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Polly was a small plain black cat who came to live with me on a farm deep in the countryside of County Wexford, Ireland. The house, being more than 400 years old, was full of mice. Polly turned out to be a great hunter and did her job well. She proudly showed me her kills, meowing loudly as she brought them into the kitchen and laid them at my feet. Very soon after she arrived, the mice were gone. Even though she was more or less feral, we became firm friends.

Polly had her first litter of kittens about the same time I had my baby Katie. Polly was a natural mother and accepted the bed I had made for her under the kitchen table. Unlike me, she purred loudly as she gave birth. Instinctively, she knew exactly how to look after each kitten as she pushed it out. She cleaned each baby all over with her vigorous tongue, giving it life and breath. She knew to let the little blind creature find its way to her teats for nourishment. After hours of birthing, she lay down with her babies, purring all the while, letting them suckle her endlessly with her claws gently massaging their little bodies. Tirelessly, she licked their tiny bottoms clean. This went on for days on end. Polly guarded her kittens fiercely and didn’t like to leave them, only doing so to eat a quick meal or relieve herself in a discreet spot outside.

Cats like Polly were nothing more than kitten factories. She usually had two litters of five kits each a year, in the spring and autumn. One year she had an extra brood during the summer.

Polly and I, in essence, were mothers together. She gave me the confidence to breastfeed Katie. My mother was a great exponent of nursing babies, but it wasn’t in fashion in 1960s Ireland. Women regarded it as being too much like an animal. However, I had seen the benefits of cows’ and ewes’ first milk on their offspring. It is called beestings; it is essential for getting the newborn’s gut moving. I figured that human babies were far more vulnerable and weaker than the average farm animal and therefore in need of colostrum (human beestings).

My mother lived in England and wasn’t around to help me. But Polly was. This little insignificant cat completely convinced me of the wisdom of breastfeeding. As we nursed our babies together, she gave me those cat love looks of approval.

When her kittens were about six weeks old, Polly lay flat on the ground to prevent them from suckling any more. Instead, Polly would bring in dead mice for them to eat. She then brought half-dead mice and taught her kittens how to kill them. Inspired, I decided to start Katie on solids, too. Obviously I couldn’t teach my daughter how to kill her food, but she loved licking peanut butter from her fingers.

When the kits were ready to leave the nest, they were not only trained in catching their own food but also house trained as well! Unfortunately, it took me much longer to train my baby out of diapers.

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Katie was about 2½ when she somehow realized that Polly was pregnant. She raced around shouting, “Babies coming.” And then she asked, “Where are babies?” So I tried to explain to her that Polly had babies in her belly, showing her how huge Polly was. I told her that Polly was like a house with the babies inside. I also got her to feel the kittens kicking inside her. She was amazed by this.

Katie loved the kittens. She used to crawl under the table and pick them up, and learned quickly that the kittens had sharp little claws and teeth. So, she would grab the unfortunate baby around its neck with both hands, nearly strangling it with her fingers, but knowing it couldn’t hurt her.

Polly had become alarmed by this. She was a clever cat. The next time she gave birth she avoided the kitchen. Then after a period of time, when her babies were crawling around, she would carry them back by the scruff of their necks into the box in the kitchen.

One cold autumn day, Polly came to find me, meowing urgently. It was clear that something was seriously wrong. This little black farm cat took me on a journey, rushing ahead a little way, and stopping and meowing until she could see that I was following her. She was in obvious distress.

I soon realized the cause. The cattle had been brought into their winter feeding sheds in the lower yard. This had taken place after she had given birth in the hay lofts beside the sheds. To get back to her kittens, she would have to pass through all these enormous creatures. She was terrified and she had come for my help. I picked her up and she clung to me as I carried her through the snorting, smelly cattle. She leapt out of my arms when we had crossed the Rubicon and rushed on to find her babies nestled snugly in fresh hay. I was overcome with relief as I watched Polly suckle her young. I brought the box down and carried the little family back to the warm kitchen. She always had her kittens in the house after that.

Better than any book, I learned how to be a mother because of Polly. She showed me in the simplest way how it was done. It helps, of course, that kittens grow up and mature quickly, in a matter of a few months. She showed me how important it is to help children become independent and able to look after themselves. We had a special relationship, Polly and I, which I will always hold dear to my heart.

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Deborah Troop lives in Bloomfield, Ont.

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