and brought home a baby white rabbit. I named it Cuddles, but the name could not have been less appropriate. He grew into a true bull rabbit who asserted his dominance over the household by biting our ankles and squirting us with urine. His nickname suited him better: Bun. Grey Shadow staunchly pretended not to see him, for two years. So did Snoopy.
Until one day. It was a Saturday morning and we were all around. Bun was loping around the living room floor and Grey Shadow was apparently napping on the mantle of the fireplace. When we were all safely at the far side of the room, she suddenly sprang toward the rabbit.
A good dog always defends the alpha male. Out of nowhere came Snoopy. Friendship took second place to peace, order and hierarchy. Faster than lightning she came between cat and rabbit, preventing murder. Bun hopped away as if nothing had happened, and the other animals ignored him for the rest of his life.
Eight years after Grey Shadow, we adopted another kitten Dad found on the side of the road. Smudge was half monkey, and loved to tease. This brought out Grey Shadow’s no-nonsense temperament. She would hiss and swipe at Smudge, leave the room and ask to be let out.
With age she became more of a carmudgeon, and her outdoor tendencies increased. By then we were living permanently by the lake, her native territory. She would spend all day outside, all night in the summer, coming in only to eat.
Curiously, Grey Shadow loved Christmas. Maybe it started when she was a kitten and liked to play with paper and hide in the boxes. But it persisted after she lost her playfulness. She was drawn to the Christmas tree, and not in any dangerous way. She would sit and look at the lights, then lie underneath and go to sleep.
In old age she became deaf and too arthritic to climb trees easily. This was a dangerous combination for a cat who lived outdoors. She took to sleeping in the sun in the middle of the lawn.
One day a large hawk swooped down at her, but Grey Shadow saw the shadow and leapt three feet into the air, all claws. She didn’t catch the hawk, but it arched swiftly into the sky and left her alone.
We had another cat killer in the neighbourhood, an Irish setter named Stanley, who would sometimes escape from his chain and come barreling around the corner of our house. Smudge would dart up the tree, but Grey Shadow couldn’t hear Stanley coming.
Snoopy was gone by then, but we had adopted another dog. Tanya was a golden retriever, Brittany spaniel cross, the best dog I’ve ever known. She was smart, energetic and gracious. She tolerated the trickster, Smudge, but watched over Grey Shadow dutifully. When Stanley would come around, Tanya would intercept and escort him off our property, giving the old cat a chance to make herself scarce.
My parents believed Grey Shadow would disappear when she died, but that was not the case. It was winter and she had spent most of the day inside, in more discomfort than usual. Then she went behind the TV table, let out a single yowl, lay down and died. By then I had graduated from university. She was 21.