In my family, we have a tradition.
It began a year before I was born, back when my parents were newlyweds, and like almost every other family tradition out there, it’s somewhat peculiar.
My mother wanted a cat. She’d grown up in rural Montana surrounded by animals of all different kinds – frogs, wild geese, a beloved Boston Bull Terrier – and when the church’s pastor announced at the end of Sunday service that there was a box of kittens waiting to be adopted in the reception room, she looked over at my father with pleading eyes.
To which he emphatically replied, “No.”
The way my mother tells it, they were just going to take a look. Scratch a pink nose, tug a triangular ear, rub a furry belly. I have my doubts about this. I am fairly certain that my mother never planned to leave that church without a kitten.
In any case, they had just entered the gymnasium, the cardboard box on the other side of the room, when one of the kittens boldly climbed the box’s side, sauntered over to where my mother stood, wrapped its claws around her ankle, and sunk its teeth in.
For anyone else, this would have been reason to shriek out in pain or, perhaps, kick the cat across the room. But not for my mother. Instead, she looked down at that fuzzy fur ball and cooed.
The kitten was small and black, with bright yellow eyes.
“No,” said my father. “No. No. No.”
But the kitten was already in my mother’s arms, batting at her chin with its tiny clawed paws. And so, my parents left that church, a tiny black kitten snuggled in my mother’s coat.
And because the cat was black, as black as those cats in horror movies who howl and run out of dark alleyway shadows, and because my parents have a wry sense of humor, they named the kitten Diablo – Devil in Spanish.
Thus the tradition began. Any cat my parents owned had to be black and had to be named, in some language or another, after the devil.
Though I am technically the elder in our family of four, my mother always called Diablo her “first baby.” By the time I was born a year later, Diablo had lodged himself firmly in her heart. And though he was a cat, he certainly lived up to all of the stereotypes of oldest siblings.
For one thing, he was extremely protective. My mother loves to tell the story of how I used to crawl around the house until I found Diablo lying sprawled asleep in a patch of late afternoon sun and promptly flop myself directly onto his exposed belly. Or how I used to grab onto his bewitching tail, stick it in my mouth, and chomp down. All this torment Diablo took with a kind of Stoic patience, as though he understood that I was merely a baby who did not know any better and that no matter what I did to him, there was no situation in which he would be allowed to retaliate in turn.
Then, there were the German Shepherds, another story my mother loves to regale. We lived in a townhouse at the time, and because my mother felt bad for any cat cooped up inside, but didn’t want to let Diablo out for fear he’d be killed by a negligent driver, she took to walking him around the block – on a leash, like a dog.
For other cats, this may not have gone over so well. But Diablo was a special cat, and he took to his afternoon walks like it was second nature.
A number of our neighbors also had pets, including two older ladies who owned two German Shepherds. Now my mother, who had a bad experience with a German Shepherd as a child, was deathly afraid of these dogs. Whenever they came around the corner, she would stop stalk still, holding Diablo’s leash as if it were a lifeline. Diablo, on the other hand, was not the least bit afraid. In fact, as though he could sense my mother’s fear, he would raise his shackles and pierce those muzzled German Shepherds with a fierce glare. The way my mother tells it, those German Shepherds took one look at Diablo, turned around, and took off running, the only sound their expandable leashes whirling in their shocked owners’ hands.
Diablo was a gentlemanly cat. In the mornings, he would leap gracefully into my mother’s porcelain tub and wait for her to fill it with an inch of lukewarm water in which he would give himself a thorough bath. He disliked milk and catnip, treats that were far beneath him, but loved my mother’s gourmet cooking, licking up such expensive dinners as roast beef, steak on the grill, and honey glazed ham.
If his manners were graceful, his stature was even more so. His black fur was slick and shone in the sun. He walked slowly, plodding along as though he had nowhere in particular to go, and yet every step he took was deliberate. Once, my brother and I told one of our neighborhood friends that Diablo was actually an African panther, and he believed us. Nevertheless, I still denigrated his genteel nature, nicknaming him such epithets as “Bubba” and “Bobbles” and, the only one my mother ever used, “Dobs.”
No one, least of all my father, expected Diablo to live as long as he did. Which is why we adopted our second black cat when he was still alive, my father naively assuming that old Dobs wouldn’t be around for much longer.
But cats always have one more life than you think. Diablo, it turned out, would live for eighteen years, until the night he disappeared suddenly, without a trace.
My mother walked around the house crying for days. My father used it as an opportunity to teach my brother and me about the mysterious, yet absolute reality of death. Meanwhile, I would wake up in the middle of the night, thinking Diablo was there, sitting stately at the edge of my bed like he had ever since I was born, but he was gone.
Given my family’s patriotism and penchant for free market economics, it’s always struck me as ironic that our second cat was a bona fide Canadian. We were vacationing in Prince Edward Island off the coast of Nova Scotia when the manager of the B&B told my parents about the litter of kittens living in her barn.
Of course, we had to see them. My mother, brother, and I spent a glorious morning playing with those energetic fur balls. I was partial to a white one with a little brown spot beneath her chin. My brother loved a fluffy gray one we nicknamed Grayball. My mother, a black one with a partially bald eye. We carried them around beneath our arms. I plucked daisies and stuck them behind the ears of the ones I thought were girls. The little black kitten: definitely a girl. She got extra daisies to cover up her bald spot.
All of us were sad when my father emerged to tell us it was time to leave. That night, we had reservations at an Anne of Green Gables-themed B&B.
But on our last day of vacation, my father woke us with a surprise.
“We’re going to visit the kittens,” he said.
“Really?” said my mother.
“Just for fun,” he said. “It’s on our way.”
My brother and I were ecstatic. No one, not even my mother, expected what my father had up his sleeve. For as the three of us happily snuggled with the kittens in the barn, my father diligently packed an old cardboard box with crumpled-up newspaper, a plastic baggy filled with cat food, and a red plastic bowl so that we might take home a small, black, bald-spotted kitten.
My father named him Teufel – pronounced Toy-full – which was Devil in German, and it wasn’t until after we took him to the vet that we found out he wasn’t a girl.
If Diablo was a stately gentleman, Teufel was a fiendish rogue.
He was first and foremost, a barn cat, which meant he was skilled at catching and devouring all manner of small creatures. Rats, mice, snakes, birds – you name it, he would kill it and eat it, leaving only a small pile of bones. Once, when I was seventeen, I drove all the way to high school, parked in the coveted senior parking lot, and slammed the car door, only to find the remains of a large rat stuck to the trunk of my car. I refused to clean it, instead letting its long pink tail, scruffy grey skin, and bloated purple intestines dry to a crisp in the hot Texas sun.
Teufel was unabashedly audacious. He stood down a wild fox, winding my mother into hysterics as she listened to their wild snarls. He roamed at night through the tall Texas grass, braving coyotes, rattlesnakes, and cougars.
Of the four of us, he liked my brother best.
Every morning, he would plod into my brother’s room, leap onto his bed, and settle himself directly onto my brother’s solid, warm back. My brother would wake to Teufel’s purring — a sound that did not necessarily mean the cat wasn’t about to lash out at you with razor sharp claws — the feeling of those claws lightly digging his skin.
I suppose Teufel liked my brother because he didn’t treat him special in any way. Whereas my mother doted on him, offering him nibbles from the dinner table, and my father had, on several occasions, slapped him off that very table, my brother ignored him completely. And as a rogue cat – my brother and I often called him the pirate – this was exactly what he wanted.
Me, on the other hand, Teufel didn’t seem to like very much.
I suppose it was because I once thought he was a girl and put daisies behind his ear. Teufel was the kind of cat to hold a grudge.
After I moved away for college, Teufel became very sick. Cancer, said the vet, all over his mouth.
I wasn’t around for that last year of his life, but my mother tells me that Teufel knew he was sick, the way animals often do. He became very dependent on her, and so much was her love for him that in the final days of his life, when the cancer was causing pieces of his pink tongue to fall out of his mouth, she fed him warm water and watered-down cat food with a plastic syringe.
On his last day, Teufel, who hadn’t been outside for days, walked the perimeter of our Texas home, my mother watching him through the kitchen window. He smelled the sweet grass and watched the sun fling brilliant rays of light across the mesquite trees along the horizon. Then, she took him to the vet.
She called me several days later with the news. Although by then I felt rather detached from Teufel, a cat I’d never felt that close with and remembered more for the times he’d slashed me in anger than cuddled me in love, I was still sad I didn’t get to say goodbye.
As I write this, my family’s third black cat, a corpulent female with a white tuft of fur just beneath her chin, lies sprawled across my desk, sleeping contently.
I was never supposed to end up with this cat. My mother rescued her as a kitten and so technically, the cat should live with her. But my mother and father now live in a tiny apartment in Washington, D.C., while I live in a suburban house in Dallas, a living arrangement that’s landed me with the cat who’s currently shedding clumps of fur all over my room. Incidentally, fur is somewhat like glitter: just when you think you’ve gotten rid of it all, more appears, matted to your bedspread, perhaps, or stuck to the legs of your yoga pants.
My father named our third black cat Lucifer, a name that was promptly shortened to Luci when the vet told us she was a girl.
Luci, as I said, was a rescue cat. My mother found her in the dead of winter, hiding in an empty home that was under-construction. She was near freezing and living on bugs when my mother used a can of tuna to coax her out of a hole in the home’s cement foundation.
My mother paid dearly for rescuing Luci. The terrified kitten was so excited at the prospect of eating real food for the first time in her life, she gobbled up all of the tuna and then tried to eat my mother’s fingers too. Lest any kitten fool you with its adorable eyes and miniature paws, let me remind you that these animals are relatives of the mighty lions. Their teeth cut through skin and bone. My mother walked around for a week with a giant bandage wrapped around her throbbing index finger. But she is a saint to all lost kittens, and despite the pain, Luci was allowed to come home.
Like all creatures, the early months of a cat’s life are its formative years. Before her rescue, Luci’s life was marked by starvation and fear. All alone in the frigid cold, she survived by catching and eating anything smaller than she – mainly, bugs – and hiding in her hole from anything larger – mainly, the coyotes who roamed the Texas hills. To this day, Luci is marked by these habits of survival.
She gobbles up bowls of Meow Mix as though it’s the only food she’s ever had and may ever see again. Then, she gobbles up what’s left of the dog’s food. And then, she winds herself around my ankles, tail curling up my leg in the hopes that I’ll drop her a tasty morsel of my own meal (which, of course, I always do).
When she was younger, Luci jumped at the slightest noise. She hid under the bed when any stranger entered our home. She hated to be outside. Now, she is a calmer, older cat who spends her days immersed in her two favorite things: sleeping in the sunlight that illuminates my room and eating like a deranged wolf.
She is a sweet cat who’s never once lashed out at me, and I love her companionship very much. In many ways, she is the perfect pet. She loves it when I scratch the top of her head and will snuggle against me for hours while I rub her nose, yet she is also perfectly content to lie around the house by herself, requiring nothing more than to be left alone.
Growing up, people sometimes told my mother, “I would never own a black cat.” I saw shock on the faces of these same people when my mother told them our cats’ names. “You mean you named your cat after the Devil?” Why yes, yes we did.
What is it about black cats that engender so much fear among us? In many cultures, they are considered signs of evil. The association of black cats with Satanic forces goes back to the Medieval Age. If one crosses your path, it means suffering and death lie in your future. If you pet a black cat, you may also find yourself in the company of the Devil himself. If you let one aboard your ship, on its next journey, the ship will sink. The list of bad omens goes on and on.
Yet if we are going to take up superstitions, I’d rather be like the Scots, who believe a black cat in the home brings prosperity. Or the English, who believe if a fisherman’s wife owns a black cat, it will keep her husband safe at sea. Or the Celts, who believe a woman who dwells with a black cat will attract many suitors.
In case I didn’t mention it above, I am, in fact, a single woman living with a black cat. A black cat named Lucifer, perhaps, but after all, the Devil’s only in the name.